Remote sections of Australia aren't just settings for mystery author Jane Harper, whose debut novel became an international bestseller. They're full-fledged characters.
In "The Dry," which was released in 2017 in the US, a financial investigator for the Australian federal government named Aaron Falk must return to the tiny rural town where he grew up in southeastern Australia, a region stricken with drought and misery. Now, in the newly released Force of Nature, he heads to the Australian wilderness where a woman has gone missing during a Melbourne firm's wilderness team-building exercise.
Near instantly, Harper's remarkable work has turned her into one of the world's leading mystery authors. Both novels are intense, deeply intelligent psychological thrillers that explore how our pasts – especially our childhoods – mold and disrupt our lives in the present.
In an interview, the British-born Harper spoke from her home in Melbourne about the regions of Australia where tourists rarely go, the horrors of team-building exercises, and her commitment to depict women with depth and sensitivity.
Q: What drew you to set your mysteries in extreme Australian environments?
In the cases of both "The Dry" and "Force of Nature," I really wanted to write about landscapes that were very distinctly Australian, partly because they're really atmospheric settings for books that have a suspense element. They're so visual and distinct, and they help you draw the readers in.
I was also quite keen to take the books away from the tourist areas, to set them in places that are well known within Australia but off the beaten track for visitors. A lot of the feedback has been from people seeing these other sides of Australia, parts they often don't see portrayed in books and movies.
Q: Do you have have a lot of experience in Australian nature yourself?
My experience actually comes from when I was working as a journalist at a newspaper.
A lot of the stories I covered took me out to quite remote areas and small communities, and I spoke to a lot of people whose livelihoods were wrapped up in the seasons and the weather patterns. My impressions come from talking to people who were facing these issues.
Q: The plot of "Force of Nature" takes place during a team-building exercise in the wilderness, which sounds awful enough to endure even when someone doesn't go missing. Did you ever have to go through something like that?
Luckily, my newspaper never had the budget.
Considering the state of office politics, a team-building exercise can always bring out the worst in people. When people are under pressure, it automatically heightens their personalities and gives writers a lot more to play with.
Q: The main characters in "Force of Nature" are almost entirely female. What goes through your mind when you portray women in our fiction?
I was particularly keen to make them believable characters and give them the ring of authenticity since they play so much of a role in the narrative and are on the page so much. Readers need to recognize parts of themselves or other women they know.
I also tried to think about their backstories and why [those stories] might make them react in certain ways when they're under pressure in a work environment.
You don't necessarily know what's going on with people behind the scenes, at home, early in their lives. You don't see how their backstories affect them, but they shape who we are.
Q: Your detective is a 30-something financial investigator with the Australian federal government. That's not the sexiest job. What drew you to give him that kind of work?
That came from when I was thinking about the plot in "The Dry," a story about people who work with the land and are very dependent on weather, things out of your control.
I want him to be a real fish out of water and far removed from everything that's happening in the town, then he's drawn back. His job was one of the furthest things I could think of that could remove him from his comfort zone.
Q: What are you writing now?
I'm currently working on my next book, which will be a mystery set in a distinct Australian location with a similar tone and feel.
Aaron Falk is definitely a character I'd like to return to. I'm still working on the plot for book three, and I want him to be there because he needs to be there.
Q: You've left the newspaper where you used to work to write fiction, and you now have a 16-month-old daughter. Have you thought about when you'll introduce her to the topics her mother writes about?
Luckily, we're still working through picture books. I'll cross that bridge when it comes.