Jane Harper’s authorial-origin story is both the stuff of a lifelong dream-come-true, and the outcome of professional focus, preparation, and planning. The seeming overnight international success of her debut novel The Dry, belies a keen backstory of Harper channelling her creativity via a highly pragmatic approach, the same combined effort with which she now plots her tightly-woven mysteries.
Even as a full-time business reporter, Harper knew she had a book she wanted to write, squeezing in fiction writing time before and after her journalism workday. In 2014, she pursued an online writing course, and, the following year, won the prestigious Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for The Dry. That award was instrumental in gaining publishing deals: The Dry debuted in 2016 in Australia, Force of Nature was published in 2017, and The Lost Man in 2018. “I didn’t know it was going to work out,” says Harper of that focused, pre-publication, and clearly productive time. “But maybe the realization of that was a really important mental step for me. I’d wanted to write a book for years, ever since I was a kid, really. And one of the things that held me back was this fear of putting in all this time and effort and not being successful and it being a waste of time. And, I guess, of seeing the disappearance of a dream not being realized. In hindsight, that held me back for years, really. But then my approach to it changed: I realized that actually I wanted to do it badly enough that I just wanted to write the book—it didn’t matter so much what happened afterwards—I just wanted to see if I could do it. I thought, ‘If I actually managed to write a whole novel, even if nothing happened with that one, I would have learned from it and improved my skills and gained some technique and then maybe I would use that to try again and write a better novel and maybe that one would go somewhere.’ So it was a shift in my own approach to it, that helped me just focus on it more consistently.”
Harper really shines in evoking the varied atmospheric landscapes of Australia. Whether she’s depicting murderous mayhem in some of the more remote areas of Australia—a cattle station here, a rural, drought-ridden town there, or simply a corporate Outward-Bound-type retreat far from cosmopolitan crowds—Harper’s mysteries are pleasurably immersive due to the close-knit communities and often downright claustrophobic environments that tend to be the settings of her books. “I do really love writing about Australia,” says Harper. “As a writer, I enjoy it because it gives you a beautifully visual setting to put your characters in, but the diverse terrain also quite often has the element of danger to it, so it’s quite easy for things to go wrong in a very plausible way. I also do like settings that are off the beaten track because I love a bit of a locked-room mystery myself: I like communities where there’s a fixed cast of characters, where you know that the action is going to rise and resolve within this group of people.”
Then there are the all-too-human underlying elements of the mysteries themselves: the bulk of Harper’s creepy plotlines tend to coalesce around familial damage and dysfunction, whether those family ties stem from being part of a local community, childhood friendships, or a nuclear family structure. Harper’s stories are a telling reminder that, all too often, people don’t consider how their actions—whether purposeful or accidental—might impact those closest to them. “When I’m thinking about a story, usually the thing that drags me in is actually the end point,” says Harper. “Something about people brought to an extreme moment, and what is it that’s brought them there, whether it’s something spontaneous or in their past or whatever. It’s that moment that makes me commit to writing that story; everything else is built in, layered on top, so the whole thing is moving towards that end point. In terms of the crimes themselves, the mysteries, I’m aiming for reasons that are, on some level, relatable, but that drive people to extreme actions. Everybody really is a mixture of good and bad, and we can all behave in ways under stressful situation that we would never behave in normal circumstances. What interests me is that people aren’t drawn to do terrible things because they are terrible people: in some way, they feel that they are forced into their actions because they have no other choice. And maybe the reasons for that are not good ones or sensible ones, but, in that moment, it makes sense to that person. That’s what I’m always trying to bring out, so that even if maybe there’s no sympathy for the person responsible, there is some understanding of what’s driven their actions.”
In her latest book, The Survivors, set in a tiny beach town on the Tasmanian coast, a body is discovered on the beach, and that gruesome discovery raises the unwelcome spectre of several previous local tragedies. Wielding a cast of multi-generational characters, Harper does a terrific job of delineating the tangled interpersonal web that evolves out of living in a small, dead-end town, and the family-and-friend complexities that develop when everyone has grown up together, dated each other, and is familiar with each other’s history and baggage. On top of that, an extra textual layer of the hyperlocal digital community message board adds an enticingly engaging, highly subjective level to the nefarious goings-on.
“My characters all have to pull their weight,” says Harper. “They all have to bring something to the story, and usually that’s a different perspective for the reader. Characters tend to find their way into the plot, but it’s also about accurately reflecting their community: in small coastal towns you often get that multigenerational family presence—a kind of dynasty, I guess. And in The Lost Man’s remote rural setting you find not so much a family business as a family vocation that gets passed on from parent to child and onwards because it is so all-consuming in their lives: there’s not a lot of space for outsiders there because it’s such a blood-ties-influenced, brutal lifestyle. You kind of have to grow up in it to do it.”
For Harper, setting and plot absolutely go hand in hand. “Quite early on, when I’m thinking about the story and where to set it, that setting element usually presents itself quite organically,” she says. “The rugged coastline in Tasmania felt like a natural fit for The Survivors. I’d been a few times on holiday but I did my usual research trip as well”—this trip included scuba diving lessons and in-depth interviews with a company that specializes in shipwreck diving. “I’ll do all the research I can from my desk,” she continues, “talking to people and reading, and I’ll know what specific on-the-ground details I’m looking for. Then I’ll go to the location to fill in the gaps. But at that point there’s also still plenty of flexibility in the story, so I can make adjustments depending on what I might discover or learn during the trip.”
It’s that kind of real-life research as well a journalism-honed attention to detail that give her mysteries their heft beyond simply unusual locations, puzzle-worthy plotlines, and intricately embedded red herrings. With four novels under her belt, and a fifth one in its earliest stages, Harper has certainly honed her technical approach to plotting, writing, and editing her books. And, she says, that structural piece and the research that supports it, allows her the freedom to indulge in the creative aspect of writing. When the time is right, she takes herself off for walks and lets her ideas unfurl and teases them out. Often, she says, they may be generated by something that appears to come out of nowhere. “I mean, it probably was part of a conversation that I’ve had or something I’ve read, but it might be from a while ago,” says Harper. “I do try to actively think: I’ll go walking and let ideas come through, and something will tend to stick. But I think the mistake I made before I wrote my first book was that I expected my ideas to be fully formed; now I’ve realized that the idea grows into the book through all the work I do.”
The original idea, she says, just needs to be something that hooks her. “Maybe, say, ‘Here’s an incident and what if it wasn’t X that happened? What if Y happened instead?’ Looking at something through a slightly different lens can change the whole complexion of things. And then from there you think ‘Well, is that interesting enough to build on. Are there enough layers to wrap around that so it would create a mystery?’ Sometimes you’ll have an idea for a great subplot that you know doesn’t stand alone—that it’s more of a supporting idea. So you need to go back to the drawing board and think a little more about the driving force behind the book. It’s really a process and you don’t get all the ideas all in one go.”
Harper, who was born in England, moved with her family to Australia as an eight-year-old due to her father’s software-sales work. Six years later, the family returned to the UK where Harper finished school, attended university, and began her career as a journalist. Then, she says, in 2008, she returned to Australia with the intention of staying a couple of years. “I was 28 and I had dual citizenship, so I decided to move to Australia by myself. I thought I’d travel a bit and work, so I got a job on a newspaper out here. And then, like it happens to so many people, I kind of fell in love with it all over again and two years has become 12—I’ve been here ever since.” And, for the past half-decade, finding fruitful settings for her literary adventures in her adopted homeland.