SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Jesse is on the run. She's been a horse wrangler and a horse thief, a trick rider, a cattle wrestler, and a fugitive in the Australian outback. Two men seek her now - Jack Brown, a hired hand who is half aboriginal and who worked for the horse trader who once abused Jesse and enslaved her in marriage - and Sergeant Andrew Barlow, an Australian lawmen serving in the remote outback because of a habit he cannot break.
"The Untold" is a sprawling novel - for once, that's no cliche - that ranges over mountains, valleys, and sometimes unspeakable emotions. It has been highly acclaimed in Australia and Europe and is now published in the United States. It is the debut novel by Courtney Collins, who lives on the Goulburn River in the region of Victoria, Australia. She joins us from the studios of the ABC in Sydney. Thanks so much for being with us.
COURTNEY COLLINS: Hi, Scott. Thanks for your interest in my novel.
SIMON: How much is the Jesse of your novel the real-life Jesse Hickman who, as I understand it, was a trick rider and a horse wrestler and a fugitive?
COLLINS: Yes, she was. Well, the novel is inspired by her, her true life, her lived life. And in terms of, you know, the bare bones of the story, it's all there. You know, she was sold to a circus when she was young. She kind of got into stealing horses and cattle when the circus came on hard times. She spent time in jail. She was apprenticed to this brutish man.
SIMON: We'll stipulate, by the way, for our listeners, this story takes place in the 1920's, as did the real-life story of Jesse Hickman. Your choice of a narrator, I think, is - it's rough stuff. Can we give that away?
COLLINS: When I first approached the story and sat with it - and my instinct was to write it from Jesse's point-of-view, you know, to give this woman a voice. But all of this kind of whimsy and poetry that I was trying to put in her mouth just seemed very inauthentic. And I had her prison mug shot, you know, staring down at me above my desk. So I really had to make good.
And I guess the more I was coming to understand Jesse and the person that she was, she was really - she was a woman of action, just not a woman of words. And it felt to me that she had to bury something of herself to be that woman in the world. And I began to think of, you know, what was that part of herself that she'd actually buried and how could I give that a voice. So the way the story is told - it's told from her child's point of view, and her child is in the grave.
SIMON: After just a few hours.
COLLINS: After just a few hours.
SIMON: Did you worry that - because my first reaction - and I grew to cherish much about Jesse - but my first reaction - it's very difficult to root for a narrator who's just slaughtered her baby.
COLLINS: You know, I really took that moment as an act of extreme compassion. She's looking down at her child who's born two months premature in a far off kind of country outpost where the child is certainly not going to survive the night. And it's little lungs are filling with fluid, and she's looking at her child and knowing that she has hours of suffering ahead of her. And she - I take as an act of extreme love - kills the child and buries it.
SIMON: Yeah. I gather you grew up in country like this riding horses.
COLLINS: I did. I did. I grew up not far from where the novel is set, actually. So I spent lots of years looking at those mountains and imagining the tales within them. And it wasn't until I was in my teenage years that I first heard the story of Jesse Hickman. She was not just a wild woman but someone who really, every step of the way, kind of tooth and nail, was fighting for freedom and her life.
SIMON: But let me try and draw you out a little bit on that, because when you talk about her fighting for freedom, we're talking about a woman who, given the time in which he was living, seemed to go, even when she was a circus performer, was going from what we might nowadays consider one form of almost indentured servitude to another.
COLLINS: Well, it really begins, you know, she's 12 years old and sold to a circus by her mother. And moving from there to being in prison and then being released into the care of this brutish man in something like slavery. And so this instinct for freedom was, you know, one that was rising in her through years of being thwarted and years of being denied. And she lights out. He escapes all civilization, really. She heads for the hills, and she - from then on, she lives life in a cave. And her good fortune is that she finds good company.
SIMON: Courtney Collins. Her first novel drawing high praise, "The Untold." Thanks so much for being with us.
COLLINS: Thank you, Scott. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.