Wwhen most people’s lives change, it’s usually in small increments. Often you look back and realize you are not the same person as you were five or 10 years before. Less common is the story of an overnight (or almost overnight) transformation. One week your life is a certain way, then something happens and almost immediately it’s completely, jaw-droppingly different.
This happened for the Australian author Jane Harper. What happened to her in May 2016 has become the stuff of Australian publishing legend and remains the dream of many authors. That is: one day you write one book (in Harper’s case, The Dry) that is so successful, so quickly, that it changes your life forever.
Harper’s latest novel, Exiles, is her fifth book and the third in her series following the federal investigator Aaron Falk. We first met Falk in The Dry, Harper’s blockbuster breakout set in a small town struggling with drought. When his childhood friend turns a gun on his wife, child, then himself, Falk returns to his hometown for the funeral. He begins investigating the deaths but finds he’s not always welcome.
“The Dry completely changed my life. It was like night and day – my life before The Dry and after The Dry,” Harper says now. “The lives are really different – there wasn’t even really a gentle transition, it was really clearly defined. I wrote this book and then suddenly everything changed.”
Harper wrote her debut novel around her day job as a journalist at the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun and submitted it for consideration to the Victorian Premier’s Literary award for best unpublished manuscript. The rest is history.
The massive changes that can happen with success “did take a bit of getting used to”, she says. “In 2016, everything changed for me and everything happened at once – the year before it came out I got married and then when it came out, I had my first child. It’s been amazing to be able to do the job you always dreamed of.”
Success also gave her confidence. “I did feel different internally,” she says. “I never believed I could write a book and I didn’t know how people did it. I could not see myself investing the time with such an uncertain outcome.”
Every book has an uncertain outcome – but every now and then, due to a strange alchemy that publishers wish they could bottle, a megahit emerges. The Dry has since sold 1.5m copies in Australia and 3.5m worldwide. It also became a hit film in 2020, starring Eric Bana as Falk. The Dry is now the 15th highest-grossing Australian movie ever; another adaptation is in the pipeline for Harper’s second Falk novel, Force of Nature, which will also star Bana.
The book also created something of a genre: outback noir. Following the success of The Dry, a whole wave of mystery books set in small-town Australia have taken over bookstores. In the New York Times, the Australian critic Beejay Silcox recently wrote that Harper’s “outback noir megahit The Dry kick-started a crime-writing boom in 2016, the drought-blighted bush town became a genre trope: Australia’s sunburned answer to the arid cold of Scandi noir.”
“There’s always been novels that have really captured Australia beautifully,” Harper says of the wave of Aussie crime fiction that has followed her. “What I am happy with, is if The Dry opened doors and persuaded others to give the genre a go. I hope it’s made the path a bit easier to give others [Australian crime] books recognition that they deserve.”
Setting is something she considers deeply. “When I am thinking about the plot – and the real seed of the idea – I am thinking really simultaneously about the setting,” she says. “I’m wondering about what’s going to showcase the setting in the best possible way. I want to give the reader something to visualize on the page and the setting impacts the characters in the way that they have grown up or how they have come to that place.”
Harper “always fictionalizes the town” but she does research trips from her home base in Melbourne, heading to locations that inform her work. Her latest novel, Exiles, sees Falk head to lush South Australian wine country to celebrate a christening (and then starts investigating a local mother’s disappearance). It was a pleasure for Harper to both research and write.
“I flew to Adelaide and spent a lot of time in McLaren Vale and the Barossa. It was just so beautiful. The lifestyle was so appealing. Writing Exiles took me back there. It was great to mentally have that place to go to. The lifestyle is gorgeous. I struggled to think of any novels set in the Australian wine country.”
Having a defined writing process is important for Harper to avoid being overwhelmed. Over the years her process has “become so much more streamlined – with each book you learn something more. I know as long as I take those steps, the book will be finished.” She keeps an office away from home, “completely dedicated to working on the books… I spend a long time planning. I make hundreds of my notes on my phone. I find quite often when I shut down the computer and leave the office, that’s when the idea comes.”
Exiles is Harper’s fifth book. With a large and voracious readership waiting, there’s sure to be more to come; her publishers ask, when buying each book: “Where’s the next one?”
“The thing that has helped me was a print journalism background. I knew how to sit at the computer and get words on the page and express an idea on paper. The key has been to draw on those things – and put aside the overwhelm,” she says. “People see the dream side of it, the public side, but there’s so much that goes into it. You have to find the discipline within yourself – to continue working at that level and to those deadlines – and you have to learn that on the job.”