Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Hannah Kent introduce her new book, The Good People. Actually, that sounds too grown-up – I was super-excited. I’ve been anticipating this book for years (seriously) and was thrilled to finally get my hands on it.
A newspaper article sparked the idea for The Good People. While researching Burial Rites, Kent spent a lot of time reading in Icelandic – her ‘downtime’ was spent reading old English newspapers and it was then that she came across an article about an old woman, Nance Roach, who was accused of murder. But not a ‘straightforward’ murder – Nance was described as a fairy doctress and it was this that inspired Kent to delve deeper into the lore of rural Ireland.
In pre-famine Ireland, folk and fairy lore was connected to every aspect of people’s lives – the yield of crops, the birth or death of a baby, the ability to churn butter – it was a way of understanding the otherwise inexplicable. Kent emphasised that folklore was less about superstition and more about explaining things that defy logic, particularly in relation to changes in children, animals and nature.
“Superstition is almost a derogatory word. Superstition implies ignorance, doing things because you follow a belief system without question. Irish folklore was not like that.”
The term ‘good people’ was used to refer to fairies and these ‘good people’ had the ability to bestow favour or grave misfortune. As Kent explained, the good people lived a precarious existence in Irish society, simply because the healer could also apply a curse –
“If there is one thing worse than being afflicted by the work of fairies, it’s being powerless to remedy it.”
Folklore traditions coexisted with religious faith. Although the famine and the rise of Catholicism seemingly quashed belief in fairies, it never fully disappeared. Kent told a marvellous story of her time in Ireland, when she met with a priest who had been called to a farm to see what could be done for a very sick cow. The farmer, covering all bases, had also called a vet and a fairy doctor. The priest and the vet agreed that the cow’s time had come. The fairy doctor placed hands on the cow and, according to the priest, the barn filled with warmth and the cow stood up, recovered. What happened next? Well, the priest began filing paperwork with the Vatican, because he’d witnessed a miracle!
Question time is the best, isn’t it? Kent was asked about how she negotiates the balance between fact and fiction. She said that she was strict during Burial Rites and because of plentiful written records, the story was very much informed by nonfiction – she started with fact and used fiction to fill the gaps. The Good People was more difficult because she only had two newspaper articles –
“I had a wonderful problem in that I had the conclusion to my story and had to work back. I had a whole lot of creative license that I’m not used to. I applied ‘the imagination of likelihood’ to fill in the gaps.”
Kent was asked about the use of landscape in her stories. Prior to writing The Good People, she hadn’t been to Ireland but this book took her to the Flesk River in County Kerry. Her visit was a targeted, sensory experience. She wanted to feel how cold the river water was and see how the mud stuck to her shoes –
“I always try to include landscape because modern life is dislocated. Landscape and weather dictated much of historical life… I love nature – what a joy to distill that in writing.”
In a round-about way, someone asked Kent what she wouldn’t write about. Seeing the question for what it was, she said “The Shriver question, as it shall be known!” *big laugh from the audience* Kent answered thoughtfully –
“…if you create literature you also have a responsibility to stand by it, to be sensitive. I ask myself what are my intentions and am I operating from a position of empathy?”
Finally, I asked Kent what was next and was surprised to learn that she was working on a contemporary screenplay (and enjoying the collaborative process). She said that although she loves historical fiction and the associated research, she didn’t want to carve herself “…a niche as the author that writes about miserable women in cold places.”
Great to read, Kate. I had thought about that myself just today, whether she was typecasting herself. Sounds as if not, though a part of me thinks there can never be too many novels about miserable women in cold places. Look forward to your review of the book, whenever it comes!
In her usual way, she was very lighthearted about the type-casting!
Although I’m busting to start The Good People, I’ve just finished two terrific books (Here I Am by Foer and Mothering Sunday by Swift), so purposely started reading something that’s been in my stack for ages (and that I wasn’t overly enthused about), to bring me back to more realistic reading territory… I realise that probably sounds mental but do you understand what I mean?!
I understand absolutely. You have to recalibrate, I do that.
Sounds like a great talk and I’m looking forward to this even more now! I love the cover – I hope they keep the same one for the UK edition.
She’s fantastic to hear speak – her enthusiasm is infectious.
I think the cover is beautiful and representative of the role of landscape in the story. Will be interesting to see what they do for other countries – I think Burial Rites ended up with four or five different covers (only one of which I didn’t like).
I’ve been looking forward to this but it makes me uneasy. I read a lot of Irish fiction and I’ll be very impressed if she can pull off an authentic voice; Irish writing and vernacular is very musical and uses words in distinctive ways (adjectives after nouns, for instance), so it will be interesting to see if she’s got to grips with this. Part of me is worried that this is not her story to tell, which is how I felt about her first book. I liked that one but I didn’t love it.
I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on whether she gets the Irish right if you read it. I’m confident she’s covered all bases on the folklore and use of herbs – her descriptions of her research sounded, quite frankly, exhausting (she’s a woman who loves micro-fiche).
As to whether it’s her story…? The Shriver question! I never felt like it wasn’t a story she should be telling while reading Burial Rites (which I loved) and I suspect it was because as she said, it was told from a starting point of empathy – I think that came through. But from memory, one of the key things about Icelandic culture is that they wrote and read – even the poorer people could read and records were kept of everything. Kent said at a previous talk I attended, that she had so much material to work with for Burial Rites that it was a matter of filling in a few gaps.
This time it was different – two newspaper articles and a reasonably large collection of historical information about the use of herbs. But, information about good people and female fairy doctors was scant, namely because a lot of information about Irish folklore was collected by men in the 1930s, whose focus was on folklore in relation to religion as opposed to the role of women, nurturing, childbirth and healing. Added to this, there was a generational loss during the famine, so much of the oral storytelling, was lost. She said while Burial Rites was ‘biographical fiction’, this was not.
I think what stood out for me in Burial Rites was her description of the landscape and nature – it was intimate. If she’s done the same with this book, I know I’m in for some beautiful writing? So is it her story to tell? I don’t know. But is it more simply her ode to Irish fairy doctors?
Oh, I cannot wait to read this one! (And I would be perfectly happy with Kent writing more books about miserable women in cold places.)
I agree – after all, when you’re on a good thing, stick to it!
This book sounds so great – I still haven’t got around to Burial Rites. Maybe I should sort that out soon.
STOP. EVERYTHING. Heather, read Burial Rites. Immediately. And then report back.
Ok! (But maybe next month.)
I’ve been waiting to hear more about Kent’s new book — don’t know when it’s coming to the U.S. but it sounds wonderful. I loved Burial Rites. I’m glad you got to see her and ask questions!
How lovely to hear her speak. I’m going to something this next weekend and will hear from some writers and am looking forward to it. Last year a heap of writers seemed to come to my little regional town, but this year there’s been no one.
I’m lucky in Melbourne to have a few major arts festivals plus the always-amazing Wheeler Centre (the home base for Melbourne as an International City of Literature). Added to that I have a large independent bookstore near me that hosts lots of author talks (nearly always free events), so I am well and truly spoilt 🙂
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