The harsh environment of the Australian outback serves as a fascinating backdrop in Jane Harper's mysteries, and the former journalist's career has taken flight after her debut novel 'The Dry' was published in 2015. Harper will visit Seattle on Feb. 5 to talk about her third book, 'The Lost Man.'

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Lit Life

Jane Harper’s new novel “The Lost Man” takes place in the remote Australian outback, in a place where “the horizon was so flat and far away it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth.” Next-door neighbors live three hours apart, and the wide dirt track that serves as a road “could sit silent for days without being troubled by a vehicle.” A dead body could sit for a long time out there — and, in the book’s opening pages, one does.

It was new territory for Harper, who lives in Melbourne near Australia’s southeastern coast; her previous novels, the page-turning best-sellers “The Dry” and “Force of Nature,” take place in that region and feature Melbourne federal police investigator Aaron Falk. For “The Lost Man,” she wanted to try a different setting; somewhere remote, where a family’s tensions reverberate in the endless quiet. The novel focuses on the three adult brothers of the cattle-ranching Bright family; the middle one of whom is discovered dead on the parched ground, near an old gravestone. Why was he out wandering alone — far from his car, food and water — under that remorseless sun? The Brights, it turns out, have more than their share of secrets.

“One thing that struck me is how harsh this environment is,” said Harper, on the phone from Down Under last month, about choosing the setting. (She’s preparing for some travel: Harper will speak at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on Feb. 5.) Her book is set in and near the tiny fictional town of Balamara (described as “a single street, really”), but she said “the lifestyle and the makeup of the community and the cattle stations, and the sort of area they live in, it’s based on facts. There really are communities very much like that in outback Queensland.”

After roughing out the plot — “I left gaps in it, so when I did my research I could plug things in” — Harper visited the outback town of Birdsville, in Queensland. “I was worried I might have overstated (the harshness) a bit, but when I went there, if anything I had underestimated how dangerous it can be and how quickly things can go wrong.” Temperatures on the outback, she said, can easily rise well above 40 degrees Celsius (about 104 degrees Fahrenheit); mobile phones often get no signal.

In Birdsville, Harper was given a tour of the region by a retired police officer. When working, she said, “he was the only officer on duty, policing an area the size of the U.K.” They drove 900 kilometers across the outback — “eleven hours, and the whole way we came across 15 cars. It was a dead straight, completely empty road.” Harper also spent time with an aboriginal elder and a town nurse (whose job is similar to a nurse depicted in “The Lost Man”), peppering them all with questions.

A dual citizen of the U.K. and Australia, Harper has lived in both countries but has made her home in Australia for the past decade. “It’s such a great place to live, a really beautiful country,” she said. “I just think Australia is such a gift for writers, such a diverse landscape that lends itself so well to novels.”

But she hasn’t always been a novelist: Harper began her career as a journalist, working for several publications in the U.K. and Australia — crime reporting, courts, health, business, general news, a short stint on a bridal magazine. “I think the thing that has really helped me is the discipline that you gain from being a journalist, being able to get words on a page, write to deadline, the idea of expressing yourself clearly, writing something that engages the reader.”

Somewhere inside that journalist, however, was a novelist, and after thinking about writing fiction for years, Harper finally took the plunge. Knowing that she’d be responsive to deadlines, she signed for an online fiction course that required a certain amount of work every week. After finishing “The Dry,” in April of 2015, she entered an unpublished manuscript competition — the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award — and won.

Now she’s a full-time author, with three novels in rapid succession. And a movie of “The Dry” is in the works, staring Eric Bana as Aaron Falk. Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard (responsible for “Big Little Lies,” “Gone Girl,” “Wild” and more), optioned the book before it was even published. Filming begins this month in Victoria, Australia, where the book is set. Harper’s excited to see it come together. “You hear about how so many books get optioned and the movie never gets made,” she said.

But she’s not directly involved with the movie, except as a particularly interested spectator: “My main focus is on the books.” Harper’s in the early planning stages of her fourth novel and declined to say much about it, save for that “it’s another Australian mystery, similar to the first three books, and hopefully those who enjoyed them will find it appeals to them.” It’s a landscape, as she says, that holds endless stories.


Jane Harper will speak, in conversation with novelist Danya Kukafka (“The Lost Girl”), at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free;, 206-366-3333