I have a faith in fiction – that it allows us to understand ourselves better

Courtney Collins is an Australian writer. The Untold is her first novel.

Did Jessie Hickman really exist?

Yes, she really did exist. The real life Jessie Hickman was born in 1890 and died in 1936. She was a circus performer, a skilled horsewoman and then a horse and cattle thief. In Australia at the time ‘rustling’ was judged to be the worst of crimes. Consequently, Jessie faced trial many times under different aliases – Jessie Bell, Jessie Hunt, Jessie Payne. Most often the evidence (a horse or cow) went missing or she performed some elaborate escape.

How did the novel come to life?

I grew up near the area Jessie Hickman had once roamed in. So, once I heard the story, she occupied a large part of my imagination. I took my time, but the idea of her – a wild woman living in a mountain cave stealing horses and cattle to survive, was a very fertile seed.

You chose a buried baby as the narrator, assassinated by the mother who is also the heroin of the story. Where does this choice come from?

The voice of the child was the only way I could tell this story. At first I had wanted to give voice to Jessie herself but I discovered that she was very much a woman of action rather than words. It seemed inauthentic to represent her any other way. Whereas the child represents that part of Jessie that, due to the brutality of her life, was long buried. In my mind Jessie and her child make a whole. The child is able to tell something of the inner world of Jessie, and indeed all of the characters, from the numinous world it occupies. The child is like a tracker on its own mother’s trail.

All of the protagonists are adults formerly abandoned or kidnapped when they were children. Was life very harsh in 1920’s South Wales?

There are pockets of Australia that are still very harsh and some of our social polices reflect that. The world of this novel is a hyper-reality set in a valley populated by abandoned children and adults. The harshness comes from their isolation and also the fact that they are forgotten. Some of the inhabitants, such as the marauding packs that are in pursuit of Jessie, have lost their humanity. They are void of empathy and compassion. It’s too late for them.

From the moment Jessie meets the gang of children, the novel gets less gloomy. Incidentally, the voice of the narrator is less present. Nature reasserts itself and manages to marginalize hostility, which is however still there, and even more present with the manhunt. Is the Australian bush the second protagonist in the novel?

The landscape itself acts as a kind of mirror, reflecting wonder as much as despair. But for some characters, such as Jessie, Jack Brown and the child, it is even more than a mirror. It is the landscape that they are most intimate with. It is their constant and nourishing companion.

Houdini is the name you gave to Jessie’s horse. Houdini was a famous magician, the king of escape, like the heroin of this novel.
Is it the role of a writer to make the reader get away from his everyday life?

I wonder if it is more the writer’s job to shirk roles?
But to try to answer your question: Certainly, to enter the world of a novel is to temporarily escape the demands of life. But I have a faith in fiction – that it allows us to understand ourselves better. So the paradox is that fiction can help us to face the reality of life and be just a little bit braver in authoring our own lives.