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Life with Condemned Killer in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent
Buy this Book
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Hannah Kent,
Author of Burial Rites
By Diane Slocum

October 2013

In 1820s Iceland, Agnes Magnusdottir has been condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. She is sent to live out her final months with the farming family of a rural official. A young assistant priest is sent to save her soul before she dies. Agnes’ story and true character slowly unfold as the others get to know her.

 

“I first came across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir ten years ago, when I was a 17-year-old exchange student living in the north of Iceland. ”
—KENT

AUTHORLINK: How did you come across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir and what attracted you to it? Is this a well-known story in Iceland?

KENT: I first came across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir ten years ago, when I was a 17-year-old exchange student living in the north of Iceland. In the first few months of what would be a year-long exchange, I was driven through the place where Agnes was beheaded, and was told that it was the site of Iceland’s last execution. Immediately fascinated by the story, and intrigued about the woman at the centre of it, I spent the rest of my exchange and the years that followed it trying to satisfy my curiosity. Who was Agnes? What social, political or cultural circumstances had contributed to her fate? And why did so many records neglect to mention her, or, instead, represented her as monstrous? It was my frustration at what I perceived to be a mythologising of Agnes as an unequivocally wicked woman that led me to research and write Burial Rites. I wanted to explore her humanity. The story is fairly well-known in Iceland. Those Icelanders who live close to the area where the events occurred are, in my experience, much more familiar with the story than others. Most people, however, are acquainted with at least the basic facts.

AUTHORLINK: How did you learn so much about Iceland almost 200 years ago? What kind of records did you find?

KENT: It took me almost two years of full-time research to cultivate a strong familiarity with nineteenth-century Iceland. While it was necessary for me to research the events at the heart of the novel – the life of Agnes Magnusdottir and the crime she was convicted of – it was quite difficult to do so from Australia. While I waited for the opportunity to go to Iceland to access the archives, censuses, ministerial records, original documents and museums there, I read everything I could get my hands on about the times Agnes lived in. I devoured Icelandic fiction, the Sagas, history books, recipes for blood sausage, poetry, journals written by visiting British scientists in the early 1800s, academic articles on everything from Icelandic kinship networks, to pauper laws, to smallpox epidemics, to sheep-grazing techniques – I researched indiscriminately. But it did take a long time, and a lot of translation was necessary, which often made the research quite laborious. Interesting, but hard work.

“Most of these excerpts have been faithfully translated from the historical records, although some have been slightly edited. “
—KENT

AUTHORLINK: Are the excerpts at the beginning of the chapters from the historical records, including the poems?

KENT: Most of these excerpts have been faithfully translated from the historical records, although some have been slightly edited – mainly to cut superfluous information, or remove potentially confusing references to people who aren’t mentioned in the novel. Only one or two are entirely of my own creation, such as the letter from Blöndal to Reverend Tóti. I couldn’t find any correspondence between these two men, but it was necessary – for the sake of the narrative – that Blöndal write to the Reverend.

AUTHORLINK: How much of the characters’ personalities and feelings did you have to make up?

KENT: Many of the characters’ qualities were suggested to me by my research. In Iceland at that time, ministerial books contained records of parishioners’ behaviour and reading abilities. Some characters – such as Agnes and Lauga – were praised in these records for their intelligence and high level of literacy, so I took these attributes as a starting point. In Agnes’ case it implied a certain perspicacity. In Lauga’s it suggested a certain power dynamic between her and her sister. Reverend Tóti’s character was considered in the light of various local histories that seemed to imply he was sympathetic to Agnes. For Margrét, I considered her age, and asked myself what events in Iceland – smallpox epidemics, notoriously poor harvests – she might have lived through, and how these might have shaped her character. Her stoicism, rationality and instinct for survival came from these reflections. Most characterization came about quite organically after I considered the research and the facts I was able to gather.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope readers will feel after reading your book?

KENT: I hope that it inspires in them a curiosity about Iceland, and an appreciation of its extraordinary nature. I hope that the story lingers with them, as it has done with me. If it makes some readers consider their own position on the death penalty, then that is surely a good thing, too.

“I had one other novel that I spent about a year working on before it was rejected by a dozen agents. “
EXTENCE

AUTHORLINK: What have you published before this novel and how did these other works help (if they did) in the writing of your novel and in getting it published?

KENT: This is my first novel, but I have had some other work in print. My first ever publication was an article about geothermal energy in an emerging writers’ literary journal. I’ll never forget the thrill of finally seeing my name and words in print. I felt encouraged to keep writing as a result. The reviews and articles I published before Burial Rites all had this effect, no matter how small the word count, or how inconsiderable the distribution. They galvanized me and helped me battle the self-doubt I encountered writing the novel.

AUTHORLINK: What advice can you give other writers trying to publish their first novel?

KENT: The best advice is always the most simple. Read. Nurture an understanding and a love of language through reading. Read widely and constantly.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

KENT: I’m currently researching my next novel, which will be set in Ireland in the 1820s. I’ve long been fascinated with Ireland, and also with its folktales. This novel will revolve around superstition in particular, and will probably take place in County Kerry, in the south of the country. I’m looking forward to writing again.

About Hannah Kent:

Kent’s Burial Rites was picked by The Waterstones Eleven as one of the most promising debuts of 2013. She is co-founder of Kill Your Darlings and teaches at Flinders University in Australia, where she is also studying for her PhD. Her fascination with Iceland continues with a recent article on travel for Fodore’s.

Diane Slocum
About
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.