Close and Personal with Jane Harper

Jane Harper, Queen of rural noir, recently chatted with Arianne about her latest novel, The Survivors and the writing life.

The landscapes and towns in your books have such a strong presence, almost as if they are characters themselves. Is this something you have in mind when writing, landscape as character?

Yeah it definitely is, and the landscape is something that I think about really early, and spend a lot of time thinking about when I’m planning the books, so I knew really early on that I wanted The Survivors to be set in a coastal location, a small community with a beautiful, rugged coastal landscape. Tasmania was a really natural option, so that was an easy decision and one that I made straight away, as soon as I came up with the idea for the book. I think it’s very important that the landscape is woven through the book so it’s not just a backdrop, it forms the action, has a part in who the characters are in terms of whether they grew up there or came from a different place, how much they know about the area, what their lives and relationships are like. At the end of the book, ideally, I want the reader to be able to look back and think, ‘I can’t imagine that story set anywhere else.’

Do you use photo boards when writing, or is the place already quite clear in your mind?

When I decide where the book will be set, I do whatever research I can, from home first of all, a lot of googling, reading books, pulling up photos. I’d been to Tasmania before for a holiday, so I went back through all my old photos. I already had a sense of the place and knew what I was looking for. I get the book all planned out in as much detail as I can, so I kind of know what’s going to happen, and I know what the gaps in my knowledge are, and then I like to go and do an on the ground research trip. By that point I know the book well enough to know what I’m looking for, but there’s also some flexibility to change things and adapt because you always learn new things you didn’t even know you were looking for. I went to Tasmania in February this year. When I go on these research trips I’ll speak to lots of different people and I’ll take photos and make a lot of notes, of just conversations and observations that I think will be useful. It’s trying to turn these little things that will really stand out and stay in the mind of the reader without using too much descriptive writing. Including those little details that tell enough but don’t slow things down too much.

Can you tell me a bit about how you misdirect your readers so skilfully in your crime novels, or would that be telling?

There’s a few things I do. First thing is when I’m thinking about a book, planning it, I’m actually thinking very closely about the ending – what’s happened and how the characters have come to this point, and its often an extreme act, an act of violence or betrayal. I’m thinking, what’s brought people to this point. So when I’ve got the ending clear in my mind I start building on the characters from there and where I’m going to bring the reader into the story. Where the best point to drop them in is so we can feel the events unfolding. The core storyline is clear for me and it works – once I’m really comfortable with that I start to layer the misdirections. You need to give readers enough clues so that when they look back the clues are there, but you want them to be veiled as something else or unimportant. You want them to be focussing on different things, and so you kind of layer in these little elements. I guess its like pulling their attention in a different direction. Then there’s another layer. You’re quite aware that many readers will have read a lot of mystery books and crime books … they know of certain tricks authors pull, so you’re also trying to think of special ways to distract them so they don’t necessarily spot what you’re doing. There’s a little bit of meta-thinking in there as well! And it doesn’t all come straight away. I spend a lot of time finessing clues and working out what’s just the right amount to drip feed in. It’s a bit of a balancing act, so it does take a long time.

Do you have a background in Psychology? Your observations of human nature are so astute.

No I don’t, but it is something that interests me, why people do what they do, and there are a few things that have helped me. I was a newspaper journalist for the thirteen years before I wrote The Dry, and a lot of those years were spent on community papers in regional areas and a lot of those involved going out and talking to people about something that had happened to them, both good or bad, and I guess what impact that had not only on them but on their families and businesses and wider community. I then had to try and distill that into a story that would help other people understand what they’re going through. A lot of the emotional aspect of real life events played out when doing those journalist stories, and also I think I try and write the kind of books I would like to read, and I like characters that behave consistently and believably and feel authentic in their reactions to things. It’s not about how I as an author would react to something, but how this character, with their background, experiences and current situation, how they would react. I guess trying to tap into those emotions that we all recognise, whether it’s a male or female character, we all know what it’s like to feel rejected or lonely or worried about the future. It’s these human experiences that I think we can all relate to, so it’s brining out those elements as well.

How long does it take for a character to be fully formed in your mind? Do they continue to develop over the course of the story, as you’re writing?

It’s mostly a process and they definitely develop over the course of writing. So when I’m first planning the book, for a long time they actually feel quite two-dimensional, because I need the characters to be there for a reason. They’re all doing heavy lifting to keep the plot moving, and they all serve a purpose. So for a long time they just inhabit the role that I need them to inhabit. They’re maybe unnamed and I don’t really know a lot about their background, but once I’ve sort of got the structure settled, then I start to think about who is this person really? What is their perspective on these events given their background? And it’s then that they start to flesh out, and I do often have more background on them that makes it into the books, so by the end they definitely feel like real people to me, but its not something that comes straight away, and they do adapt as well. As I’m planning the book and writing the draft sometimes they will change if I need them to change. They’re a working process throughout.

What a magical thing to watch characters change and develop over the course of writing.

Yeah and it’s funny as well because I kind of feel when I’ve got it right because they suddenly do become like a real person, and then they don’t really change that much. It’s like they’re sort of morphing in and out as I’m working out who they are, and then all of a sudden they will sort of settle and I’ll have their name their age their background and it will become really clear, and then they’re quite firm and consistent, and they rarely change. When that happens I know I’ve got them where they need to be.

I found the dive to the shipwreck scene so vivid and immersive, and I wondered, have you ever been diving?

I went diving for the book, but I’m not a diver. I really wanted to include that kind of element in the book, because as part of my research I read that Tasmania has more than a thousand shipwrecks, and I thought that was such an amazing, gorgeous element, I couldn’t resist not including that. When I went on my research trip to Tasmania I arranged to go diving at Eaglehawk neck. They have a wreck which was too advanced for me to go down to, but the people who run it know a lot about it, so I went diving with them and did the beginers level. But we did all the safety and equipment demonstrations, and talked about the stuff we’d be seeing, and did a few different dives to get that first hand experience. I learnt so much. I could never have written that scene without having done it, so it was a really important, valuable part of the research process. They also have videos of them diving around the wrecks, and because you’ve dived yourself you can watch those videos and imagine it better yourself for having been underwater, even though you’re not nearly as deep. It all helps fill in those elements.

What is the most important part of the editing process?

The most important part of the editing process is being really honest with myself about what’s working and what isn’t. I have to be prepared to make the cuts I need and do the re-writes where necessary. It’s not easy to commit to breaking into a piece of writing you’ve often already spent a long time working on, so I try to minimise that as far as possible by planning extensively before I actually write a draft.

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

Loads of things really. I love seeing the book come together. When I’ve had an idea and am trying to untangle the twisty elements, and searching for that piece of the puzzle that’s going to unlock different parts of the book. Someday I’ll be walking along and I’ll have an idea and it will just fit, and it will be like yes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. I do love that feeling when it just clicks into place, and that happens throughout the writing process, and at the end when you look back and can see all those moments come together. And I really love hearing from readers and the responses from people who have read and enjoyed the book, because that’s why you write. You want to give people a book that they enjoy. Hearing that they’ve shared it with friends and family makes it all feel so worthwhile.

Do you have a writing routine you try to stick to?

I don’t have a daily routine as such, but I have a separate office a short walk from my home where I go to work. I go there as consistently as possible and treat my working week much as I did when I was a journalist. I get to the office in the morning and have a plan for what I want to achieve that day, and also longer term goals for the next few weeks and months as well. That doesn’t always involve writing, for several months it could be planning and research. Jumping straight into writing without knowing what I’m writing about is always a false economy for me.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on getting their work noticed by publishers?

Depends what stage people are at. If we’re talking about people just trying to write a book, I did a TedX talk online which was about practical approaches to creative projects. It was all about learning what your writing style is and the practical things you can do to give yourself the best chance to make it happen. For me, having a structure and a plan with some deadlines can help me focus, so you’re not just waiting for inspiration to strike, you’re working towards a defined goal.

Congratulations to anyone who has managed to complete their manuscript because it’s not an easy thing to do, and especially if you’re just starting out, it’s a huge undertaking. It’s something to be proud of. Everyone has a different road to publication. Mine was that I entered the Victorian Premiers Literary award for an unpublished manuscript in 2015. I entered that with no expectations. I entered as a deadline to myself. As a journalist I worked on deadlines and I wanted to get the manuscript to a point where it was completed and in a place where I was hoping to get a bit of feedback as to whether it worked, and then I ended up winning that competition and as a result I suddenly had agents and publishers all emailing me asking to read it, and that threw the door wide open. That was my route but everyone has a different path, and most writers are pretty happy to talk about it, so if there’s an author you like, its worth googling them and seeing how they managed to get published because they might have some useful tips in there as well.

 What do you hope readers will take away after reading The Survivors?

I hope people enjoy it. That’s the main reason I write, to give people a book that they can enjoy and immerse themselves in for a few hours. I hope it surprises them, I hope they enjoy the mystery elements and getting to know the characters. I really loved writing this book. Tasmania was an absolute joy to research and write about. I think The Survivors, my fourth book, came together exactly in the way I hoped it would when I first came up with the idea, so this is a really special book for me. I loved the scenery and I loved the place. I just hope people enjoy reading it.

And lastly, do you have a favourite character in The Survivors?

My favourite character is the author George Barlin. As a fellow author I feel a natural affinity with him, but he’s an outsider and someone who at times sees events from a different perspective so he was a really interesting character to write.

TasWriters thanks Jane for taking the time to speak with us. We eagerly await your next book!