An Interview with Hannah Kent

In our October box we included Hannah Kent's wonderful second novel, 'The Good People.' Hannah was gracious enough to anser some questions I had, her ansers to which you can no read below!

1. Your first novel was set in Iceland and now The Good People takes Ireland
for its setting. What is it that takes your writing so far away from your native
Australia?
It might seem deliberate, but the non-Australian settings of my novels were not
sought out, nor have I consciously avoided writing about Australia. In my
experience, ideas tend to find you – I feel I have little control over what I’m
compelled to write about. It’s intuitive. Organic.
Burial Rites was written out of an intense curiosity with an Icelandic historic
figure I first heard about when living in that country as an exchange student. After
hearing a small part of Agnes Magnusdottir’s story, I was determined to learn
more about her. My interest was always primarily in character, not setting
(although the opportunity to write about a landscape I am very fond of was also
appealing). The Good People also began from a place of curiosity, or a compulsion to learn more of a story that presented itself to me as partial. I was researching the manuscript that would become Burial Rites, reading digitised copies of 19th-century newspapers, when I stumbled across an article about the trial of a woman in 1826 County Kerry. She called herself a ‘fairy doctress’, and I immediately wanted to know more. What did she mean by this term? What did she believe? What did her ‘world’ look like? The Irish setting took on greater significance as I researched the folklore of that country, but the beating heart of a novel will always be character.


2. When I first began to read The Good People, the setting was mysterious and
almost fantastical in a way. What influenced the tone of this Irish setting?
My portrayal of the small rural community in pre-famine Ireland was influenced
by research, which comprised reading everything I could get my hands on from
that period – letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, oral histories, medical
publications, maps, fiction, poetry – and going to the (modern-day) setting of my
novel in person. I spent six weeks in Ireland, researching at the National Folklore
Collection, museums and libraries, and also meeting with historians, academics
and curators who knew a great deal about the time and showed me around. The
tone of the setting doubtless comes from a combination of what is known about
that time and area, as well as my own perception and experience of the place.


3. Norah Leahy and Nance Roche come to believe in fairies at some point in
their lives. How does their belief differ?
The ways in which they express their belief differs, but I think they both have a
need for fairy belief. For Nance, being one ‘who does be in it’ – one who is
rumoured to associate with the Good People – gives her power. The community
fears and respects her, and she, therefore, achieves a degree of agency and
independence through her belief that she wouldn’t have without it. Without her
knowledge of the fairies and the social and cultural prestige, this affords her,
Nance would be a very vulnerable, old woman. Nora is similarly empowered through fairy belief. It not only allows her to both identify and justify her ambiguity towards her grandson, it also vindicates her from responsibility towards him, and, almost conversely, offers her hope during a period in her life when she has been completely devastated by personal grief.


4. Your work seems to have an interest in forces that go beyond our usual
control. Is this a theme you’re looking to explore?
I’m very interested in examining the external forces and circumstances that shape
the trajectory of the lives of the marginal and vulnerable. Both of my novels are
based on true stories, and, when I first heard these, I was struck by the way in
which the women involved were spoken of as unequivocally wicked or stupid. Of
course, these women made poor choices, but I believe that their poor choices were shaped by the external circumstances of their lives rather than an inherent evil. It’s less a theme I wish to explore, than something that naturally presents itself to me when I take a deeper look at the broader context of these women’s lives and crimes.


5. What’s next for you? Will we find ourselves in mainland Europe for your
next novel?
I’ve spent the past twelve months working on some screenplays, which has been a wonderful experience and a great challenge, but I am also working on another
historical novel. That is about as much as I’m willing to give away! It’s lovely to
have the story all to myself at the moment, especially as it’s still in that glorious
story of creative possibility.


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