And just like that, it's December and the last Book Ends episode for 2013 is (finally) ready for your listening pleasure.
Although this interview took place during a heatwave in September, Hannah Kent's haunting and beautifully written first novel Burial Rites, one of the most talked-about Australian débuts of 2013, is actually perfect winter reading!
In 1829, the last public execution in Iceland took place - a man and a woman were beheaded for a brutal murder committed on a remote farm. As there were no prisons in Iceland at the time, the condemned woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, is sent to spend her final months on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, under the watch of his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes and regard her as something of a monster. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed to supervise Agnes’s spiritual wellbeing, tries to understand her. As the months pass, the winter deepens and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, the true story of Agnes's crime unravels and it is revealed to be far more complex than anyone imagined or, more to the point, was willing to believe.
Set against the backdrop of the exquisite Icelandic landscape, which I've actually seen with my own eyes so I can attest to how hauntingly beautiful it is, Burial Rites is a compelling read and a moving meditation on human nature, on truth, survival, freedom and on the painful gulf that often exists between how we are seen by the outside world and how we see ourselves.
Hannah was born in Adelaide in 1985 and found herself in Iceland at age 18 as an exchange student - not in Reykjavik as she thought, but in a remote fishing village in Iceland's north called Sauðárkrókur...so remote, Hannah couldn't even find it in her atlas! Despite struggling at first to find her place in the close-knit community there, Hannah fell in love with Iceland and has since returned many times. But it was on her very first visit, as a teenager, that she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and was instantly captivated.
Returning to Australia, Hannah completed a BA and in her honours year, she submitted a creative writing project inspired by Agnes's story. Encouraged by this (and now certain this was well and truly a story she wanted to write), she then embarked on a PhD in Creative Writing, for which Burial Rites was her project. She submitted the first draft of Burial Rites to the inaugural Australian Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011, which it went on to win! Burial Rites has now been published in Australia, the UK and the US and has been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.
"Persist. It's really important not to let any feelings of insecurity or disbelief in your own ability paralyse you. Just keep on pushing through and maybe accept that you will always feel this way....but you'll never be objective about your own work and therefore shouldn't listen to yourself! And be disciplined. Write regularly, even when you don't want to. Don't wait until you're inspired because you'll so rarely feel that way. Persistence and the ability to work very hard on something consistently pays out a lot more than talent."
- pearls of wisdom from Hannah Kent in this interview
Highly articulate, funny, modest and generous, Hannah was a delight to interview and this was such an enjoyable hour or so that we spent together in her publisher's office in London. I can't wait to see what she does next. Thank you so much Hannah for being on the show!
You can listen to the show here:
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador)
Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson (Sceptre)
The Icelandic Sagas (Penguin)
Kill Your Darlings (literary journal of which Hannah is Publishing Director)
"Aurora" by Bjork (buy on iTunes)