‘A dark love letter to Iceland’: Hannah Kent on ‘Burial Rites’
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (Picador, May) plunges the reader into the remotest corner of 19th-century Iceland in her story of the last woman to be beheaded in that country. Andrea Hanke spoke to the author. Read Hanke’s review here.
In the acknowledgements you write that Burial Rites is a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. What are some aspects of life in 19th-century Iceland depicted in this novel that you think will surprise or intrigue readers?
I think some readers might be struck by the bleakness and the brutality of life in Iceland at that time. This is what surprised me during my research for the book; the difficulty of merely surviving in a landscape as hostile as Iceland’s, where nature is queen. Infant mortality was astronomically high, the country was pinched under Denmark’s thumb, and if you had the misfortune to be born illegitimate, or poor, or female, you could be pitched about by all sorts of petty laws and injustices. But against this backdrop of hardship, you have a thriving culture, almost universal literacy, a strong sense of nationhood, and a people made poetic through their stoicism and ability to endure. When I say that Burial Rites is my dark love letter to Iceland, I mean that it is my paean to this place where beauty and horror, and tradition and deprivation, not only coexisted, but were all woven together. It is a country of extremes. This is what draws me to Iceland, and this is what I hope readers will similarly be compelled by.
Agnes is mythologised in Icelandic literature as a cold-blooded murderess and a witch. What inspired you to explore a more sympathetic side to her character? Did you find support, or opposition, to this direction of your research in Iceland?
My desire to write about Agnes’ life was triggered by a longing to find the woman behind the stereotypes. I never wanted to protest her guilty conviction, or turn her into an angel or victim—to do so would be just as ridiculous as representing her as unequivocally evil. Rather, I wanted to discover something of her humanity, and explore her contradictions, her ambiguity. I never actually knew if readers would sympathise with her, I only wanted them to understand a little of her life story—or to guess at it from my own speculation. Who was she? What had her early years been like? What forces had shaped her, or at least contributed to the trajectory of her life and its brutal end? Writing this book was an act of empathy, rather than sympathy. The historical Agnes was undoubtedly complex. She was, by all accounts, fiercely intelligent. She was a poet with a quick wit and a certain charm. Yet—and this became extremely clear to me throughout my research into her life and into the mores of early 19th-century Iceland—her life was ultimately shaped by the times and circumstances into which she was born. The true tragedy of her story, I believe, is that she realised there was little she could do to change that.
The response from Icelanders who have either already read the book or who know about it has been very supportive—which is a huge relief on my part. The murders and execution have a particular place in the nation’s history, and I was always anxious that Icelanders—particularly relatives of those who are depicted as characters in the novel—would object to a foreigner offering a different perspective. So far both friends and strangers have admitted to me that they never felt that the records truly reflected Agnes as she must have been. I recently received a letter from an Icelandic woman living in Australia, who mentioned simply that she and her sister ‘agree’ with me. Undoubtedly there will be people who disagree with this kind of fictionalisation, and for various reasons. But as my Icelandic publishers, Lesbók, said to me, differing opinions will create discussion and reflection, and this is a good thing.
Much of the novel is written from the first-person perspective of Agnes. How difficult was it to find her voice?
The opposite was true: the creation and development of Agnes’ voice was a much more organic process than the writing of the third-person narration, which was more calculated. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but when I first began writing what eventually became Burial Rites, I was actually trying to write a verse novel. The very first lines I wrote for this book were lines of poetry, all in first-person, all in present tense. While I eventually came to my senses and realised the story was better suited to a novel, the lyrical sensibility remained in regards to Agnes. I knew I wanted her voice to be a polar opposite to the dry, bureaucratic tone of the justice system, depicted in the ‘documents’ presented at the beginning of chapters. As a woman who was more or less exiled from language, Agnes’ voice always needed to tilt towards the metaphoric; her voice needed to be that of the subversive. There was a great pleasure and freedom in creating Agnes’ voice, and investing it with her awareness and dependence on the symbolic.
During the writing of this novel you were mentored by Geraldine Brooks. What was one of the most valuable lessons you learnt from her?
It was a huge honour to have the mentorship of Geraldine Brooks. She was immediately able to point out the holes in the manuscript; the aspects of characterisation or plotting that were gappy, or slack. Nine times out of ten, the questions she raised were directly related to places in the book where I had been lax in my first-timer rush to finish the original draft. The ease with which she was able to identify these moments of negligence in composition made me renew my respect for the reader. She taught me that there’s no room for inattention as a writer.
Something else that came up again and again in our conversations about the book was the need for recompense. Earlier drafts of Burial Rites were, looking back, almost unbearably grim. I think that, in deciding that I was writing a tragedy, I had flogged the genre to the bone. Geraldine very clearly and gently pointed out that I needed to ‘let a little more light in’.
You’ve (famously) signed a significant two-book deal with publisher Pan Macmillan. What’s next?
I’m a little reluctant to give too much away, especially as the next book is still in its infancy. I can tell you that the novel will be set in 1800s rural Ireland, and will revolve around a crime and trial, based—like Burial Rites—on a historical event. I’m fascinated by the intersection of superstition and reality, and the (both empowering and destructive) nature of myth and folktale. Hopefully this next book will allow me to explore these themes more deeply and satisfy my curiosity about the way in which stories of the supernatural permeate and alter our familiar or ‘natural’ world.
What was the last book you read and loved?
Oh, that’s a hard question! I’ve read so many brilliant books—memoir, lit fic, nonfic—over the last couple of months. I adored Tigers in Red Weather by Lisa Klaussman (Picador) for the characters’ magnetism and its thrilling dose of Americana. I also recently read Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (Ebury Press), which I’m astounded took so long to pop up on my radar. I actually got cramps from laughing so hard. What else? I’ve just finished James Salter’s forthcoming All That Is (Knopf US), and am still a little shellshocked. It’s a book you need a little time alone to recover from. It will be an important book, I think, as will Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (Sceptre), for very different reasons. Currently I’m reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Black Swan).