Jane Harper’s first novel, “The Dry,” involves death and drought in rural Australia. Although not yet released in the United States (it will released be this Tuesday, January 10), it has enjoyed brisk sales in the land down under and earned a flood of advance praise worldwide. The film rights have been purchased by Pacific Standard, Reese Witherspoon’s film company; the book is set for publication in at least 20 languages; and it’s the first work in a three-book deal that Harper has signed with her US publisher, Flatiron Books. It’s an impressive string of successes, especially for a book that originated in an online writing classes less than three years ago.
Mike Yawn: Describe “The Dry.”
Jane Harper: It’s a thriller set in a rural community in Australia. The main character, Aaron Faulk, returns to his home town which he left—under a cloud of suspicion—some 20 years before. He returns for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and he’s drawn into the circumstances of that death. His investigation results in a confrontation not only of his friend’s death, but also the community that turned its back on him many years before.
MY: That community—the entire setting of rural Australia—becomes a leading character in your novel.
JH: The nature of the plot shaped the setting. I envisioned a community under pressure and how such a setting would impact the characters and their relationship. The drought in this novel is the catalyst for the small community’s problems, but the problems in a small community often involve the same stresses: the overreliance on neighbors; the attachments to a place you cannot leave; people knowing too much of your business. I think that’s a universal feeling for tight communities, and I think a lot of people can relate to the claustrophobia that can result.
MY: Tell us how “The Dry” came about.
JH: I always thought I’d like to write a novel, but I never took it seriously. In 2014, however, I decided that if I were ever going to write a novel, I needed to find time to do it. I took an online course in novel writing, and much of the writing was completed for that 12-week course.
MY: Where did you go from there?
JH: Well, during the course, I saw that the deadline for Victorian Premier’s literary award for an unpublished manuscript was about six months away. So I wanted to use that as another deadline for myself, and I entered that competition, and I ended up winning! From there, it just snowballed.
MY: If I recall, you entered it in the competition in April 2014 and you found out you won in May 2014?
MY: And it was published in 2016?
MY: That’s unusual. Was there someone who said, “Wow, this is good!”?
JH: I was the only one who had read the whole thing when I entered it. My online classmates read parts of it, and that feedback wasn’t all positive. But it was key, and I think it’s important when writing a novel to listen to feedback and, if it’s valid, to accept it and use it to improve the work.
MY: Did you use a daily quota system to meet your writing deadlines?
JH: I don’t have that rigid of a system. I work in scenes more than words. I try to move the story forward each day, and I don’t spend much time on rewrites until I finish with the main story.
MY: Did you have a full plot outline before writing?
JH: I had the main plot—the start, the end, and a few key points between. I then think about what the characters would naturally do and what’s plausible, and that might take me from A to B. I usually know where I’m headed, and then it’s a question of the best way to get there.
MY: How did your 13 years in journalism help you create this book?
JH: It helped in so many ways. Journalism gets you accustomed to deadlines. It also helps you concentrate on the reader; it trains you to create something that people will be drawn into. And it helps you sit down, and not let a blank page become too daunting. I’m not sure I could have written this novel without my years in journalism.
MY: David Baldacci offered a nice cover blurb.
JH: I have to give credit to the publishers. I didn’t know it was happening, but I got an email from them saying, “great news, David Baldacci gave you a fantastic quote after reading the book!” I’ve been a big fan of his for years, and to have someone like that endorse your book is a great feeling.
MY: What are other authors or books you enjoy?
JH: I like the books of Lee Child, Val McDermid, and some of the recent big bestsellers such as “Girl on a Train” and “Gone Girl.”
MY: “The Dry” was picked up by Pacific Standard, the same production company that picked up “Gone Girl,” is that right?
JH: Yes. Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea are partners in the company. Papandrea is from Australia, and I think that may have helped get it in front of them.
MY: It will be released next week in the US, but it has done well overseas. When did you say, “Hey, this might become a hit?”
JH: When I got a three-book deal in Australia, the US, and the U.K. I thought, “this might be the start of something rather than just a one-off.”
MY: How do you follow up this novel?
JH: By starting it right away. I wanted to have it largely completed by the time “The Dry” was released in Australia (June 2016), because I knew the release would increase the pressure on me. I wanted to do the best I could, and write it much the way I wrote the first one.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.