Jordan Harper’s debut, She Rides Shotgun, is a visceral noir that will at turns shock, delight and completely subvert readers’ expectations. Conflicted ex-con Nate McClusky is forced to go on the run for his past mistakes, but he’s determined to finally become the father that his 11-year-old daughter, Polly, longs for. The result is an emotionally resonant road story that puts the pedal to the medal.
Harper answered a few questions about subverting genre tropes, writing compelling criminals, the upcoming film adaptation and more.
Nate and Polly are such a captivating pair with a relationship that drastically changes over the course of this story. What made you decide to write a hardboiled, often violent noir with a father-daughter relationship at its core?
The book is part of a small niche genre, that of the criminal and child on the run stories such as Lone Wolf and Cub, Paper Moon, The Professional, etc. I’ve always loved these kinds of stories and wanted to contribute. In my fiction I’ve always tried to create a world of criminals with human cores, and there are few more human cores than that of father and daughter.
The effects of toxic masculinity are often on full display in this story. But instead of leaning into the bravado and celebrating it, as is common in noir, Polly is allowed to take center stage and grows into the kind of tough, nuanced female character that is often absent from the genre. Was this a conscious decision?
It was. To me, this is a book about anxiety, and to me toxic masculinity is about anxiety, about voices in your head that control you and keep you behind certain invisible walls. Nate is saddled with his brother’s voice in his head, which is essentially that toxic masculinity given a human persona. Nate’s somewhat powerless against it, and much of his violence springs from being trapped by this voice. On the other hand, Polly is repressed in other ways, and hers is a much more righteous violence.
You’re originally from the Ozarks, but you moved to L.A. many years ago. How have your experiences with these very different places—and with what I’d wager to be very different people—informed this novel?
My misspent youth in the Ozarks taught me about what I call in the Ozarks “dirty white boys.” Skinhead gangs were pretty common in the Ozarks back then (and, I imagine, today as well), and I’ve always used them as the main villains of my writing. Dirty white boys are sort of the same all over, and so I was able to transfer my knowledge of them to the setting of Fontana, California, also known as “Fontucky.” But the larger L.A. area has a much wider pool of criminals to draw from, and out here there are much larger gangs like La Eme who dwarf the white power gangs. I’m always obsessed with criminal fraternities, and I was glad to get several of them into the book.
Who were some writers that really captivated you early in life that you still look to for inspiration?
The first adult novels that I read in my life were Stephen King books, and I still own most of them and re-read them from time to time. King loves story, and he made me love story in a way that kept me from ever indulging in too much literary aimlessness. Reading The Secret History when I was in high school certainly taught me that you could write a thrilling story without sacrificing any of the pleasures of great writing. And I spent much of my youth obsessed with Hunter S. Thompson where I learned the pleasures of brutal and fearless prose.
The movie rights for She Rides Shotgun have already been sold! I know you’ve written for television for some time—has writing the adaptation felt much more natural to you than writing this novel? Any unexpected challenges?
It turns out to be very difficult to adapt oneself. The key to adaptation is to know what is essential to a story and what can be thrown out or changed to better fit the new medium. But to the author of the work, everything is essential. It’s very hard to cut up one’s own work, but I think I’ve finally made some headway in that painful art.
What mysteries and thrillers do you think everyone must read?
The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Grifters, L.A. Confidential and American Tabloid, You Will Know Me, the aforementioned The Secret History, Tapping the Source, Wild at Heart and Winter’s Bone.
What’s next for you?
I was just in New York and had a great lunch with my agent, the amazing Nat Sobel, and we talked about the famous problems of writing the second novel. I think I’ve worked out the kinks in it that have had been stuck for the past year, so I’m hoping to get that done soon enough. I don’t want to say too much, but the current working title is Watch the Fire Burn, and it’s about a young criminal who tries to solve a murder the police won’t solve.
I also have a pitch for a television show that I am getting ready to take out in Hollywood. It’s called "Rat Kings," and it’s an epic crime story. I also have a few screenplays I keep threatening to write if I can find the time.
Author photo by Brian Hennigan.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of She Rides Shotgun.