The write stuff

Jane Harper was an am­a­teur nov­el­ist dream­ing of get­ting her first book into the world. But the re­sponse she got when she did – from read­ers, crit­ics and even Reese With­er­spoon – was one she never dared to pre­dict

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy REN PIDGEON Styling IRENE TSOLAKAS In­ter­view MEG MA­SON

For­mer jour­nal­ist and as­pir­ing nov­el­ist Jane Harper took a gam­ble that paid off when re­ac­tion to her first two books made her Aus­tralia’s new lit­er­ary dar­ling.

It sparked a fe­ro­cious bid­ding war be­tween in­ter­na­tional pub­lish­ers, bagged a six-fig­ure three-book deal, had its film rights snapped up by Reese With­er­spoon and ended up top­ping best­seller lists here and around the world.

And yet, the re­mark­able un­pub­lished man­u­script that be­came the big­gest lit­er­ary phe­nom­e­non of 2016 wasn’t the work of a mar­quee name or a celebrity au­thor. The Dry was ac­tu­ally the de­but ef­fort of a 38-year-old Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist who pro­duced the first 40,000 words of the sus­pense­ful crime thriller as part of a three-month on­line writ­ing course, based on an idea that had been turn­ing over in her mind for some time.

Jane Harper was work­ing full time at the Her­ald Sun in Mel­bourne when she de­cided to fi­nally tackle her long­stand­ing goal of fin­ish­ing a novel. “I’ve al­ways been a re­ally big reader, and have al­ways wanted to write a book,” she tells Stel­lar. “As a jour­nal­ist I re­spond well to dead­lines, so the course was to give me the fo­cus and con­cen­trate on writ­ing. It oc­curred to me that I would never have a clear block of free time, when an idea would come and all the stars would align, so a novel could just ap­pear. If I was go­ing to do it, I had to carve the time out of my ev­ery­day life.”

But the stars did align, and in a sur­real twist, that pub­lish­ing auc­tion co­in­cided

“As a reader, I’m weary of too much vi­o­lence against women”

with her wed­ding to fel­low jour­nal­ist Peter Stra­chan, with whom she now lives in Mel­bourne. “It was quite sur­real, hav­ing two ma­jor events take place on the same day,” Harper says. “But look­ing back I barely thought about the book ne­go­ti­a­tions at all. My mem­o­ries of that day are all of cel­e­brat­ing my mar­riage with fam­ily and friends. I knew there would be plenty of time to think about the pub­lish­ing deals later.”

The Dry may have set the lit­er­ary world alight, but to Harper, her first novel felt in some ways like a slow burn. “Even­tu­ally, it was, ‘My good­ness, this has gone bet­ter than I ex­pected!’” she says now. “I think at ev­ery stage I was de­lighted with how it was go­ing; proud to start with that I fin­ished it, then ex­cited to get a pub­lish­ing deal, and then when book­sellers seemed to em­brace it. I was re­ally so happy to think peo­ple were en­joy­ing it.”

Two months af­ter the book’s re­lease, Harper gave birth to her first daugh­ter Char­lotte, now two. De­spite the rigours of moth­er­hood, she con­tin­ued work on sec­ond book Force Of Na­ture, an­other hit that pub­lished ex­actly a year later.

In­so­far as ev­ery lit­er­ary best­seller in­volves a mea­sure of luck, The Dry just hap­pened to land at a mo­ment when crime and sus­pense nov­els by fe­male au­thors were com­ing to dom­i­nate and re­de­fine the mar­ket. Harper’s novel fol­lowed no­table suc­cesses, such as Gil­lian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl On The Train and Liane Mo­ri­arty’s Big Lit­tle Lies, the lat­ter of which Reese With­er­spoon’s pro­duc­tion com­pany also won the rights for and turned into hugely suc­cess­ful and pop cul­ture-defin­ing tele­vi­sion.

Yet un­like so many thrillers, the plot of The Dry doesn’t hinge on an act of vi­o­lence against a woman. “I think as a reader I was weary of ex­ces­sive vi­o­lence, es­pe­cially against women,” Harper says. “So when I was writ­ing the book, I just wanted it to be some­thing that I’d like read­ing and that hope­fully peo­ple would find en­ter­tain­ing and en­joy­able. I don’t like read­ing ex­ces­sive vi­o­lence, and I cer­tainly wouldn’t like writ­ing it.” Her own lit­er­ary tastes run to­wards Aus­tralian writer He­len Garner – Harper is a fan of “her ob­ser­va­tions of peo­ple” – as well as “the wit and hu­mour of Ir­ish nov­el­ist Mar­ian Keyes”.

The Dry told the story of jaded de­tec­tive Aaron Falk, who re­turns to his drought-stricken home town in ru­ral Vic­to­ria for the funeral of a school friend who is the sup­posed per­pe­tra­tor of a grisly mur­der­sui­cide. Force Of Na­ture revisited the char­ac­ters and was set in the same arid, out­back set­ting that Harper uses to such ef­fect, only ratch­et­ing up the sus­pense.

Harper was in fact born in the UK city of Manch­ester, but spent part of her child­hood in Mel­bourne’s outer sub­urbs. Her fam­ily re­turned to the UK when she was 14, but she re­set­tled here in 2008, tak­ing a job at a news­pa­per in Gee­long. The rugged Aus­tralian land­scape al­ways had a grip on her imag­i­na­tion – and is a key char­ac­ter in each of her books, in­clud­ing her lat­est re­lease The Lost Man.

“My books have been set in dense bush­land, a drought-stricken farm­ing town and a far-flung out­back cat­tle sta­tion,” Harper says. “And the set­tings are al­ways an in­flu­ence on the plot and the per­son­al­i­ties of the char­ac­ters, rather than just a back­drop.”

For The Lost Man, Harper left Falk be­hind but re­turned to her fas­ci­na­tion with the back of beyond. She spent four months in out­back Queens­land and toured re­mote re­gions with the area’s re­tired po­lice con­sta­ble, who once pa­trolled an area the size of Vic­to­ria on his own. “These set­tings fas­ci­nate me,” Harper says. “The idea of ev­ery­day life on these re­mote sta­tions and how it would im­pact re­la­tion­ships. Spend­ing time there re­ally helped in­form the novel and cap­ture that [iso­la­tion].”

As to whether she has any in­ten­tion of re­vis­it­ing Aaron Falk – or per­haps giv­ing him a fran­chise à la, say, Jack Reacher – it looks very likely. “I do love writ­ing about him and he has a spe­cial place in my heart,” Harper says. “So I will go back to him at some point; it’s just a mat­ter of find­ing the right story for him.”

In the mean­time, she still strug­gles to nom­i­nate a sin­gle mo­ment that best de­fines the in­cred­i­ble, at times sur­real whirl­wind of her past few years. The awards, the movie deal, the best­seller lists; she pauses to con­sider them all.

“Hon­estly, I think it’s go­ing into my lo­cal book­shop and see­ing it right there on the shelf,” Harper says. “I used to go into that book­shop all the time, so it’s amaz­ing to see my own there. I love writ­ing books. Hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to do it? I feel grate­ful.”

“The stars were never all go­ing to align – I just had to carve out the time to write my novel”

JANE WEARS Coun­try Road suit, coun­try­road.com. au; Witch­ery top, witch­ery.com.au

JANE and shoes, WEARS zara.com/au (top) Zara dress, belt PAGE pic­tured TURNER with fel­low (from best­selling top) Jane Aus­tralian Harper, au­thor Liane Mo­ri­arty at the 2016 Mel­bourne Writ­ers Fes­ti­val; Harper met fel­low jour­nal­ist Peter Stra­chan at the Her­ald Sun. They mar­ried on the same day pub­lish­ers ne­go­ti­ated to sign her to a book deal.

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