Hannah Kent: inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011

Hannah KentThe winner of the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011, Hannah Kent spent a transformative year at the age of 18 in Sauðárkrókur, Iceland as part of the Rotary Exchange Program.

During her time in the country, she came across the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1830. Fascinated by the tale, she returned to Iceland many times, researching the story of the last months of Agnes’ life which became the basis of her first book Burial Rites.

Currently completing her PhD at Flinders University in Adelaide, she is the co-founder and deputy editor of the Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings.

We interviewed her at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about her unique life journey and how Iceland came to dominate the life of a girl from the Adelaide Hills.

Click play to listen to the audio interview. Running time: 9.09

Burial Rites

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I’m about to have a chat to Hannah Kent. Her debut novel is, Burial Rites.

Hi, Hannah.

Hannah
Hello.

Danielle
Tell us a bit about the book first.

Hannah
Burial Rites is actually based on a true story. It takes the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was the last person to be executed on Iceland in 1830. So, Burial Rites reimagines what is the last six months of her life, after she’s been convicted of a brutal murder of two men and sent to be detained in custody in a small isolated farm house in the north of Iceland. And the book about her relationships with the people who are forced to look after her, with the priest who is sent to try and lead her towards redemption. And it also, of course, goes back to those events that led her to be in the situation that she is. So, that’s about as much as I can say without giving too much away.

Danielle
Why this story? It’s quite unique, it’s set in Iceland of all places. What appealed to you about this?

Hannah
It’s funny, to answer the question I probably have to take you back about ten years, I was an exchange student in Iceland for a year, when I was about 17 years old. And, it was during the first few months of my exchange that I heard this story, mainly because the site of this very famous last execution is really quite close to where I was living, in the north of Iceland. And, I remember asking about this particular site and being told a few bare facts about the crime, and really just being, I guess, interested by two things – one, I was really frustrated by how little information was available about this particular woman. There was quite a bit of information the men that were killed, and so on, but when she was present she was only really ever there as a caricature. And, I don’t personally believe that anyone is sort of unequivocally evil or monstrous, so this book really began as a desire to find her ambiguity, I guess to find her humanity. And, then four years later and two and a half years of research this is what happens.

Danielle
Actually, it’s interesting you mentioned the research because yesterday in a panel you described your approach to this book as research-led creative practise. Can you just explain what that means?

Hannah
I felt, I think particularly because I was writing a story from a country that wasn’t my own, and also because I didn’t necessarily know a great deal about it as I first decided to write this book, I decided that everything in the book would either be fact, so I couldn’t just decide to switch events around, or put something there that I knew couldn’t have happened. And, I also decided that in the areas where the facts were contradictory and no one really knew, I’d use broader research into Iceland in the 19th century to, I guess, think of the most logical or the most likely situation, and it was only in the outright gaps where I couldn’t find any information that I would be free to invent. So, this is how I felt I could walk that ethical tightrope.

Danielle
This is being translated to be published in Iceland, I understand.

Hannah
Yes.

Danielle
Were you conscious that this was going to have another audience when you were writing it?

Hannah
No. Well, I wrote it as part of a PhD, so I thought it would get me a qualification, I didn’t actually think it would be published. I didn’t think it was good enough. So, this is all a wonderful turn of events and a huge surprise to me.

But, of course I think whether or not I was going to write it for a publication, at the time I was still very aware of the fact that Icelanders might one day read it. I have Icelandic friends, they knew that I was researching it. And, also as a PhD, you know, even a thesis is available in the libraries, I think you always have to make sure that you’re ethically sound, you’re not going to step on too many toes. But, I am actually really interested to see how Icelanders will receive this story, because so many elements of the story, I think as many Icelanders know them, have been subverted. The facts are still there, but I guess the angle or the lens is slightly different. It’s a much more empathic portrayal of this woman, I like to think anyway, readers might disagree.

Danielle
You did just mention that you didn’t think it was going to be published. You actually won a manuscript competition that I guess gave you that path to publication. Just tell us about what that’s like and how that process helped you in writing this.

Hannah
Well, I wrote the first draft of this book and finished it in May 2011, and then I was sort of sick of the sight of it and put it away.

And it was during a conversation I was having with a colleague of mine who was asking how my writing was going, and I was saying, “Oh, I can’t even think about that, I’ve got these 100-word reviews due,” in an effort to boost up my resume and things. And, she mentioned this Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, and asked me if I was going to enter it now that I had an unpublished manuscript. I said, “Oh, no, I’ve got a deadline for a 20-word review that day,” and she said, “Look, I think there comes a time when you need to prioritise your own work. Tell the editor of that review that it’s going to come in late, rework your novel,” because I only had about five days to do this.

And, so that’s what I did. I cut about 20,000 words and entered the book, polished it as much as I could, and entered it with about fifteen minutes to go from deadline. And so that was really an exercise in, I guess, editing my own work. I needed the award, not so much because I thought I would win it, I certainly didn’t think that would happen at all, but I thought, “This will be a good deadline for me to return to it and to do some much needed rewriting.”

And, then of course when I won, that then lead to a mentorship with Geraldine Brooks, which was fantastic, and helped me again continue shaping the novel. And, also to an agent. So, I mean these sorts of awards are so important, they just help you get that foot in the door. Yeah, absolutely.

Danielle
When you were reworking the novel, working with Geraldine, were you also still working on the PhD? Did you have the same kind of pressures that you had when you were entering the manuscript?

Hannah
Well, I still haven’t finished my PhD, so it’s ongoing pressure, particularly now that I have so many other things that I need to do. Look, I do hope that one day I’ll be able to finish it.

I mean I think probably around the stage of my mentorship with Geraldine Brooks I started looking at the manuscript in a different light, before that it had been very much a way in which I could creativity demonstrate all of the other research I was doing, as a PhD student, as a research student, and then from that point on it started to be more, “What will examiners think of this?” And, “How can I demonstrate certain modes of representation?” all of that sort of thing to, “How will readers respond to it?” “What’s the human story in all of this?” I guess I started thinking of it for a different audience, and that did change certain things. Yeah.

Danielle
So are you planning on writing any more novels?

Hannah
I am, actually. I signed a contract for one, so I better get my act together and do one. Yeah.

So, my next novel, I’m still at the research stage. Again, I didn’t really set out to be historical novelist, but it seems that’s what has happened. It’s going to be, again, based on some real events, a hidden island, actually, around the same time. It’s based on a newspaper article I discovered when I was researching this book, and it kind of grabbed me in the same way this story did. So, I think I’ll be able to become obsessed with this enough to sort of maintain that level of interest over three years.

Danielle
It sounds like if you keep researching you’re just going to keep coming across more and more ideas, I suppose.

Hannah
That’s the plan.

Danielle
Just one final question, have you got any advice for new writers?

Hannah
Well, I was a new writer – I still am a new writer and up until recently I was very much a new, aspiring writer, and the thing that’s helped me the most has just been reading. I haven’t been writing for that long, but I’ve been reading for a very, very long time, and I think that’s made all of the difference in my own work. And, also persistence, you know? You can’t wait around for yourself to feel inspired to start writing, you need to treat it as a job, and every knock back you get – and I’ve had plenty of them – you’ve just got to pick yourself back up and keep on with it. That’s the only way. Yeah.

Danielle
Excellent advice. Thank you very much, and good luck with Burial Rites, it’s a fantastic book.

Hannah
Thank you so much. Thank you.


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