This year’s ChipLitFest was a triumph from start to finish – a satisfying mix of world famous writers who’ve sold millions of books (yes, I’m talking about Lee Child and Mark Billingham) and debut novelists at the start of their careers.
Two new writers I was keen to learn more about were Paula Hawkins and Renee Knight, who along with Jason Hewitt appeared at an event called New Voices.
Actually, The Girl on the Train is her fifth novel – she wrote four chick-lit novels under the name of Amy Silver but turned to thrillers after her chick lit got darker and darker.
Renee Knight is the author of the recently published Disclaimer, which I found so engrossing that I finished it at two in the morning. Its premise is so clever and original that other writers must be kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. A woman finds a novel on her bedside table, picks it up and starts to read, then realises to her horror that it’s her own story – an account of a terrible event that happened long ago and that she’s never told a living soul about. The fact that the disclaimer – “any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” has a red line scrawled through it confirms her worst fears.
Skilfully interviewed by Jane Wenham-Jones, Paula Hawkins, Renee Knight and Jason Hewitt (author of The Dynamite Room) all related how they’d begun writing their novels. In Paula’s case, the idea of a woman with a drink problem had been lurking in her head for ages. Renee Knight, a former BBC documentary maker, had been writing scripts before enrolling on the Faber Academy writing course while Jason Hewitt did an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University.
Asked whether she plotted first or plunged straight into writing, Paula Hawkins said: ”I had to plot it all. I have three narrators and two timescales and all the narrators are unreliable. I plotted it out carefully but it developed organically too. I did one big rewrite and the rest was tinkering.”
Renee Knight “definitely plotted” too. “I wouldn’t have the courage to plunge straight in. I did a lot of rewriting before I showed it to my agent.” Jason Hewitt is another plotter – “almost to an extreme,” he said. “I was very clear what my ending was going to be. It changed ever so slightly but I had it all on an Excel spreadsheet, all colour-coded.”
Some reviewers have dubbed Paula Hawkins’s book as “domestic noir” and have compared The Girl on the Train to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
“I love Gone Girl and I love the character of Amy Dunne so it’s very flattering,” said Paula. “But my book is very different and my protagonist (Rachel) is very different. They are both flawed but Rachel has lost control of everything.”
The success of The Girl on the Train has clearly exceeded her wildest dreams. At the time of ChipLitFest it had sold in 41 countries and had been number one on the US bestseller lists for ten weeks. The film rights have been snapped up by DreamWorks.
Renee Knight’s book is doing brilliantly too. Disclaimer is being published in 24 countries and the film rights have been sold (she is currently writing the screenplay herself).
I’m a fan of writing courses and it was good to hear Renee Knight and Jason Hewitt enthusing about them too. Renee said having deadlines along the way had given her the impetus to write while Jason found other writers’ feedback hugely helpful. “It toughens you up a bit,” he said. “I have rhinoceros skin now.” “It sounds like literary boot camp,” laughed Renee.
Paula said that she found her background as a financial journalist made her organised and able to meet deadlines, as well as giving her “an economy of phrase.”
The best questions at literary talks often come from the audience and sure enough the trio faced some cracking questions. “What advice would you give to your unpublished self?” asked a woman. “Get on and write your second book,” said Paula. “And enjoy the experience of writing when no one knows who you are and there is no expectation.”