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In 2015, Paula Hawkins published her debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, about a troubled woman who believes she's witnessed a murder; the novel became an international bestseller – it has sold upward of 15 million copies around the world – and was adapted into a feature film. This week, Hawkins published her new novel, Into the Water, set in a small British town where women find themselves in watery graves.

Why did you write your new book?

In Into the Water, I wanted to pick apart a familial relationship – I chose sisters even though I don't have a sister myself – and to examine how, despite a shared past, people might tell – and believe – very different stories about themselves. I was particularly interested in the way in which memories of childhood, of those formative early experiences which shape the people we become, can in fact be quite deceptive. What happens, I wondered, when you discover that the things you thought you knew – about yourself, your family, your life – turn out to be untrue?

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Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

One of my favourite literary villains is the Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a woman who is at once deliciously wicked and doomed to tragedy, entirely the product of the society in which she has been raised. She learns, very young and most adroitly, to play the hand that society has dealt her. "I already knew the role I was condemned to," she says, "namely to keep quiet and do what I was told." And while doing this, she listens, she observes and she learns to wield expertly the only tools she has at her disposal: her beauty, her sexuality and her intelligence.

Which books have you reread most in your life?

On chilly winter nights, when all I want to do is sink into a hot bath and leave the world behind, I reach for any one of Armistead Maupin's wonderful Tales of the City series. Witty, filthy and wise, they transport you to the San Francisco of the period: whether it's the hedonistic seventies, the frightening early years of the AIDS epidemic, right up to the bewilderingly fast-moving 21st century. Michael Tolliver, that glorious romantic, the eternal optimist, the battle-scarred survivor, is one of my favourite fictional characters.

Which country produces literature that you wish more people read?

There is plenty of great writing coming out of my home country, Zimbabwe, at the moment. Writers like NoViolet Bulawayo, whose debut was nominated for the Booker Prize, and Petina Gappah, whose debut short-story collection won the Guardian First Book Award, are among those whose work has achieved recognition recently, but there are many more to discover: Tsitsi Dangarembga, Charles Mungoshi, Alexandra Fuller and Chenjerai Hove among them.

What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?

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The beginning, I would say, because without it you do not know what sort of ending is possible, without the beginning, no sort of ending is possible. I understand that from a reader's perspective, a satisfying conclusion is critical to one's enjoyment of a book, but from an author's point of view, the beginning of a novel is at once hopeful and dangerous. The beginning of the book holds within it a world of possibility, a whole network of potential paths and tracks to follow. Choose the wrong one, and you may find yourself writing entirely the wrong book.

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