Wine, dinner and listening to the lovely Hannah Kent


On Friday afternoon, I mentioned on Twitter that while people may have top plans for their evening, they wouldn’t be as good as mine. Because I was going to hear Hannah Kent speak about Burial Rites. At Montalto Winery on the Mornington Peninsula. With a delicious dinner and a glass or two of fizz. So yeah, I won.

The evening was organised by The Wheeler Centre, as part of their Good Conversation Great Wine series. After we enjoyed a leisurely dinner, author Jo Case introduced Hannah, naturally making mention of the worldwide success of Burial Rites.

Jo began by asking Hannah about the parallels between Iceland and Australia and although they’re not immediately obvious, Hannah noted the similarities in the landscapes – “In both countries, the landscape is stunning, alien and hostile. The hostility coexists with the beauty.”

Jo went on to ask Hannah what was the inspiration for Burial Rites and about her writing process. Hannah’s response was delightfully self-effacing, punctuated with lots of admissions of blind panic and asides to the audience, “You must think I’m a nutter!” (No, we don’t!).

When she started the book (as part of a PhD), Hannah knew only four facts about her subject, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and she quickly discovered that it was quite tricky researching 19th century Iceland from 21st century Adelaide. This handful of facts was all she had for the first two years of writing and, feeling the pressure to actually get some words down, she went with her gut instinct and wrote 50,000 words about what she thought had happened to Agnes (it turned out that her instinct was correct) – “The first part of the writing process was very much just panic.”

Hannah was drawn to Agnes because she didn’t fit the social norm and, as a result, she was automatically reviled – “I didn’t want to make an angel out of her but her fate had been shaped not by inherent wickedness but by circumstances.” She discovered that Agnes was an intelligent, ambitious, poetic woman, who was highly literate despite her poverty.

There’s an incredible postscript to Agnes’s story. A hundred years after her death, a psychic in the south of Iceland contacted people in the north saying that she had been repeatedly ‘visited’ by a woman named Agnes. The psychic felt strongly that Agnes’s remains had to be moved to consecrated ground. The problem was that the people in the north did not know where Agnes was buried. The psychic said that she would ask Agnes and, after ‘asking Agnes’, walked around the moors until she stopped and said “Start digging here”. Agnes remains were found at that very spot and were then moved to a churchyard.

Hannah won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for Burial Rites and the prize came with a mentor-ship. When asked who she’d like as a mentor, she requested Geraldine Brooks, never expecting her wish would be granted. It was.  The mentor-ship was conducted entirely by email (Brooks now lives in the US) and although Hannah, as an unpublished author, wanted to be told what to do, Brooks gently nudged her in the right direction at critical points. Hannah said the greatest piece of advice she received from Brooks was simply “Let a little more light in at the end… there needs to something that endures.”

Hannah talked about a number of other topics including Iceland’s rich tradition with literacy and storytelling; how The Guardian’s Writer’s Rooms column influenced her writing process; the need for women’s literature prizes; and what she’s working on now (another historical novel because she finds the research process completely addictive. The next book is set in Kerry, Ireland, in 1826 and uses the theme of superstition).

I’m always fascinated by the differences in the way a book is marketed (and received) in different countries. In the case of Burial Rites, the title was initially considered “too grim” by Kent’s US publisher, who was also concerned about its meaning in relation to Native American culture.  Of her recent tour of the US, Hannah said “…in the US everyone wanted to talk about the death penalty and found it {Burial Rites} a very political book.”

The last question of the night was a ripper – an audience member asked Hannah if she thought Agnes was guilty.

“Do I think she was guilty? I think she was involved. Doubtlessly she lied at some point during her testimony but I don’t think she was inherently wicked, as implied. I think she was someone who made the wrong decisions when there weren’t decisions to make. So, in the eyes of the law, yes. As a person, tricky...”

For more from Hannah, take a look at her photo essay and the transcript from the Australian Story documentary.



7 responses

  1. I jut plucked Burial Rites off my enormous TBR pile this morning, & now your post has convinced me I made the right decision! What a fascinating evening and a great idea for a series – are you going to any more?

    • You have absolutely made the right decision (it was my favourite book of 2013).

      The winery hosts these fabulous talks every month or so – I’d like to go to all of them but it’s an hour out of Melbourne and sometimes tricky to get there. That said, I am planning on going to hear Carrie Tiffany speak in September.

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