Emily Maguire interviews Jane Harper
Emily Maguire talks with Jane Harper about her highly anticipated debut novel, The Dry.
The Dry opens on a scene of horror in a drought-stricken Victorian town, Kiewarra. Blowflies, ‘spoiled for choice’ and moving from one set of ‘unblinking eyes and sticky wounds’ to another as desperate farmers shoot their starving livestock, feast upon three smaller, smoother bodies: those of local farmer Luke Hadler, his wife, Karen, and their young son, Billy. In the background, a baby cries.
It’s a stunning start — something that can also be said of its author’s fiction-writing career, which went from a germ of an idea to more than twenty international publishing contracts and a film deal with Reese Witherspoon’s production company in under two years.
It’s a level of success that ‘honestly never occurred’ to Melbourne writer Jane Harper: ‘Even when I was considering the best case scenario, what would be the absolute dream thing to happen.’
And it’s all happened so very quickly. In October 2014, Harper, at the time a journalist with the Herald Sun, signed up to a twelve-week online writing course run by the UK literary agency Curtis Brown. She’d thought about writing a novel for years, and ‘finally realised I was never going to get this huge block of time. If I was going to have a go I was going to have to make it work around my job and other commitments’.
By the end of the course Harper had written most of a draft and ‘it seemed such a shame to abandon it when I could see the end in sight.’ She set a goal to finish it in time to enter the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.
Harper met her goal, but was not entirely happy with the manuscript she submitted. ‘It was complete but it was quite short and I felt like a lot of the depth wasn’t there.’ The judges obviously disagreed, calling The Dry ‘an accomplished piece of crime writing; one destined to find a wide audience’ and awarding it the $15,000 prize.
The money was the least of it. Harper had publishers ‘pinging into my email every half hour asking to read it’. That was in May 2015, by August a hard-fought auction ended in The Dry being bought by Pan Macmillan in a three-book deal. International deals followed rapidly.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing in all this is that The Dry does not read like a novel produced at speed. The writing is spare and precise, the characters complex and the plot delicately, cleverly layered.
The terrible deaths which open the book are declared by the police, and public opinion, to be a murder-suicide, another farmer driven to extremes by the drought. But the dead man’s old friend Aaron Falk, now a federal police officer in Melbourne, comes to believe there may be more to it. As he digs into the circumstances of the Hadler family’s deaths, Aaron is forced to confront a twenty-year-old tragedy in which he and Luke were implicated. What he’d thought was the past is vividly, violently present in Kiewarra and untangling the grudges from the genuine hurts and the rumours from the truth gets more difficult the longer he spends in the town he’d fled two decades earlier. Kiewarra is fictional, but with its main street where only the pub is thriving, its neatly pruned dead rosebushes, and the egg-timer in the hotel shower, it could be any just-hanging-in-there Australian farming community.
‘Over the years, especially with working on newspapers, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are in that sort of tight-knit, slightly claustrophobic community,’ Harper says. ‘There are people who are not entirely happy in the place, but because of their family or their livelihood they can’t imagine life beyond there. All of that helped me build that picture of the town.’
As expected in a crime thriller there’s no shortage of nasty and threatening characters in The Dry, but the biggest danger and the source of much of the fear and horror comes from the parched, dying land itself. One particularly striking scene has Aaron return to a river he’d spent his childhood enjoying. As he approaches he’s filled with foreboding; something is terribly wrong there.
‘When the answer came, it crept up slowly, then thundered home all at once. Where Falk stood now, he should be hearing the rush of water. The distinct sound of the river carving its way through the country.’
He runs through the trees to the river bank and finds ‘nothing more than a dusty scar … The empty bed stretched long and barren in either direction, its serpentine curves tracing the path where the water had flowed.’
It’s a moment aching with loss and grief. In writing it, Harper, who was bornin the UK but lived in Boronia, Victoria from the ages of eight to fourteen, drew on her own experience of returning to a childhood landscape.
‘Back in the 80s we used to go out to the Brisbane Ranges and Anakie Gorge quite a lot. When I moved back to Australia in 2008, my mum and dad came to visit and we went out there again and it was just gone. I mean, not gone, but we’d had drought and there’d been a fire and what we remembered wasn’t there anymore. A river where we’d panned for gold wasn’t there, the trees were sad and shrivelled. I felt like, what happened, where did it go?’
This sense of sadness and loss permeates The Dry, but it’s not a book without hope and light. ‘I don’t mind a bit of darkness when it’s necessary and helps to drive the story forward,’ Harper says. ‘But I like things to be okay in the end.’
With another Aaron Falk novel in the works and a third not far behind, it’s fair to say we’re a long way from the end, and if The Dry is any indication, things are going to be far, far better than ‘okay’ for Jane Harper – and for Australian crime fiction.