Interview: Hannah Kent & The Good People

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Only three years ago, Hannah Kent released her bestselling first novel Burial Rites. Now back with her eagerly anticipated second effort, The Good People, Kent has once again delved centuries into the past to cement an exciting future. With an already-flourishing authorial career, the SA author’s meticulous methods continue to pay-off for herself and for readers.

Adelaide Hills born, Flinders University graduate and SA wanderer, Hannah Kent has become a local literary icon and an international triumph. Her first novel Burial Rites – the 1820s story of an Icelandic woman beheaded for her role in a dual murder – took Kent on a whirlwind of attention and acclaim. In the extensive and ruthless research that went into the Icelandic crime story, the 31-year-old author inadvertently struck inspiration for her most recent effort, spun on the story of an Irish woman and the country’s fairy lore. Even from her early years, Kent was set to rise and draw hard-earned success with her every move.

thegoodpeople200“I was one of those kids who always wanted to be a writer. I think I announced it to my parents when I was 6 or 7 years old … the moment I realised that these magical books which enchanted me were created by somebody, I wanted to be the magician.”

Kent praises her Adelaide Hills upbringing and the unwavering support from her parents in encouraging her creativity.

“Growing up in the Adelaide Hills, bring pretty outdoorsy, I loved nature, and I’ve always been privileged to have that kind of childhood. I know that when I write, I love to write about landscapes and I try to distil its qualities into prose. That’s one of the great joys for me.”

With a highly dedicated writing and research routine that is vital to her craft, finally having her second book released is a relief to say the least.

“Both of my books have been so long in terms of there’s so much work that goes into creating them and additional work into research so it’s always a privilege when you are able to find a readership for something, because while you’re working on it, that day seems a long way away.”

Though Kent’s debut novel wove fact alongside fiction, The Good People saw her journey to Ireland to fill the gaps of a story barely documented.

“I ended up finding two newspaper articles about the event I was trying to investigate. So, while there wasn’t so much event for biographical specificity in my research, I did spend a lot of time trying to understand this very alien climate in terms of fairy-fate and folklore, trying to understand what it was like to live in Ireland in the early 1800s. “It’s amazing how many of those details you can pick up when you speak to the locals and you hear their stories, that’s where you find all of the fantastic material.”

Kent saw first-hand the history and culture of fairy belief, a fascination which stems from the roots of humanity.

“When we look at it, or go a bit deeper, it becomes more than fairy tales and it offers more clues into what people feared and what they hoped for, it speaks to the universal human experience. I think it’s that which really appeals to me. It’s almost like a vernacular, it articulates experiences that we still go through.”

Her first two novels have been works of historical fiction, but it’s the silence of these characters in history that capture her curiosity.

When I think of the story of Agnes Magnussen suffering in Iceland, my motivation to write her story came from a place of frustration at the representation of her character; that she was an evil, scorned woman, but also frustration at the absence of any complex narrative about her life. That was true for the second book as well. When I first encountered the story of Nance Roche in the newspaper, there was so much that was unsaid.”

It’s this absence which Kent offers to answer, a fact which is laden with duty.

“Any author who writes on the past or represents people dead or alive, has an obligation for responsibility … if you believe in the power of literature, you must also acknowledge that with any power comes responsibility. Whether or not you are the right person or the best person to tell a particular story or representation, and why you want to tell this story.”

Kent is determined not to be put in a box and, though her two protagonists have so far been female, her books speak beyond political intentions.

“It’s not so much ‘oh no, I’ve turned my books into feminist manifestos!’ … it’s an overall lack of representation in women’s stories and histories. One of the beauties about fiction is that it has flexibility and that it has an objective quality to not provide a singular history, but it can offer a suggestion of what things might have been like.

“I think it says something about our times that if a female writer has two books which consecutively focus on the outsider female character, that people want to read a lot of political intention into it. It’s not a commonplace thing, it has to be remarked upon.”

Overwhelmingly grateful for her readership after the success of Burial Rites, Kent felt pressure about expectations for her second novel. But once she is immersed into another world, all else fades away to reveal yet another praised new novel. With more ideas continuously burning in her mind and a possible film deal on the cards, Hannah Kent affirms herself one of Adelaide’s most exciting and humble talents.

The Good People book is out now.

Interview by Hannah Lally
Twitter: @HanLally

The Good People is published by Pan MacMillan Australia and is out now in trade paperback for the RRP of $32.99.

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