Hannah Kent is one impressive 32 year old, with honours for her first book, Burial Rites, including winning the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, The Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier’s People’s Choice Award. It was also shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Since then, Kent has written the equally wonderful (IMHO) The Good People and co-founded the Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings in 2010. She is also completing a creative writing PhD at Flinders University. Yes, enough already.
In true literary groupie style, I attended two of Hannah’s talks during the Clunes Booktown Festival on the weekend of May 6 and 7. Hannah spoke about the writing process, her inspiration and her two books, Burial Rites and The Good People. For all of those who weren’t there, here are some of the themes from the books that she spoke about.
Landscape – I didn’t catch who had originally said it, but Hannah mentioned the quote, “Landscape is destiny” in both of her talks, and clearly this idea informed both of her novels. The landscape and its impact on the communities in Iceland (Burial Rites) and Ireland (The Good People) plays a central role, particularly due to its harshness in these places. The landscape was something that couldn’t be ignored or avoided, as Hannah illustrated when she said that women would have walked barefoot through snow to get to the market. During modern times in which we are largely insulated against the conditions, this image is an evocative one.
However, it was not just the harshness of the landscape that resonated in these novels, but also its beauty. Throughout the books there is a consistent appreciation of the natural world, which was also demonstrated in Nance’s use of herbs to heal the community in The Good People.
Good and bad – Hannah’s book both feature women who have been accused of committing terrible crimes. In Burial Rites, Agnes has committed a murder, while in The Good People, Nora has been involved with the death of her grandson.
But in the books, the characters of the women are ambiguous; they are not presented as being evil, and neither are they blameless.
Hannah concentrates on exploring the humanity of the women, and the influences that led them down the paths they eventually followed. She said that in writing the books she aimed to move beyond stereotypes and clichés and show the women as they were, in all their flawed and troubled humanity.
Hannah nominates Margaret Atwood in inspiring her to write about ambiguous heroes through her book, Alias Grace, which she read as a teen while on exchange in Iceland.
The writing process – It was intriguing to hear about the process that went into writing these novels. Hannah began Burial Rites as part of her PhD, after she was inspired by Agnes’ story while in Iceland. She researched meticulously, exploring how people lived at the time and in that landscape. She even met the descendants of one of the characters in Burial Rites.
She said that writing the books took two years, during which time she produced between 12 and 14 drafts (I can’t remember which number correspondent to which book). To help her keep up momentum, she set herself the challenge of writing 1,000 words a day, and eventually she reached 120,000 words. She said that while she might not be the best writer, she was an excellent re-writer, which was crucial in the completion of the book.
Kinship systems – The value of kinship and the consequences of being without kin was a recurrent them in Hannah’s books. Agnes found herself alone and unwanted after her mother left her when she was six years old. The impact of being an orphan at the time were brutal, with children handed between families who had no say in their roles as foster carers. The absence of ties and the financial and emotional support these systems would have provided were significant in informing Agnes’ fate.
The importance of kindship was also an underlying theme in The Good People, especially for Nance, who held a precarious position in the community due to her lack of family. As a result, Nance is often a source of suspicion and lives a largely solitary life.