Jordan Harper has been a music journalist and film critic. Born and educated in Missouri, he now lives in Los Angeles and continues to work as a screenwriter. Harper’s debut novel, She Rides Shotgun (available June 6, 2017), is published by Ecco and marks the culmination of a childhood dream. The book has been optioned for film by Parkes+MacDonald Productions; Harper is writing the script. He previously released a short story collection, Love and Other Wounds.
Recently, the author kindly made time to indulge curiosities about crafting his opus, violence in art, creative inspiration, and what comes next, among other topics.
What was the impetus for writing She Rides Shotgun, and how did you find the process of crafting your debut novel to compare to the expectations you may have had?
The original impetus for writing She Rides Shotgun was getting a job in network TV. I’m grateful as hell for my time spent at The Mentalist—it was like getting paid to go to grad school—but after a few years of grinding under the artistic and moral confines of prime time, I had a monkey on my back hooting for me to get back into the world of the gritty crime stories I’d written before TV.
I wrote the first draft of She Rides Shotgun four years ago, and when I was done, I read it. And whatever the opposite of the clouds parting, holy light shining down, and angels singing hallelujah happened to me: I had a shitty epiphany. I’d written the novel completely wrong. I’d written almost the whole novel from Nate’s (the father) point of view, and it clearly needed to be told from his daughter Polly’s. I think it was cowardice that had kept me from trying to get into the head of an 11-year-old girl.
I’d like to tell you that as soon as I had this realization, I rolled up my sleeves and got back to work. Reader, I punked out. I put the book in a drawer and went back to network TV until Nat Sobel read my self-pubbed short story collection American Death Songs—which I’d done in another attempt to feed that grimy monkey—thought he could sell it (which he did, as Love and Other Wounds), and asked if I had a novel to go with. So I dug up the moldy corpse and did the work I should have done a year earlier.
The relationship between a father (Nate) and daughter (Polly) grounds this book. What drew you to this particular dynamic, and how does the emotional tension both amplify and counterbalance the impending sense of danger that runs throughout the narrative?
The novel is about a father and daughter, but just as importantly to me, it’s a book about two people wrestling with deep anxieties and learning as much as they can from each other about how to deal with the storms that rage inside them. The idea that a father and child can teach each other things is an old one, of course, but to me this father—who was taught from a very young age to deal with the things inside him with violent eruptions—and this young girl—who has been taught to swallow everything—was a thing worth exploring.
I think fiction works best when you’re examining issues that you yourself are ambivalent about. If you’re sure of the answer to a problem, why does it take you 70,000 words to get there?
One of the breakthroughs a person with anxiety—okay, me—has is the understanding that it isn’t fear of the outside world that makes you anxious. It’s fear of yourself and what you’re capable of that makes you snarl up your fight-or-flight instinct. Watching Nate teach Polly not to fear herself is one of my favorite things in the book.
Though a work of fiction, this book is grounded in the culture of violence that permeates reality. What social issues most appealed to your curiosity, and why is fiction a powerful lens through which to examine them?
I think fiction works best when you’re examining issues that you yourself are ambivalent about. If you’re sure of the answer to a problem, why does it take you 70,000 words to get there? I’m interested in what William T. Vollman calls the calculus of violence, the decision matrix that makes some acts of violence moral and some immoral. I’m not sure when violence is called for, in art or in life, and I think that’s why I write what I write.
The book has been referred to as a “chase novel.” In what ways does it pay homage to that construct while maintaining its own essence, and how do you see this as both a literal and metaphorical journey?
I’ve always been a fan of the sub-genre created (as far as I know) by the Japanese comic book Lone Wolf and Cub, that subgenre of Man and Child on the Run (including Paper Moon, The Professional, and The Road to Perdition). I suppose it’s a sub-genre of the chase story. I also wanted to write a love letter to my adopted home of Southern California, and the chase is a great way to explore the multifaceted beauty of that place.
But the book is also a very traditionally three-act-structured story of Polly’s inner quest for strength, which is why the book had to be told from her point of view. In the end, it's her story—her arc—that the story bends around. And that, of course, is the journey that matters.
In addition to novelist, you’ve also been a journalist, film critic, and television writer. In what ways do these disciplines influence one another, and which skill(s) did you find to be the most transferable to this newest endeavor?
They all matter. Journalism teaches you to produce at will, on a deadline. Being a film critic was good for me until I realized I was criticizing the writing too harshly because I was jealous of the screenwriters doing what I only talked about doing. I quit writing about movies when I realized I was doing that. Network television will teach you structure—as nothing, not even a Hollywood screenplay, is as structured as a case-of-the-week network TV show.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
I’m not sure how open I can be here. I’ve been working for the past year on a novel called Savage Year, about a murder that occurred in my hometown of Springfield, MO, when I was a senior in high school. But the novel has been going slowly. I’ve also been outlining a different novel called The Thrill, about a modern day Bonnie and Clyde solving a murder. I have a few things going on in television that I have to keep under wraps. Plus, I’m about to finish a draft of the screenplay for She Rides Shotgun, which has been optioned here in Hollywood by Parkes+MacDonald, a most excellent company.
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Jordan Harper was born and educated in Missouri. He has been a music journalist, film critic, and TV writer. He lives in Los Angeles.
John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.