Debut Author Snapshot: Hannah Kent

Posted by Goodreads on August 27, 2013
Hannah Kent Beheaded with an ax on a snow-covered hillside in 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person executed in Iceland. Nearly 200 years later the story of this condemned woman's death haunted young Australian exchange student Hannah Kent, whose interest grew into ten years of archival research, then Ph.D. work, and finally a novel, Burial Rites. Kent's historical mystery, a "whydunit," fleshes out the circumstances that led to the double homicide of two men, one of them Agnes's employer and former lover, and Agnes's vilification as a notoriously demonic "murderess." Her final days spent awaiting execution at a remote Iceland farm are told in lyrical prose.

When not working on her second novel, Kent is completing her doctorate at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, where she also teaches creative writing. She shares her inspiration for re-creating the bleak and arduous conditions of daily life in rural 19th-century Iceland.

Goodreads: Iceland is a long way from Australia! Tell us how you first became interested in Iceland and Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

Hannah Kent: I lived in Iceland for a year as an exchange student, about ten years ago. I had finished high school in Australia and, restless to go somewhere "different" before I settled down to further study, applied for a Rotary exchange. I asked to be considered for countries known for their winters; I was determined to see snow for the first time. As a result, in 2003, I was sent to a small fishing town in the north of Iceland.

An Icelandic vista. (Credit: Angharad Lloyd.)
The first few months of my exchange were difficult for me. My homesickness was compounded by the long hours of darkness, and I struggled with being the "outsider" in town, with all the conspicuity and social isolation that entailed. It was during this time that my host parents drove me through a very striking valley called Vatnsdalur. Astonished by the hundreds of small hills that rose up at its entrance, I asked them if the place was significant for any reason. They replied that it had been the site of Iceland's last execution. A woman called Agnes Magnúsdóttir had been beheaded there for her role in the murder of two sleeping men.

Perhaps I saw something of my own loneliness in the story of a woman cast out of society, because I immediately became deeply curious about Agnes. What circumstances had contributed to her death upon those strange hills? What sort of woman had she been? As my exchange continued and I fell in love with Iceland, my desire to understand this historical figure continued. In the years that followed I tried to find out as much as I could about her and was struck by the way she was often portrayed in unequivocal terms: as black hearted and evil. Burial Rites was written out of a desire to undo the popular stereotype of Agnes as a monster. I wanted to discover a little of her ambiguity, her complexity, and her humanity.

GR: One Goodreads reviewer writes, "Burial Rites suggests that truth is open to interpretation and is rarely as straightforward as commonly perceived." Do you agree? How do you view the relationship between fiction and truth telling?

HK: I agree wholeheartedly! How easy it is to forget that history is penned by a human hand and subjective to bias, prejudice, politics, and various ideologies. It is imperfect and fallible. Many of the early historical sources I read about Agnes Magnúsdóttir—and the murders she was accused of—claimed that she was a "spider," a "witch," and a "devil." These sources claimed to be truthful, and yet to my eyes they were clearly influenced by the (archaic) notion that if a woman is not an angel, she is a demon. They didn't discuss the social, political, or cultural conditions that might have contributed toward a servant woman's involvement in the murder of her employer.

The more research I conducted into the events involving Agnes Magnúsdóttir's trial and execution, the more I came to understand the difficulty of establishing a singular truth. Errors and contradictions abounded. Some sources actually got the execution date wrong. I came across completely different accounts of Agnes's priest's behavior at the execution. Had I been writing a book of nonfiction, it might have been problematic, but in literature emotional truth is more important than factual truth.

A novelist is not obligated to always get the facts right, but if he or she wishes to suggest that something is truthful, he or she must also alert the reader to the fact that it is merely an interpretation. Burial Rites is an interpretation of historical events that presents certain emotional truths, but in many ways it's as imperfect a retelling as the nonfiction sources it contests because it is informed by my own contemporariness and my own belief system. It's researched, but it's subjective.

GR: You conducted extensive research as part of your doctoral work, not only into Agnes's history, but also what it was like to live in Iceland in the 1800s. What key details helped bring the setting alive in your mind?

HK: Living in Australia, I found it was initially very difficult to access the sources I needed to research Agnes's life. While I waited for an opportunity to travel to Iceland and visit the national museums and archives, I spent a great deal of time reading everything I could get my hands on about life in early 19th-century Iceland. I devoured history books, the sagas and fiction by authors such as Halldór Laxness, and read academic articles about everything from smallpox epidemics to infant mortality statistics to sheep-grazing techniques. Recipes for moss porridge and blood sausage, old newspapers, poetry, song lyrics—if it was about Iceland, I read it! It was an enjoyable process, but a slow one, as a great deal of my material required translation.

A preserved baðstofa, a heated room. (Credit: Angharad Lloyd.)
The most useful resources I discovered were diaries and journals written by foreign scientists visiting Iceland in the early 1800s. Most of my questions concerned mundane domestic information—What did people eat? Did the men shave? How did they celebrate Christmas? Did they use chamber pots, and if so, were they wood and how heavy would a full one be?—and I found my answers in the private observations of British gentlemen touring the country in search of geysers. Being unaccustomed to the Icelandic way of life, they remarked and noted down a great deal of information that Icelanders—accepting it all as unremarkable—did not. They described the way families and servants all slept in one room; they complained about bedbugs and the audible scratching of their hosts keeping them awake at night; the disrepair of many churches; the Icelanders' habits of taking snuff, saddling their horses, removing their guests' shoes, storing their urine for cleaning wool... In between the scientists' very dull description of sulphur deposits and geyser explosions I'd find gems of descriptive detail. They painted a very vivid picture of life back then.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

HK: I'm currently researching my next book, which will be set in Ireland (a place I've always been fascinated with) in the early 19th century. In Burial Rites I was able to have a little play with superstition and folklore, but this novel will be more firmly focused on these subjects. I've always been very interested in the way in which disempowered individuals have used superstitious beliefs to emancipate themselves and subjugate others. The novel I'm writing now will explore the allure and consequences of this.


Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Diana (new)

Diana sounds like a fascinating book


message 2: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Kirk The author sounds intelligent. I will plan to read this book & look out for her next one about Ireland. The line "disempowered individuals have used superstitious beliefs to emancipate themselves and subjugate others" describes the role of religion in human history.


message 3: by Sue (new)

Sue Sounds like a linch-pin of a rollicking good book ill have to look into reading.


message 4: by Bobbi (new)

Bobbi D I was fortunate enough to be given an advanced proof to read...and this will certainly be my next book to read!


message 5: by Rose (new)

Rose Neild I have enjoyed reading this book for my book club this month. The prose was a delight, I felt a part of the goings-on and my active mind did not wander off at all (a sure sign of a good thing)
the research of the life and times is flawless and the sensory immersion complete. Thank you Hannah. I look forward to your next novel.


message 6: by Pat (new)

Pat I am very interested! I must get this book.


message 7: by Wendy (new)

Wendy I was lucky enough to visit Iceland (a country I had long been fascinated with) a couple of years back. This book sounds as interesting as the country is and I will certainly be ordering a copy.


message 8: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Loved this book! My review is on Goodreads. I am not surprised by how much reading and research Hannah did during her preparation. It certainly shows in 'Burial Rites' to the extent that one sometimes felt one could have been reading a Halldor Laxness novel.


message 9: by Bobbi (last edited Aug 30, 2013 06:19AM) (new)

Bobbi D I was recently on Hecla island in Manitoba, Canada.....where the Icelandic people first settled in America in 1867. Beautiful! Also visited the Icelandic Museum in Gimli, Manitoba, Canada. So definitely in the mood to read this book.
.


message 10: by Carol (new)

Carol  MacInnis I read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it! My review is posted on Goodreads. Hannah Kent obviously went to great lengths in her research of this story. Fabulous book!


message 11: by Julie (new)

Julie I previewed this book for the publishers and found it very engrossing. Reading this interview I am motivated to read it again, it was a very captivating and engaging read.


message 12: by Roxanne (new)

Roxanne  Wow I am intrigued!


message 13: by Colleen (new)

Colleen Fauchelle I loved, loved this book. Hannah Kent did an amazing job of telling us about Anges. Life was so tough back then. We should all be thankful for when we live.


message 14: by Mike (new)

Mike Nwosu Awesome! You've just awaken my appetite for reading.


message 15: by Belinda (new)

Belinda Gapatan thanks Hannah kent.I injoy reading this book...


message 16: by Steve (new)

Steve I will have a read of this book, i watched the movie must have been 15 years ago re Agnes was great


message 17: by Jill (new)

Jill Heywood Heard about this via an interview on the radio Yesterday. Very intrigued and intent on getting hold of a copy soon.


message 18: by Jenny (new)

Jenny Pryde Saw it on Australian Story can't wait to get my hands on a copy.


message 19: by Jfbalok (new)

Jfbalok This is definately on my "can't wait to read" list!
Looks like a great book for our book club. Thanks for the background information.


message 20: by Mohmad (new)

Mohmad Hassan To live in the Island is very anxious,but to live in the skyward...that is more anxious.You can leave your sleigh and travel throughout planets...then your sensuous will be more happiness.


message 21: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed Ali do want to live in iraq


message 22: by Mohmad (new)

Mohmad Hassan I have been lived in Irag before (1964-1970)and graduated from Bagdad.


message 23: by Linda (new)

Linda Bender It sounds like a beautiful book; can't wait to read it.


message 24: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Barter Sounds like a great read!


message 25: by Meryll (new)

Meryll I have just finished this book and am recommending it to everyone. It grabs you, engages you, delights you and horrifies you all at the same time. Her writing is beautiful without being laboured. The story is captivating and it is definitely a "must read". I raced through it in 3 nights! Not what I expected.


message 26: by Katy (new)

Katy Holbeche Hannah, this book is so enjoyable; I don't want it to end. I LOVE all the little "mundane" details because it brings it to life so vividly. Whether she did it or not Agnes is someone to admire, she's a strong woman. Please write more, soon. Thankyou, Katy


message 27: by Sandra (new)

Sandra So good to read this interview, having just read the book. The detail that Hannah goes into regarding everyday life in early 19th century Iceland was fascinating and really added to the overall tone of the book. I am looking forward to her next book, as I really enjoy her writing style, and the superstitions of Ireland sounds like a wonderful subject.


message 28: by Pepepi (new)

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message 29: by Pepepi (new)

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message 30: by Mary Lloyd (new)

Mary Lloyd Reading this book for the second time and just as wonderful. I love Hannah Kent's writing and having made a brief visit to Northern Iceland I love her description of that beautiful but isolated place. HK is wise beyond her years! I also love her home city of Adelaide!


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