In Episode 265 of So you want to be a writer: Meet Jane Harper, author of The Dry and The Lost Man. We have 3 copies of Three Little Lies by Laura Marshall to giveaway. Plus, you’ll learn how to avoid a saggy middle in your manuscript and more.
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Daniellestorywriter from Australia:
Hi Val and Al, After listening to your podcast for a year or two, I took the plunge and signed up for the AWC travel writing course. Soon after I did the freelance writing course as well. I love the podcast, and have been so inspired by your conversations and interviews every week that I have reinvented myself and become a freelance travel writer. I’ve never been happier in my life. Thank you for everything. Danielle
Writer in Residence
Jane has won numerous top awards including the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel, the British Book Awards Crime and Thriller Book of the Year, the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year and the Australian Indie Awards Book of the Year.
The Dry is to be made into a major motion picture starring Eric Bana as Aaron Falk, with filming due to start in February.
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Your first novel, The Dry, was published just two years ago in 2016, and even before it was published became one of those novels that everyone was talking about. Can you tell us how that novel came to be published?
Yeah, sure. So I'd always wanted to write a novel. For years and years I had wanted to. I'd always been a really big reader. And it was something that was just ticking over in the back of my mind.
But I never really did much about it. I was working fulltime as a print journalist, which is what I'd done my whole professional career. So it was quite hard for me I guess to find the motivation and the time to then come home from writing all day at work and then work on my own projects.
But it sort of got to the point where I realised that for me it was worth it. I really wanted to do it, it was worth the time and effort it would take. So in 2014, late 2014, I started work on a novel which eventually became The Dry. And I wanted to write something Australian, and something that is the kind of book that I would like to read. And I worked on that.
And I entered that manuscript, I got three full drafts done in about six months, and I entered that manuscript in the Victorian Premier's Unpublished Manuscript Competition, which I won. And really from there, that was where I got a lot of attention from agents and publishers. And I got my agent and I got the publishing deal for Pan MacMillan. So that's how The Dry came to be on the shelves.
Wow. So you said you did three drafts in six months. Were you still working fulltime at that point?
Yeah, absolutely I was. So I worked fulltime on the newspaper. So I was writing a lot every day, but obviously for someone else. And I had to really just find that discipline to then work on my own stuff. So I used to get up an hour earlier or an hour later… Sorry, or when I got home from work I would work for an hour when I got home. And just try and build up that consistency. And keep working on it.
And I think it was really important for me to have that consistency and see that project building up and give me that kind of motivation to keep on and try and push through to the end.
And did you enter that competition, was that… I'm just working through the process here because I also have a similar background of journalism and then writing in around things, and etc. Did you aim for that competition to give yourself a deadline? Was it something that you thought, if I get this done I can enter it? Or was there, did you have other… How did you motivate yourself to actually do that three draft process?
Absolutely. It was a deadline for me. And it's funny, because I know how much journalism has helped me when it comes to writing fiction. And a big part of that was responding to deadlines.
And I entered that competition mainly because I knew roughly what time of year it came around every year. And I also knew there was really nothing to lose. I could work towards it and just use it as an internal goal for myself just purely to try and get it to the stage where I felt the manuscript was complete and kind of held together in a way that was accessible to an outside reader.
And that was really the only stage I was aiming for, just to try and get something that I felt I could actually show to someone else for the first time. So at that point nobody else had read it other than me.
My aim was really to enter it, I thought maybe I'd get some feedback. You know, to say, maybe it's worth pursuing or it doesn't really make much sense, it's not going anywhere. But either way I'd maybe get a little bit of information from that. And that was my only expectation, really. That was it. That was why I entered.
And did you fall over when you won? Just between us, did you fall over?
You know, I remember so clearly winning that competition. And it was such a pivotal moment for me. And of all the things that have happened, and there have been some really great moments, that is still one of the best ones for me.
Because I remember… Even when I found out, actually, I'd been shortlisted, I found out I was one of three shortlisted. And even then, I just thought, you know, if I focus and if I really make the most of this opportunity, this could actually happen for me. This book could actually be published if I really take advantage of this, and take advantage of this professional attention this is suddenly getting.
How amazing. This could actually happen. And it was surreal. It was a surreal moment for me.
Wow. So was it the first full manuscript that you'd ever actually completed? Because you said you were fitting in writing around that, as well. Was this the first thing that you'd ever actually gone, okay, I'm actually going to get to the end of this one?
Yeah, it was. And I'd never really written much fiction other than that at all. But I'd written a short story which got published in The Big Issue's annual fiction edition a few months earlier. Sorry, in mid 2014 that got published, I think. And that was partly what made me think, you know, I was so delighted by that and so surprised that it got chosen for that fiction edition that it really inspired me to think, I really could focus and try to complete a whole novel.
But before that, I hadn't written any fiction. I had written thousands and thousands of words of newspaper articles. So I really did have a lot of discipline, and I knew I could get words on a page. And I kind of knew how to structure a story, I guess, that kept readers engaged. How to pull them in and how to let the information come out in a way that's accessible in the most interesting way you can tell it.
But now, I'd never really even got beyond just the idea stage in any fiction idea I'd ever had before.
Wow. So why did you write a crime novel?
Well, I didn't really set out to write any particular type of novel. What I really thought I'd do, because I didn't really have any expectations for this manuscript when I started. I really got to the point where I thought, you know, I've just got to try and do it for me. I just really want to get to the end. I've been thinking about this for years and years, that I would love to write a book.
And I think the pressure that we put on ourselves, like if you put all this effort in and what if it doesn't get published? What if nobody likes it? It can be so paralysing. And it was only really when I was able to let that go and I thought, I'm just going to write this actually really for myself. I'm just going to try and get to the end, and I'm going to use it as a learning process and see what it involves, and how to go with it. And I'm going to take whatever I learn from that and then I'll try again. Next time I'll be better, and next time I'll be better after that.
So it was more kind of a learning process for me, was how I approached it. And I thought, you know, if it doesn't really, if I'm not really expecting anyone else to necessarily read this, I mean I may as well write something that I enjoy.
So I wanted to write something set in Australia, because I found, I thought the landscape was a real gift for writers. And I wanted to write something with characters that you could kind of get behind and that I personally found engaging. And I also wanted to write something with a bit of mystery and suspense, because those are the kind of books that I like to read.
I said that was… That was kind of how the initial idea for the book came together.
So what is your process for writing a book? And has it changed? You're now up to your third book, The Lost Man, which we're going to talk about in a little while. But has your process for actually getting those books written from when you wrote the first one to the way that you work these days?
So it has changed a bit, yep. I mean, partly through practical reasons. The fact that when I wrote The Dry I was working full time. So I had to, my writing process had to fit around that. Now I'm a fulltime author so I can kind of structure things in a more focused way.
And it has changed, it has been refined quite a lot, but I think it still comes down to a lot of core elements. Which is finding the time to do it, being really consistent about finding those writing blocks where you can actually get solid work done. And doing a little often is better than doing a whole lot once every two weeks. I think doing a little bit every day is so much better because it keeps you in that creative headspace.
So I work really frequently, both in consistence in trying to write every day, really, if I can when I'm working on a book.
And a big part of it as well, for me, is the planning. So I know a lot of really successful authors actually don't plan. They just go for it and they just write into the mist and they enjoy seeing the story unfold that way. But for me, that's never really been how I've operated. And each book, The Dry, and my second book, Force of Nature, and then my third book, Lost Man, I've planned more and more. So I always plan.
With The Dry, I always knew the start and the end and a few key points in the middle. And it sort of evolved from having that base level plan. Force of Nature I planned even more so.
And then with Lost Man, I planned extensively. My plan was tens of thousands of words. And I started off with five sentences, beginning, middle, middle, ends. And then those five sentences became ten, then became 20, then became 20 paragraphs, and then became 25 chapters, guides. To the point where I even knew how I would start and end the chapters. So then when I actually came to write it, I could open up the computer and say, okay, chapter six. Here's what's going to happen in chapter six.
And just fill in the gaps, basically?
Yeah. I knew what I needed to do for that chapter, I knew it probably would need to be 2000 words or so. And as long as I did that, and did those words and got that chapter or that chunk completed, then as long as I did that every day or five days a week or whatever I was doing it, by a certain date I would have 30 chapters and my book would be finished.
Yeah, wow. So with The Dry, the rights for the book sold worldwide before it was even published. It was a phenomenon. It was one of those things. And then it's obviously gone out there and it's resonated with a whole bunch of readers, as well.
So all this is going on. And in the meantime, you've got your second book to write, Force of Nature. What was that process like? Obviously, when you're writing for yourself with your first novel, that's one thing. But then in the face of such huge success from your debut, you've then got a second book to do. What was that like for you?
Well, I already launched into the second book really before, well before The Dry came out. Because I had a three publishing deal with the English language publishers, so I knew there'd be more books to come. And I knew that I had this opportunity.
So I was really keen to grasp that, really. I mean, it was what I'd wanted for so many years, to be able to write more books. So I was really happy to have that chance to be able to actually write more.
So with the books, it's a fairly long process. You get picked up by the publisher, and then there's editing processes. And the editing processes start to become more and more fine detail as they go on.
So by the time I was getting to the end of the editing process for The Dry, I'd already started writing Force of Nature. So I was well into that before a lot of the hype for The Dry really started coming out. So I had that benefit.
I also had the benefit of having all those years of journalism experience. I mean, when you work years in a newsroom, it does keep you focused. And I've written under pressure a lot before, to really tight deadlines. On moving stories and things where there's facts and things changing all the time. So that wasn't unknown to me.
And I think as well, just that kind of, the writing practice that I find most beneficial as well is having that consistency and just focusing on small manageable chunks and not getting too overwhelmed by the big picture.
And Force of Nature was like the other two books, really. As long as I showed up the computer and I worked on a chapter one day and the next chapter the next day and kept on moving forward and kept on refining it, there was no real reason why that book would be, wouldn't be completed in the end, you know.
Yeah, okay. And you were working with the same main protagonist in that novel, right?
Yes, that's right.
So did that help, do you feel? The fact that you, by this stage, knew that character so well and pretty much what they would do, etc?
I think so. I mean, so the main character that is in both The Dry and Force of Nature is a guy called Aaron Falk who is a financial investigator. And he was a guy who we sort of got to know a little bit during The Dry in terms of him… He comes back to his hometown and he's forced to come to terms with a lot of things that happened in his past, and people he hasn't seen in a long time. So we get to know a lot about his background and a little bit about what makes him, has made him the man he is now.
And then in Force of Nature, it was a good opportunity to bring him more into the present. So we actually see him in his day to day job, more in a kind of a current frame of mind, I guess.
So it was great to be able to bring out a little bit more. And I think although he's not in The Lost Man, he's not in my third book, but I think he will return.
That is something we must discuss later. That is something we must discuss. But you feel he will come back at some point for us?
Oh, I think so. And readers ask me that a lot. I think people have really responded to Falk for a lot of reasons. He's a very warm character. He's a good man. He tries to do the right thing where possible. And he has, I think he's somebody that people have found they've related to. So I do get asked a lot, when will he be back and what will be happening to him next.
So yeah, I'd like to give him an opportunity to come out of himself even more and maybe learn a little bit more about him still.
Well, let's talk about The Lost Man and then we can get into that a little bit. Because it is an interesting question to me is why he's not in this book, in some ways.
But I guess, why don't you tell us about your new novel. Which as I said before we started recording, I am currently half way through and finding totally absorbing. So tell us about The Lost Man.
Sure. So Lost Man, like the other two books, is an Australian mystery. But this time it's set in outback Queensland on a remote cattle station. And it opens, it centres around a family of three brothers, and it opens with the death of one of those three brothers, and really follows this family's search to find answers about what happened to him.
Yes, indeed. I'm looking forward to finding out what happened to him, to be honest.
So with your novel, with this novel, with Force of Nature, with The Dry, you have huge place. The place of your novels, when people talk about it being another character it very much feels like that in your books. Is that somewhere, do you start there? Where do you begin when you're writing a novel? Do you start with a place? Did you start with the outback station when you were writing The Lost Man?
Yeah, the setting is something that comes to me really, really early. It's possibly almost one of the initial things. Usually I have a really very loose idea for plot. And then an idea for setting where I think that could really help bring out this initial idea I've had. And I love the settings. And I think the Australian landscape is such an opportunity because it's got that beauty but also the brutality that really lends itself to books with a bit of suspense in them.
And it's really important to me, as well, that the setting is woven throughout the plot. And over the course of the book. Because I think it's a real shame when you've got a great setting but it almost feels like a theatre backdrop. The action is literally just set against it. Whereas I try and be really conscious of making sure that the landscape drives the plot in a lot of ways. So it influences characters' behaviour and it pushes them to act certain ways, and it maybe in some cases has made them the person that they've become through their upbringing there.
And it's interwoven with the action. So it's never just a separate part of what's going on. What is going on is largely driven by where they are, as well.
So why this particular spot for this particular story? Where did the inspiration… You said you had an idea for a plot. Where do you find the inspiration for a story like this? Did you go there? Were you hanging out in outback Queensland?
Yeah, I did. Yeah, I did go there. Honestly, I loved writing this book. It was so much fun. And I think a huge part of that was the research. Because I had this idea about this family living in a really isolated setting. And I became really fascinated with these lives of people who live in these outback far-flung communities, and how they actually do that. How do their day to day lives operate when it is so far removed from what I'm used to, or so many people in the coastal and urban areas are used to.
So when I was doing my plan, what I did was… So I had the idea and I started planning. And as part of that planning I was simultaneously researching. So I read a lot. I started by reading a lot of memoirs. People who'd lived in those kind of areas. Then if I could I spoke to the person who'd written the book. And then through them, they put me in touch with other people that they obviously knew. So I spoke to a heli-mustering pilot. People who worked in medical professions out there. Things like that. And got a bit of a, started to build this technical knowledge about how things operate and who responds to what. And how their day to day lives work.
And then as part of this research, I'd come across this really fascinating guy called Neil McShane who worked in a place called Birdsville, which lots of people know is home of the Birdsville races. But normally it's a town, an outback town of a hundred odd people in south central Queensland. And he had lived there for ten years and he was the only cop policing an area the size of Victoria all on his own for a decade.
So as you can imagine, he had a lot of interesting stories. And I arranged, I flew up in February, so the height of summer, flew up to meet him where he lived in Queensland, which is another outback town now. And then he and I drove 900 kilometres across the outback to Birdsville while he told me his stories and answered my questions. And we looked at the sights.
And then in Birdsville, spoke to a lot of people. Spoke to the nurse. Went out in the ambulance, went out to a few stations. Because I think it's one thing to get the technical aspects, it's one thing to know how the ___ work and where they get their food from and things like that. But I think what I really wanted to get, which is what I was looking for, was the kind of emotional psychological feeling of being out somewhere that is so relatively isolated. And how that actually feels on the ground.
So it's a very journalistic approach that you've taken to that. You've interviewed people, you've gone out there, you've absorbed the feeling of the place. So for you, fiction is just a different type of storytelling, isn't it? It's taking the things that you've learned and turning them into something else.
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean a lot of the… So much of the research techniques that I use, the plot is completely from my journalism days. I think that was another real benefit of having the journalism background meant I wasn't really afraid to pick up the phone and just ask people. People are really amazingly keen to help you. I mean a lot of people, people love talking about themselves. They love it when someone is interested in their job.
So I think that's one thing I would say to aspiring writers is that, I knew that from working as a journalist. I knew it is actually… Often if you call up someone and just ask, with genuine intensions, ask to speak to them and learn a bit more about them and their life or what they do, people often will help you if they can.
But I'd always done that with the security of having a newspaper behind me. And I wasn't sure, really, if I would have the same response just calling up having, you know, I'm writing a fiction book. And maybe it doesn't have quite the same foot in the door. But people, again, were incredibly helpful. And really keen to talk. And very generous with their time and their information.
So your list of acknowledgements for this one is long, I imagine.
It was quite long. Yes. It was long.
So this story, obviously we just discussed before, Falk is not in this. Which is a bit of a confounding of reader expectation in a way, because he's been there for the first two and I think people might expect that the next Jane Harper… Because often crime authors will run the same main protagonist. People get very attached to them. And crime readers in particular get very attached to them. And I know this because I interviewed Michael Robotham, who tells me that he gets cranky letters every time he writes a book that doesn't feature Joe O'Loughlin, which is his main protagonist.
Are you getting the same? Are you expecting the same?
No, not at all, actually. People have been, people do sometimes ask is Falk coming back. But I haven't had any cranky responses, I have to say, which is a relief having heard that.
No, people have been actually really onboard with it. I think… For me, honestly, it wasn't actually a difficult decision to write the third book as a standalone. Because when I start to write a book, I always want to tell a story in the best possible way. And a big part of that is choosing the right characters. And I had this idea and this setting so early, it was quite solid for me quite early, and I just knew with Falk being, he's a financial investigator, he's based in Melbourne. There was no realistic way he was possibly going to be able to get out there unless he was on some sort of four-wheel driving holiday or something.
He's not popping out there for an audit or anything.
That's right. So it was never really something that I spent a lot of time debating or worrying about. Because I knew that the characters that I had in the book were the right ones for the book. And for me, I loved writing about them. It's set around this family of three brothers. The main character is a guy called Nathan Bright. And I just, I so enjoyed writing about him and letting his character unfold through the novel.
So I think, for me, as long as you give readers a good story and good characters, I mean for me as a reader that's what's important. And that was really what I kept in mind when I was writing this one.
Terrific. All right then, so what to you are the key elements for creating a page turning crime novel? Because you've done it again here and it's slightly different to what you've done before. But the page turning aspect of it is most assuredly still there.
Yeah. I mean I think all three books are that kind of… I guess its tone and feel is something I wanted to bring out in a similar way in all three books and give people so they… Even with the third book being a standalone, it's still very recognisably one of my books.
And it's something that I feel is what they would expect when they pick it up in a lot of ways.
And I think there's a few things that probably… I mean, all I can really tell you is what I bear in mind when I'm writing the book. So one of them is for me the plot has to hold together. And a starting point for that is I always know the base plot. And by that I mean the whodunnit. What's happened and why and for what reasons.
And that has to be completely solid in my mind before I can think about anything else, really. But once that is solid, I do find it then that's when I can start to think about secondary characters. And different ways in which you can let this story unfold or ideally lead the reader to think in one direction rather than in another direction. And it's… Because I had that security knowing that the underlying plot is there.
And then so that's kind of the structure. And in terms of the actual execution, a lot of is about thinking really hard about how you're going to let the information unfold. So at what points are you going to give the readers certain knowledge that they need. And I think you've got to drip feed that. You can't leave it all to the end and you can't pile it all in at the start. You've got to give little rewards. So things that keep people engaged and give them a little bit more information to push the story forward without giving it all away too quickly. Or making them wait too long either. Because that's equally frustrating.
And a lot of that is a little bit trial and error. How am I going to end this chapter, how am I going to start the next chapter? And sometimes I'll try things a few different ways and see what feels right. What works best on the page.
And I think also just, which is another kind of journalism tip, get people interested early. Because you can't spend a lot of time expecting that people will stick with you for some sort of promised reward at the end. You've got to engage them right from the start. You've got to keep them engaged throughout.
And when I was doing my journalism training, we were always told always assume people won't finish your articles. They'll get bored, they'll get distracted. You've got to try and keep them in there. And that's what I think, when I'm writing the books, I always think that. What can I do to get them to turn one more page and just keep on going? And stick with it right to the end.
Is there a drafting process then? In the sense, I know you were saying that you plan extensively and you're doing different varieties of variations on plot. Once you've sat down every day and you've actually written that first manuscript, you've actually got a draft, do you find that you're moving things around much in the second draft? Or is it fairly much set by the time you get to the end of the first draft?
You know, it's funny. Because actually, it does change a bit. So despite all that planning, yeah, it does. And I think I just embrace that as part of the process.
Because I think that's also a real trap that people could fall into where, because I know it's so hard, you put all this work into it and you've got these words on the page and your word count is finally up there. And you've got chapters and everything. And then suddenly, something's not quite working. And it is hard, I know, to break into something and have to delete things and have to restructure things. But I think that that makes a real difference. And then can really turn a novel from weak to good. Making the effort to commit to those changes.
I mean, so I did my plan and I completed my whole draft. And it came out exactly as I planned it. And it was almost at the minute I finished it, I suddenly could see other things that I needed to add in. And I think it was just having that security of having that first draft let me then look beyond that.
And it was a really bittersweet moment, because I knew the ideas I had would make it better. But at the same time, I also knew they would involve extensive rewriting. So I probably ended up rewriting a good 70% of that novel in the end. Really, and I'm not just talking editing, I'm talking about rewriting whole chapters.
But at the same time, as hard as it is to commit to doing that, I look back and I'm so thankful that I did. Because I think at the end you want to be able to look back and think this book, I could not have written this book any better. For me personally, this is told the best possible way that I can tell it.
Yeah, I often think that it's the stuff that when you think about making the changes and it's physically painful to even think about it, you know that you have to do it. Because that's what's going to actually make it better, those ones.
Exactly. No, I agree. And like I said, I just try and… I do genuinely try and embrace it. Because I think if I hadn't done all that planning and done that first draft, I maybe wouldn't have seen those changes. And they maybe never would have occurred to me, and what a shame that would have been. So I'm fortunate that I had that draft in place to help me then take that next step.
So what are you working on at the moment? Is there something new coming? Or are you just going to work very hard across 87 different continents to promote The Lost Man? Or what happens now?
So I've been, The Lost Man came out in October in Australia. And I did a national tour for that, which was really great. It's really fun to actually meet readers and booksellers and get a chance to come out from behind my computer. So that was really good.
And then I'm going over to the US and the UK in 2019 when the book comes out over there in hardback and paperback.
And then, but then I'm working on something else at the moment. I mean, I think, for me, just… I love writing. And I love working on books. And I don't really feel the need to take some huge amount of time away from that, because I enjoy the process. And I think for me, having that consistency and keeping those ideas going is part of the best bit, really.
Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much. We're going to finish up today with our famous, or infamous, whichever way you like to look at it, last question, which is what are your top three tips for writers, Jane Harper?
Yeah. So, sorry I'm not sure if this is welcome or not. But I actually did a whole TEDx talk on my creative process, and it really focuses… It's ten minutes of me talking about the actual kind of practical steps I took to finish a creative project. So if you're interested…
I am. Because we'll put the link in the show notes. So tell us where it is.
So it's on TEDx. I think you can just Google TEDx Jane Harper it should come up. And it's about… So I'll give you the short version.
But if you like a little bit more of a full explanation, there is that available as well.
But what it essentially says in a nutshell is there's three things that I think absolutely were crucial to me to completing my first manuscripts, as an aspiring novelist that helped me get there.
The first one is finding the motivation to start in the first place. And I touched on that a little bit. But what I mean by that, really, is not letting yourself get overwhelmed by all those what if questions. Because if you set out to think, I want to write a book, but if it doesn't get published, it doesn't sell, it isn't well received, it's not going to be worth the time and effort, it's really, really hard for you to actually get started. Because it becomes this huge unachievable goal.
And I think what helped me was just changing that mindset and thinking, I'm just going to write it for myself. And that in itself is worth my time and effort. Because for me, that's important enough. And that was a really huge mental leap for me.
So that was important. The motivation to start.
The second one was time management. And again, I touched on this a bit. This looks different for everybody so there's no point in really asking those, you know, what does your day look like? Because everybody's day looks different, and it's really about finding that time for you, that fits in with your day to day life. Because you're not going to have a huge block of time open up, most likely, when you can just work on this project.
But what I would urge you to aim for is consistency. So finding a little bit of time as often as you can and really keeping those ideas and that creativity flowing. And seeing your project develop as well. Seeing it build up.
And the third thing is working on your technical ability. Because again, I think people underestimate their own ability to improve in a creative field. And they seem to think that for some reason, whatever natural talent you have is all that you have and all you'll ever have. And it's just not true. You can absolutely improve.
And your first draft is not going to be your best draft. And it's probably not going to be any good, anyway. So let yourself make mistakes and practice. And if you need to take a course, or you need to read some writing books, or go and listen to experts speak, and just get some technical skills. So that when you actually come to work on your project, you actually have a bit of technical ability to fall back on.
Fantastic. All right, well we will put the link in the show notes to Jane's TEDx talk, which obviously will be fabulous, given the three tips she's just given us. And we will say best of luck for the new novel coming out in all of the places over the next 12 months or so. And also with the one that you're working on at the moment. And thank you so much for your time today, Jane. We really, really appreciate it.
Thank you very much for having me.