Interview with "Burial Rites" author Hannah Kent

Bound to be one of this year's most talked about books, Burial Rites is Hannah Kent's first novel and is based on the true story of the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland in 1829.
Hannah is the co-founder and deputy editor of the literary journal Kill Your Darlings.  In 2011, she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, which brought about an international bidding war for publishing rights.
Hannah very kindly agreed to answer some questions for our blog.

Congratulations Hannah on your first novel.  As deputy editor and co-founder of the literary journal Kill Your Darlings, you are no stranger to publishing.  However, was it a little daunting crossing over from editor to published novelist?

HK: Thank you!  I started working on Burial Rites and Kill Your Darlings at the same time, so I never really felt as though I was crossing from one side of the industry to another.  If anything, I think the editorial skills I honed as deputy editor of KYD made me able to appraise and edit my own work more efficiently.  Similarly, as an aspiring writer, I always felt an affinity with those who submitted their work to KYD, and edited their stories with this in mind.  It was a harmonious to-ing and fro-ing between both sides of the fence.  Publishing a first novel has been daunting, but for other reasons!

Your central character, Anges Magnusdottir, was one of the last people to be executed in Iceland. How did you hear of her story and what compelled you to write about it?

HK:  I first heard about Agnes Magnusdottir and the murders committed at Illugastadir when I was living in Iceland ten years ago, as a 17 year old exchange student.  The first few months of my stay there had been quite difficult:  It was winter, the days were gripped by darkness for up to twenty hours at a time, and I felt both conspicuous yet isolated as a foreigner in a small northern Icelandic town.  It was during this early time of loneliness that I was driven through a strange tract of land with my host parents - a valley mouth covered in hundreds of small hills.  Asking my host parents if the area was significant for any reason (I thought the hills looked like Viking burial mounds), they told me that it was the site of the last execution in Iceland.  Immediately intrigued, I pressed them for details, and learned that it had been a woman.  Agnes had been a 34 year old servant, condemned for the murder of her employer.  I think I must have seen something of my own experience of loneliness in her story and in the isolated place of her death, for thoughts of her haunted me during the rest of my exchange, and also in the years that followed.
I eventually decided to write Agnes' story after being continually frustrated by portrayals of her as an unequivocal evildoer - the orchestrator of an attack on two sleeping, defenceless men - in accounts of the crime and execution.  Burial Rites was my attempt to find the human being behind the stereotype of Agnes as a monstrous woman.  I suppose I wanted to give her an opportunity to tell her side of the story.

Much of Burial Rites is written from a first person perspective - Agnes' perspective.  How difficult was it to strike the right tone with Agnes' voice?  And were you worried about giving her a sympathetic back story considering her notorious status in Iceland?

HK:  Agnes' voice arrived very organically.  My first attempts at writing this story were first-person poems, and while I soon realised that I needed to turn to prose, I think something of that early lyricism remained in Agnes' first-person passages.  There were times during the writing process when I had no idea how to structure scenes, or how I'd bring it all together, but Agnes' voice never gave me any trouble.  It was always there - I felt I knew her intimately enough to write her first-person passages intuitively.
I didn't set out to give Agnes a sympathetic back story.  Much of what is there is either fact or likelihood, suggested by my research - it's true she had a tough childhood.  I haven't conscientiously sought to make her sympathetic - I never wanted to protest her guilty conviction - rather I wanted to explore her ambiguity and motivations.  My approach was one of empathy, rather than sympathy, and I think the distinction is a necessary one.  That said, I do wonder whether some Icelanders will take issue with the way I've portrayed certain historical characters - some of whom might be descendants!  I guess I'll have to wait and see.  At the end of the day, it's a work of fiction based on research and speculation, and I hope people will understand that.  I don't pretend to be a historian.

You are taking part in an event at the Sydney Writer's Festival called "Love Letter to Iceland".  Without giving too much away before the festival, can you tell us what is it that excites you as an author about the Icelandic experience?

HK:  I loved living in Iceland as an exchange student, despite those early months of loneliness, and I've been there four times or so now.  There is simply no other place on earth like it.  The landscape, particularly, gets under your skin.  When I first saw the extraordinary vista of the north country, with its sweeping glacial valleys and vast skies interrupted only by the snow-covered mountains, it felt like a homecoming - it felt spiritual.  Then there is the history, the sagas, the ancient, unchanged language - you feel the stories of this place under your feet.  There is a literary heartbeat to Iceland.  This is what excites me as an author about the Icelandic experience - the depth of feeling the place inspires in me.

You won an award in 2011 for your unpublished manuscript which became hotly sought after.  How important do you think these types of awards are for writers trying to find publishers?

HK:  They're crucial.  The Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award was my foot in the door, in that it attracted some early publisher interest, and allowed me to sign with an agent.  The prize money is always useful for a writer - we're all looking to buy time to write - and the mentorship with Geraldine Brooks was an extraordinary experience, but the attention and wider opportunities awards such as these bring is truly of most benefit to an emerging writer.  I have no doubt that, had I not received the WAUMA, Burial Rites would not be published today.

It will be a wonder if you have time to read at all, but I'll ask anyway.  Are you reading anything of note right now?

HK:  I've slipped into my old bad habit of reading one hundred books at once - there's just so many wonderful stories out there, and I'm very greedy for them all.  On my bedside table, all stuffed with bookmarks at various intervals, are Galore by Michael Crummey, The Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry, Astray by Emma Donoghue, Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy and the remarkable A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard.  They're all fantastic.

Burial Rites in store now $32.99.