17 September 2015

Author Q&A: Jane Harper

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by Leonora Craig Cohen Author Interviews, Novels by CBC Alumni, Student Successes

Australian author Jane Harper (above) has just become the 17th novel-writing student to emerge from our creative writing courses with a book deal. Several in fact. Jane’s terrific debut The Dry, about a murder in the Australian Outback that may not be as simple as it seems, has been bought by Little, Brown in the UK, Flatiron in the US, Macmillan in Australia and New Zealand, and already has 11 translation deals across the world including in Sweden, Spain and France. Jane, a journalist for the Melbourne Herald Sun, was a student on our Autumn 2014 Online Novel-Writing Course, taught by Lisa O’Donnell. And her work caught the attention of literary agents Clare Forster at Curtis Brown Australia and Alice Lutyens in London. Even before publication, The Dry has been awarded the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript, a major prize in Australia. The judges praised it for ‘weaving together themes about belonging, loyalty and forgiveness in an exploration of the best and worst of rural Australia.’ Here, Jane tells us about how she went from creative-writing student to award-winning novelist, her experience of studying online and why writing is a bit like going to the gym.

You’re a British writer but based in Australia – what attracted you to the Curtis Brown Creative Online Course in particular?
I was aware of Curtis Brown Creative’s reputation, and was drawn to the prospect of getting writing guidance from professionals. The online course fitted in around my full-time work and I also got to virtually meet a whole group of fantastic people from around the world! Plus the Q&A day with the agents and the prospect of skipping the slush pile when we were ready to submit our finished novels were really attractive.

How much fiction had you written before signing up to the course?
Hardly any, and certainly nothing any good! I’d wanted to write a novel for years, but had never been able to get further than the first couple of chapters on a string of abandoned projects. I found the prospect of writing a full-length book quite overwhelming and just didn’t take my attempts seriously enough. I’m a big believer that writing is a skill that can be taught, just like dancing, painting and lots of creative skills. I see journalism trainees join the profession every year and invariably their writing skills improve as they learn and get feedback. No one starts off knowing everything.
I’ve heard some authors look down a little bit on writing courses, but I think that’s short-sighted. In every skill area there will be people who find it easier than others, but there are very few people in this world who can’t benefit from a bit of expert coaching.

How did your writing habits change during the course?
My writing definitely improved thanks to the feedback but, more than that, it was the mental shift that helped me. Being in a group with people who were also committed to their novels inspired me to make the most of it and start clocking up the chapters so I could benefit from the lessons and feedback. It made me realise for the first time that I actually could finish a book.

Your book contains some dark family secrets, did it help to be taught by novelist Lisa O’Donnell, whose own work centres on those themes?
It definitely did, in that Lisa is a master of creating dysfunctional relationships that still have heart. But, having said that, the fantastic novels being written by the others on my course were all so different. The skills and techniques Lisa taught were very universal and I think equally valuable regardless of what kind of novel people were working on.

Did you enjoy working with Lisa?
I owe Lisa such a debt of gratitude! She was so fearless and constructive with her feedback, and wasn’t afraid to tell me where I was going both right and wrong. There was one particular element of the novel she wasn’t a fan of and, thanks to her, it is now in a very different and much stronger form. Lisa made me really question it and figure out why it wasn’t working, which pushed me to improve it and make sure it did work.

You’re currently writing a second book featuring your policeman protagonist from The Dry, Aaron Falk. How do you feel he developed as a character during the course?
When I started he was really just a vague shadow with a name and a physical description, and not much more. Over time he’s grown a whole back story, made some friends, made some enemies and hopefully discovered hidden depths!

You were already an established journalist before you wrote The Dry – how easy is it for a journalist to turn novelist? What are the differences between the disciplines?
Being used to working to deadlines helped me a lot. I would set myself deadlines to reach certain points, and I’d take them really seriously as though it were my job. Being a journalist also made me less sensitive to criticism of my writing and more willing to rewrite and change things. Of course it’s nice if someone thinks your work is great, but if it’s genuinely not working for the reader, I think you have to be prepared to shrug your shoulders and try something else that might make it better.

How do you balance your various writing commitments with the rest of your daily routine?
With working full-time, it was just about finding the time wherever I could, so I would snatch hours before work, after work, weekends, whenever really. I didn’t set word targets or anything, but I had a to-do list of what scenes or chapters I needed to do, and then I’d tackle them in bite-size chunks. I found it was a bit like going to the gym – it was better to do a little regularly than a whole lot once in a while.

What was the most valuable piece of feedback you received on the course?
Lisa O’Donnell telling me to just ‘get in and get out’ of a scene. To look at the scene, work out what has to happen, what you want to reader to get from it, then make it happen as fast as you can. It was such a relief to hear someone say that I didn’t need to get bogged down with endless description and stuff that didn’t need to be there.

What piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
If you’re struggling to write or finish a book, be honest with yourself about what you need to help you achieve that. For me, I needed some form of external pressure – which I found through the CBC course. I needed the feeling of deadlines (however informal) and some expectation I would meet them and take my novel seriously. But it’s not one-size-fits-all. For other people it might be a question of free time, or needing some outside help to improve their writing, or any one of a thousand things.

The Dry by Jane Harper will be published in the UK by Little, Brown in early 2017.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our selective three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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