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Hannah Kent
You are from Australia; BURIAL RITES is set in Iceland, that’s a very long way! How did this, your first novel, come about?
It's a good question! Ten years ago I was living in Iceland as an exchange student. The little fishing village where I was staying was not very far away from the site of Iceland's last execution, and I heard the story of the beheading of Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir from the locals during my time there. I was always deeply fascinated by Agnes, and continued to think of her throughout the years that followed my exchange. Eventually, this enduring curiosity pushed me to research and write a novel about the crime she was convicted of, but also her early years of life. Where had she come from? Was she always as monstrous as everyone seemed to think of her as? I thought a novel would allow me to explore her humanity.
The novel is based on the true story of the fate of Agnes Magnusdottir, for the killing of her lover in 1828. How easy did you find it to put words into the mouth of a character that you know existed?
Agnes's voice was created very organically. I always had a very strong sense of her character and this intuition was supported by my research, which revealed her to be intelligent, complex and ambitious. My goal was never to make her sympathetic, but to portray her as ambiguous – creating her character was an exercise in empathy. Ultimately she was the least difficult character to write.
Margaret Atwood has called her work ‘speculative’ rather than science fiction. I read that you call your book ‘speculative’ rather than historical fiction. Would you like to explain?
I sometimes call Burial Rites a 'speculative biography' because of the way in which it incorporates a huge amount of research. I spent two years researching Agnes's world and life, and in many ways approached this project like a biographer rather than as a novelist. That said, there are so many gaps in the record, and so much bias and prejudice evident in the available sources, that I was occasionally left with no choice but to make speculations about Agnes's life based on my broader research into nineteenth-century Iceland. There was never enough information available to write a biography in the traditional sense, but there were enough facts to write a 'possible' biography, fleshed out with fiction – and in doing so acknoweldge that other, alternate biographies might be written. It's conjecture, but it's informed conjecture, rooted in research.
In 2011 you won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Would you encourage budding writers to take the competition route?
Absolutely. I'd encourage emerging writers to take every route and opportunity that presents itself. Send your best work out to publishers and journals that accept unsolicited submissions, apply for mentorships, internships and workshops, and enter as many reputable competitions as possible. Not only do you increase your chances of being recognised, but you will also – as happened with me – become familiar with rejection and criticism, which is no bad thing. Failure teaches us how to do better. Sometimes not winning competitions is as good for our writing as winning them.
Congratulations on being longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. That must be very exciting?
I am absolutely thrilled! It's an absolute honour, and I'm very grateful that Burial Rites has received this longlisting. Really, really chuffed.
What single book would you want with you if you were marooned on a desert island?
Probably a practical book on how to survive. On how to spear fish and tie knots and fashion a raft out of driftwood. I couldn't possibly choose a single novel. It would break my heart.
Hannah Kent

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