An Interview with Hannah Kent, and a Launch in a Hole in the Ground

An Interview with Hannah Kent, and a Launch in a Hole in the Ground

I wouldn’t usually go all the way to London for a book launch. Granted, two hours on the train is hardly the same as coming over from, say, Australia. Hannah Kent is here from Australia and the launch is for her first novel Burial Rites (set in 19th century Iceland), both involving a great deal more travel than the 10.22 from Manchester Piccadilly. There’s a lot of buzz around Burial Rites, though, and the invitation said the entrance to the event was through a smallish tunnel, and not to accept if you suffered from claustrophobia or a bad back. How could I resist that?

The Door to the Hole in the Ground

Yep, this is the door. I’m at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe. This door will take me down a hole in the ground. Why, exactly?

It’s the end of August, following the sunniest summer since 1976. Where in London can you go to get something of the ambience of an Icelandic winter? The lovely people from Yelp sourced one place in the capital where darkness could be guaranteed, and at least a mild chilliness expected. To add to the fun, the access was down stairs strapped together from scaffolding.

Scaffolding stairs

The space below was originally the Grand Entrance Hall to the very first tunnel under a navigable river anywhere in the world. When the Thames Tunnel was opened in 1843, millions descended into this very space to marvel at the Eighth Wonder of the World. We were some of the first visitors to return for over 140 years.

The evening was memorable: the Icelandic nibbles, the incredible mix of guests, the rumble of today’s underground passing beneath our feet. It’s always a pleasure to hear about the back story to a good book, and a bonus when the author is articulate, funny and charming. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed being part of the evening, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview Hannah here on my blog.

Hannah, welcome, and congratulations on the incredible success you’ve been having. Burial Rites started life as your dissertation novel: tell us about your PhD. 

My PhD, which I’m still yet to submit, is a Creative Writing Research Higher Degree. The creative component, which will be an earlier version of Burial Rites (before any external edits were done on it), comprises 70 per cent of the thesis, and the remaining 30 per cent is an exegesis on representations of historical murdering women in contemporary literary fiction. It’s a fascinating subject, and one that I’ve found revelatory. It’s allowed me to research and compare many wonderful publications – such as Jill Dawson’s Fred & Edie, F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, Angela Carter’s stories about Lizzie Borden, Carol Ann Duffy’s brilliant poem about Myra Hindley (‘The Devil’s Wife’), and so on – and introduced me to some very interesting branches of feminist and psychoanalytic theory, and works by criminologists.

At the moment I’m intermitting my candidature with the support of my university. Hopefully I will soon have an opportunity to return to it and submit, but there are a great many other commitments I have to honour in the meantime. My life and my career prospects have changed quite dramatically in a very short amount of time, and I’m still wrangling this.

Your route to publication is remarkable. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of being mentored, and what difference this made to the writing/editing process?

The mentorship with Geraldine Brooks was a wonderful opportunity. I won an unpublished manuscript award in Australia, and a component of the prize was a mentorship with an Australian writer of your choice, pending their agreement. I was very fortunate that Geraldine agreed. Given that she now lives in the US, our mentorship comprised of a conversation about the novel that went back and forth via email. We discussed the themes of the book, sections that weren’t working, or needed some further attention, and the ending in particular. The best thing Geraldine said to me was that I needed ‘to let a little more light in’. She was right – the closing chapters as they were originally written were very grim. As a result of our conversation I tweaked several scenes.

My interactions with Geraldine were very much like the editorial conversations I had with my publishers, which is to say that they were non-directive whilst being incredibly helpful. They recognised and acknowledged what wasn’t working in the novel, then let me work out the solutions, offering suggestions if I asked for them. I remain very grateful to both Geraldine and my publishers for this particular way of approaching the manuscript.

I’m in awe of your writing speed (A Guardian article written by Hannah noted six weeks of research, three months of writing, and one  week of editing prior to entering in the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award). Is this just how you are as a writer, or was it partly due to academic deadlines? And how much time did it take to edit the book between being picked up by an agent and being accepted for publication?

If you put it like that it sounds very fast indeed! It’s not quite so. I spent two years researching nineteenth-century Iceland and the events at the heart of Burial Rites, six weeks of which were spent in Iceland. During this period of intense and fairly laborious research I actually wrote 50,000 words, but after finally receiving an opportunity to access primary sources in Iceland, I decided to start the book over again in early 2011. Some of this early writing was incorporated into the first draft, but a great deal was discarded. The three months of writing were over quite quickly in retrospect, but at the time it felt like very slow going. Had I not been, by this stage, so immersed and familiar with the time I was writing about, the writing would have proceeded much more slowly. It’s true I finished the second draft in a week, but that was madness: long days of ruthless slashing and burning in an effort to meet an award deadline. If you take into consideration the editorial process with my publishers (which was conducted over about six months), Burial Rites took me about three years to complete.

You’ve had a whistlestop tour of England this summer. Have you enjoyed it? What were the high points/low points/unexpected moments?

It’s been an absolute privilege and a joy. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to be here for the UK release of Burial Rites, and it’s been a true pleasure to meet so many passionate booksellers and readers. Their enthusiasm and support for the novel has been exhilarating to say the least. As for high points, there have been many. It was wonderful to arrive in the UK to the news of the Guardian First Book Award longlisting. I really enjoyed the Edinburgh Writers’ Festival, and loved speaking with readers after my London events. No low points at all, although I did go walking amongst some stinging nettles in Wales the other day. I’d never encountered them before.

Have you always been interested in historical, fact-based fiction? Where do you see your writing going in the future?

No, not necessarily. I have always wanted to read and write literary fiction – historical or otherwise. Burial Rites came about out of an interest in Agnes’s story, rather than a desire to write in a particular genre. That said, my next book will take place in the 1820s in Ireland. Again, it is a true story that has captured my interest and led me to a historical setting, but I think this time I’m following more readily. I’ve developed an unwholesome addition to research.

I have, however, always been interested in that porous membrane between fact and fiction. What is true? How do we know it to be true? Is there such a thing as emotional truth as opposed to factual truth, and how can a novel negotiate between the two? Yes, this has always interested me.

Burial Rites has been likened to Alias Grace. I also felt a resonance from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Did you have any particular books in mind as you wrote?

I’m hugely flattered by that comparison, as I think Alias Grace is an extraordinary novel, and Margaret Atwood the deserved doyenne of contemporary literature. There were many books in my mind as I wrote Burial Rites, Alias Grace included, but not as a source of stylistic or narrative influence. Rather, they were there because I was writing the novel for a PhD, and was therefore conscious of all other contemporary novels that considered condemned or criminal woman. The titles I mentioned earlier were in my head too. I felt all these publications, as well as my own manuscript, were linked by an authorial cognisance of the fallibility of history, and the common misrepresentation of criminal women as monsters.

Tell us something about Kill Your Darlings.

Kill Your Darlings is a website and quarterly journal that I co-founded in 2009 with some friends. While it started, and has continued, as a labour of love, we now enjoy fantastic circulation in Australia, and have now opened up the magazine to the world via ebooks, online subscription, and a lot of digital content. We publish interviews with overseas writers, commentary on everything from politics to internet dating, long-form reviews of television, movies, plays, literature, and new fiction, with much more rolling content from Australian writers – both emerging and established – on our website: We also regularly appear on the festival circuit, and hold a lot of events for the literary community. It’s huge fun. I love it.

How was the Australian BBQ? Do you think more Australian fiction is making it over here? Who should we be reading?

I really enjoyed myself! It was wonderful to hear fellow Aussies Craig Silvey and Courtney Collins speak, and Eleanor Catton was fantastic too. Despite it being a difficult time for publishers and booksellers in Australia at the moment, there’s no doubt in my mind that our writers are producing a huge amount of fearless and exquisite prose. There seems to be a growing awareness of Antipodean literature in the UK. I hope it continues, as there are many more Australian writers everyone needs to be reading. Watch out for Carrie Tiffany, Michelle de Kretser, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch and Majok Tulba.


Thank you, Hannah, and I’ll be adding those to my reading list.


Hannah’s website with up-to-date info on what she is doing can be found here

Burial Rites has been longlisted for the Guardian First Novel Award, and you can follow its progress here

To find out more about the Rotherhithe Tunnel and the Brunel Museum, click here

If you’re looking for a hole in the ground, or just somewhere nice for lunch, check out Yelp for reviews and ideas.


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