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
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And yet, the remarkable unpublished manuscript that became the biggest literary phenomenon of 2016 wasn’t the work of a marquee name or a celebrity author.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.