Author Hannah Kent Discusses “Burial Rites: A Novel”


Burial Rites

Authors Alive Series
April 16, 2014

Intense loneliness and isolation bore down on Hannah Kent during her first few months in Iceland.

The author of Burial Rites: A Novel was a 17-year-old Rotary Club exchange student who traveled from her hometown of Adelaide, Australia to a small fishing village in northern Iceland in 2003. But it was January, a time of almost 24-hour darkness. And a combination of factors took its toll: the language barrier, stoic Icelanders, and a reticent host family. The son said one word to her the entire time: “hello” on her first day.

Her only comfort during the first few months was one shelf of English-language books in the school library. And a rare road trip with her host parents to the capital of Reykjavik revealed otherworldly landscapes tied to historical events. Those natural wonders compelled her hosts to tell story after story. One bizarre area Kent described as “pimples” in the earth – hundreds of small hills about eight feet tall – was the final resting place for a teenaged boy and young servant girl executed in 1830 for murdering two men.

Kent’s own story had a happy ending. She eventually learned the language, made friends, and moved in with a different host family.

But she couldn’t forget the haunting story of Agnes, who was dismissed as “a monster” by locals. Kent was fascinated and later became “obsessed,” as her mother calls it, with uncovering the young woman’s life. Who was she, and what compelled her to brutally kill two men? Did she really do it?

Kent, whose mentor is acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks, spent two years researching Agnes’ life for her PhD thesis. The result is an award-winning novel about personal freedom that her website says is “about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love.”

“I’ve always known what it is I want to do,” she said. Her love of books prompted her to declare her career goal at six years old. Her parents were supportive, but told her to chose an additional career so she could earn a living.

Worrying over it overwhelmed her love of writing by the time she needed to make decisions about university. It “made me want to run away,” she said. A school assembly focused on the local Rotary Club exchange program, and as soon as bell rang, she raced to counselor’s office for an application and to inquire about deferring college.

Burial Rites taught her how to write a novel, although she mentioned finishing two “terrible” novels that were in a drawer. “Two failures.”

I was the only audience member to ask about craft: “The story is compelling and your writing is so beautiful. Would you please describe your writing process?”

Sitting at a desk and writing was a very small part of the project, Kent said. “I wrote a lot of it in my head before I sat down.”

A morning person, she would start at 7:30 with the goal of writing 1,000 new words every day, “even if it was terrible, even if I just sat down and wrote I’m terrible at this” but got maybe one good sentence out of it all.

Sometimes she would finish done by 11 a.m. Other times she would be banging her head when dinner time came.

Kent’s discipline resulted in about 110,000 words. And the manuscript won her a two-book deal. Her next book is about superstition and folklore, and how dis-empowered people use them. “I’m interested in superstition as power play.”

Katherine Valdez blogs about writing and author events, and recently quit her job to write a novel. She eats a lot of ramen. Subscribe:, like:, and follow: @KatValdezWriter.

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