Working as an in-demand screenwriter has made Jordan Harper no stranger to writing an action-packed story, which certainly comes across in his debut novel, She Rides Shotgun. It’s a gritty, emotional, and grippingly terrifying thrill-ride about the fine line between being bad and being good. We caught up with Harper recently to talk about the draw of the powerful young girl character, the difference between writing for the page and writing for the screen, and about why he believes the perfect response to being punched is to punch back.
Bookish: She Rides Shotgun puts the reader right alongside Nate, as though we are a part of him, running for our lives. We’re in Nate’s head as much as we can be but there’s only so much we can know given the third person narration. What else do you want readers to know about Nate McCluskey?
Jordan Harper: My first draft of the novel was written much more from Nate’s point of view than Polly’s. It’s really more Polly’s story than his so I’m glad I made the switch, but there’s a lot of Nate on the cutting room floor, particularly his relationship with his brother Nick, and how that blend of toxic masculinity and bravado gets passed on generation to generation. There was even a brief explanation of how white trash hill people (my people) spread from the east coast to the Ozarks and then to California. Which is probably a bit much, so it’s better on the floor than in the book.
Bookish: Polly is a remarkable character. In many ways, she’s old beyond her years and yet she is still very much a child. At the end of the first part, she cuts off her hair and dyes it red, an action both literal and symbolic of her change. There seems to be a trend with these powerful, dangerous young girls in pop culture (Eleven in Stranger Things, for example). Why do you think such characterizations are growing in popularity?
JH: On one hand, this isn’t new. Polly springs from a mini-genre, the crook and child on the road, that has a long tradition of very strong little girls: Mattie Ross in True Grit, Addie in Paper Moon, Natalie Portman’s character in The Professional. But the current vogue springs from the fact that when a vacuum is filled, it is filled rapidly. People are hungry for girls in crime fiction who aren’t victims or props. I’m not the first to say that the majority of interesting crime fiction these days features and/or is written by women.
Bookish: The relationship between Nate and Polly goes from basically non-existent to survival mode, to mentorship, and finally to something close to father and daughter (or maybe as close as they can be). Polly goes from being rigid with fear to strong and powerful. In their case, violence is a learned behavior but rage seems to be inherited. Why?
JH: The answer to this is buried in the scene in which Nate teaches Polly how to take a punch, and it is my inner anarchist’s response to anxiety (which plagues both Polly and Nate). I think that anxiety is a natural response to the modern world, a world that teaches you not to fight back, a world that does violence to you daily in a million different ways and expects you not to punch back. Polly does no violence to anything but herself at the beginning of the book, which is why her fight-or-flight instinct jams her up so often. Nate teaches her that the correct response to being punched is to punch back, which is a radical thought these days.
Bookish: Let’s talk about place. California is supposed to be the land of dreams fulfilled, fruit, honey, and beautiful people, right? But here you show us the underbelly. What drew you to California as a setting?
JH: I moved to LA almost a decade ago, and I love it deeply. There was never any question about where to set the novel. While a few of the places in the novel are fictional, every location is at least based on real places that I drove to while writing the book. I write best about places that I physically go to. So since this is my home, it made for a natural location.
In some ways, California is it’s own country, but it’s also the most American place, with its worship of cars, its dirt, its dedication to a dream that’s only achieved by a very few. I also love that here in LA you can drive from the Pacific Ocean to the desert madness of the Salton Sea in half a day.
Bookish: She Rides Shotgun is your first published novel. What was the experience like for you and how was it different from writing screenplays?
JH: It was fiendishly difficult, a nearly three-year process. Writing a novel has made writing for television seem very simple and quick. A novel has so many more moving parts.
Bookish: The movie rights to She Rides Shotgun have already been sold, and you’re working on the adaptation. How’s that going?
JH: I just turned in a draft to the producers, so I’ll know better how it’s going when I hear back from them.
Bookish: What are the pros and cons to adapting your own work?
JH: While I’m happy with what I’m done, and I’m very excited to be working with the producers I’m working with, I’m not sure I’d tell other authors to attempt adapting themselves. Maybe you shouldn’t adapt yourself for the same reason that you shouldn’t operate on yourself: You need to make deep cuts without pain. But it’s a great honor to take a crack at it, and put these characters on the big screen.
Bookish: I have a feeling this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Polly. Any plans for a sequel?
JH: I’ve toyed with an idea for bringing Polly back, but not in my next novel. I’ve been wrestling with a new idea based on a murder that took place in my high school when I was a senior, but it’s been rough going. I’ve also got an idea for a modern-day Bonnie-and-Clyde murder mystery that I’ve been excited about for a while. So we’ll see.
Jordan Harper was born and educated in Missouri. He has been a music journalist, film critic, and TV writer. He is the author of the short story collection, Love and Other Wounds. He lives in Los Angeles.