When Courtney Collins’ debut novel The Burial landed in my pile last month, it went straight to the top. Set in the early C20th, it’s inspired by the story of Australia’s last bushranger, Jessie Hickman. Jessie has done something she can’t turn back from, and spends the majority of the novel on the run. It’s blood, bone, grit and earth, but peacefulness too—the quiet of the dead; of being underground or being far above the world, far up the side of a mountain. The peace of an unexpected friendship, or for the other characters, a respite from your obligations: a beautiful tattooed woman; a drug haze.
Warren Ellis providing a cover quote for this novel may tell you more than even the quote itself. The Burial slots in nicely with contemporary Aus Gothic works like Chris Womersley’s Bereft, Patrick Holland’s The Mary Smokes Boys and films like The Proposition, while being entirely different; entirely Collins’ own. I asked her a few questions about the novel…
I want to ask first about the tone, and aesthetic, of The Burial. I feel it was important for you to get that right. I see it as Aus Gothic, almost glamorously gritty. Could you tell us a bit about this?
I’ve been interested in the Gothic, more particularly, the Southern Gothic, for a while. Initially, it wasn’t deliberate. Then one day I identified that my all-time favourite writers—Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, Cormac McCarthy, were all writing out of that tradition. So I began to look at why that was drawing me in.
For me, those writers give voice to characters who might be judged at first glance as ‘oppressed’. Often coming from poverty or violence, they don’t necessarily rise above it, as much as continue to move through it in a way that is dignified and surprising. Take the teenage Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, obsessive about music, longing for a piano and practicing for hours and hours a day, or Janie unashamedly sexual and aching for her own fulfilment in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Or John Grady Cole in All The Pretty Horses whose goodness comes from within, not from observing the laws or abiding the strictures of the day. You know, they’re all dancing to their own beat.
So The Burial has all of the tropes of the Southern Gothic—its full of hard-luck and derelict settings, racism and violence. There’s probably a whole thesis in how the Southern Gothic and the Australian Gothic differ (and it’s actually more satisfying to test it out in fiction) but I’ll have a go…
The way I think it is different is the relationship that settlers here have had with the landscape, and perhaps an abiding fear of it. Freud has an essay called ‘The Uncanny’ that describes it well, using the German word ‘unheimlich’, as in how the homely is made to be unhomely.
But I didn’t want to wall myself in with this idea. After all, the landscape invokes awe as much as fear. Besides, the characters are the thing. And they should rip right through it with no regard for the tropes of a genre!
Jessie is certainly ‘dancing to her own beat’ through the narrative, while being plagued by threat and danger. I suppose the term ‘survivor’ is too reductive, as you’ve explained the complexity of these kinds of characters above. But what drew you to her, specifically? How did she form?
In some ways, Jessie came to me fully formed. Jessie Hickman, the woman who inspired the story, was very, very good at escapes and true to form, in writing her there were times I found her illusive, and not wanting to be captured or conjured.
But there was a moment when we collided and in a sense I had to lend this character some of my own flesh and blood. And by that I mean I went through many experiences in my life while I was writing the book considering how Jessie would interpret events but more, how she would feel in this landscape or that and what would keep her spirit so tuned to life and surviving, when all around her, there is death.
Truthfully, when I finished writing the book, I felt bewildered by her absence, after being in her company for so long.
I rarely hear a writer admit that, about becoming attached to their character/s. What about the setting? Have you spent much time in that kind of landscape? And how did you recreate the era?
I’ve spent some proper time in the country. I grew up in a small country town in NSW and then after years of living in cities I began to really yearn for more space, for life in the bush. A lot of the novel was written where I live now, in an old postmaster’s cottage on the Goulburn River in Victoria.
Living here it’s not such a stretch to imagine the world of the novel. We still have to chop wood for fires, try to grow our own food and find ways to manage the isolation of it. It’s not until I drive into Melbourne that I actually notice how dusty and covered with dog hair I am.
Sounds lovely. I love the opening, with Houdini, and how it sits in the back of your mind throughout. A trick, a narrow escape and a gruesome surprise… Can I also ask about the unconventional choice of narrator, who comes in just after this?
When I had my first go at telling this story, I tried to tell it from Jessie’s first person p.o.v. I had her prison mugshot staring down at me and I laboured over the telling for about a year. It didn’t work at all. It was a first drawn out attempt and it was a failure. The reason it failed was because I was trying to put poetry and whimsy into this woman’s mouth yet what I was discovering about her character was that she was a woman of few words. Jessie is all about action. And in ways she was hardened. So to me, the baby was part of that buried self, that innocent trusting self that was so far from the Jessie that we meet. Thinking back, it was my first tingling moment, actually understanding what other writers talk about when they say they ‘discovered the voice’ of their novel. After acknowledging the failure and then pressing on came the voice of the kid. It was an insistent voice and my way of capturing it was to write it and then speak it aloud as the measure. It was a call to its mother. It had to be lyrical. It had to be sweet to the ear.
This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.