Debut Novelist Hannah Kent on Burial Rites and “Speculative Biography”

In 2002, Hannah Kent, author of the meticulously researched debut novel, Burial Rites, had just left high school in the South Australia capital city of Adelaide. Uncertain of the adult career decisions she faced and keen for adventure, she instead chose to defer her university experience for a year in favor of a rotary exchange travel program. While other students in her program ended up in America or France, Kent–thanks to some enthusiastic interviewing–found herself instead sent to Sauðárkrókur, an isolated fishing village on the north coast of Iceland.

Despite struggling at first, Kent’s unlikely travel experience to the northern edge of the world was a transforming experience–one that led her to the discovery of the true story that is at the center of her much buzzed-about new novel.

While driving through the stunning Icelandic countryside with her host family, Kent happened across the site of the last execution to take place in Iceland. Intrigued, she learned more about the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a farmhand, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmer’s son, convicted of a brutal double murder of two men in March 1828 and executed by beheading in 1830.

Haunted by Agnes and her story, Kent eventually returned to Iceland several times to research the history behind the rumor and legend of Magnúsdóttir’s story for what would soon become Burial Rites.

Mindful of the ethical dilemmas writers face when writing about real people from the past, Kent imposed a strict set of rules on her historical subject matter, sticking to facts whenever they could be established or corroborated. But where there were areas of question or contradiction, the author would use her imagination and contextual research into Iceland to connect the storyline to tell the most honest story possible, an approach Kent says differs from some forms of history-based fiction.

“In fact actually, I make a distinction,” Kent explains in our interview, “I don’t actually think of this as a historical novel, I think of it as a speculative biography–not a definitive history by any means, but a suggestion of a life as it may have been lived.”

Kent’s approach was inspired by the author Margaret Atwood’s book, Alias Grace, a fictional account of the notorious Grace Marks, a Canadian maid convicted in 1843 in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress.

“I remember reading an essay of hers called “In Search of Alias Grace” in a book she wrote called Curious Pursuits where she detailed this and I took a lot of inspiration and encouragement from that and ended doing more or less something similar…I think there can be a very fine line between exploiting someone’s life and using it to explore something deeper, and being ethical about it. And I was very cautious, particularly as a foreigner writing about a country that isn’t my own. I wanted to make sure I got my facts right.”

For Kent, the once imposing and difficult town in Iceland ended up changing her life forever. “Probably around the six month mark I had a massive transformation. I learned the language, I started making friends and I was slowly integrated into that small town that I was sent to. And I ended up having the most amazing time. It really was the year that forged my adult character in many ways.”

Burial Rites is available now, published by Little, Brown and Company.

Recorded at Book Expo America, New York, 2013.



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