Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites
Tell us about your latest creation…
My debut novel is called Burial Rites, and takes place in Iceland, in the early nineteenth century. It tells the story of Agnes, a servant woman who has been sentenced to death for her role in the brutal murder of two men. In the absence of a prison, she is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on a northern farm. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family 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.
Burial Rites is actually based on true events. I lived in Iceland when I was a teenager, and heard the story of the murders then. Not only was I fascinated by the crime, but I became very curious about one of the women involved: Agnes. Writing this book was my attempt to more fully understand this mysterious historical figure. Many historical records tend to demonise Agnes, which I disagree with. My motivation to write the book came from a desire to explore her humanity, and her complexity.
Where are you from / where do you call home?
I was raised in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, where I’m now living again after a few years in Melbourne. I loved the inner-city life – the buzz and culture – but there’s something to be said for having a veggie patch, fruit trees, and a lot of wildlife on your doorstep. It’s nice being close to so many wineries too…
I can’t remember not wanting to be an author. I’ve always wanted to write, although I understood from an early age that I’d probably need another job to pay the bills. So, I’d go from wanting to be an author and a teacher, to an author and a geologist, to an author and a doctor – but the aspiration to become an author was constant.
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?
I’m not sure that I’ve written enough to be able to consider what might be best! I’m very proud of my debut novel, Burial Rites, but I’m also looking forward to challenging myself and improving as a writer.
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?
I wrote Burial Rites in a converted walk-in wardrobe in Melbourne, and my current office is not too dissimilar! I have a large desk (important for when I need to spread things out) squeezed against a window. I need a source of natural light. There’s a lot of things up on the wall – maps, photos, notes – and I have a few bookshelves close to hand. It’s not too cluttered, but I do have piles of reference books everywhere, which I frequently knock over by accident. I’m quite clumsy.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?
Whatever is at hand! Whether I’m writing or not, my reading habits remain the same. The only difference is that I might be reading extra material for research when writing. Oh, and I also read more poetry when I’m writing – it reminds me to pay attention to the rhythm of my prose. As for particular genres, I tend to read literary fiction, although occasionally I’ll let someone persuade me into reading a crime novel, or speculative fiction, or fantasy. I’m currently reading a lot of fantastic Irish authors – Emma Donoghue, Colm Toibin. It’s getting me in the spirit to start my next book, which will be set in Ireland.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?
I was a very big reader of Enid Blyton as a child, and ‘Little Women’ was really important to me in my formative years. I went through a stage where I would read it once a month, just because I loved the characters so much. I saw myself in them.
If you were a literary character, who would you be?
A certain six year old in my life recently told me that I’m exactly like Hermione in Harry Potter. He’s probably right. I’m a bit of a know it all, I don’t brush my hair very often, and I could imagine nothing better than spending hours and hours in a library.
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?
I’m learning Swedish at the moment! I like to learn practical skills. I’ll go through a phase of bread baking, then I’ll decide I want to build a worm farm, then I’ll make a lot of jam. I don’t usually admit to it, but I also play the tin whistle, and I’m learning the guitar. I’m not always so industrious though. I do spend a lot of time watching films and frittering hours away on the internet.
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?
That’s a hard one. I’m a big coffee-drinker, and I do love a nice glass of red. Sometimes the simple things can be the best. I can get very enthusiastic about a well-buttered piece of toast.
Who is your hero? Why?
I have many heroes, and all of them are kind, gentle, curious people who make the world a better place through the little acts of compassion they perform every day. None of them are famous. You wouldn’t know them if you saw them. But they’re extraordinary in the way they give to others and lead by example.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?
Ooh, tough one. I’m not one of those who like to go around prophesying the death of the book. I don’t think humans will ever be able to quench their need for storytelling, nor do I believe we will every stop reading. I do think, however, that it is crucial for bookstores, publishers and authors to evolve and adapt to suit changing technologies and reading habits. Adapt or perish – I think that’s a good motto for these uncertain times we’re in.