an interview with author Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent laughs nervously when asked if she introduces herself as a “writer” now. She radiates an air of shocked gratitude that is at odds with her status as Australia’s most recent literary prodigy. Lip caught up with Kent to find out more about the path she had travelled, and what it means to be read as a feminist author.
Burial Rites began life as a PhD project that was never intended to see the light of day. Kent has finished the first draft and had turned her attention to trying to make money ‘picking up any little job [she] could get.’ The deadline for Writing Australia’s inaugural unpublished manuscript award clashed with a review deadline that promised $20 payment, and Kent’s eyes were on the money. The choice was clear until Kent caught up with her supervisor, who told her that she had to do something for herself.
So Kent pushed the deadline for the CD review and, over the next three days, cut 20,000 words from the piece before submitting. The rest, as they say, is history. ‘I was very fortunate to win,’ she says. ‘It was a complete surprise.’
The win not only led to a bidding war that ended in a two-book deal and publication across the globe; it instilled Kent ‘with a huge amount of confidence.’ It is this confidence that makes the challenge of writing the dreaded second novel bearable.
‘The flipside to success is an equal amount of expectation on any future product or work,’ she admits. ‘But pressure is just part of being a professional.’ She chooses not to ‘engage with the white noise’ of reviews because of their subjective nature. What one reviewer hates, another loves.
‘It’s hard to get proper feedback… [reviews] take me outside the creative zone. There needs to be a certain amount of fearlessness, space to fail – if I’m reading my work as how I imagine an outsider might read it, I’m too scared to make those mistakes.’
Mistakes seem to be few and far between in Burial Rites. It is a complex and lyrical novel that follows the last year in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young woman set to be executed for her part in the brutal murder of two men. It is based on a true story, yet Kent avoids mimicking the past portrayals of Agnes as a villainous seductress. While she did not set out to write a “feminist” book, her goal of creating a character of depth makes it so.
‘Inevitably, when you write about someone who has previously been silenced or neglected or misrepresented who happens to be a woman, it has to be feminist,’ she said. ‘Anything that takes notice of a woman’s life that has hitherto been ignored is necessarily feminist.’
Our conversation turns to the Stella Prize, and its place in the literary scene. ‘I’m really pleased the Stella exists, I’m glad it’s here,’ she says enthusiastically. ‘In the same breath, I wish it wasn’t necessary. It would be a wonderful world indeed if we didn’t need prizes like the Stella Prize but the stats speak for themselves.’ The statistics Kent refers to are those relating to the position of women in literature – particularly the attention given to male authors over female in literary magazines and major newspapers. (You can read more about it at the Stella Count and at VIDA.)
‘Men get much more attention in the literary industry than women – it makes prizes like this completely necessary and completely legitimate and I disagree with authors that consider them a handout.’
Kent has established herself as an author that blends literature with mass readership. Burial Rites has been shortlisted for a litany of prizes (including the Stella Prize and the ABIAs) in the last twelve months, and the film adaption, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is being shopped around Hollywood by Hunger Games producer Allison Shearmur. Kent’s humility reappears when discussing this project.
‘[I’m] very excited that anyone would think that the book would translate to film and that it would interest viewers.’ She laughs and says ‘the fact that the people involved with the project are celebrities just adds another level of surrealism.’ The weirdest moment so far? Signing a book for Jennifer Lawrence.
Hannah Kent is currently touring the States and working on a second novel. Her book Burial Rites is published by Pan Macmillan and is available nation-wide.
Can’t make it to a bookstore? Pick up a copy here.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.