SYDNEY, Australia — Four years ago, Jane Harper was a business reporter at The Herald Sun, a tabloid in Melbourne, Australia. Harper, who is now 38, liked to tell friends that she had “more self-improvement activities than a Victorian spinster,” busying herself with hobbies including sewing, ballroom dancing, tennis and piano lessons. But there was one project Harper didn’t talk about: She was writing a murder mystery inspired by “Gone Girl,” Agatha Christie and all the other thrillers she’d loved reading since childhood.
“Is there anything more boring than someone trying to tell you about the novel they’re working on?” Harper asked over lunch recently here in Sydney. She was explaining why she didn’t let on about her manuscript, which she worked on for an hour before and after work each day. A journalist eking out a novel is cliché, but what happened next was so shocking, you’d have to call it a twist.
In April 2015, Harper entered pages she’d written over the past six months into the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. She won, picked up six-figure publishing deals in Australia, the United States and Britain, and went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide of her debut novel, “The Dry.”
Two subsequent crime novels — “Force of Nature” and “The Lost Man,” which is about to be released in the United States by Flatiron Books — have sold an additional 600,000 copies. There’s also a movie version of “The Dry” in production, starring Eric Bana and produced by Bruna Papandrea of “Big Little Lies” fame. And a baby, who arrived in between international best sellers. Harper is unfailingly modest, but she did admit that “life has changed so much in the last few years.”
CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times
“It was stunning,” offered a former colleague, Victoria MacDonald, of her friend winning a major literary award for a manuscript she knew nothing about, and then becoming Australia’s most widely read crime writer. “She didn’t have a smartphone for a really long time” — 2014, Harper later confirmed — “and I remember thinking that the time the rest of us were wiling away on Candy Crush were the moments Jane must have been working on her book.”
Harper outlined her writing process in a TEDx Talk last October called “Creativity in Your Control.” She returns often to the idea that artistic endeavor is made easier — and more enjoyable — with planning. “If you focus on the technical aspects,” she says, neat red corkscrew curls bobbing, “you can build a framework which serves as a base for your creative ideas.”
Harper’s TEDx Talk was in part, perhaps, an effort to set the record straight: Much has been made in the news media about a 12-week creative writing course she took in 2014 through an offshoot of the London branch of the literary agency Curtis Brown. Shortly afterward, she produced the manuscript of “The Dry.” When Harper was asked at lunch about the course, it was the one time she seemed anything less than sunny. “I think honestly the impact of that has been overstated,” she said. “I was a journalist for thirteen years. I wrote every single day. I wrote thousands of words a week under pressure.” The course, she said, merely offered her some external accountability.
The writing is the “fun part” for Harper, but for several months beforehand, she plots. As her Australian editor Cate Paterson said, every development in a Jane Harper story feels credible. “It’s one of the things that I get annoyed about with other crime writers,” Paterson said. “Some late inclusion, or a new character out of the blue, is the one who did it, but what I find with Jane is that the clues are there all along and she puts them together in a clever way.”
Another element that Paterson said elevates Harper’s books from procedurals is an attention to character. At the center of both “The Dry” and “Force of Nature” is Aaron Falk, a Melbourne detective. In “The Dry,” he is forced to confront a dark chapter in his past as he solves a murder in his hometown; in “Force of Nature,” he searches for a missing hiker, lost in the woods outside the city. Falk, at times infuriating in his emotional inhibition, is a particularly compelling creation.
“I want people to think, ‘I know someone like that,’” Harper said. “I figure out what keeps people awake at night and what drives them to get out of bed in the morning, and that involves a lot of details that don’t make it into the books.” Characters’ coffee preferences, for instance: “Aaron Falk is from Melbourne so he’d probably be a flat-white man,” she said, using a term for steamed milk poured over espresso. “And Nathan” — a divorced dad who solves the death of his brother in “The Lost Man” — “he’d be instant coffee, happy to drink it black but with a splash of long-life milk on occasion.” (Harper, whose parents are British and who spent much of her childhood in England, is “more of a tea person.”)
Nathan drinks long-life milk in part because he lives hundreds of miles from the nearest town, on a remote cattle station in the northern Australian state of Queensland. Harper leans on the Australian environment in all of her novels. “The Lost Man,” like “The Dry,” is a study in isolation and its psychological and physical effects — particularly on men, who in regional areas of Australia are vulnerable to depression and suicide. “Setting informs plot,” is how Harper put it, when asked about her skill in conjuring up a familiar type of Australian bloke, at once taciturn and tender.
Where “The Dry” probed the dangers of prolonged drought on a close-knit farming community, “The Lost Man” is concerned with how people live — and die — in the unforgiving outback. The novel opens in the desert, with the discovery of Nathan’s brother’s body five miles from his four-wheel-drive vehicle and the food, fuel and water in its trunk. What happened to separate Nathan’s brother from his survival kit?
“I knew I wanted somewhere hot and far-flung, but with a community of sorts,” Harper said of her choice of location. As part of her planning, she flew to Charleville, some 400 miles west of the Queensland capital of Brisbane, and then drove more than 500 miles further to the tiny town of Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. The town’s claim to fame is hitting the highest-ever temperature in Queensland, of 49.5 degrees Celsius (121.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Now it’s the town that served as inspiration for “The Lost Man.”
Accompanying Harper on her journey was Neale McShane, the officer in charge of Birdsville Police Station for 10 years, who is now retired. McShane, by himself, once patrolled an area of outback the size of the United Kingdom, with a population of about 250 people.
From her training as a journalist, Harper had determined exactly what she needed from the research trip: “I knew how I wanted the story to play out, but I’d left enough flexibility for the things I didn’t have at that stage.” She didn’t know how two-way radios worked, for instance, or what kitchens looked like at cattle stations. Those were the known unknowns. But there were still surprises: “If anything,” she said, “I’d underestimated how dangerous it can be out there, and how quickly things can go wrong.”
Reached on the phone from his home in Charleville, McShane praised Harper’s evocation of (very) small-town life. “You can drive 12 hours here without passing another car,” McShane said. “She nailed the loneliness of it.”
“You don’t have to know the place to get the feelings of the characters,” said Deborah Force, who owns an independent Melbourne bookstore called the Sun and was an early champion of Harper’s writing. “The Lost Man” was her shop’s best-selling title over the holidays. “Even people who say they don’t like crime really liked ‘The Dry,’” Force said.
Harper doesn’t want to be boxed into a genre. “I don’t really feel drawn to dark things or human misery,” she said. Although all three of her books feature a sudden and mysterious death, they aren’t grisly or scary. “The number of books you come across with a young blond woman who gets mutilated and killed,” said Paterson, Harper’s editor, with a sigh. “I’m just reading a submission at the moment from an agent which starts with a woman getting kidnapped. You get overwhelmed by it.”
Harper’s goal is clear: to write books people will enjoy reading, ones that she would like to read herself. Right now, those books happen to involve crime. “As a journalist I learned not to assume people will read to the end,” she said. “I need to keep people engaged.”