Interview: Hannah Kent

Internationally acclaimed author Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites (2013), has received numerous awards and been translated into twenty-three languages. Hannah recently released her second novel, The Good People, which tells the story of three women who meet under tragic circumstances in early 19th century Ireland. Hannah is also the co-founder and publishing director of Kill Your Darlings.

I sat down with Hannah to discuss her writing process, how she deals with success, and the importance of telling stories that explore the lives of women throughout history.

I know that you came across the inspiration for The Good People while you were researching Burial Rites. What grabbed you about the article that you came across that made you think, ‘This is the next book I need to write’.

It’s a funny one, it wasn’t so much that I encountered this article and thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to write about this’. But we all encounter lots of little stories or glimpses of other lives, especially if we’re readers. We encounter this sort of thing all the time, stuff that just catches on. It seems to hook its claws in us, and we have a curiosity about, or questions about, particular people, about particular situations. It doesn’t really let us go over the years.

When I was working on Burial Rites, and was sick and tired of translating Icelandic resources, I thought, ‘Well, I maybe should just check some old newspapers,’ because I knew that specifically the larger broadsheets in urban centres in the UK often commented on foreign cases of capital punishment.

I was reading through all sorts of things, and details of various trials, and then I encountered this quite small article, which mentioned this woman called Anne Roche. She was described as being of advanced age, which I thought was a truly poetic way of describing anyone over 40 at that time, and she had been accused of quite a serious crime.

The crime itself wasn’t that unusual, in terms of the material that I was reading. What attracted me was her defence. She said that she couldn’t be held accountable, that she was not guilty, because all that she had been trying to do was to banish a changeling. She also described herself as a fairy doctress, and I thought, ‘Goodness me. Who is this woman?’

I ended up writing it down in my notebook, as I still do when I encounter little things, and then I picked it up later when a publisher asked me if I had an idea for a second novel.

You do an amazing job of creating a world, particularly for the women, which is so grey, and so dull, and so bleak. What kind of research did you do about that point in Ireland’s history, and why was it important for you to create the world in that way?

When I first read that article about Anne Roche, I just thought it was completely bonkers. So much of the research process was about learning about those times, and those people, and particularly trying to understand the nature of their belief systems, and the way in which they incorporated Catholicism and fairy lore in the one and the same worldview.

I wanted to write out of a position of empathy, not just continue the stereotype of the superstitious, illiterate, poor peasant, and understand why they did what they did.

I needed to acquaint myself with the world that this woman lived in, which is a huge aspect of the research process for me, because I like to write out of a familiarity of the time and place.

I decided with this case to start out to see what I could find about this woman, Anne Roche. I spent a lot of time fruitlessly trying to find her in various online resources. There’s so much available material that has been digitised, largely for a lot of genealogy research online.

I tried to find her in various censuses, in parish records, and on everything from Ancestry.com to more academic resources. I couldn’t find her at all.

My next step was to try and get an appreciation of the world that she lived in. I take a really broad brush to research. I start with reading a lot of history books, to try and get a sense of who was in power, and what life was like generally in Ireland, just the history of the country.

Then I tried to zoom in a little bit. This is where the challenges came in, because the stuff that I’m trying to find out, largely in the case of women, is the domestic life of people who are poor. Gender, coupled with poverty, is something I explore in my work. It’s that intersection which really interests me.

There’s so little which has been written about the lives of poor women, and this minutiae of everyday life that they would have experienced. I read a lot of things like outsider’s traveller journals to Ireland, where I read shocking accounts of poverty. People described puddles on the floor, and people sleeping in puddles and mud.

I’ve had a few people say that I made my characters’ lives so miserable […] in reality their lives probably would have been a lot more miserable.

You have some great stories about your on-location research. Did you have any experiences researching The Good People that made all of the hours of research worth it?

I had this really bizarre experience in the Dublin Library, where I was so fortunate. I found a newspaper, a local newspaper near where this crime occurred, which had been preserved from that time, on microfilm, which is really rare.

I didn’t even know when this particular crime had occurred. The original article referred to when the trial was, but I needed to find an article from when the actual crime occurred.

I started out about 12 months prior. I was getting closer and closer to her over the course of three days, and then with gut-dropping realisation, I found out that the records just jumped forward six months. They obviously just hadn’t been preserved. I went into the library bathroom and I cried my eyes out. I was so frustrated.

I had a half a day left in the library before I was set to go out west and actually enter the landscape that I was writing about. The closest newspaper, geographically, available at the time, was in a whole other county, east of Kerry in County Cork. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just pluck out this random Cork newspaper and read it just to glean miscellaneous information about the price of potatoes’.

I was skipping through this Cork newspaper, not really reading it, not really zooming in on anything. Then the name Anne Roche just jumped out at the corner of my eye. I zoomed in, and the paper had syndicated the original article that hadn’t been available in the previous paper. I found myself with these two newspaper articles, but the second one mentioned the grandmother of the victim. It mentioned the grandmother’s servant girl, who by this stage, having already read so much about Ireland at this time, I knew would have been a young teenager.

Suddenly, I felt a pulse, basically, in this story, and I thought ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ Now I’ve got three central characters, and there’s so many questions now regarding how they were related to one another, and how they were variously involved in this crime.

Your first novel was enormously successful. Did that impact on you at all when you were working on The Good People, in terms of pressure, or did you think ‘I’ve got this now’?

No. I didn’t ever really feel like ‘I’ve got this now’. When I was writing Burial Rites, I was like, ‘Fuck, how do you write a novel? I’ve never done this before.’ The second time around I was like, ‘Fuck. How do you write a second novel? I’ve never done this before.’

I experienced the same general anxiety about trying to create something when you’ve got no guide. That was heightened to a degree though, because with Burial Rites, while I wrote that under certain amounts of pressure, because it was for a PhD, I also thought that I’d be lucky to have four people read it, two examiners and my parents!

I probably had about three months of staring at the blank page, dealing with the usual insecurities that arise at starting a new project. Then I just had to give myself a stern talking to and get back to work.

Do you have any top advice for aspiring writers?

You can only write a book by writing a really shit first draft, and then a slightly better second draft, and then a slightly better third draft. It doesn’t happen straight away, you’ve got to be patient.

You’ve got to trust in process. Your first drafts are going to be terrible, but just keep going, and don’t wait to feel ready, because you’ll never feel ready.

Remember that there’s no one way of writing. Everyone has their own way, and it’s about finding what works for you, and trusting in that.

Hannah’s novel The Good People is out now.

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Photo: Lauren Bamford

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