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Sarah-Jane Collins on her debut novel 'Radiant Heat'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sarah-Jane Collins' novel "Radiant Heat" begins with her protagonist, Alison King, who is an artist, still alive and finally breathing air after she's been hiding under a wet blanket from a wildfire. She begins to move around, then finds a car in her driveway. A woman is dead inside. She is a stranger to Alison. But why does she have Alison's name and address in her purse? "Radiant Heat" is set in Australia. It is the debut novel from Sarah-Jane Collins, an Australian writer who now lives in New York, and she joins us from our bureau there. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARAH-JANE COLLINS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The woman in the car has her name on her driver's license, Simone Arnold, and she does seem to have a lot of superficial traits in common with Alison, doesn't she?

COLLINS: She does. Yes. That's the intrigue that Alison has to wrestle with.

SIMON: What does she notice?

COLLINS: First, she notices that they both lived in Cairns, which is a smaller city in the north of Australia, quite far from where the book is set. She also notices that they're around the same age and that they sort of look a little similar to each other.

SIMON: What do the police make of the dead woman in the car who turns out to have all these potential connections with Alison?

COLLINS: They're pretty dismissive at first. They think that this woman is just trying to escape the fire, which, if you've ever been caught on a highway in the middle of a fire, you might turn up any street that is familiar to you. And because Alison panics a little when she finds her address in the woman's purse, at first the police don't even know that the woman was actually looking for Alison because she keeps that back, that information back just to herself, and she can't even really explain to herself why she does that. It's just an impulsive thing that she decides to do.

SIMON: Tell us about this part of Australia in which the story is set.

COLLINS: So the town itself does not exist. It's fake. But it's in the same region as a number of small towns that were ravaged by a very serious bush fire in 2009, which was known as the Black Saturday bush fire. That fire ripped through regional Victoria and killed 173 people. It was at the time the most devastating natural disaster bush fire that Australia had ever seen, and these towns that this - these fires happened in are kind of on the outskirts of Melbourne, which is the capital of Victoria.

SIMON: You were working at a newspaper then, weren't you, in 2009? Yeah.

COLLINS: Yeah, I was two years out of my cadetship as a journalist for The Age newspaper, which was Melbourne's broadsheet newspaper. And at the time of the fires, I was covering the County Court of Victoria, which is sort of the mid-tier court. And so I was not sent out to cover the actual fires. But I was then moved to the state politics office and spent most of the next year following the premier of Victoria around as he announced reconstruction projects. And so I met a lot of people who had been through those fires in the year after they occurred.

SIMON: And they stayed with you when writing this novel, in a sense.

COLLINS: They really did. And really it's my time working at The Age that informs most of this book - not just the fire, but also that time covering the court system and being exposed to some of the more upsetting elements of criminal law and seeing the extent of violence against women in Australia. Even when it is reported you don't really - you just get the tip. You're not seeing the whole iceberg, essentially. And so because I was sort of doused in it every single day, it was - it's quite confronting. And that was something that also stayed with me and very much informs what happens in "Radiant Heat."

SIMON: Yeah. Well, without giving too much away, we discover that Alison and Simone have that history in common, too, sort of, don't they?

COLLINS: Yes, yes. And that is part of, I think, what motivates Alison to try and find our way to find some sort of justice for Simone and also for herself. Whether or not she achieves that is also kind of something that I really wrestled with in writing the book because we often don't see justice in these situations.

SIMON: What are some of the many reasons that, at least as we've seen so far in our justice system, prevent that from being realized?

COLLINS: I think it's a really hard area of law. It's so personal. A lot of women are just unwilling to come forward in the first instance, and then when they do, there is a lot more doubt. I think we're quick as a society to not want to believe that the worst things are happening, and it becomes easier to say, oh, well, there isn't any evidence of this aside from what this person is saying. So, you know, beyond a reasonable doubt is very hard to achieve.

SIMON: May I ask, when you were a criminal courts reporter, was there a part of you that was preparing to become a novelist that was salting away information, stories, the look in people's eyes?

COLLINS: Yeah. I mean, I think if you're a good newspaper journalist, you should always be kind of squirreling that stuff away anyway to write your piece and to give people the color of the courtroom in a way that brings them into the space. So I guess I learned from some pretty grizzled court reporters the things to look for and to keep an eye on and not just how to take accurate shorthand notes of what people were saying, but to observe what else was going on around me. And I think as well, I became - personally became a newspaper journalist because when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a novelist, but I thought that wasn't really a financially sensible path. And so I decided what was the next best thing? It was to write for a newspaper. And that was obviously many years ago now, before the internet kind of destroyed traditional publishing. I sort of think that...

SIMON: Right, when that seemed like a good idea.

COLLINS: Yeah. Right, exactly. It's like - I feel like it's a bad joke now to say, oh, when I was a kid, I thought, I'll grow up and be a newspaper journalist 'cause that's a solid career path.

SIMON: Of course, a huge fire looms over the story as it has over much of Australia in recent years. And I was touched by some words you have near the end of this novel. Throw yourself on the mercy of the wind. How do we do that?

COLLINS: You know, when I wrote that, I was thinking a lot about some of the first-person accounts I read of Black Saturday where people talked about how literally they would not exist still today in the world if the wind had not changed at a certain moment in time, how out of our control, really, our lives can be, particularly in the face of sort of the - it's not the right word, but the awesomeness of such a powerful fire and how there's only so much you can do to protect yourself against really anything. You just have to have a little bit of faith in living, and hopefully you'll be OK.

SIMON: Sarah-Jane Collins - her novel "Radiant Heat" - thank you so much for being with us.

COLLINS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.