Since the success of her CWA Gold Dagger winning debut The Dry in 2017, each of Jane Harper’s novels has been both critically acclaimed and an international bestseller; the latest, The Survivors, shows no falling off in quality. A suspenseful plot, a vivid sense of place and a satisfyingly ambiguous ending have become identifiable elements of Harper’s repertoire, and they are on display here to compelling effect.
But it is her preoccupation with the slings and arrows, the errors and omissions of adolescence that gives the books their extraordinary emotional force: the boyfriends betrayed, the friends abandoned, the parents rejected. Harper writes with a nuanced, compassionate eye of how those turbulent teenage dramas seem laid to rest, only to resurface in later life, harbingers of crisis, sources of shame; she repeatedly dramatises William Faulkner’s much-quoted line: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past”.
It’s perhaps not surprising that this should be so; Harper was born in Manchester, moved to Australia when she was eight, then returned to England aged 14. She emigrated to Melbourne when she was 28, where she now lives with her family. We spoke (via Zoom) before Christmas, and after congratulating her on Australia’s enviable Covid-free status, I asked first about her early life, and about her particular outsider’s perspective (not unheard of in crime fiction: the great Californian crime novelists all came from elsewhere, while Harper’s illustrious predecessor Peter Temple was South African).
“I moved back to the UK when I was 14, then I switched schools again when I was 16 to do my A levels. And I do remember having to read the room, you know, in a room full of teenagers, trying to work out what was going on in terms of social circles and loyalties. And reading that undercurrent is something I still do.
“And that question as well about the sort of things you did as a teenager, I think we can look back at our teenage years and think, with relationships at school, and the way you treated friends, and the way you spoke to our parents. Should you feel guilty about that? But at the time that was the culture. And that was what you thought was the appropriate behaviour. You wouldn’t do that again. But you’re not the same person, now, as you were then.
Setting is something I think about really early, because I want the setting to inform the plot, not just be a backdrop
“When I lived out here when I was younger, it was only six years, but it was six very formative years, you know, a lot of my childhood memories and experiences linked with growing up are very connected with Australia. And then when I moved back when I was 28 it was interesting to see how accurate or otherwise those memories were. And I think that was really what made me, when it came to writing novels, be able to focus on those differences that make Australia what it is, you know, everything from the landscape to the weather, what people talk about in an office setting and the pub and what’s on the news and all those sort of little things that, having had that time away, really drew them into sharp focus when I returned.”
Was she ever tempted to set her work in England?
“I think a few different things came into play: one that I was living out here in Australia. So I was immersed in the culture and, you know, if I wanted to imagine what the landscape looks like I could actually go and look at it, I could hear the dialogue and I could see the weather patterns.
“Also I felt like, if I was to write a book set in the UK I’d maybe be kind of shadowing other authors, whereas by writing something Australian with this other fresh perspective, from having moved here fairly recently it was a chance to kind of write something of my own.”
An isolated, powerfully atmospheric setting is central to a Jane Harper novel, be it the Outback, the Bush or, in The Survivors, an out-of-season Tasmanian seaside town.
“Setting is something I think about really early, because I want the setting to inform the plot, not just be a backdrop, but actually drive the action and make the characters who they are. With the setting that I needed for The Survivors, I knew I wanted it to be kind of a rugged coastal town and I was straightaway drawn to Tasmania, particularly because it is this tiny coastal state and the whole thing is gorgeous rugged coastline.
“And because it’s an island, it has that natural sense of isolation. It’s not very densely populated and there’s a lot of these small communities swelling in the summer and then shrinking in the offseason which was the kind of feeling I wanted to capture. And the thing about setting things in a more isolated setting, I like to fully fictionalise the location, because it allows me to cherry-pick elements that add to the book while at the same time making it recognisable for the region.
“And it means you have a controlled cast of characters forced to interact with each other, you don’t have a thousand people coming and going. And just knowing that the whole story plays out and resolves itself within these parameters is satisfying from a creative point of view.”
The crimes in Harper’s books often border on culpable accident or arise from moral weakness, and accordingly, rather than condemnation, “There but for the grace of God” is invariably in play.
“Most people are neither good nor bad. They’re just a bit of both. And people will act in different ways when they’re under stress or pressure that maybe they would never act in if they weren’t and I suppose I think quite hard about what would actually drive someone to commit an act of violence against another person. Most people try and stay on the right side of the line and it takes special circumstances for them to cross that line and then they are forced to live with those repercussions.
“It was something I saw quite a lot in journalism, you know, sitting in court cases and just talking to people and you hear the overall story, you think that’s terrible, then you hear the mitigating circumstances and you can see how in a different lifetime that could have been you.
“The thing that I’m really interested in is less the crime itself, it’s more the ripple effects, how these events impacted all these people and changed their relationships and made them think differently about each other or think differently about themselves.”
Some authors might feel that that planning sometimes stifles their creativity, but I find exactly the opposite
Probably the question most often asked of crime and mystery authors is: How do you construct the plot? Do you plan it all out in advance, or make it up as you go along? Ian Rankin and Lee Child claim they simply begin at page one and let the story take its course; as a planner, Harper is very much in the Agatha Christie camp.
“I spend at least three months planning and researching, I would spend more time planning than I spend writing. I’d spend a long time thinking about various ideas and then I’ll settle on one. I’ll build out a kind of skeleton from start to finish, just sentences really and then I’ll start fleshing that out. Then I’ll look at the structure, then the characters, who’s going to be who, I’m working on their backstories.
“And I get to the point where I have the whole thing, I’ll know where each chapter is going to start and end and how that’s going to lead into the next. Where these conversations are going to be held, what red herring is going to be where. And I’ll have 40 chapters or whatever laid out, and I’ll probably write it in 40 settings. And the reason I do that is, some authors might feel that that planning sometimes stifles their creativity, but I find exactly the opposite.”
With an impressive-looking big-screen adaptation of The Dry coming soon (the author plays an extra in the funeral scene) and The Survivors slated for TV adaptation, Harper has firmly established herself at the forefront of a new wave of Australian crime fiction – meticulous planning, propulsive storytelling and an outsider’s eye proving an irresistible combination.
The Survivors is published by Little, Brown