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Novelist Jane Harper on the Inspiration for The Dry

Posted on 2nd June 2017 by Martha Greengrass

Our Thriller of the Month for June, The Dry, is a twisting, atmospheric drama, where a horrific murder in a dirt-blown, drought-ridden Australian town becomes the perfect crucible for seething underlying malice and long-buried secrets to come to light. Exclusively for Waterstones, author Jane Harper takes us behind the scenes for the places and experiences that influenced her novel.

When I set out to write the novel that became The Dry, my main aim was simply to write the kind of book I thought I'd like to read. I love fast-paced novels with a mystery element, and especially those that have a few twists and turns along the way. That was the kind of book I hoped to produce, but I wasn’t sure if I could create the plot and setting and characters needed for that kind of story. But attempting to write a book is such a major undertaking and requires so much time and dedication that I thought at the very least I needed to enjoy what I was writing.

I wanted to set my novel in Australia partly because it is the country I call home, but mainly because the landscape offered a naturally atmospheric setting that was hard to ignore. It’s a country of such extreme contrasts and has so many corners that may never appear on tourist postcards but are such a fundamental part of what makes Australia unique. 

I developed an idea for a mystery set around the sudden and brutal death of a farming family in a drought-stricken rural town. Alongside the central mystery, the novel shines the spotlight on a community under huge strain, where livelihoods and futures are inextricably tied with the whimsy of the weather patterns.

Writing the novel was a very layered process for me. I knew how the book would start and end before I started writing and had a few key anchor points to help me along the way. But many aspects developed purely through the process of writing, with the characters, their relationships and their ties to the town and its history taking on a life of their own in a number of cases. 

My journey to publication with The Dry was both a whirlwind and a slow burn. On the surface, it feels like everything happened incredibly quickly because my novel was sold to publishers less than a year after I started writing it. But at the same time, I had spent years dreaming about writing a novel and more than a decade writing professionally as a journalist before I actually reached a point where I was really ready to try.

My writing career started in Yorkshire as a trainee reporter on my local newspaper. I was based tasked with doing all the usual stories sent the way of young reporters in that area - parish council meetings, school fetes, community disputes. I loved listening to people tell their stories, and being able to take what they had told me and turn that into a piece of writing that conveyed a message to readers. 

It was through covering stories those local stories as a young trainee reporter that I first gained real understanding of the powerful bonds that grow and pull in tight-knit communities. I continued in journalism when I moved to Australia in 2008, and when I began to write my debut novel, I found myself drawing heavily on my insights from those early reporting days.

Readers in Australia have commented on how close to home the setting in The Dry feels to them, but to me the rural town in the novel has always seemed much more fluid. All communities have their strengths, but also their secrets. People, and their problems, are more similar than they may like to admit and although the superficial settings may be different, the struggles below the surface often are not. While I hope readers will not necessarily recognise themselves or their neighbours in these characters, I hope it is a story that resonates with readers, wherever they may live.

The finished book looked quite different from the novel I had in my head when I first sat down to write, but by the end I felt I had achieved my initial goal. The Dry is the kind of book that I enjoy opening and getting lost in, and I very much hope other readers feel the same.

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Burning with heat on every page and tacitly involving the reader in the emotional lives of the suspects, Harper’s stunningly atmospheric crime thriller sees a small Australian town, parched by endless drought, stagger through the trauma of a mass murder.
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