'I barely slept and I couldn't afford to eat.' The reality of moving overseas to chase a dream.

From the moment I first learnt how to write, it was all I ever wanted to do. I wanted to write novels, since I loved reading them so much, and I wanted to live in New York City

Why, I wasn't sure actually — I was just drawn there. It called to me. It was a place where people went to follow their dreams. It sounded big and dirty and hard, and I wanted to be amongst that more than I wanted anything in the world.

But the dreams we have as children rarely end up being the dreams we follow as adults. And the older I got, the more unsure I became that I could ever pull off something so seemingly out of reach for a kid from the south side of Brisbane.

I decided to be a journalist, instead of a novelist.

It's more secure, I told myself. And it was, in the 1990s when I decided on it. In the decades since then it has become decidedly less so. 

I moved to Sydney to go to university because I still craved the messy chaos of the biggest city I could find, and in Australia, that was Sydney. After I finished university, I got a cadetship in Melbourne. I still dreamed of living in New York one day, I just had to do this first. 

University Graduation. Image: Supplied


When I finished my cadetship, I became the Victorian County Court reporter for The Age, and I covered the courts for more than a year. Sex crimes, violent crimes, desperately sad crimes. I learnt that what we report is the tip of the iceberg and a lot of what we can't will break your heart. I was typically filing one to three stories a day, and that continued throughout the time I worked at the paper, as I moved into the state politics office, and then onto the education round.

I wrote a lot, I learned a lot about how to write, and I met so many people in the course of my day-to-day reporting work, I felt like the world had been cracked open.

I left the paper to work at a long-form journalism start-up in Sydney. I was nearly 30, I wanted to write longer pieces, and I wanted to work at a less daily pace. I missed my friends in Sydney, after some big life changes in Melbourne, an internet start-up seemed like a good career move.

But within a year, the place had been restructured twice, and half of us got let go a week before Christmas. I hadn't been unemployed since my 15th birthday. I went home to Brisbane for the holidays and licked my wounds. I was terrified and furious, and I began to feel like I was living the wrong life.


Still, I headed back to Sydney and freelanced, managing to keep my head above water while I looked for a full-time job. I had time to think about words in new ways and I began to write fiction for myself. Short stories and little vignettes, and then, one day a chapter of something I knew was much bigger. 

I began to dream again, like I had as a little girl. I wanted to write fiction. I wanted to live in New York; I wanted to try and be the person she'd imagined I would be.

Watch the official Past Lives trailer. Post continues below.

Video via A24.

In the Oscar-nominated Past Lives, Nora/Na Young, played by Greta Lee, is just a child when her family emigrates to Canada from Seoul. As a young adult she leaves her adopted home behind to move to New York City to become a writer. When her childhood sweetheart asks her why she wants to move away from Korea, she says it's because she wants to win a Nobel prize for literature.

When they reconnect via social media after she moves to New York, he asks her again what motivated her. Was it the Nobel? These days, she tells him, she's more interested in the Pulitzer. But when the two finally reconnect in person, Nora is an established playwright, and she says she doesn't think about prizes so much anymore.


"It's true that if you leave, you lose things, but you also gain things too," Nora’s mum says, reflecting on immigrant life to her daughter.

I moved to New York City in August 2016. It was hot and muggy like a Brisbane summer day. My downstairs neighbours invited me to dinner, and I still remember the strange smell of the room I was renting, that was somehow always there, even after I nested.

I was working full-time as an editor and journalist, while studying for a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at Columbia University. I barely slept, I couldn't really afford to eat, and I once fell asleep on the downtown 2 train coming back from Columbia late at night, and woke up in deep Brooklyn, with no idea how to get home.

It was one of the best years of my life.

I made new, incredible friends. I read more than I had in years. I wrote and wrote and wrote. But then the website I worked for shut down and I was once again thrown into chaos. I scrambled to get a new visa, to secure the funds to keep studying, and somehow, with a lot of help, I managed to make it work. I managed to stay and finish my MFA, and finish a first draft of my book.

By then I had been in New York for two years — and I never, ever wanted to have to leave. I found work to pay the bills, and I continued to develop my novel.

What no one tells you about childhood dreams is that when you finally get what you think you wanted, nothing magical happens. You just… adjust, and you look ahead again to what else could be next, while also wondering if it was worth sacrificing what you had to.

Living in New York has made me happier than I've ever been, but I also missed two grandparents' funerals, and the births of a lot of my closest friends' children. And sometimes it's been really, truly horrible. 


In 2020, I was stuck in Brooklyn alone in a tiny apartment with my cat for most of the year, dodging COVID. I would lie in bed listening to the sirens in the night, wondering if I'd made a huge mistake staying when there had been a moment where I could have left.

But I got an agent, and we worked on my book together, and then, when it was ready, we sent it out to publishers. Not two weeks later, I got the call that there was real interest, that the book would sell — I couldn't believe it was real. That little girl in my heart was doing backflips.

My novel, Radiant Heat, draws on my experiences reporting on violence against women and the Black Saturday bushfire recovery. Two things I did during my time in Melbourne at The Age. It uses the tropes and tricks of a conventional thriller to delve into the impact of grief and trauma on an individual and community level. It looks the violence of the Australian landscape and Australian masculine culture right in the eye, and it is a tribute to all the strong, wonderful, resilient people (most of them women) who I met as a journalist.

I began writing it in a past life, as an underemployed journalist in Sydney in 2013. I finished it in this one — as a writer in New York. Bringing it to life is one of the hardest things I've ever done.

But also one of the very best.

Radiant Heat by Sarah-Jane Collins is out now, you can buy it here. 

Feature Image: Supplied.