Courtney Collins’ first novel The Burial (Allen & Unwin 2012) was shortlisted for the Stella Award, The NSW Premiers’ New Fiction Award and the Dobbie Award. It has now been sold in 11 countries, including the UK, Germany, France, Spain and the US. It is currently being developed as a feature film by Pure Pictures/Renegade Films with funding from Screen Australia. She is currently at work on her second novel, The Walkman Mix. Her website is here, or follow her on Facebook (Courtney Collins) or Twitter (@cc_writer).
Did you grow up in a bookish house? What was your early relationship with books?
I spent my earliest years living with my grandparents and my mother. Both my grandmother and my mother read to me everyday and visiting the public library was a weekly thing. My grandfather, who is Irish, has a real gift of storytelling. The stories he told me as a child were so fanciful but beautifully detailed in the way he described place. I didn’t realise then how much he missed his homeland and that these stories were his way of remaining connected to it.
Even so, I knew that stories came from a deep place.
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
I was always enchanted by the material aspects of writing – books, paper, pens, typewriters, printing presses. Now I try not to hold onto writing in a serious way but just to stay open to its enchantment.
How did The Burial come to be published?
I wrote the book on and off for a period of seven years. I sent off a draft to the Australian Vogel Literary Award and it was shortlisted. At the Vogel party, I ran into an old friend from uni, Benython Oldfield. I hadn’t seen him for many years. In that time he’d become a literary agent and set up his own agency Zeitgeist Media Group. He suggested I send him the manuscript of The Burial, which I did. Shortly after that, he helped me line-up the editor Clara Finlay who, more than anything, asked me some cracking questions about the manuscript. This inspired revisions. Benython then set up an auction with Australian publishers who he thought would be interested in the book and there were four bidders. Any of those bidders a debut novelist would have been thrilled about. But for a long time I had been my crossing my fingers that Jane Palfreyman from Allen & Unwin would make a good offer and she did. So, it was an easy decision for me to make. The book came out in Australia in September in 2012 and it’s been on a great ride since. It’s been well reviewed, shortlisted for a number of prizes and optioned for a film. The book has now been sold in eleven regions and next week I am going to the US for a book tour.
Have you had any surprising or unusual reader responses to The Burial?
My experiences in the US may top this, but to date, the most surreal encounter was with a group of women in a car park. I just finished doing a reading and Q & A in a community hall as part of a book tour that I was doing in regional NSW. There were about half a dozen women and they came up to me as I was getting into my car and said, “Why did you kill the baby?” (The narrator of The Burial is a dead baby.) I tried to wriggle out of it by saying something like, I didn’t kill the baby, my character did…But the experience reminded me that people do take their fiction very seriously. Which is what you want as a writer, really.
What are your writing habits?
Because I was working full-time in a day job when I was writing The Burial, I would set up writing intensives for myself when I could get time off work. So the process would be immersive. Now, I am working on a novel full time. It’s a very different rhythm. When I’m not doing the rounds of The Burial, I do my best to turn up to it every day, 9 to 5-ish. I do love the concept at least of eight hours of work, rest and play. But it’s me managing myself and sometimes I sway.
What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
I’ve never felt creatively stuck. My instinct is to write and my pressing challenge is more how to deal with the isolation that writing necessitates.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel, The Walkman Mix. Again, it’s a kind of Western with a touch of Southern Gothic.
What’s your favourite book by an Australian female author?
I couldn’t possibly name just one, so I’ll name some of the books that have really gotten under my skin: Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers, Sally Morgan’s My Place, Ruby Langford’s Don’t Take My Love to Town, Dorothy Porter’s The Bee Hut, Inga Clendinnin’s Dancing With Strangers, Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel, Hanna Kent’s Burial Rites…
I know I’ll regret this list tomorrow. Because there’ll be a dozen more that I’ve remembered.
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. She has had short fiction and commentary published in Westerly and Southerly and holds a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University.