Jane Harper is sitting in a spare, prosaic room in her Melbourne home. The white walls around her are minimally decorated. The Spartan image could not be more of a contrast to the vivid outdoor settings she brings to life in her compelling crime novels, the fourth of which, The Survivors, will be published by Flatiron in February.
Wearing her red hair tied back and casually dressed in jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt, Harper, speaking via Zoom, is in the midst of Melbourne’s second Covid-19 lockdown in the past 10 weeks. As it turns out, though, working from home is not a new arrangement for her; in 2016 she quit her job as a business journalist with Melbourne’s Herald Sun following the meteoric success of her debut novel, The Dry (which Flatiron published in the U.S. in 2017).
Born in Manchester, England, Harper had a peripatetic early childhood. Her father’s job as a product manager for major computer networking companies took the family around the world. When she was eight, they settled in Australia. Her time there established her connection to the country, and she became a dual citizen of the U.K. and Australia. Six years later, she returned to the U.K. and, after graduating from the University of Kent in Canterbury, became a journalist trainee with the English newspaper the Darlington & Stockton Times.
“Journalism was a way for me to write professionally,” Harper explains. “And I really enjoyed getting a chance to speak to a variety of people about their lives. You can get people to open up to you in a way that not a lot of other jobs allow for.”
In 2008, after a stint as a senior news reporter in Hull, England, Harper moved back to Australia. But even as she honed her ability to write concisely and on deadline, she held on to her dream of writing fiction. Her first break came in 2014, when the Big Issue, an Australian nonprofit street newspaper sold by homeless people, opened up its popular annual fiction issue to submissions. Her mystery “Spiders and Flies,” set in a small Australian town, was one of only 12 short stories selected for inclusion.
“That was a real defining moment for me,” Harper recalls. “I was so proud to see it in print. That was when I thought, okay, I’m really going to sit down and write a whole novel, which was something I’d always wanted to do, whether or not it ever got published.”
Later that year Harper enrolled in a writing course so that she could get feedback on what would eventually become The Dry. Encouraged by the response, she entered her work in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards’ unpublished manuscript category—and won.
What followed was every unpublished author’s fantasy. With the help of agent Clare Forster at Curtis Brown Australia, The Dry sold as part of a three-book package to Flatiron, Pan Macmillan in Australia, and Little, Brown in the U.K. A flurry of foreign rights deals followed—her work today is available in 36 languages—before Reese Witherspoon’s production company optioned the book.
Though Harper originally intended The Dry as a one-off, its critical and commercial success led her to bring its central character, federal agent Aaron Falk, back in her second book, 2018’s Force of Nature, which PW said showed that Harper is “a storytelling force to be reckoned with.” Her third, 2019’s The Lost Man, is a standalone set in the Outback.
The themes Harper explores in The Dry—the secrets that exist in even the closest relationships and the burden of remorse that comes from both action and inaction—are also at the fore in The Survivors. The novel follows sports physiotherapist Kieran Elliott, who goes back to his hometown of Evelyn Bay in Tasmania 12 years after his older brother Finn and another man were killed in a catastrophic accident while trying to rescue Elliott during a terrible storm. A violent local death turns Elliott into an amateur sleuth, as he starts looking into whether it could be connected to the death of his brother.
Harper, who likes to walk the terrain she fictionalizes to get a better sense of it, took dives off Tasmania to experience the feel of its waters. She also spoke with psychologists to get a deeper understanding of how a person’s life can be constrained by survivor’s guilt.
The Survivors, like Harper’s previous novels, evokes a strong sense of place. Like the water-starved farming community in The Dry, the town of Evelyn Bay comes vividly to life here. It’s because Harper sees her settings as integral parts of her stories. “I like to have the landscapes help drive the characters’ actions—to play a key role in who the people become and the kind of relationships that they have,” she explains.
Christine Kopprasch, Harper’s American editor, says the author’s settings have become a hallmark of her work. “Almost everyone mentions Jane’s settings first,” Kopprasch says. “And I too fell for the way she makes the landscapes where her books take place serve almost as characters in her novels.”
The Survivors’ title is a reference to one of the standout features of the fictional coastal town of Evelyn Bay: three life-size iron figures on rocks at the water’s edge, placed there after a deadly shipwreck. “I like to set my books somewhere that’s recognizably Australian to Australians, but that at the same time has a global appeal that’s accessible to people who aren’t familiar with the country,” Harper says. She tries to “cherry-pick those aspects that are unique to that place, so that by the end, the reader is thinking, yeah, that’s the setting that story needed to be told in.”
For The Survivors, Harper says she was inspired by the kind of public art she’s seen in a lot of coastal towns—the sort “that people are drawn to, but which mean different things to different people,” as is the case with the survivor sculptures, which serve as both a memorial to the dead and a celebration of survival. Harper, who enjoyed reading Agatha Christie growing up, uses small rural communities the way Christie used snowbound manor houses and isolated islands: to create a closed circle of suspects to give readers a fair chance of noticing the artfully planted clues that point to the truth .
Harper will undoubtedly get even more attention when the film version of The Dry, starring Australian actor Eric Bana as Falk, is released in Australia in 2021. (The film does not het have a U.S. release date.) More adaptations may be coming; the film rights to Falk’s character have been sold, and there have been discussions about making The Survivors into a TV series.
When Harper begins a book, she starts from the end. “Rather than think about a killer opening,” she says, “I tend to think about how this is going to resolve and then build the story outward from there, thinking about how my characters come to this endpoint.”
That strategic approach has served Harper well thus far, even if in her own second career as a novelist, who balances depth with getting readers to turn the pages, she’s had a pretty killer opening herself.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer living in New York City.