“Am I really going to tell a story from a dead-and-buried baby’s point of view?” Courtney Collins asked herself, early in the writing of her stunning debut novel, The Untold.
The author was a year into a fictionalized portrait of real-life Australian female outlaw Jessie Hickman. And to be perfectly honest, the story just wasn’t working.
“I felt very much in service to Jessie,” Collins recently told BookPage from her home in Victoria, Australia. “I wanted to give voice to her life, so I tried to write a first-person narrative from her point of view. And it was a spectacular failure. After all, I didn’t even know if Jessie was literate, let alone well-spoken, and here I was putting poetic musings into her mouth. It just didn’t seem authentic.”
So Collins did what any good MFA graduate would do: She gave herself a writing assignment.
“As I wrote, I learned that the greatest act of selfless love is to want freedom for someone else.”
“I decided to write a letter to Jessie from her dead baby. And out of that came a strong voice that I could really travel with. Out of that crisis came the book’s true narrator.”
The Untold is a difficult novel to pin down. On the one hand, it’s a classic Western: a lone ranger, a horse and life on the lam. On the other hand, it’s a decidedly modern take on gender, marginalization and the impossibility of freedom.
The book begins in 1921. In a mountain-locked valley deep in the Australian bush, 26-year-old Jessie is on the run. Her crimes include cattle-stealing, armed robbery and, oh yeah, killing her husband. Plus, she’s just given birth to a child she can’t keep. Think that’s intense? Within the few first pages, Jessie also slits the baby’s throat and rides off into the wilderness.
“Once I made the decision to tell the story the way I told it, really owning this voice seemed like the greatest risk,” says Collins. “Still, I thought it was important that I wasn’t constrained by Jessie’s ‘likeability.’ She’s not compassionate or maternal—and, in a way, that was freeing. As a storyteller, I had to really let it rip.”
Jessie's mug shot
Collins hails from the remote Hunter Valley where the novel takes place. And though she moved to Sydney as a young woman, she grew up hearing stories about the region’s famous “Wild Lady Bushranger.” As Collins tells it, the real Jessie Hickman was sold to the circus at a young age and had a successful career as a trick horse rider. But after the troupe fell on hard times, Hickman became an outlaw, rustling cattle and evading the authorities. She was arrested several times (“The fact that she committed so many crimes was helpful for research,” Collins admits. “She was well documented in police gazettes.”) and was later blackmailed into marrying one of her employers. Several years later, Hickman’s house burned down and her husband suspiciously disappeared.You can probably guess who became the prime suspect.
This amazing true premise is where The Untold begins. But Collins uses these facts as a springboard for her own writerly inventions. Of course, there’s the dead baby narrator, who forgives his mother’s desperate act—but she has also created two memorable foils to Jessie’s wild abandon. The first is Jack Brown, an Aboriginal horse-wrangler and Jessie’s secret lover. The second is Sergeant Andrew Barlow, a heroin-addicted lawman tasked with bringing her to justice. Both men want to rein Jessie in, to capture her. But as the novel progresses and they come closer to their mark, each begins to wonder at the value of his quest.
“I’m a sucker for a Western. I love the idea of the lone rider and his relationship with the land—what it means to be the outsider. But I don’t think it needs to be cowboys battling Indians. There’s something about loneliness and landscape that’s really at the core of it.”
“When writing this book, the question I grappled with was, Can a woman be free?” Collins explains. “And as I wrote, I learned that the greatest act of selfless love is to want freedom for someone else.”
The conflict between love and freedom is nothing new—we’re in solid John Wayne territory here. But what complicates Collins’ narrative is the people she’s chosen to zero in on: a woman, a black man and a drug addict. “In Australia, we have a dominant history, which is very much told by white settlers,” Collins says. “But I’ve always been more interested in alternative histories—histories told by aboriginals, by migrants, by women.” She laughs. “Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic school, and my education about these types of people was extremely moderate.”
Still, Collins is clearly indebted to the tradition she’s subverting. “I’m a sucker for a Western,” she admits. “I love the idea of the lone rider and his relationship with the land—what it means to be the outsider. But I don’t think it needs to be cowboys battling Indians. There’s something about loneliness and landscape that’s really at the core of it.”
Collins’ literary influences range from Cormac McCarthy and Patrick DeWitt to Zora Neale Hurston and Carson McCullers. Much like her idols, she’s deeply attuned to sound and poetics. “I do not know death as a river,” she writes, early in The Untold. “I know it as a magic hall of mirrors.” Later, she describes a woman in labor as moving “like a snake sliding out of old skin.”
But she’s quick to assert that it’s more than lyricism that compels her. “It’s the way characters are pitted against the world and the way they hold their form. That’s what I most admire when I read my favorite books.”
Collins is currently hard at work on a sophomore effort—this one about a peeping tom who walks the streets by night, peering in on strangers’ intimacies. She can hardly conceal her excitement when talking about the project—“I’m a full-time writer now!”—but she concedes that the process is often grueling.
“It’s that bricklaying thing,” she elaborates. “Turn up to it every day and lay something down. After all, writing isn’t a sprint; it’s a different kind of endurance.”
So how does she balance that day-by-day endurance with the thrill of publishing a highly acclaimed first novel? “Really my motto is just to serve my work when I’m doing it, and to live well when I’m not.”
Solid advice, for writers and outlaws alike.
Author photo credit Lisa Madden.