In Conversation with Jane Harper

Harper’s thrillers bridge the gap between commercial and literary because, in her own words, she is always asking of her characters: “What pressure are they under…what’s keeping them awake at night…what kind of family dynamic do they have?”

In an incredibly crowded commercial market, Jane Harper has garnered a massive following. Her outback noir novels, beginning with The Dry in 2016, have sold millions of copies and put rural Australian settings on the map in a way rarely seen. 

Her most recent novel, Exiles, follows her repeat protagonist Aaron Faulk, an AFP detective, as he journeys to South Australia to see old friends and unlock a murder that has been haunting generations of a small town for over a year. 

Immersing herself in her settings is clearly important for Harper. For Exiles, this meant taking a long trip to South Australian wine country. “I always go on the trips when I have got a fairly complete first draft,” she said. 

She does lots of research before, combing through books and talking to people on the phone but it never seems to be enough: “I know where the gaps in my knowledge are…it’s really important to go and speak to people…find out what day to day life looks like. Immerse yourself on a personal level.” 

While the larger plot points of her books may not change after these trips, the colour and atmosphere do — you simply cannot find truth sitting at a desk. 

A lot of that process comes from Harper’s background as a journalist; she worked for newspapers in the UK and Australia for 13 years before attempting her first novel. The process of finding local stories in Geelong or Hull mirrored her fictional research: “I think it definitely helps a lot…just having the confidence to pick up the phone and ask for information.” 

Besides that simple social confidence, Harper points out that as a journalist you are often painfully “aware of what you don’t know.” But most importantly, she learned that people were a lot less defensive and protective about their personal lives as she initially thought, “what surprised me was how willing people are to share their stories if you come in with a passion and a genuine interest.”

Even when she had no reputation as an author and no paper behind her, people still opened up, “even for The Dry and Force of Nature, the early books, I still found people were willing to help.”

Maybe that willingness and enthusiasm comes from Harper’s almost religious devotion to telling stories set in Australia. “From the start I really wanted to write something set in Australia… the Australian landscape is so geographically diverse and so beautiful.” 

The darker side of Australia is even more central to Harper’s books, tapping into something Australian authors have been using for decades. “[The landscape] has that sense of brutality…things can go wrong.” Like Kate Grenville and Patrick White before her, it’s that cruelty and ferocity that drives her characters. 

In Exiles, some of the victim’s darkest moments come when she is surrounded and metaphorically imprisoned by the thick bush or the nothingness of the desert. The potential in that powerful symbolism means that Harper is not leaving the Australian landscape anytime soon, “I don’t have any real desire to write about other settings…there are still plenty of stories to explore.”

The brutality intrinsic to the landscape also reflects the personal and societal issues Harper explores through her characters. I have written about Exiles in the context of its representation of domestic abuse, and the same lens can be applied to almost all of her work. 

Harper, on a surface level, ties that thematic trend with her emphasis on realism, “I am really conscious of making the themes as authentic as possible to that space.” If the settings are realistic, the issues the characters face should be as well. 

On a deeper level, Harper’s emphasis on realism means she also becomes focused on the internalities of characters in a way other “commercial” writers are not. Her thrillers bridge the gap between commercial and literary because, in her own words, she is always asking of her characters, “what pressure are they under…what’s keeping them awake at night…what kind of family dynamic do they have?” 

For that reason, family and the complex interactions between generations became important to Harper. The plots of The Dry, The Lost Man, and Exiles all revolve around someone going back to a past home, or more importantly, moving forward in time, only to find those in the present stuck somewhere else. Her characters often feel like they have as much history as the land itself. 

“I do like a little bit of old sins revisited,” Harper summarised. “Characters of different ages always bring different viewpoints to the action…they serve as a very practical tool.” 

Harper is moving into a crucial stage of her career. Now established in the genre, her biggest challenge is keeping the books coming. She was confident she was not running out of ideas, “I don’t have that fear now,” but acknowledged a need to slow down. “When you first get that publishing deal…you want to see years and years…there is a drive to do whatever it takes…authors do put a lot of pressure on themselves to meet that market.”

After publishing one book a year for the first three, she moved onto a two-year cycle instead and is “taking even longer for the next book”. Thriller writers often fall into the trap of churning books out like an assembly line; the popular Jack Reacher series already has 27 entries, and fellow crime writer John Grisham has over 50. 

Harper does not want to follow that path: “I don’t want to get on that gruelling treadmill.” While that means we may have to wait a while for the next book, which she says is “still in the very early planning stages,” I am hopeful that it will be another fine addition to her bibliography. 

Until then, those who want more Harper can look forward to another Robert Connolly adaptation, starring Eric Bana, of Force of Nature coming out August 23. 

Jane will be speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. She will be in conversation at Jane Harper: Exiles, at 10am on Thursday 25 May; and conversation at Your Favourites’ Favourites: Jane Harper and Benjamin Stevenson, at 3pm on Friday 26 May.