January 10, 2017

Jane Harper

Hitting a home run with a ‘practice’ novel
Interview by

A taut, suspenseful novel of small-town secrets set during a drought in rural Australia, The Dry follows federal agent Aaron Falk who is called back to the town where he grew up and asked to investigate the murder-suicide of his best friend from high school. Jane Harper’s debut thriller has already been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon—we asked the first-time author and former journalist a few questions about what success feels like.   

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A taut, suspenseful novel of small-town secrets set during a drought in rural Australia, The Dry follows federal agent Aaron Falk who is called back to the town where he grew up and asked to investigate the murder-suicide of his best friend from high school. Falk, who has his own secrets, soon finds there is more to these deaths than meets the eye. Jane Harper’s debut thriller has already been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon—we asked the first-time author and former journalist a few questions about what success feels like.   

The manner in which The Dry came about and was discovered is almost as exciting as the mystery itself. Can you share with our readers what that experience was like?
I wrote the manuscript that would become The Dry as part of a 12-week online novel-writing course in late 2014, and at that time had no real expectation that it would ever be published. At times when it wasn’t going well, I remember telling myself that it was OK for this to be a “practice novel” and simply try to finish and treat it as a learning exercise.

I’ve always worked best to deadlines, so for motivation I set a goal of entering the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, which runs every year in my state. My main aim was just to get the novel finished and to a standard that I felt I could begin to share it, and maybe get some feedback from the judges. I entered the award in April 2015 and to my surprise found out the following month that I had won!

That was a huge boost and the real catalyst to publication for The Dry. On the back of the award, the novel was sold in separate three-book deals to Flatiron Books in the U.S., Pan Macmillan in Australia and Little, Brown in the U.K., as well as being sold for translation in more than 20 territories.

It was an absolute dream run for the novel and I feel so lucky to have had the exposure that came from winning the award. I really couldn’t have asked for more and I still can’t believe it sometimes!

Was this your first work of fiction?
I’d worked full-time as a journalist on newspapers in the U.K. and Australia for 13 years before writing the novel, so I was used to writing hundreds of words a day on all kinds of topics. I’d always hoped that one day I would write a book, but I just never seemed to have the time or discipline to sit down and seriously try. Finally I realized that I was going to have to make the time, and I wrote a short story that got published in the fiction edition of a magazine. That was really exciting and encouraged me to finally attempt a novel. It helped a lot having the external pressure of a writing course and the expectation from the teacher and other students that I would work on the manuscript as required.

How do you feel your experiences as a journalist informed your novel?
Working as a journalist helped me write The Dry in so many ways. It gave me the opportunity over the years to speak to people facing a range of issues in many different Australian communities (although none as dysfunctional as the town in The Dry!) It was through talking and listening to people in small towns that I started to get a sense of just how closely tied their lives can be, and how strongly they rely on the community and each other, for better or worse.

In practical writing terms, I still draw on my journalism experience every day. It has taught me the discipline to write regularly and at a reasonable speed, to write for the reader rather than for myself, and not to let myself feel too nervous about blank page!

You are originally from Britain. What brought you to Australia?
I was born in the U.K., but lived in Australia with my family between the ages of 8 and 14 and acquired dual citizenship. We returned to the U.K. and I finished high school and university there and worked for several years on newspapers in Yorkshire. In 2008, I felt like a change and thought it would be exciting to get some experience working in Australia. I applied and got a job on a newspaper in Victoria, and decided to come out for a couple of years. I must have enjoyed it because eight years later, I’m still here, married to an Australian man and with a baby daughter!

The small town in The Dry is so richly described. What inspired this aspect of the novel?
For the physical description, I wanted to give readers enough detail to picture the scene, but not so much that it slowed down the story. I tried to really focus on specific aspects that brought that Australian setting to life and set the town apart from anywhere else in the world.

In terms of the relationships within the community, I think they are much more universal and I was inspired by a lot of places I’ve been over the years, not just small towns and not even just in Australia. I think all communities have their own specific problems that put pressure on the residents. I hope that the feeling of neighbors knowing more about you than you’d like, or the sense of being tied to a community that you have outgrown strike a chord with readers in many places in the world.

How does Australia influence your writing? Do you think of yourself as an Australian writer?
Yes, I do think of myself as both Australian and an Australian writer and I wanted to write a book set here because I really do feel it is my home. But I think having been born overseas does give me the advantage of being able to view it with the eye of an outsider. It is such a wonderful and unique country with some really interesting people and scenarios, so it was easy to be inspired by life here.

I read that you were working on another book with the character of Aaron Falk. How do you see him developing? What do you think he learned in The Dry that will make him a better detective?
The second book sees Aaron Falk return in a different setting, but again facing a mystery with a few twists and turns in a remote Australian location. I feel the events of The Dry forced him to confront aspects of his past and his personality that he had chosen to keep buried, and that in turn will encourage him to re-evaluate some choices he has made in his life. I enjoyed the opportunity to see him develop as a character, but he still has some way to go to resolve all his issues so it’s not all smooth sailing for him yet!

As a new author, what kind of advice would you give to other writers just starting out?
I found taking part in a reputable and structured course was a huge help. I really wanted to write a novel, but honestly felt like I had no idea how to actually start and, more importantly, finish! Even with the advantage I had of writing professionally for newspapers, a novel seemed like an overwhelming task, so I found a course was a big motivation. I also got a lot of benefit from the feedback. If writing on your own, I find it helps me a lot to write regularly to develop a habit, and rather than focus on a strict word count every day, I break the plot down into scenes and tackle one scene each time I sit down to write.

Are you going to continue balancing your work as a journalist with your fiction writing?
No, I was lucky enough to be able to live the dream and quit my day job! It was a hard decision because I really loved being a journalist, but I love writing novels even more so I felt I had to take the opportunity to do that seriously and dedicate the time it needs.

The movie rights have already been purchased and by Reese Witherspoon! Congratulations! Any thoughts about who you’d like to see play Aaron and Gretchen?
I get asked this a lot and I never have a good answer! I did have a picture of them both in my head when I started writing, but their characters actually developed in ways I didn’t fully expect and my image of them has changed. I’m always more interested to hear who other people think would play the roles because I love getting a sense of how they see the characters.

Were you a big reader as a kid? What kinds of books did you like?
Yes, definitely. Reading was, and still is, my favorite thing to do. I was fortunate that my parents were both big readers and encouraged it from an early age. As a child I loved all the usual children’s authors, in particular an Australian writer called Paul Jennings who wrote pretty outrageous short stories for kids that we all found shocking and hilarious. As I grew older I started reading what my parents read, which were often crime and mystery novels, so that’s where I got a taste for that genre.

Who are some of your favorite mystery writers?
I always enjoy seeking out new writers, but I’ve got a few long-term favourites including Val McDermid, Michael Robotham, and Nicci French. I’m a big fan of Lee Child and David Baldacci, even if their books wouldn’t strictly be classified as mystery. But I enjoy anything that keeps me guessing, and being surprised at the end of a novel is my absolute favorite way for a book to finish!

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Dry.

Author photo by Nicholas Purcell.

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The Dry

The Dry

By Jane Harper
ISBN 9781250105608

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