Melbourne Writers Festival 2014: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

by Nalini Haynes

Hannah Kent

Wearing black as befits a Melbournian during the Melbourne Writers Festival, Hannah Kent chats to Bethany Blanchard as the audience files in, filling the large auditorium. Hannah seems fairly comfortable sitting on the stage at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square’s largest and most prestigious auditorium, with sunlight streaming through the shattered-glass windows, illuminating the wooden floors. [Photo of Hannah Kent from the MWF website.]

Bethany Blanchard opened the event by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the Land before launching into accolades of Hannah’s internationally acclaimed novel, Burial Rites, which has been translated into 20 languages, winning 7 awards while being shortlisted for 6 more. Hannah is part-way through a PhD in Creative Writing at Flinders University for which Burial Rites was written, garnering a 7 figure advance. Hannah is the publishing director of the Kill Your Darlings journal.

The last time Hannah was in the Deakin Edge auditorium was for Richard Flanagan’s keynote speech at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2012. I was here for Richard’s speech; that keynote speech was more substantial and more challenging although less humorous than his presentation at Rosetta High School in 1999. I wonder how Hannah feels about following in such large shoes and yet her international success and book tours would have given her considerable experience, creating even larger shoes.

Hannah admits to difficulty reading Jonathan Franzen because she knows too much about him, his hatred of twitter and so on. She doesn’t want people to know as much about Burial Rites and how it was written in case it colors their perceptions or they’re put off reading it.

Hannah wants to be the ghost around the story.

Journalists have commented that Hannah was ‘so clever’ in reading the public mood and the UK obsession with Scandinavian noir, timing Burial Rites just right.

That was not the case.

Hannah encountered Agnes’s extraordinary true story aged 17 when she visited Iceland as part of a Rotary exchange program. Over a period of years Hannah visited Iceland 5 or 6 times before deciding that she wanted to know more about Agnes’s unforgettable story. A public commitment made during her Honours degree to write Agnes’s story was essential to Hannah’s perseverance. Two years after her initial grant application was rejected, a successive grant application was accepted, enabling Hannah to return yet again to Iceland, this time to research her novel.

Incredible access — ‘eat your lunch [ungloved] while you read these original 180-year-old documents’ — enabled Hannah to build an image of the publicly proclaimed ‘truth’ of the conviction of 3 people including Agnes, Hannah’s protagonist, for the stabbing murders and subsequent burning of 2 men. Source material included official letters regarding the trial, handling of the convicts and execution arrangements as well as journals from English and Scots people travelling through Iceland.

Dry letters written by officials talk about people condemned to die. There was no room for Agnes to tell her story. Agnes needed her own language to tell her story as an outsider. Agnes employs body-centric, lyrical, deep-seated language, telling her story outside the dominant language-form.

Bodily emanations ground Hannah’s work; we’re less tolerant of blood, sweat and grease these days, Hannah says, but they ground her writing with gritty realism.

Winning the unpublished manuscript award had unexpected benefits: Hannah won a mentorship with Geraldine Brooks, managed via email because Geraldine is based in the US. While Hannah was reading her manuscript, holding it very close, Geraldine took a big step back and read Hannah’s second draft as a whole, giving feedback. This draft was ‘very, very bleak, especially in the second half’. Geraldine recommended ‘letting a little light in’.

Reworking second half, adding scenes, reworking… Hannah admits to a ‘tendency to go to the dark; I have to rein it in a little bit’.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentHannah wrote Burial Rites for her PhD with no anticipation of being published. She aspired to an academic career with a backup career as a pastry chef. The book was published and Hannah’s career changed overnight. ‘I was anxious about how it would be reviewed because of how it was acquired. This was my apprenticeship as a writer; this was a debut novel’. Looking back, Hannah says the positives far outweigh any anxiety.

Hannah’s second book is set in Ireland, telling the story of another outsider. The perspective of an outsider inspires Hannah because she identifies as an outsider in spite of her privileged life. Hannah enjoys exploring outsiders’ stories.

‘You can’t write about Iceland without writing about the landscape. The landscape, the weather, is in control…’ People can’t visit one another because of the weather. People can’t fetch help when they need it because of the weather. ‘Kindergarten children have been blown across the road in Iceland, it’s been known to happen’. The landscape has a quality that defies easy articulation. Hannah felt compelled to include the landscape as a character influencing other characters’ actions; she tried to instil its unusual beauty into her novel.

Hannah believes there’s a kind of kinship or similarity between Iceland and Australia where the landscape can be hostile with floods and fire; there’s a laconic humour that arises from this kind of hardship, of vulnerability to larger forces.

Hannah had many dreams about the story and other strange things that happened around the writing of the book; she feels these are sacred and not to be shared.

The unfinished PhD is in speculative biography with a weighting of 70% on the manuscript and 30% on scholarly writing about representations of historical women in contemporary fiction, looking at texts like Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson.

There is a reverence in the way these authors told these stories. They researched, destroying preconceived notions by presenting the possibility of a speculative story, honouring their protagonists by presenting a possibility based on research while countering the publicly accepted story.

‘Honour all known facts not obviously influenced by prejudice or political belief’, urges Hannah, speaking of writing about real people long dead. Only in the unknown spaces Hannah gave herself permission to create fiction. Hannah believes in respecting lives lived, respecting the ghosts. Others told Agnes’s story, with neither the right nor the respect to tell that story. Hannah did not want to be counted among their number.

‘Governments silence people; there is no greater means of silencing people than killing them’.

Instead, Hannah wants to give her outsiders a voice, a posthumous hope for peace.

Margaret Atwood apparently said, ‘Writing is like driving in the dark without headlights’, with which Hannah agrees as she’s been stuck for inspiration. To claw her way out of the dark, Hannah researched writers’ rooms, looking at photographs of the rooms and writers talking about how they work in their spaces. One author said she could write anywhere, including writing in a cupboard. Hannah appropriated ‘a walk-in cupboard’ as her writing room and emulated that author’s style: a goal of 1000 words a day after putting her extensive research to one side.

Bethany and Hannah conducted an interesting performative conversation incorporating audience questions towards the end. They explored characters — including Hannah’s favourite, the priest — and their relationships alongside fiction and nonfiction elements of Burial Rites. Burial Rites has been optioned for a movie with Jennifer Lawrence contracted to play Agnes; will Burial Rites be another Hunger Games