Greg Fleming talks to new Aussie crime star Jane Harper on the eve of her Auckland visit.

Few crime writers can claim a road to success as swift as Jane Harper's.

Most have a drawer of unpublished manuscripts and rejection letters, and realise that - even if published - it will take them another three or four books before they start to enjoy any kind of wide readership or financial reward.

Yet the stratospheric rise of English-born, Melbourne-based Jane Harper is the wonderful, deserved, exception.

The Dry - her debut - a murder-mystery set in small town Victoria during a drought - scored a six-figure international publishing deal and was named book of the year at the 2017 Australian Book Industry Awards.

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And this was a book the long-time journalist wrote in her spare time after taking an online writing course.

Then came the rave reviews from the New York Times, GQ and crime fiction heavyweights like David Baldacci who described the book as "one of the most stunning debuts I've ever read".

The dream run continued when Reese Witherspoon's production company (responsible for thriller hits Gone Girl and Big Little Lies) optioned the film rights (production is due to start this year).

Harper visits Auckland this month a guest of the Auckland writer's festival with a new book in tow, Force of Nature.

It's another compelling, and completely addictive thriller - one critic called it "Deliverance with oestrogen". If anything it's even better than The Dry - full of vivid, relatable characters who are again prey to a malevolent Australian, landscape - this time the rugged Giralang ranges, once home to an Ivan Milat-like serial killer.

And like that debut, you're hooked from the first sentence – (she writes these early setting them as a kind of thematic foundation).

"Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No-one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you."
The Dry road

Her meteoric rise is something Harper has come to terms with.

"The success of The Dry was beyond anything I could imagine... I was blown away - but I feel like I'd had quite a long build up to it thanks to my journalism background. Having that discipline of getting words on a page really helped when I decided to write a novel."

She'd always been a big reader as a child and like many always wanted to write a book (she cites Val McDermid and Lee Child and another out-of-the-gate thrill star A.J Finn as favourites). But that busy journalism career (she was a business reporter at Melbourne's Herald Sun until the success of The Dry in 2017 enabled her to quit and write fulltime) and her own lack of commitment, kept the pages blank.

"I'm not sure exactly what changed - but I realised that if I was going to do this I was going to have to fit the book in around my life. So in late 2014 I committed to just finishing a manuscript - just to prove to myself that I could do it and had few expectations further than that."

There's something quite relentless about books that have so much shade and no light in them

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That's when she enrolled in a twelve week online writing course.

"It wasn't so much the course itself or what we discussed, it was just having that external expectation that I would be working on it, even if it was an artificial deadline - that's what I needed to do to focus."

To apply she had to send off a synopsis and an opening chapter of what became The Dry.

"The thing that helped was not worrying about whether what I was writing was going to be published, or if anyone was going to like it. I just focussed on getting it done - one chapter after the other, whenever I had a spare moment. Because without a manuscript nothing else can happen - you have to get it down on paper."

The Dry's Aaron Falk - a federal agent with a troubled past is back in Force of Nature - but while both books have police procedural and thriller elements Harper's strong suit is her characters.

Melbourne-based thriller writer Jane Harper has enjoyed a meteoric rise, with her two novels receiving rave reviews.
Melbourne-based thriller writer Jane Harper has enjoyed a meteoric rise, with her two novels receiving rave reviews.

Force of Nature

takes a group of office colleagues out of their air-conditioned Melbourne corporate hq and dumps them in the bush in the name of team building.

Five go out, but only four return and it's the corporate bully Alice - a woman who "could start a fight in an empty room" - who's missing.

While Harper hasn't been on a corporate retreat - "the papers I worked on didn't have that sort of budget!" - she'd heard horror stories from friends who had and thought it an experience rich in possibilities.

"It was funny because when I started the book and mentioned to people what I was writing they'd clutch my arm and say "oh my God I have to tell you what happened!". I don't know why companies keep doing them because I've never heard anything good come out of the experience."

Again Harper drew on her working life to give the characters depth and believability.

"When I was writing I was conscious of what I'd observed in my own working life. Something would happen at work where you don't necessarily understand why someone is behaving a certain way or making certain decisions; later you find out there's things going on at home that nobody knows about or things that had happened in a previous job that has impacted on their behaviour.

"I mean how well do you really know your colleagues? Do you know what's driving them? I find it interesting to explore people's motivations and why they make certain decisions."

Finding balance

She also revelled in juxtaposing corporate culture with the vicissitudes of Nature. Both conspire to make things difficult for Harper's retreaters.

"At the end of my time working for the Herald Sun I was on the business desk - my first time doing that - and I found it interesting to delve into how companies are structured; how things seemed very different when times are good rather than when times are bad because then people do point fingers and heads do roll. It can be quite brutal. That was something I was looking to bring out. As a journo you see the legal side, the impact on victims and their families and you have to portray an almost three dimensional picture of an event - which is of course what you also want when you write fiction."

Manchester born Harper first arrived in Australia as a child with her family and then returned as an adult and she credits this with her fascination with its landscape.

"When I returned as an adult I had this sense of things being familiar but not quite as I remembered. That gave me a sense of what is unique about Australia and its people. Also I was quite keen to look at parts of the country that readers haven't seen before."

I tell her that as a crime-fiction reviewer many people are surprised when I tell them that who committed the crime is the least interesting thing about a good crime novel.

"Oh yes, I agree. The thing that draws you in as a reader, the thing that keeps you turning the pages, is the characters and their journey. I mean yes - you want the ending to be satisfying and something that the reader can enjoy and believe in - but there's three hundred pages before you get there and you have to give the reader something for all of those pages."

Her personal life has also been eventful. She married fellow journalist Peter Strachan in 2015 and is a recent first time mother but that methodical work ethic hasn't changed and a new book The Lost Man is out in October.

Indeed it turns out that despite being fascinated by the darker sides of human nature - Harper remains at heart an optimist.

"I want to write books I like to read and I like to read books where things turn out ok in the end. Books where people get their just desserts; books where there's a sense of right and wrong. There's something quite relentless about books that have so much shade and no light in them. I think you want that balance - that's real life too. Having a book that's completely dark is just as unrealistic as having one that's all light."

Jane Harper is in conversation with Kathy Hunter Saturday May 19th at the Auckland Writer's Festival, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.