At home with Jane Harper

Jane Harper's debut novel, The Dry, received too many awards to list here and has now been turned into a feature film (to be released in 2021). Her subsequent novels, Force Of Nature and The Lost Man, received similar praise, and there is little doubt her most recent work, The Survivors, will as well.

Jane's books are published in forty territories worldwide. She worked as a print journalist for thirteen years both in Australia and the United Kingdom before beginning to write full time.

You may also be interested in Jane's previous interview with Astrid on The Garret.

Jane Harper_The Garret_2020


ASTRID: Jane Harper's debut novel, The Dry, received too many awards to list here and has now been turned into a feature film to be released in 2021. Her subsequent novels, Force of Nature and The Lost Man received similar praise, and I have no doubt her most recent work, The Survivors, will as well. In this interview, Jane considers writing male leads, how she plots such excellent crime and mystery narratives, and also shares her insights into how writing and book selling has changed this year.

Welcome to The Garret at Home, Jane.

JANE: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

ASTRID: Now, we spoke almost two years ago at the State Library – back when we could do these things in person – and I would very much like to speak to you in person again, Jane, but here we find ourselves in 2020 and I have to say, congratulations on the release of your fourth novel, The Survivors.

JANE: Thank you. Yeah, it's really exciting. It's great to see it all come out.

ASTRID: Now this is a really obvious question, but I do want to know your opinion. Much of the world, but particularly, the writing industry has changed since we last spoke. This year has been difficult. Your crime novels, Jane, are prominent in the industry and you are well known, and I have to say you are very humble, but that doesn't change the fact that you are very well known in the industry. I'm really interested in your thoughts on how authors and booksellers and the publishers have coped so far in this year of change, and in particular, we're both in Melbourne, in this year of lockdowns.

JANE: It's obviously been something that's been impossible to ignore the impacts on in so many industries, but obviously the publishing industry that we're talking about. One thing that I've been really impressed by is the way people have adapted so quickly. It seems like really, really early on, booksellers were immediately doing whatever they could of get books into readers' hands, be it through click and collect or free delivery within a certain radius, or just sort of really being very creative with their business practises, which was amazing, I thought, to see. I think also from the author's point of view, the fact that people have been so quick to set up virtual events, and I think that's become a really exciting development. I mean, I've tuned into a lot over the last few months and I've got my own ones coming out now around the release. So, I still get to come experience it firsthand from my own event point of view, but I tune into a lot, and I've be really, really impressed with how well they've been run and the intimacy of it. You know, you can tune in, listen to this person speak just from your own couch. I think it hopefully will maybe reach out to some people who for time or geography reasons couldn't go to live events.

People do really feel for... I feel like to be a debut author would be really hard this year. I remember my own book, The Dry, coming out as a debut and it was such a big moment, this achievement of something I've wanted for so long. It was a really special time for me, and I feel for authors whose moments have been a bit different this year. I hope that if they see a debut author they're interested in, that they will buy their book and go give it a shot despite the fact there haven't made as many events and opportunities for book publicity, really.

ASTRID: Absolutely. I have also been attending more events than I would normally get to. I mean, I clearly love reading and writers, so I am a person who wants to attend anyway. One of the upsides that I hope the industry keeps is virtual events in some way, maybe half-half or something when we get to go back in person, because nothing can replace the joy of being at a book launch or at a book event and everyone's excited and happy and gets to mingle and get signed copies and go to the bar afterwards. But also, there are a lot of people who can't do that, whether they're interstate or whether they have caring responsibilities at home or for a bunch of reasons, and so I kind of like the accessibility, but that doesn't change the fact that it is an extraordinarily hard year to get your work out there, particularly as you say, for debut authors. And I actually had a question about that for you. We are recording this in late September and your book is coming out in late September, a few days after the launch of The Survivors, is actually something that's never happened in the Australian industry. The booksellers are calling it Super Tuesday, which is when something like 1,200 books will have been published this month, including some really big ones by Richard Flanagan and Trent Dalton on that Super Tuesday. And as a reader, I'm both excited and terrified because I can't buy that many, I can't read that many, and booksellers can't publicise that many. And I'm reaching into the dark here, Jane, and wondering if you have any brilliant insights into what has not been done in Australia before, particularly virtually.

JANE: Yeah. I mean, I don't really have any more inside knowledge than anybody else who's observing this different way that things are happening here. My publication date was set really early on in the year and it's always sort of been the same. It was set back when we thought we were still planning to do a whole national in-person tour, so that's kind of how long ago, which seems like forever ago, a lifetime ago. I know a lot of books that were supposed to come out earlier this year are delayed, I guess, hoping, understandably, that there'll be better conditions to come. So it'll be fascinating to see really.

I guess the optimist says, look, this is a lot of weeks between September and Christmas. There's a lot of people who will be maybe celebrating Christmas and their sort of holiday celebrations are a bit differently this year, and books are really easy thing to send through the post. They're pretty light, they're pretty easy to access thanks to the booksellers doing a lot of online delivery and things, so I am optimistic that there will be space of books to be seen. I do feel confident that readers will embrace them.

ASTRID: Readers have been turning to books and other forms of art throughout this shocker of a year, and I love that point that you've just made, Jane. Everybody buy books for Christmas and any birthdays coming up, and really enjoy what writers can give us.

Jane, let's turn to The Survivors. I really enjoyed your book. I mean, I am not known for reading crime and I have weirdly fallen in love with your books and also the work of Dervla, McTiernan, who you have both introduced me to a genre that I didn't always pick up first if I had a pile of books in front of me.

My first question to you about The Survivors is you've changed location. Now, this is very obvious thing to say, but The Survivors is set in Tasmania, we are by the beach, it is not regional or rural Australia as some of your other work, or all of your other work. It is now cold and stormy and underwater sea caves, it's a whole different world. I just wondered, you got so much praise for kind of inventing a new subgenre of crime, rural noir or whatever people were calling it at various times. Was that an author choice? Was that just excitement for you? Was that to make a point that crime could be anywhere?

JANE: I think I'm always honestly driven by the plots. That's the kind of overriding thing for me. I think, when I'm thinking about a book, the plot is the first thing I'm thinking about it and the location is a really, really kind of ... I mean, it's not even a second, it's kind of part of that. You know, I think of an idea and I immediately think, where would this be based? Where would just be a good place for this kind of setting that I want? Which is going to help drive the action and inform the characters in terms of their behaviour, their job opportunities, their opportunities growing up, their relationships, how well they know each other in the community, that kind of thing So when I was thinking about The Survivors, I had this idea for this plot set in a really small coastal town. I had this vision that is very sort of rugged seascape. I think, of course, Tasmania came to mind really quickly. I'd been there a few times just on holidays and visits over the years, and really thought it kind of ticks all those kinds of boxes that I wanted for this small-town intrigue in this coastal location. So yeah, it was a really obvious choice, I thought, for me, for this story I wanted to write.

ASTRID: I'm also interested in the point of view that you've written from. So, instead of writing from the police person or the detective's point of view, you're writing from a main character. Kieran is not in any kind of official capacity, he's not investigating a crime, he is remembering his town and experiencing the events of his town as they unfold. That was particularly enjoyable for me, and I only realised halfway through that you've given me an entire perspective that I wasn't expecting. Can you tell me about that choice?

JANE: Yeah. The Survivors is told, as you said, from the point of view of a guy called Kieran Elliott, who is 30 years old. He grew up in a small town in Tasmania, and then 12 years ago had quite a traumatic incident during a storm that hit the town and through a reckless decision, he ended up suffering this lifelong kind of consequences that has led to him suffering a lot of guilt and kind of fracturing his relationship with his parents and ultimately... you know, he's kind of cope with it reasonably well. It's been a lot work over the years to function, I think. He's got a partner and he's now got a young baby and he's come back to his hometown to help his parents for various reasons. While he's there, he's barely shaken the sand off his suitcase and a body is discovered on the beach, which kind of really sent shockwaves through this small town, as you can imagine, which is right at the coattail in the summer where the tourists have left and it's kind of just the locals hanging around now.

When I think about the characters I want to tell the book from, I'm always thinking who is the best person to guide the reader through the story? And I don't think, in a crime book, it has to be a police officer. I spent a long-time planning the books and working out which characters I need and how I'm going to lead the reader through. There's always someone who will have a kind of a bird's eye view perspective of events and a history with that location, but also, I like the fact that Kieran has a bit of a freshness to him as well. I really like the fact that his character has returned to essentially his hometown after a number of years away, and he brings with him this slightly more mature perspective, which forces him to re-evaluate things that he thought were true and behaviour that he indulged in when he was younger, and it really makes him question that from a more adult perspective.

ASTRID: I've noticed with all of your works – and I actually asked you a similar question to this when we first spoke, Jane – that although you're writing crime, it's such a detailed exploration of how we all operate as humans and as people. I found myself thinking about other societal problems that we are all aware of and depending on what is in the news or what is in our lives or what is in the people that we know, in their lives, we experience. In this book, the one that I found myself reflecting on most often is dementia, and how that cannot just impact a person and a family, but a community and how that is dealt with or not dealt with well. You are a writer of brilliant crime novels, but I'm really interested in how you see these other ideas and almost social commentary within your novels, because it's not just a whodunit or anything. This is an exploration of kind of the things that go wrong in our communities and our towns.

JANE: Yeah. I think it's really important to me, I suppose, to get those real, like, recognisable issues, right, I think. When I'm writing a book, for me, I never ever set out to write about a theme, thinking like, ‘Okay, I'm going to write this one about’, whatever it may be. My process is always kind of plot first, then your setting and characters. For a long time, the characters are quite two-dimensional when I'm kind of planning, what's going to happen. It's really only when I'm starting to flesh them out and work out who exactly are they and what's kind of driving them and what's their backstory, and particularly, I guess, what they are worried about and what their hopes are and what their relationships are like with their families and things that these things start to emerge to me. It comes from that place, you're trying to build a really authentic 3D character. So, a guy in his 30s is going to have a different maybe set of worries and interests and conversations than a woman in her 50s. Also though, not every guy in his 30s is going to have the same things, it's going to depend on what experiences they've had and have they left the town, have they come back, have they got aspirations to leave? Whatever it is, it's all kind of building into that. And I think then the theme, this starts to emerge quite naturally. And then it's a question of, I think, trying to get them right.

So, if it's something that I'm not really familiar with myself, I'll seek out experts. For The Survivors, which touches quite a lot on guilt and grief and regret, I spoke to a clinical advisor from Beyond Blue about the impact that will have on mental health, particularly around young men, and the kind of treatment they're offered and the kind of success rates they have with various different options for young guys and things. Once I've kind of identified, I guess, what the themes are going to be, I try and really represent them in a really respectful, accurate way.

ASTRID: I really did enjoy reading – we're not having spoilers here, this is a new work and it's a crime novel so you got to read it to find out – but I also really enjoyed watching the interactions between the three male friends. It's kind of nuanced in a way that I found refreshing. I find in the book, at least in the books that I pick up, Jane, I often expect to get that from female friendships, but I don't always get that from the male friendships depicted on the page, so that was interesting.

As I was reading, and this betrays my prejudice, I guess, as I think about... as I was reading, I was thinking, ‘Why did Jane Harper pick a male point of view to write her novel? Where did this character come from? Why wasn't it a female character?’ Then I pulled myself up saying to myself, ‘Astrid, females don't have to write female characters and males don't have to write male characters and I don't believe that, so why am I asking that?’ And then, there is this beautiful little like two lines about halfway through the book where your male character, Kieran, is remembering a writers festival he attended at Sydney Writers Festival, where there was an author, a male author, on the stage with two female authors, and the male author totally hogged the limelight. It was just these two lines, and I burst out laughing because I attend a lot of writers festivals, I adore writers festivals, but it just felt like you were just talking to me just for a moment, and I know I'm a reader and I know I totally imagined that, Jane, but I wanted to point that out to you. You're laughing at me now too, so you must know what I'm talking about.

JANE: Yeah, I do know, I know exactly that bit. I think a lot of those kind of, I guess little things, I suppose a lot of little things dealt with in the book really kind of draw on your own peripheral experiences and conversations you've had with people. I think that's all part of like, I guess, creating that kind of authentic feel where you try and drop in little things to say, ‘Oh yeah, I've seen that. I know what that's like’.

I think, in terms of the male perspective, main character, it's a good question. It's one I honestly asked myself every time as well, because I mean I have two children now and I have ... my oldest one is a girl and my youngest one's a boy, and one day my children will be old enough to read the books. I do think to myself, what would I say if my daughter asked me that same question? So it's something I'm really aware of. And I think the thing for me that's… when I'm thinking about who is the main character you're going to be, what I'm doing often is I'm kind of drawing... when I'm planning, I often start from the end, so I have a resolution in mind and it's really from that resolution that I then build out the characters. I work back and work out where I am going to drop the reader into this story so we're working towards this resolution. Part of that, I think, is finding a character who, like I touched on before, has that sort of a bird's eye view. I need the main character to have certain perspectives and relationships and I guess a certain outlook that is quite, I guess, necessary for the plot to work a lot at a time. And if that was a female character, absolutely I would have no hesitation in doing that. I think just for, in the four books I've written, well the first two had the same main character, in my defence, and then the next two, The Lost Man and The Survivors, I think it would just be like a different book. For The Lost Man particularly there were really… it was really necessary to have a male main character to represent, I think, the genuine kind of makeup of these cattle stations where that book was set. For The Survivors I just needed the main character to have certain outlooks on things that have happened in the town that I couldn't really get through a female perspective, I think.

ASTRID: Oh look, absolutely, I didn't mean to set you up to have to feel like you were justifying that.

JANE: No, no, no.

ASTRID: I am genuinely interested. And I agree with you, having just read The Survivors, the outlook that we get from Kieran is necessary in many ways to eliminate what is happening in the town. This is not a spoiler, but Kieran is often talking to his wife and she as a female is not going to go walking at night, whereas he does, and that forces him to question, ‘I would do it, but I don't want her to do it’. And you know, he is physically in different situations than others in the novel because of his agenda and outlook and that is part of the social commentary that you are providing us as well in these books.

JANE: I think as well... I mean, thank you for asking me the question, because it's one I do genuinely, I think about quite a lot actually. I think as well, even from purely a plot point of view, I mean, for example, when a body is found on the beach in the town, people in the town react in different ways, and I think that reflects society as well. I mean, when someone comes to harm, I think often women do react in a different way from men, just from a purely safety or physical point of view. I mean just if we boil it down to absolute kind of plot points, I guess Kieran, as a young, healthy 30-year-old guy, he feels safe enough walking around his town. He can go places and he can look at things in a way that maybe his partner could not.

ASTRID: You mentioned plot a few times and obviously, you're excellent at plotting and the very nature of a crime novel, of the genre, requires certain elements from the plot. I asked this question in the last interview I did to Amie Kaufman, who is an excellent fantasy and science fiction writer, which are very different genres, but I asked her how she obeys or works towards the conventions of the genre to give that payoff for the reader. And I'd like to ask you the same question, Jane. You operate in a genre where the reader turns up expecting some things but also wants surprise and that whole adventure. How do you use your plot and your structuring, which you obviously do so well, to give the reader those payoffs and want them to come back for more?

JANE: I always try... I say this a lot so, but I do try and write a book that I would like to read, and I think when I'm reading a kind of mystery crime book, I want a few things. I want the ending to make sense, I want us to be able to look back and think, ‘Oh yeah, okay. I can see that now’, rather than it be a trick, like a real rabbit out of the hat moment. I mean, I personally do like it when the book is not just a series of stuff happening, it actually does have a bit of character development and a few themes that emerge and it feels real, I think. That is another thing I really enjoy, when I feel like I can kind of believe in buying into these characters' motivations and what's driving their actions. I like to keep my books like, I suppose, feeling as realistic as possible, so you can feel like you maybe would know these people and you can kind of understand, I guess, what's driving them really.

I mean, the big thing that really helps me is planning the ending. It's kind of having that expression, comes from the end, because then I know that the ending will work. So rather than risk writing myself into a corner where I think, how can I get out of this? Sometimes you just can't. We've all read books like that, where you can tell the author just cannot really resolve this satisfactorily. I feel for them, because they probably put a lot of work into it and couldn't unravel it, but I find that starting from the end means then at least I know with confidence that everything in the book is funnelling towards that end points, so I know it will work, I know it will make sense because everything else is built around them.

ASTRID: What is your motivation to write? I mean, you obviously enjoy it. You're good at it. You were a journalist beforehand, so you'd been working with words in a career sense, a professional sense, well before you published these novels. What's your payoff? What do you get from sitting down at the desk and creating these stories and these worlds?

JANE: I always wanted to write a book. It was just something I really had this quiet secret ambition for a long time. I think I genuinely would have looked back at my life and felt regret if I hadn't tried. That was, I think, my motivation for writing The Dry. Then I guess from there, when I wrote The Dry, I got this opportunity to write more books. I got ongoing contracts with the publishers. That was great, that was more than I'd ever expected, so I was more than happy to grab that opportunity. I suppose, in some ways I could just stop anytime, really, if I wanted to. I mean, I've achieved that initial goal of having a book published. So I mean now, I suppose it really does come down to the fact that I enjoy it. I like the work, and I like being able to kind of write what I want to, I suppose, and create these books that I do think that as a reader, I would read. I love kind of looking back at it and thinking, ‘Yeah, that has come together exactly how I hoped it would when I started out and all that work was worth it’.

ASTRID: So, you write the books that you would like to read. How do you think of your readers? Because you have lots of them.

JANE: Do you know, it's interesting as well because it's like, I mean one thing about readers is they're so varied. I mean, it always astounds me sometimes to see the variety of people who I guess love kind of the crime mystery genre. I mean, that probably shouldn't surprise me because it is a really hugely popular global genre, but it is funny when, especially go to in person events or things and you've got like grannies and their 20-year-old grandson with them. You know? Or something like that, like a real kind of cross-generational sort of mix. So it's really hard, I think, as a writer to keep a huge number of readers in mind, because then you start becoming a little bit aware of, you know, you can't please everybody and people have different tastes and it can become a little bit paralysing. So, I always just come back to look, I'm in the driver's seat. What do I want to happen here? What would I like to see next? I just come back to that core idea.

ASTRID: Many of your readers are going to be picking up The Survivors very soon, and many of them will also come to your virtual tour. I was wondering, I mean, you've obviously never done a virtual tour before, very few people before 2020 have, but what's it like for you to... you get feedback from your readers from all of your works. What is it like for you as this creator putting out a new book to an audience of fans and not be able to meet them? I mean, are you hesitant, are you excited to explore the new platforms? Does it take something away?

JANE: Yeah. I mean, it is a bit different. I mean, one of the really, I guess the best parts of writing the book is that when it's out, you get to go out and do these events and meet readers. I have to say, the readers, because it's such a curated audience, so anybody who's bothered in person to come along to your event is a pretty supportive reader, so it is several days of just all this kind of love and support coming your way. That is really, I mean, that's really lovely and I hope a lot of authors kind of get to experience that when we're sort of back to normal. Because, especially for a debut author, and even when ... I had been doing my debut events with 12 people in a room at a 10:30 coffee morning book club and none of them had read the book and they all bought out of solidarity. You know, ‘I wish you luck’, and things, but it was such... even when you're starting out, it's a really supportive atmosphere. It is a little bit sad that that's not the case, but having said that, I do think virtual events actually do feel still quite interactive. I mean, I would absolutely rather have the virtual event option than nothing at all. I think it's a really great way to get in touch with people and hopefully, yeah, like we said, maybe people who otherwise wouldn't be able to come in person.

ASTRID: My next question is The Dry, I saw that we've just passed what would have been the release date for the movie adaptation of The Dry, and that's not being released in Australia because of coronavirus. We will get to see that soon. But is there anything that you can say about being a creator, that was your first book, that was your debut, that started your career and it's now on the big screen. What does that feel like for you, particularly as what would have been the launch date has passed almost in the same week as you've launched your fourth book?

JANE: I know. It's quite weird to think, in an alternate universe, what would have been, you know? I had known for a few months that the release date for the film was going to be postponed and I think in hindsight, that was absolutely the right call to make. Thank goodness they did that. It's been postponed, I believe now till April next year, all being well. I've had two involvements with the film.

One was I got to go up and see it being filmed last year in regional Victoria and be an extra, which was so fun. I got to go up there, they were filming in the middle of nowhere and they said, ‘If you'd like to be in there, this would be a good opportunity, for the funeral scene’.

Because I think it was quite remote, they were actually quite happy to have bodies on seats. So, I took a dozen of my family and friends who abused the invitation and turned up and got to be in the film, which was amazing. I was really impressed with what I saw, but as an amateur, what you're seeing, it's hard to imagine how that's going to translate onto screen. It's all so stop-start and you're not sure what that's going to look like.

So, then I got to see the finished film though, earlier this year just before lockdown, and honestly, I was blown away by it really. I was really, really impressed, and I think I'm so delighted because The Dry is so special to me. It launched my whole career, it's my first book. It was really, I think, so important to me that it was right. But at the same time, when you sell the rights, you have to accept that people will have the right to do what they need to do to it, but I was just thrilled. I love it. I honestly love it, as not just as the author the work is based on, but just as a viewer. I think they've really done such a beautiful job of capturing all the things about it, like spirit and the characters and the plot and the setting, all these things that kind of make, in my mind, make the book, they've captured that really beautifully on screen and also just made a fantastic film in its own right.

ASTRID: I'm looking forward to seeing that. You do realise that on the second viewing, everybody, all of your fans are going to be watching that funeral scene and trying to find you, Jane.

JANE: That's right. Well I, as the author, I got to sit in the second row, so I was right behind the real actors. So, if you come looking for me, I'm right there looking a little bit... you know, trying to act my best. I'll tell you who actually got the most airtime, was my brother, who lives in Sydney. He actually studied – he is an accountant now, but her studied drama at university – so he sort of have a bit of inside knowledge, and he managed to position himself in such a way that he's so close to Eric Bana in the funeral scene that they couldn't edit him out. He's lurking over Eric's shoulder at every opportunity. So, if you see that guy, that guy is my brother.

ASTRID: That's hilarious. I have one further question for you. Jane, what's coming next?

JANE: I'll be turning my mind, I suppose, to the next book pretty soon. I'll get The Survivors out and do all the events and the publicity and things surrounding that. I'm not really one of these authors who can think about two books at once. I know some do, but I find it quite hard to, I think just to split my attention that way. So, I'll fully sort of complete all the work around The Survivors and then start thinking about the next book, which I think will be safe to say will be an Australian mystery similar to the tone and feel to the others. What I usually to try and do is I kind of think about a few different ideas and I'll kind of toss things up a little bit and see what sort of settles and try and let the best ideas sort of rise to the surface before I really commit to anything. But yeah, so that's what I'll be doing next.

ASTRID: Jane, congratulations. I highly recommend The Survivors to everybody listening. Please keep writing. It's gorgeous.

JANE: Oh, thank you so much, and thank you so much for having me on the podcast. It's always really fun to be here.