Merry Jones begins her writing day by revising and editing the previous day’s work, then writes for several hours. This diligence has led to a book every six months in the Harper Jennings series that began with SUMMER SESSION and continues in its fourth installment, OUTSIDE EDEN.
Harper Jennings is an unusual lead character for a thriller. She is an Iraqi war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder who is learning to trust herself and move towards a “normal” life. Merry says, Harper’s “PTSD is a constant…just like the other physical effects of her other war injuries. Her symptoms diminish for periods of time and resurface when she’s under stress and her triggers appear.
“The books aren’t about PTSD or the horrors that caused it; they’re about a person who lives with it and who is determined not to let it define or limit her. Even so, when Harper can least afford them, the symptoms rear up, ambush her, and complicate whatever peril she is in.”
What Harper may be beginning to realize though is that Trouble, with a captital T, has a way of finding her.
In OUTSIDE EDEN, Harper, an archeology graduate, her husband Hank, and their toddler daughter arrive in Israel where Hank is participating in an international symposium. While Hank is working, Harper is assigned a guide, Hagit, to show her around Jerusalem. Hagit believes evil is everywhere and advises Harper to wear a charm designed to ward off evil.
Almost before Harper has a chance to take her seriously, she sees a man being assaulted just as they enter the marketplace. When she later finds out the man was killed, she decides to accept an offer to work on an archeological dig fifty miles outside the city, where she hopes she and her daughter will be safer. Hagit accompanies them even though she is convinced the Evil Eye is now focused on Harper and will follow her wherever she goes…
Water shortages, superstitions, traditions, Bible codes, a charismatic preacher and his church, conspiracies, and international terrorists all play a part in OUTSIDE EDEN.
Merry reports that she had a great time writing OUTSIDE EDEN and enjoyed writing about Hagit. “Hagit’s character was fun,” she said. “She’s a tough, middle-aged Israeli woman who has definite unshakable opinions. Writing her conversations with Harper was fun. Her attitudes were fun.”
She also enjoyed writing the scenes about Bible codes and secret messages hidden in the text. “My favorite parts of writing take place in the shadows between reality and perception, borderlines where beliefs blur and everything is subject to question. So the Evil Eye, the Bible codes, the uncertainty about Hank’s situation—these were the most fun parts.”
On the other hand, making facts fit fiction was one of the harder parts of writing OUTSIDE EDEN. In addition to making sure the facts fit the current novel, she also had to make sure these facts didn’t contradict those in the previous Harper Jennings tales.
As authors are often surprised by their characters, Merry admits in the case of OUTSIDE EDEN, the resolutions of the plot and subplot came as a surprise and she “was prepared for neither.” She said, “I had different outcomes planned, but the characters led me in a different direction. The church group at the dig was always going to be a problem, but I didn’t anticipate situations with their Bible-code-reading, manipulating, womanizing leader. And I had no idea what Hank had gotten into until I wrote it.”
It is obvious that Merry is fond of her heroine Harper. Over the course of the four novels, “I know what she likes and wants, what annoys her, what frightens her. I know situations she’d be in, what situations she’d avoid. Her reactions don’t surprise me anymore. The clearer she becomes to me, the more she dictates the story line. It’s kind of like having a friend—you can imagine what they’d do in a given situation.”
That said, Merry also said it wasn’t until the third novel, WINTER BREAK, when Harper’s mother came to visit, that Harper’s childhood “became crystal clear to me—I understood what shaped her personality, why she enlisted in the Army, why she’s wary of most men.”
As to Harper’s growth over the course of the four novels, Merry said, “She’s earned a Ph.D. in archeology. She’s seen her husband through a terrible accident and managed to maintain her marriage through many challenges. She’s come to terms with her own parents’ flaws and the effect they’ve had on her. She has become a parent herself. Along the way her mettle has been tested again and again, along with her loyalties and her strength, and she has begun to trust that she is a survivor. Mostly, Harper has learned to accept her own limitations. In the past she wanted to be perfect, punished herself when she couldn’t be; now, she accepts that she can’t control everything, and she allows herself to be vulnerable in relationships.”
In OUTSIDE EDEN, Harper finds herself on unfamiliar ground among people with different beliefs and customs. “For someone like Harper with trust issues, the setting provides challenges even before real dangers arise. Harper and Hank are both moving through life, both personally and professionally.”
The fifth Harper Jennings thriller is coming out in 2014. Merry says, “The plot is still being woven. All I can say at the moment is that it will take Harper to new places with plenty of new perils and predicaments—But you knew that.”
“While Harper’s been recovering from her trip to Israel, I’ve been writing the sequel to THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE. It’s called ELECTIVE PROCEDURES and will be out in early 2014. It takes Elle Harrison and company to a town in Mexico where her friend is having some cosmetic surgery. Things go very wrong, very quickly, and then they get worse.”
About the Harper Jennings series:
“Harper Jennings is a character whose time has come. She’s a strong woman who has fought in Iraq. She’s a vet who suffers from PTSD, a condition that is epidemic among Iraq War vets. She has flashbacks of unbearable moments. Even so, she manages to pull her life together. To marry. To pursue a career. To make peace with her dysfunctional family. To solve or prevent potentially disastrous crimes. I think she’s an important and unusual character—not many thriller heroes are women, much less ex-military women.
“Also in each book I try not just to tell a story, but to raise issues in the readers’ minds. In SUMMER SESSION, these issues involved drug trials, sleep research, and their ethics and safety. In BEHIND THE WALLS, they involved cultural acceptance and performance of honor killings. In WINTER BREAK, the issues concerned interpretation of and definition of evil as concerns not just criminals, but also family. And in OUTSIDE EDEN? Well its issues include the nature of faith and obedience, superstitions, abuse of power, and worldwide shortages of water.”
Merry added, “I think good books enrich us not just by entertaining us, but by leaving us with some larger awareness, whether of our own lives or of conditions and concepts beyond ourselves. Whether or not I accomplish that, I attempt it in each of my novels.”
Merry Jones has written the suspense novel THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, the Harper Jennings thrillers (SUMMER SESSION, BEHIND THE WALLS, WINTER BREAK, OUTSIDE EDEN), and the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS.) She has also written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.)
To learn more about Merry, please visit her website.