Author Interview: Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent is one of Adelaide’s own, and out on tour for the release of her debut novel Burial Rites, which I recently reviewed HERE. We were able to ask Hannah some questions about the book and her career, we hope you enjoy getting to know her better as much as we have.

What is the first writing you remember having published?

My very first publication was a creative non-fiction piece in a 2008 issue of the lit-journal Voiceworks. It was called ‘Raising Energy’ and was about Iceland’s emission-free geothermal energy industry. I remember being very excited to see my name in print on the cover. That never gets old, actually. I’m still excited to see my name in print.

Who do you think has had the greatest influence on your writing and your decision to pursue publication?

Tough question! I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was very little, but I remember being very inspired by Jo in Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women. Reading that book made me think more seriously about pursuing publication, because I identified with Jo and just as publication was her aspiration, so I realised it was mine.
In terms of authors who have had a big influence on my writing, there are a few people who come to mind. I went through a phase of adoring Annie E. Proulx, and emulated her style to the point where a tutor of mine, reading one of my short stories, guessed I was an admirer. Then I went through my ‘Janet Frame stage’. Virginia Woolf cast her influence over the way I considered the internal life of characters for some time. I love reading about other writers’ processes too – Margaret Atwood’s essays are still a big influence on the way I consider and approach my own writing.

Can you tell us a little about your debut novel ‘Burial Rites’?

In 1829, in Iceland’s far north, a servant woman called Agnes Magnúsdóttir was found guilty of murdering her employer as he lay sleeping. Immediately condemned by the small community she grew up in, she was sentenced to death. She would be the last person executed in Iceland. My novel, Burial Rites, is based on these true events.

In my book, the story begins with Agnes being taken to the small farm of Kornsá, where she must remain in custody until the date of her execution. Here she meets the farmer, his wife, and their two daughters. The family are horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, and avoid speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed as her spiritual guardian, is compelled to try and understand her. As winter descends and the hardships of rural life force everyone to work side by side, the family’s attitude to Agnes starts to change, until one night, she begins to tell her side of the story, and they realise that all is not as they had assumed.


This is an Icelandic tale, based on a true story, what can you tell us about why you decided to write this story?

I lived in a small town in north Iceland for a year when I was seventeen, as part of a Rotary Exchange. During the first dark, wintry months of my time there I happened to drive through a very striking place called Vatnsdalur. When I asked if the area was significant for any reason (it was covered in small hills that almost looked like burial mounds), my traveling companions told me that it was the site for the last executions in Iceland. They told me what they knew about the people who had been beheaded, and the murders that had led to their condemnation, and I became very curious about the woman they mentioned: a servant called Agnes. She had been the last person led out to the block. During the course of my exchange, and in the years that followed, my curiosity about this woman, and about the murders, deepened, and I ended up doing some light research into what happened.

As soon as I started this research into the murders and execution, I was struck by the way Agnes was either portrayed as a manipulative, evil woman, or was hardly mentioned at all. It was frustrating: where was the real Agnes? My decision to write about her life was triggered by a longing to find the real woman behind the stereotype. I wanted to discover something of her life story, explore her ambiguity and complexity, and counter the popular opinion of her as a monster.

‘Burial Rites’ won 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, can you tell us about the experience and was this the first competition you had entered?

I entered Burial Rites into the WAUMA award on the advice of a friend, who knew that I had finished the first draft of the manuscript. I remember protesting, arguing that I had too many deadlines coming up to re-draft the book, and that the closing date was only a week away. My friend told me to renegotiate my deadlines and spend the time working on a second draft, which is what I did. I cut about 20,000 words off the original manuscript, and entered it – along with a synopsis – into the competition 15 minutes before it closed. A few weeks later I got a phone call from Barbara Weisner, then-director of the SA Writers’ centre, informing I’d won out of over 400 entries from around Australia. I was so surprised, I remember asking someone to slap me.
The WAUMA award was the first competition I entered Burial Rites into, but it certainly wasn’t the first competition I ever entered. I have a whole folder of rejection letters, and ‘thank-you-for-entering-but-you-lost’ notices. I’m proud of them though. They make publication so much sweeter, and they remind me of how long I’m fought for it.

The book has also been sold in multiple different languages, can you tell us how many? When will the others publish? And how did that all come about?

Yes, I’m so thrilled to have my novel appear in so many languages – it’s something I never even dreamed of! I think it currently stands at sixteen languages, including Icelandic, which is especially gratifying for me personally. I know that the Dutch version of Burial Rites – De Laatste Rituelen – will be out in September of this year, but I’m not sure about the others. Probably from later this year, to the first half of next.
Burial Rites will also be published in the UK in late August, and in North America on September 10.

Do you have a set writing routine, is there something you must have to write?

Yes, when I’m writing or editing new material I always try to be at my desk by no later than 8.30am. If I can start at 7.30 I’m laughing. I’m much more a morning person than a night owl, and the writing always tends to come a little more easily, a little more organically, in the first half of the day. I’m useless between 2 and 4pm – I call these the ‘dead hours’. When writing Burial Rites I also used to aim for 1000 words of new writing each day. That way, even if the writing was terrible, there was always something to work with, or to go on with. I can’t start a morning of work without a coffee. Even if it sits there on my desk getting cold and horrible, it’s my little ritual and it seems to get me through.

Are you working on something new you can tell us about?

I’m currently researching my next book, which is still taking shape. This next one, which doesn’t have a title yet, will be set in Ireland in a similar historical time to Burial Rites – early nineteenth century. I’m not allowed to say too much about it, but I can tell you that it will again involve a crime that once occurred, and that it explores superstition.

What events and author talks do you have coming up?

I have quite a few, which I’m very excited about! I’m appearing at several sessions for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (May 20 – 26, NSW), but before then I’ll also be appearing in conversation with Angela Meyer at Readings Hawthorn (May 13, VIC), and at author events for Riverbend Books (May 15, QLD), Avid Reader (16 May, QLD), Mostly Books (May 20, SA), and Shearer’s Bookshop (27 May, NSW). I have all the details listed here:

You teach English and Creative Writing at Flinders Uni, what advice do you give to aspiring authors?

I think the best thing an aspiring author can do is read. It seems like obvious advice, but it’s really the only way you can work out what you like, find out why you like it, and see how you might start to write something similar. You’ll get a feel for things, and gain an instinct for good prose. I haven’t necessarily been writing for a long time, but I’ve been reading for a very long time – that, to me, has made all the difference in finding my own style and my own voice.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Probably not as much as some think. I love being a woman, and I’m fascinated with women’s stories – especially women’s stories that have not yet been properly told, or not yet been told by women – but being human means so much more to me. It’s the human experience that interests me as a writer.

Thanks for your time Hannah and good luck with the book tour. I look forward to your next release.

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