Murder in the outback: Author Jane Harper explores the often desolate landscape of Australia

Jane Harper. Picture: Katsnap Photography

Author Jane Harper has been in the vanguard of the ‘outback-noir’ genre — tense thrillers set in Australia’s desolate landscape, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Like many debut authors, when Jane Harper wrote her first novel, she had low expectations. 

She was working as a business reporter in Melbourne and book ideas had been percolating away in her mind for years. 

Unlike many wannabe novelists, however, Harper delivered, and she delivered big.

Her book The Dry, a tense thriller set in a rural Australian town crippled by drought, went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide and the film rights were optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s eagle-eyed production company before it was even published.

“When I started writing The Dry I was at a point where I had wanted to write a book for many years. Regardless of it ever getting published, I just wanted to complete a novel for my own personal sense of achievement,” says Harper.

“My goal was to complete a manuscript and say I’d done it, so I was really happy when I achieved that. 

To get it published in Australia was a real dream come true, and getting picked up by publishers around the world was so far beyond my expectations, looking back it still seems amazing, a surreal time.

Harper followed up The Dry with another bestseller, Force of Nature, and earlier this year published her third novel, The Lost Man. 

All are densely plotted, skilfully characterised, and intensely gripping thrillers with satisfying twists.

The Melbourne-based novelist is visiting Dublin this month to share the secrets of her success with readers, at Midsummer Murder One, an offshoot of the Murder One crime-writing festival.

Harper will also take in a book tour of Britain on her trip to the northern hemisphere. 

It is a homecoming of sorts for the writer; while her books are acutely observed portrayals of the harsh and often desolate landscape of Australia and its impact on the people who live there, she was actually born in England. 

She moved from Manchester to Australia when she was eight, then returned to England as a teenager. 

She studied English and history at the University of Kent in Canterbury and worked as a trainee journalist before heading back Down Under. 

She says that while she considers herself both English and Australian, coming from another country gave her a perspective on her adopted country that has served her well in her writing.

“I’ve lived full-time in Australia since 2008, my husband’s Australian and my child was born in Australia, so I feel very Australian. 

"But a lot of my family live in the UK so I go back quite a lot. I guess I still consider myself both. I think my time in England made me more aware of the differences between Australia and other countries. 

"I had these memories from my childhood, but when I came back to Australia, I did so with fresh eyes and an adult’s perspective on things — what was driving people, what they were talking about, what was in the newspapers, what the landscape looked like, the weather patterns; things I mightn’t have noticed as much otherwise, that I might have been blind to. 

"They gave me a fresh perspective and that was a help when trying to capture that for readers.”

Harper has been in the vanguard of the ‘outback noir’ genre, a label with which she is quite comfortable.

“I love that term, I think it’s a real fun way to describe it. I can only speak for myself and the way international audiences have embraced Australian stories but when I wrote The Dry I had no expectations about how it would be received overseas. 

"I didn’t know if people would take to it or whether it would be alien to them. To have people embrace my books and feel they can relate to the characters and stories has been really wonderful. 

"I’ve loved that aspect of it, sharing it with people around the world.”

While the milieu of her work has proven a fascinating draw for readers internationally, the universality of the themes, whether it is grief, difficult relationships, or domestic violence have also struck a chord.

“On the one hand I want to write books grounded in Australia, specific to the country, with a setting that would feel very real to Australians who’d know the land I was writing about,” says Harper.

“At the same time, a lot of the personal issues, the relationships in the community, are universal. I found those resonated with people in many different places. 

"I hope to write something that gives people a taste of Australia setting but that they can also understand and relate to in their own lives.”

The Lost Man is a gripping dissection of the secrets and lies holding one family together in a parched environment where death lurks in the unforgiving landscape and emotional temperatures can rise as fast as the mercury. 

While Harper’s first two books won many fans for her particularly absorbing central character, policeman Aaron Falk, she dispensed with his services for The Lost Man.

“For me it’s always really important to have the best character tell the story and much as I love writing about Falk, I knew early on with this one, with the location being so isolated in the outback, and with just one family, that it was going to revolve around them.

“And much as I love writing about Falk, it was great to develop and build other characters and the main character [Nathan Bright] I got very fond of them while writing the book. 

"I felt it was a chance to introduce some new people.”

Harper was working for the Herald Sun in Melbourne when she wrote The Dry, and found her journalistic training a big advantage when it came to the discipline of writing.

“Journalism was absolutely a huge factor when it came to writing a novel. It was all I had done for 13 years, writing a certain amount of words for a certain audience, every day to deadline. 

"I had a lot of good habits when it came to writing. I knew how to get words on the page, how to structure my thoughts; I transferred a lot of those skills into novel writing. 

"Fiction is a different kettle of fish but you also have to get those ideas down in a way that will appeal to the reader.”

Harper is particularly adept at concocting twists in her books — and doing it in a believable way. Is there a pressure to make each twist better than before?

“There is a level of expectation now that you don’t have with a first book, which nobody knew or cared about, but the later books, people have expectations. 

"And also as an author I have ambitions for myself — to write books people enjoy and so on. At the same time I’ve also benefited from the experience as well. 

Every time I’ve written a book I’ve learned from the previous one — writing practices or techniques that will help me formulate ideas and plans to bring it all together.

Filming of the screen adaptation of The Dry finished in April and Harper is particularly pleased that Australian star Eric Bana will play the key role of Aaron Falk.

“They filmed it in Victoria, where the book is set, though in a fictionalised setting. They’re editing it at the moment, which is exciting. 

"I’m looking forward to that. It’s great to have Eric on board, he’s someone audiences can warm to and get behind.”

In the meantime, Harper is looking forward to her book featuring in an even more prestigious setting, recently tweeting her excitement at an upcoming guest appearance by The Lost Man on the Australian institution that is Neighbours.

“I’m very excited about that, that one thing does really feel like you’ve made it in Australia — you get a mention on Neighbours. What could be better than that?”

Jane Harper is in conversation with Liz Nugent at City Hall, Dublin, on July 16. 

Tickets: ticketsource.co.uk/murder-one

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