Jane Harper's Fascination with the Australian Outback

Posted by Cybil on February 5, 2019
Deep in the Australian Outback, a man lies dead in the brutal heat and relentless sun. He's curled up next to the Stockman's Grave, a grim desert artifact that marks the death of another man who passed generations ago. The headstone of the grave casts the only shade to be found for miles around. A circular pattern in the dust suggests that the Outback's latest victim sought out this shade in his final hours, crawling to stay in the headstone's shadow as the sun moved across the sky.

This haunting image anchors The Lost Man, the latest novel from celebrated Australian author and journalist Jane Harper. The Lost Man is both a tightly plotted mystery and an intriguing exploration of life in the Outback, where mere existence is a daily struggle and the environment itself is lethal. When outside the refuge of scattered homesteads, the desert sun can kill a person within hours. Those who choose to live in this land of extremes must abide by rules of trust, community, and mutual aid that exist nowhere else on the planet.

Harper's debut novel, The Dry, was an international bestseller and has been optioned for an upcoming movie adaptation starring Eric Bana (filming begins in February). Speaking by phone from her home in Melbourne, Harper talked to Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about the new novel, the structure of mystery stories, and the terrible beauty of the Australian Outback.

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Goodreads: The setting for the new book, deep in the Outback territories, is so alien and remote. What is it about the extreme landscapes of Australia that appeals to you as a setting for storytelling?

Jane Harper: I've always been really drawn to the remote and isolated parts of the country. It's so beautiful and distinct. It's quite unforgettable. If you go out there, it really stays with you. That's on a personal level, but then also, as a writer, it offers such an incredible opportunity for a novel. It's such an animating backdrop to build a story around.

For the research, I read a lot of memoirs from people who lived in the Outback, and when possible I spoke with those people. I spoke with helicopter pilots and people who worked in the medical professions out there. I also worked with a guy named Neale McShane, who is a retired Outback cop. He was the only police officer in an Outback town called Birdsville—really tiny, about 120 people.

It's pure Outback. He was the only police officer there for ten years, policing an area about the size of the U.K., all on his own. We rode together for kilometers through the Outback, and he introduced me to people in this town. I went out to look at a couple of the cattle stations and went out in the ambulance with the nurse. It helped me get the technical aspects correct, but it also helped with understanding the emotional and psychological impact of living in a place that's so very isolated.

GR: Did you find that people were willing to share their experiences living out there?

JH: I was a print journalist for 13 years, so I was used to picking up the phone and calling people and getting information or clarification. But I'd always done that as an employee of a newspaper, in an official capacity. When I began as a full-time author, I was a bit anxious about how that would be, to get access to information—if people would still want to talk to me when it was just me. But I was pleasantly surprised. People absolutely were willing when I told them I was an author working on a book. By and large, people are willing to help you if you've got a genuine interest in their stories. They were so helpful and generous.

GR: I found the book to be surprisingly moving on an emotional level as you chronicle the lives of the main family in the story. Did you have any particular themes in mind that you wanted to develop as the mystery unwinds?

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JH: Well, when I start writing any book, I start off with the plot and the setting and a loose idea of the characters. A lot of it comes together through the planning stages as I feel my way through the story and get to know the characters better. It's at that point that the themes and the emotional aspects come together. I don't start off saying I want to write these themes or these emotional aspects. To me, its quite important that they emerge from the characters.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters, their upbringing and background and their relationships. What elements have made them the people who they are when we meet them? That's when the themes and the emotions start to come out. Hopefully, when they do, they feel authentic and feel like something people can relate to.

GR: There's a core idea in the book about cycles of violence, how they perpetuate in both families and in larger communities. Can you talk a little about that?

JH: Yeah, well one thing about this setting, it's so isolated, there are not a lot of circuit breakers for those patterns within families. There's not a lot of outside influence. The people's lives are quite insular. There's not much movement, not much change of lifestyle. So lives can become quite circular, unless something happens to break that pattern or someone really tries to do something different or better.

In an urban environment, if we have a problem or an issue, there are all these resources. We can just walk out of the house and there are other places and people. You can talk to someone else, go someplace different. But in the Outback areas, there's nowhere to go. The relationships become very concentrated, for better or worse.

GR: The book features an Australian landmark and legend called the Stockman's Grave, a burial site that's out by itself in the middle of nowhere. Is that a real thing?

JH: The Stockman's Grave in the book is fictional, but it's inspired by real life in the Outback. Lonely graves, they're called. It's something I came across as part of my research. They're single graves where people have been just buried where they died, and people have come back later to put in a headstone or marker for them. It hit me as such a powerful image, this lone grave for this man who had been lost in many ways. I had to use it.

GR: The book works beautifully as a mystery, and I'm always curious how authors manage that disciplined disclosure of information. How do you plot out the story so that you're just a half step ahead of the reader at all times?

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JH: Well, I plan a lot before I start writing. And I always know the ending. In fact, sometimes the ending is clearer than the start.

What I do is I start out with maybe five sentences—beginning, middle, middle, middle, end. Then I'll expand that into ten sentences, then 20. Then 20 paragraphs. Then each of those will become three paragraphs, and so on. I find when I do it that way, then I can move things around more easily. I can play with the structure and make sure I'm telling the story in the best possible way.

For me, it's really important to know the base story. The core mystery has to be solid. And as long as I've got that worked out, it becomes easier for me to add in red herrings and secondary plotlines and diversionary things. Eventually I've got everything laid out.

Now bear in mind, this is all in the planning stages. I've got 35 chapters, and I know what's going to happen in each one, how it's going to open and close, where the cliffhangers are going to fall. I know how the information is going to be fed to readers and in what order. Once that's all in place, then I start writing.

GR: That's a really interesting approach, building up from the five first sentences like that. Is that something you developed yourself?

JH: Yes, but it was trial and error, really. There are so many different techniques that writers use, I'm sure others have done very similar things. For me, the more I plan, the easier it is to write. It saves me a lot of time. And it saves me from the situation of getting to 50,000 words and realizing—uh oh, that's not quite how it should be.

GR: Were you a big reader as a kid?

JH: Yeah, I was a very busy reader as a kid. More a reader than a writer, definitely. My parents always had a lot of books in the house. It was encouraged, very much ingrained in our lives. I read the usual children's books. There was a lot of Roald Dahl in there. When I was growing up in Australia, there was a really great children's author, Paul Jennings. He was really popular in the late 1980s. Really quirky, funny stories for kids. It opened my eyes to a whole new world.

GR: Who are some of the authors you like in your own area of writing?

JH: Well, one of the things I try to do very consciously is read outside the genre. I just follow the authors I enjoy. But within the genre, I like to read authors who do particular things that I admire. And I try to pay attention to why that works and why it's having an impact on me, and learn from it. I love Lee Child. I've been reading his Jack Reacher series for years and years. It's such fantastic pacing, and you have this lead character who just draws you all the way through.

There's an Australian author named Helen Garner. She does both novels and long-form journalism. She has a beautiful way of capturing setting and emotion in very few words.

GR: You worked as a print journalist. Did you find the practical skills of that line of work helpful when you pivoted to fiction writing?

JH: Oh, sure. I'd wanted to write a novel for quite a long time, and I still use a lot of the techniques I'd learned in journalism. There were a few things that helped me make that transition. I actually did a TEDx talk on this. A lot of it is just the process of getting ideas down on the page, then creating a story that's engaging to readers. It's just the discipline to sit down and write.

And it helps to understand that you can't really control what happens to your work—whether you're going to get a publisher or how it's going to be received. All you can control is the effort you put in and the quality of the work that you put out. With the first book, I just focused on writing the best book that I could write, one that I would enjoy reading. By just concentrating on that, it helped me make the process much more achievable and enjoyable. I truly believe that, and it's still the approach I take now.

GR: So word is that they're about to make a movie of your first book, The Dry?

JH: Yes, it's now well underway! They're going to start filming in Australia in February with Eric Bana. The director is Robert Connolly. I'm excited to see it on-screen. I hope the film is as successful for them as the book's been for me. I'm not directly involved in it. It's very much a separate creative project at this point. But the producers do keep in touch and let me know what's going on.

GR: When you read for pleasure, do you read one book at a time or do you have several going at once? My wife says it's insane to read multiple books at the same time, but I usually have two or three going.

JH: Oh, I read several at once, and I don't hesitate to ditch a book if it's not working for me. Sometimes you feel like one book and sometimes you feel like another. It depends on what kind of story you're in the mood for. So I'm with you there.

GR: Is there anything else you'd like to highlight or discuss about the new book?

JH: Hmm, well, I can say that I absolutely loved writing this book. The writing process was a complete joy. I hope readers enjoy it.

Jane Harper's novel The Lost Man will be available on February 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-40 of 40 (40 new)

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message 1: by Robin (new)

Robin Wakelin Eric bana!!! As Aaron falk!!! Not at all how I’d imagined him but exciting all the same. I hope they do the book some justice

message 2: by Annie (new)

Annie Great interview! Thanks to Jane Harper and Goodreads! I'm very much looking forward to reading "The Lost Man".

message 3: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Williams Great interview. Very interesting about how she sets out to write a book

message 4: by Vignesh (new)

Vignesh Karthikeyan Great interview!

message 5: by Big Bertha (new)

Big Bertha A great interview and a nice insight into the research and planning that goes into a book before its even started

message 6: by Alfreda (new)

Alfreda Samana Thank you, a great interview.The book is in my Kindle already, very much looking forward to starting to read it. I read The Dry and recommended to my friends and we all loved it!

message 7: by Reina (new)

Reina As I'm in Australia I've already read The Lost Man. It's her best yet!
Great interview, very interesting how she sets out the story before writing.

message 8: by Birgit (new)

Birgit It’s really interesting reading her process in writing. I really never thought about planning like that it’s a great idea. I’m looking forward to reading this next book. Loved The Daryl but was a little disappointed with Force of Nature.

message 9: by Jim (new)

Jim Bartlett Thanks Goodreads and Jane Harper for the interesting insights shared in this interview .To use an Australian metaphor, the author is “ so down to earth” (which in this case is litterally true as well ) because she is so genuine, honest and real about herself as well as the characters and landscapes that she describes.

message 10: by Peter (new)

Peter Reeves Excellent interview, I have loved all of Jane Harpers books, especially The Dry and the The Lost Man. It’s great to see a good new Australian author.

message 11: by Nicole (new)

Nicole Thanks for this interview! Jane Harper is probably the best new writer I’ve read in years. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

message 12: by Dianne (new)

Dianne Maguire Keep building on those first five sentences Jane... Looking forward to your fourth book.

message 13: by Christine (last edited Feb 05, 2019 02:14PM) (new)

Christine Robin, I agree, Aaron has strawberry blonde hair and white eyelashes. "Rocking the albino look", Jane Harper writes. Sunburns, freckles...Hope they change Bana's appearance a lot to make that work! Jane Harper is my favorite author right now. I find rhe books engaging and at the same time very well-researched, a great combination. I love the tip of expanding 5 sentences.

message 14: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 05, 2019 02:47PM) (new)

I can’t wait to get my hands on this! Your first two books were amazing. 🙂 Please tell us that you will bring back Aaron!

message 15: by Julie (new)

Julie Pocock Great insight into the writing process. I Loved this book and really look forward to seeing The Dry when it hits the screens. My favourite author at the moment.

message 16: by Alexandra (new)

Alexandra I’m loving her books so far, I have just started The Lost Man and look forward to what she will create next!

message 17: by Lynda Briggs (new)

Lynda Briggs I am already saying 'The Lost Man' is my best book for 2019!

Lalettricesovrana I'm loving her book! I'm waiting for "the lost man" in italian editon

message 19: by Steve (new)

Steve Castley Loved the way she explains how she set out to write a book. Great interview. Thanks.

message 20: by Ingrid (new)

Ingrid Snoeren I have to wait two more months for the dutch version! Love the way you plan your writing!

message 21: by Ameya (new)

Ameya I love all of Jane Harper's 3 novels; the Lost Man is the best. I really like Jane Harper's interviews, and would love to meet her in person. That mightn't be too hard as I live down under ;). JH's planning/ plotting style is interesting. I wonder if she spends as much time planning as writing the novel, or whether the paragraphs JH mentions she builds up form part of the novel. I'd love to learn more from JH on how she plots. Thank you Goodreads!

message 22: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia Lowik Great book. Read it in 3 days.

message 23: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Baldwin Birgit wrote: "It’s really interesting reading her process in writing. I really never thought about planning like that it’s a great idea. I’m looking forward to reading this next book. Loved The Daryl but was a l..."

I felt this too - but wondered if this is because I had already read The Dry? That was so different to anything I had read before, but by Force of Nature I knew her style and the kind of story I was going to get, so it wasn’t as shocking. Perhaps expectations affect the reading experience!

message 24: by Jody (new)

Jody Hamilton I loved this book. A lot. Interestingly enough, the same day I finished this book I started watching the Australian TV series Mystery Road which also takes place in the Outback and had much of the same atmosphere. I loved seeing the place I had just read about; even the beginning of the show when an abandoned vehicle was found was similar to the book. Two great entertainment formats in the same weekend; brilliant.

And I agree with a previous commenter that I can almost guarantee The Lost Man will be at the top of my favorite books of the year list.

message 25: by Gillian (new)

Gillian Manson What a fantastic interview, or should I say chat. I felt I was listening to 2 people chatting about books.
I have Audiobooked all 3 of Janes' books, and I enjoyed them all immensely.

Oh and YES I always have 3 or 4 books on the go at one time. Mostly Audiobooks though, but I do read novels and on a tablet too.

And I cannot wait to see the completed movie of The Dry. Eric Bana is one of my favourite actors and I think he seems a perfect actor to play the part of Aaron Falk.

message 26: by Helen (new)

Helen I really liked all three books, but I think The Lost Man is the best. Congratulations!

message 27: by WW1972 (new)

WW1972 Thank you for writing The Lost Man. Excellent book. It had a great mystery for the reader to try to figure out but the story was so much more than the mystery.

message 28: by James (new)

James Packer Great article. very useful. Thank You for the author. Commercial Cleaning Brisbane

message 29: by Sam (new)

Sam Great interview will definitely be reading the lost man!

message 30: by John (new)

John Anakwenze Great interview. I admired the way Jane puts information across in such a simplistic fashion to make it less complex and readily understandable. It will be a joy to read your work; as a fledgling writer I have definitely learnt a lot from this interview for which am most grateful.

message 31: by Allen (new)

Allen Batchelar Robin wrote: "Eric bana!!! As Aaron falk!!! Not at all how I’d imagined him but exciting all the same. I hope they do the book some justice"
Funny, I wasn’t aware of Eric Bana before this so I checked him out and I found him almost exactly as I pictured Falk. He’s a bit older, bit makeup does wonders.

message 32: by Elaine (new)

Elaine Montgomery This will be my initial reading of your work, so look forward to it. I love reading books set in Australia; especially Roff Smith's "Cold Beer and Crocodiles."

message 33: by P. (new)

P. Heaton Her writing process is fascinating. Working on my first murder mystery which I thought would be as easy as my episodic adventure novel. It's not. This interview helped a great deal. Can't wait to read "Lost Man."

message 34: by Georgene (new)

Georgene Searfoss Her description pulls you into her adventure. I would love to read it.

message 35: by Susan (new)

Susan Just finished the book and it was a page turner. Loved it and the fact that it took me to an other worldly place.

message 36: by Raewyn (new)

Raewyn Timmins Looking forward to 'The lost man' really enjoyed the other two novels

message 37: by Margaret (new)

Margaret A very good interview with an exceptional writer. Her ability to describe the territory, the emotions, the complexity of the situations is so subtle and refined - what a pleasure to read. "The Dry" would be a hard act to follow, and I was prepared that "Force of Nature" would disappoint, but it was also good. Next on my reading list: The Lost Man. Hoping for some snow days in New England to curl up and hibernate with a good book!

message 38: by Becky (new)

Becky Peters Annie wrote: "Great interview! Thanks to Jane Harper and Goodreads! I'm very much looking forward to reading "The Lost Man"."

Just finished the book last week. It's still with me! One of THOSE books! Congratulations Jane!

message 39: by Kunadu-Gyasi (new)

Kunadu-Gyasi My name is konadu-Gyasi Ama I am nine years old. I live in Accra Ghana. I waant you to send more books for me to read

message 40: by Lisa (new)

Lisa I finished The Lost Man at 5 am this morning - which tells you a bit about how compelling and fabulous it was. I can't stop thinking about it. Great interview.

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