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Sunday 4 March 2018

Jane Harper

Lynne Patrick talks with Jane Harper

Jane Harper's debut novel The Dry won awards in Australia back in 2016 before it was even published.
In 2017 it went on to win the CWA Gold Dagger, an accolade rarely awarded to a first novel, and has now been optioned for a major movie by Reese Witherspoon.
Jane was born in Manchester, but lived in Australia as a child and later as an adult, and following a period in the UK as a local paper journalist, she now lives in Melbourne with her family.
Her second novel,
Force of Nature, was published in February, and she is currently at work on a third.

Lynne: Jane, thank you for taking time out of a busy schedule to answer my questions.
It's not often that a debut novel hits the heights that
The Dry did, in both commercial and critical terms, and when it happens it must be life-changing. Would you say your life has changed greatly over the past eighteen months or so? If it has, what are the main differences between now and then?
Jane: My life has changed beyond recognition in a lot of ways since The Dry came out, both professionally and personally. I worked full-time as a print journalist for thirteen years, with dreams that one day I would find the time and motivation to write a novel. Now I am a full-time author, and it’s fantastic to have the freedom to work on something I’m passionate about. I also became a first-time mum in 2016, so that has kept me on my toes!  

Lynne: Many people in the creative arts talk of working for twenty years to achieve overnight success. Is that how it's been for you? How long have you been writing fiction?
Jane:  The Dry was my first novel, and I wrote very little fiction at all before that. But I had been a professional writer in newsrooms for my entire career. That helped me develop a huge number of skills that I use daily in fiction writing, such as how to express my thoughts on paper, how to capture readers’ attention and simply having the discipline to sit down and write regularly.

Lynne: The Dry won major awards, including the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger here in the UK, and a big one in Australia before it was even published; which do you regard as a better measure of success, the awards, or great sales figures? Or something else entirely?
Jane: I think both are a measure of success in their own ways – some books that are loved by critics aren’t always embraced by readers and vice versa. For me, that feeling of success lies more in how well my books connect with the audience. I love it when a reader tells me that their book club enjoyed the novel, or that they passed it on to a relative, or recommended it to a friend. That’s what gives me the most satisfaction.

Lynne: I'm always interested to know how a new novel gets started in the author's head. What strikes that first spark for you? Do you research first, or do you just sit down and write? What process works best for you? Do you plan everything out in detail, chapter by chapter, or do you start writing and let it run? Do you know how a novel will end when you start writing?
Jane: I always start with a single idea, usually something that has snagged in my mind. In The Dry, it was the idea of the death of a farming family in a drought-stricken community. In my second novel, Force of Nature, it was a group of women who make a mistake and find themselves hopelessly out of their depth in the Australian bush. The setting usually comes at the same time as the original idea, and I build from there. I always have the start and the end in my mind, and a few key points in between. The more I write, the more I have started to plan in detail. I find it saves a lot of time and a lot of wasted words!

Lynne: What motivated you to make crime fiction your chosen genre? Or do you prefer not to pigeonhole The Dry and Force of Nature as crime novels, or yourself as a crime writer?
Jane: I really like books with mystery and suspense and a few twists and turns along the way, so I wanted to try to write something in that field. I didn’t worry about the genre, and I still don’t; I just try to write something that I think I would like to pick up in a bookshop myself.

Lynne: You have a small daughter at a very demanding age, and at least until recently your day job was pretty demanding as well; how does writing novels fit into that? Take us through a typical working day when you're writing a novel.
Jane: I rent a small office space above a cafĂ© and I treat writing very much like any other office job. My daughter goes to daycare or my husband looks after her, and I try to be at my desk by 9am. I work best in the mornings, so I don’t let myself get distracted by emails or social media. I put my phone in a drawer and just try to focus on writing. I don’t work to a daily word count, but I do usually have an idea of what I would like to achieve that day.

Lynne: Rural small-town Australia is clearly a world you know well. To what extent do you have to research or imagine the specific locations, like the farms and homesteads around Kiewarra, and the town itself? Or are they based on places you know?
Jane: The town in The Dry was a mix of a lot of places I’ve lived or seen. The physical setting was largely inspired by real places that I had visited, and my work as a journalist helped a lot with the community issues. Over the years, I interviewed a lot of people who lived in small towns and listening to their concerns and the way issues impacted on the wider community really helped me in creating the town and people of Kiewarra.

Lynne: Creating characters who take on a life of their own and feel as if they go right on living that life off the page is a skill many writers would give serious money to possess, and you have it at your fingertips. By the end of The Dry, I felt I would know Aaron and Gretchen and Raco if I met them and would certainly recognize many of the other characters too. Did they come from pure imagination, or are there real-life people in there somewhere?
Jane: They are all completely imaginary – I wouldn’t dare put anyone I really know in my books! But I do spend a lot of time thinking about how to make characters authentic. Some of that comes from their backstory and their role in the novel, and a lot comes from the way they interact with other characters and how they react to different situations. I think that is key in making characters seem authentic and three-dimensional, and ultimately believable as real people.

Lynne: A book is a very special thing. When you held your first copy of your first novel, did it feel familiar – or completely different from the manuscript you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
Jane: It was an amazing moment to hold the finished copy for the first time. It felt very familiar and special to me. By then, I knew the book so well and so much work and love had gone into it, it felt like part of me and it still does. I did listen to the audio version, but I only re-read the book for the first time quite recently. It was a really fun experience because enough time had passed that parts of it felt quite fresh to me.

Lynne: Who do you write for? Is there a reader in your mind when you set out to write?
Jane: I write books that I would like to read, but it would be misleading to say I just write for myself. I think an author always need to keep readers in front of mind when they write, or they can run the risk of becoming self-indulgent. I tend to imagine a reader who is intelligent, widely-read and very good at seeing through red herrings. Then I try to think of ways to surprise them!

Lynne: The movie of The Dry is in process. How has that, and all the attention The Dry has received, impacted on your time and space to get on with the real work: writing the new novel which came out in February?
Jane: It is so exciting that The Dry has been optioned for a movie and I would absolutely love to see it on the screen. But my first love is writing novels, and I enjoy the work so fortunately I don’t find myself getting too
distracted. I really enjoyed writing my second novel,
Force of Nature, and I’m now I’m starting work on my third.

Lynne: Tell us a little about the new novel.
Jane: Force of Nature was released in the UK and US in February, so I’m very excited to be able to introduce it to readers. It is another Australian mystery, this time set in winter in dense bushland. It follows a group of five women who reluctantly set off of a corporate team-building hike on a remote woodland trail. After several days, only four of the women come out at the other end. The main character from The Dry, Aaron Falk, returns and is desperate to unravel the fate of the missing woman. Readers who enjoyed The Dry will see some of the themes and ideas expanded a little in this novel, but those who haven’t read my first book can still enjoy Force of Nature as a standalone read.

Lynne: Jane, thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions. Force of Nature has already received a lot of critical acclaim; fingers crossed it hits the same heights as The Dry. I'm certainly looking forward to reading it.


The Dry and Force of Nature
are on sale in the UK published by Little, Brown, in the USA published by Flatiron Books,
and in Australia (of course!)
published by Pan Macmillan.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books

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