Hannah Kent made waves in Australia's literary scene in 2013 with her first novel, Burial Rites. The novel was translated into 28 languages and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and the Guardian First Book Award. It won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier's People's Choice Award, and was shortlisted a host of awards, including the Stella Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Her second novel, The Good People (2016), received similar acclaim. The Good People was shortlisted for the University of Queensland Fiction Book Award, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, the Walter Scott Award for Historical Fiction (UK), the Indie Book Award for Literary Fiction and the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award.
Hannah is also the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary publication Kill Your Darlings, which was established in 2010.
- Hannah remembers reading Ann M. Martin’s The Babysitter's Club series, Enid Blyton and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as a child, as well as the works of Paul Jennings, Roald Dahl and Tamora Pierce as a young teenager.
- As her taste matured, she fell in love with Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy as a teenager, as well as the playwrights Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen and Bertolt Brecht.
- Hannah’s first novel, Burial Rites, was written as part of her thesis entitled ‘Speculative Biographies'.
- Hannah would invite Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, and the New Zealand writer and poet Janet Frame to her ideal literary dinner party.
Nic: Hannah Kent burst onto the literary scene in 2013 with her first novel, Burial Rites. It became an international bestseller and won many awards. Her second novel, The Good People, came out recently and is destined for similar success. Hannah's also the co-founder and publishing director of the Australian literary publication Kill Your Darlings. Hannah is destined to be one of Australia's major literary figures from here on. She's an exceptional writer. Hannah, welcome to The Garret.
Hannah: Thank you very much for having me.
Nic: I'm wondering what the first books were that you remember, or the first authors that you remember reading, or even being read to?
Hannah: Oh, goodness. That's a very good question. Probably the first books that I became incredibly passionate about, The Babysitter's Club series? Of all things?
Nic: [Laughter] There are a lot of them as well, wasn't there?
Hannah: There were a huge amount of them. I had a really lovely reading experience as a child, in that there was nothing which I wasn't allowed to read, or nothing which my parents frowned upon. So, I read quite voraciously, and from an early age. I was also a big fan of Enid Blyton, through A Series of Unfortunate Events. When I was probably only about seven years old, I received a carton of about 50 of those old, hardcover Enid Blyton books. And I read them again and again and again, well probably until my teen years, of all things. Because I had sentimental affection for them. Paul Jennings...
Nic: Did you read, did you re-enact, did you go for walks and climb hills and pretend you were one of The Secret Seven or The Famous Five?
Hannah: Oh, absolutely! Totally! I grew up in the Adelaide Hills. My parents had about 8 acres of land, in which, it was called Broad Oak. We had our own faraway trees, so it was wonderful. I loved it.
Nic: So, you read Paul Jennings? The great Australian writer? Yeah.
Hannah: Paul Jennings, yep. Roald Dahl, I loved. And pretty much everything else that I brought home. Tamora Pierce was a fantasy writer I got into when I was in primary school. And then I had an interesting period in my teens, where I became a little bit more serious about writing myself, and thought that I wanted to write serious things. So, I made myself read a lot of what I perceived to be serious literature, probably more to impress other people than for the material itself.
Nic: So, this is apart from the stuff you had to read at school, so there were others. Are you talking about classics, or are you talking about contemporary fiction?
Hannah: Mainly classics.
Nic: Any spring to mind as really being...
Hannah: Tolstoy, Dickens, Hardy were probably my top three. But like I say, I've become a lot less snobbish about what I read as I grow older.
Nic: Even at that age, do you think you learned anything about writing from reading Tolstoy and Dickens? Were you reading them just for the enjoyment of reading, or were you reading them to see what great writers can do?
Hannah: I think I was reading them for the sake of reading them, and I think a lot of the Tolstoy that I read, to be perfectly honest, went over my head. I keep on meaning to return to his work, because I feel like I would actually get a lot more from it now. I was young. I was very pretentious. But Hardy really resonated with me, particularly with his treatment of landscape, and that's something that I, even to this day, return to. I have a great passion for Thomas Hardy.
Nic: I can tell from your novels. We'll get into that later. You said you're talking here about being in school and writing. When did you first start writing? Primary school, high school? And what were you writing?
Hannah: I can't remember starting, to be honest. I think it was from a very early age. My parents told me that when I was about 6 years old, I announced to them that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
Hannah: They were incredibly supportive, and also have been, but also very practical people. I do remember this, I remember them telling me that it would be a good idea to also be something else. So be a writer, absolutely, but also be something else, so that I could probably move out one day.
So, growing up, it was always I want to be a writer and a teacher, or a writer and a dancer, or a writer and a bricklayer at one stage. Something else would always change, but the writer was always a constant. And that's been true for me basically my whole life, like I said. As long as I can remember, I've always wanted to write. There's videos of me reciting poetry when I was a little kid, and things like that.
Nic: Did you study writing formally?
Hannah: I did.
Nic: Whereabouts? What did you study?
Hannah: I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at university. Like I said, I always wanted to write, but I didn't know whether I should perhaps use an opportunity of a degree to pursue that something else. And it was partially this indecision which led to my taking up a rotary exchange the year after my high school, which was to Iceland, which then was where I discovered the story of novels I would later write.
Nic: Something I'll talk to you about shortly. Okay.
Hannah: But more so than discovering all these wonderful stories while I was there, it was existing in a culture where literacy is so prized by the Icelanders. They are a nation of book lovers. It was very much encouraged by the people that I lived with there, but also, there's nothing like having 24 hours of darkness where you don't really understand the television or radio to push you to pursue your hobbies. And so, I really fell back in love with writing in a massive way when I was there, and that led me to then change my university applications, and I came back and did a Bachelor of Creative Arts in Creative Writing at Flinders University.
Nic: Was the idea always going be that you were going to be a fiction writer and a novelist? Or did you dabble in other areas at that time as well?
Hannah: Oh yeah, there was much dabbling. I wanted to be a poet. Then for many years, I wanted to be a playwright. And those were the things I largely concentrated on when I was doing my undergrad.
Nic: I'm now worried that those are the things that you were talking about as being the other work that were going bring the money. You know, ‘I'm going be a writer, and a poet! A writer, and a playwright!’
Hannah: I didn't quite understand what my parents were after.
Nic: That's right.
Hannah: I loved drama growing up, and there was a couple of years where I wanted to do acting. That was a natural progression for me, to try and combine the two loves. But then I went on and did an honours year in creative writing, and by that time I was incredibly homesick for Iceland. And I had also remembered this particular story that I had heard when I was there, so I decided to write a verse novel. I was a big reader of Dorothy Porter at this stage. And I soon realised that it's very difficult to write about what was a historical event in Icelandic history in a few couple of stanzas without providing some more information, so I switched to prose. That was the first time I had attempted to writing something in long form, and I'd always been a terrible short story writer, because I can't confine anything to under 5,000 words. So, I think I really found my fit.
Nic: Well, I do want to explore Burial Rites in a minute, but just going back to drama. Who were your favourite, or who are your favourite dramatists?
Hannah: Oh, goodness. Tennessee Williams, Ibsen, and certainly Brecht, as most high school students are very well acquainted with him. But I really enjoyed it. I loved the theory behind his thinking too.
Hannah: And I was involved in a couple of Brecht plays. Loved it.
Nic: So, let's talk about Burial Rites, first of all. Tell me how you came upon the story of, I'm going try and pronounce it now, I've never had to pronounce an Icelandic name on the Garret. Agnes Magnúsdóttir?
Hannah: It's close.
Nic: Close? Thank you, you're very polite.
Hannah: Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Daughter of Magnus. I heard this story quite by accident. I'd finished high school, and the following January I'd left South Australia, where I'd been growing up, to a small town called Sauðárkrókur, in the north of Iceland. I arrived in winter. There were more or less 20 hours of pure pitch black out every day, and then about four hours of a weird blue twilight. It was a very small town. Everybody knew who I was, so they would slow down in their cars to have a good look at me while I was walking along to the high school there that I had to attend as part of the exchange program. And they would talk amongst themselves and basically agree that ‘Oh yes, this is the Australian that we know is in town’. But no one would say anything to me! Then they'd wind up the windows and off they'd go again.
So, I felt incredibly conspicuous, but for quite a long period of time I felt really very lonely, and very homesick as well. And it was during this time that I was being driven from the south, the capital, back to the north with my host family at the time. And we passed through… the north part of Iceland is incredibly beautiful. The landscape is just out of this world, and quite striking. You feel prompted to remark upon it when you go through it. And we passed through this valley mouth, and I remember there were hundreds, out of the blue, suddenly hundreds of small hillocks, probably 3 metres high but no more than that. And just everywhere, it looked artificial. And not knowing anything about the landscape, I asked my host family if these were Viking burial mounds or something. And they said ‘No, they were actually caused by an avalanche many years ago. But it's interesting that you mention this place, because something significant did happen here’.
And as we drove past, three hills in particular, they pointed to the middle one. And they said, ‘On that hill in the early 1800s was the site of Iceland's last execution’. And I was interested, as I think anyone would be.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Hannah: And asked them what happened, and they said it was a woman, called Agnes, and that she had been a servant woman, and that she had been beheaded for her role in the double murder of two men. And I asked, ‘How were they killed?’ They were stabbed to death in their sleep, and then their croft farm where they lived was burned down in the middle of the night. And I asked, ‘Why did she do it?’ And they couldn't really answer that question, other than to say that she was basically an evil person.
I was fascinated by this, but I think part of the reasons why – because I heard many stories connected to the landscape while I was there – and I think one of the reasons why this one particularly resonated with me was because I was, at that time, having my own experience of being an outsider in a small Icelandic community. And not to compare being a homesick exchange kid with being a condemned murderess, but I wanted to know more about her, and I wanted to find out more about the why, not the what. This continued even as I learnt the language and made many friends there. I just had these lingering questions about this woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir.
Like I said, earlier I came back to Australia and embarked on a degree in creative writing. But it wasn't until my honours year that I realised I had been writing poetry in the voice of this woman. That then led to the verse novel, and then that then led to what was the beginning of a novel. And once I embarked on that, and handed up about 15,000 words as part of a thesis in my honours year, ‘I thought I can't leave this here, I have to continue’. So, I basically applied to continue the project as part of a PhD, and that's how I wrote the book.
Nic: So how much of it is based, how much research did you have to do, and then how much is left to the imagination? The actual details of all the events all, shall we say, true, based on the research you've done, or is that you've taken liberty? There's a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I love that line, and I love it being crossed. Just wondering.
Hannah: It is very difficult, I think, to draw a line. It's muddy water. You can't really separate the two.
Hannah: For me, however, with that book, my PhD thesis was called ‘Speculative Biographies’, and that's how I considered it, because research to me was a crucial part of writing that book. Everything that I discovered that could be corroborated or was established in terms of fact, I felt obliged to honour in the novel, which meant that I couldn't really follow every imaginative whim that occurred to me. I basically lifted this entire methodology from Margaret Atwood's, in writing Alias Grace, another wonderful novel about a woman, originally based on a woman who was accused of murder.
So, whenever I encountered information in my research that seemed contradictory, or was explicitly and very obviously informed by bias or prejudice, I used my wider research into that time to pick the most likely scenario. And it was only in those gaps and those silences where I felt that I was allowed to make things up, so to speak.
Nic: Sure. How is the book being received in Iceland? And how do they feel about an Aussie chick talking and writing about Iceland? ‘How dare she!’ Was it that attitude?
Hannah: I was really afraid of encountering that sort of response. I wrote it, not ever thinking that it would really be published, but still nonetheless realising that I kind of had an ethical obligation to Icelanders to ensure that I got my facts right, which is one of the reason why I spent so long researching the book. I spent about two years researching it full-time. And then it did, actually, come out there in English, and there was also an Icelandic translation. I was in Iceland for the launch of the Icelandic copy, which is called Náðarstund. It has a different title, it's called A Moment of Grace in Icelandic.
I was terrified, because not just that I would've got something wrong, or missed something, that there was going be a huge inaccuracy, but also because Icelanders are very aware of their ancestors, and of their lineage. And I had already received letters from people who are related to the real-life counterparts of my characters!
And I knew, for instance, that one of the sort of villains of the piece, the judge, called Björn Blöndal, had 13 children. So, he has a lot of descendants in Iceland!
But the response was actually wonderful. I mentioned earlier, Iceland has love and appreciation of literature, and I think they understood the reasons why I had felt compelled to write about the material, and many of them said that it enabled them to regard it in new eyes. Not to necessarily agree with my representation, but to understand that the story as it had been handed down to them was... there was perhaps another side to it, multiple variations of the same story.
Nic: And you were providing answers that perhaps, well if not answers, as you say, certainly viewpoints that they may not have considered or been aware of.
Hannah: Well, I never wanted to provide a representation that was singular, or the only other representation possible. It was more about opening up other angles with which to view this very sad story, which is very well known in that country. I think too, the fact that I had been quite rigorous in my research of the minutiae of the everyday was well received. And also, the fact that I had, let's say, a very passable, but rusty grasp on the language. That also sort of, that was approved of.
But no, it was a bit of a… it was a crazy experience. I got to go on Icelandic television and radio and all these sorts of things. It was good fun.
Nic: Do you feel proud that you've given this woman enormous dignity now?
Hannah: I don't know if I feel proud about it. It's not really something I want to give myself a pat on the back about. But I do hope, and I am glad to hear from readers, particularly Icelandic readers, or people who are already aware of the story, that it made them question the narrative as it had been handed down to them. Mainly as a myth, you know, it's sort of a legendary story from that country. That was rewarding and fulfilling, in the sense that you always, as a writer, want people to present material that's going make people question their own worldview. Not necessarily to adopt your own worldview, but to at least make them question it, to make them question it. So that was one of my aims, so it was certainly to provide a more empathetic perspective of this woman, to make her a human rather than a stereotype.
Nic: You said you spent two years doing the research. How long did it take to actually write the book, and how many drafts do you go through?
Hannah: Oh, I had lots of drafts. I do, yeah. I wrote, probably the first iteration, or the first draft in about five months.
Nic: Oh, wow!
Hannah: Which was very speedy.
Nic: Very quick.
Hannah: But that had been at the end of two years research, so I was saturated in this material by that stage. And that's a process that still works well for me. I'm not someone who goes between the writing and the notes, or the writing and the research. It's much easier for me to attain a level of familiarity with which I can see my characters, and I already have an understanding of them, and just to plunge straight into the narrative.
But then I went on and did many drafts. I don't really know them in terms of number, just in height, in terms of how many manuscripts have been printed out. It's a good metre.
Nic: Was there a point when you were writing it that you thought ‘I'm writing something special, that's going get the reception it did get’. Or was it only when it had all happened that you went ‘Wow!’
Hannah: No, I didn't think it was...
Nic: Did you have a publisher while you were writing it?
Hannah: No, I didn't. So, I was writing this thinking that, you know, four people were assured readers. My parents and my two examiners. And I, of course, being an aspiring writer, I hoped that maybe one day I'd have an opportunity to rework the material and submit it to a publisher, but I did not have any anticipation that it would be published in the way that it did, or as soon as it would.
So, this is still something I'm pinching myself over. But I'm also a very poor judge of my own work when I'm writing it. I'm very bad. I assume the worst. I assume it's terrible, and then I just try to keep going. And that's true of everything I write. Which is one of the reasons why I find it also useful, as part of my writing process, to incorporate times where it's in the drawer and I'm not looking at it, so I can try and simulate that initial reading experience as much as possible.
Nic: I'm going go on to The Good People, but why Iceland in the first place? Why did you choose that for your... what is it about Iceland that first attracted you? Is there some sort of family connection for the rotary trip? Why? Why Iceland?
Hannah: I wish there was this really deep and meaningful reason I went to Iceland. The truth is that I had never seen snow before, and I desperately wanted to. And it's part of a rotary application...
Nic: What, Falls Creek wasn't good enough for you?
Hannah: Didn't have a car. My parents didn't want to go. As part of the application, you get to nominate three countries you'd like to be considered for. And I didn't have any language backing, so I think I put down Switzerland, but I didn't speak French, so I was passed over for those sorts of things. And then you interviewed as well, to be picked.
Hannah: And I remember during the interview, I was sitting there in front of about four Rotarians, and they're asking the hard questions. How are you going to respond to, perhaps, living with a host family who won't like you? And all these sorts of things. And then one of them said, how would you deal with it if you were sent somewhere where it was dark a lot of the time in winter? And me in my ignorance said, ‘Oh, it'd be fascinating! I'd love to experience what that was like!’ And I swear, he picked up his pen and just did a giant sort of tick next to my name. And that's why I was the only one sent there. I think there were probably at least two or three exchange students sent to every other country, except me on my own to Iceland.
Nic: So that was it. How serendipitous that was. The Good People is also set, in another nation, not in Australia, Ireland, about the same time, early 1800s. What is the appeal to you of those times? Is it the desire to learn about another country in another time, and throw yourself into the research? Or is the next one going be New York in the future?
Nic: What is it about, there's all these similarities between them?
Hannah: You're absolutely right. I think it's much more by coincidence than design. I never intended to be a writer of historical fiction. I thought I'd be a playwright, or a poet. But certainly, it was more hearing that particular story about Agnes. It was an attraction to Agnes Magnúsdóttir's character that led me to write Burial Rites, which just happened to be set in the 19th century. But a love of research did develop during that experience. But even with The Good People, the reason why it's set in such a similar timeframe is because that book, too, is based on a true story.
So about 95 per cent of the research material that I needed for Burial Rites was in Icelandic. It was a long time, you know, taken in translation documents that, once translated, might prove to be completely useless. And it was an incredibly laborious, often quite a tedious process. I remember one afternoon at university, I was just sick and tired of reading everything in Icelandic, and wanted the ease of reading something in English. So, really, I was procrastinating under the auspices of doing research. But I decided to check foreign newspapers of the time to see if there was any comment made about this case of capital punishment, as there sometimes were.
I couldn't find anything. But as I was turning the pages of these old British newspapers, I encountered this very brief article about a trial which had occurred in the south of Ireland in County Kerry in 1826. It was very short, but it was fascinating, and it completely captured my imagination. This woman called Anne Roach, or Nance Roach, had been accused of a very serious crime, and it wasn't so much the charges that fascinated me, because researching murderous women in the past, I was quite well acquainted with all the horrible things they got up to.
Hannah: But it was her defence. She said that she couldn't be held accountable for what had happened, because all she had been trying to do was to banish a fairy changeling. She'd been trying to rid someone, rid a fairy, basically. And I'd encountered the changeling mythology through Icelandic folklore, but also through other fairy stories, and I was so curious about her, immediately curious. My first thought was, goodness, what an extraordinary defence. Is this something she'd come up with to try and get off? Or is this something that she sincerely believes, and if so, and that's the more interesting path, what would it have been... what world did this woman come from? What would it have been like? Where did things start to get to such an incredible and bizarre conclusion?
I wrote the article out in my notebook at the time, and then years later when Burial Rites was written and had been considered by publishers, I was asked if I was interested in a two-book deal. And I said, of course, yes, not thinking that they would ask me the following question, which is, what's your second novel about? And I thought to myself, well, it took me three years to write Burial Rites, and I was obsessed with that story. What is something else that I could be similarly obsessed with? And I immediately thought of Nance Roach, who considered herself a fairy doctress and tried to banish changelings, and that's where that one started.
Nic: Alright. And I'm wondering, what did you learn from writing the first one that helped you with the second one?
Hannah: There were things that I wanted to challenge myself with in writing The Good People that I felt that I hadn't been challenged with in Burial Rites. One of those things was, I found it much easier to write in first person than in third person, and I was determined to write The Good People with multiple protagonists, really. Even though there's, of course, one major set of narratives there, I wanted multiple protagonists, and I wanted to write the whole thing in third person, because I find it so much more difficult as a writer. And that was a great challenge, and I did find it quite difficult.
But in terms of learning other things from Burial Rites which could then be applied to The Good People, I think it was more an understanding of my own process, particularly the attitude that I have towards my own writing.
There were many, many times in Burial Rites where I wished that I could just stop. But I couldn't, because it was for a PhD, and I'd already committed to it and gone through all the necessary paperwork. And that was the feeling again. There were many times in writing The Good People where I wanted to give up on it, because it felt very difficult. There was such a huge abyss between how I wanted my work to be and how it was. And so Burial Rites taught me the value and the importance of rewriting and drafting, and how you can incrementally get closer to that ideal work. And I don't think I could have done The Good People, because those small increments came a lot more slowly and far between in the drafting process with that novel. But having done it once, I felt that at least if you persist, you will get somewhere.
Nic: You obviously love writing about, well, I don't know if you love writing about... you have obviously written about women who are outsiders in their communities and in their circumstances and facing enormous challenges. Why do these characters, do you think, make such good protagonists? What is it you like most about them?
Hannah: I think outsiders are naturally very interesting people. I didn't make them outsiders, these women already were.
Nic: But you chose… their stories are the ones you wanted to tell.
Hannah: Yeah. I think that probably came from the fact that these women, during their own lifetimes, were represented in unequivocal ways. They were thought to be evil. There was never any consideration given to the external circumstances which might've shaped the trajectory of their lives, and that's what interested me. That's what I wanted to find out, particularly with Agnes Magnúsdóttir. I wanted to find out if she had a family, what her family were like, what she had been aspiring towards. Was she literate? Was she poor? All of these things. Because I do feel that the circumstances of our lives, which are largely outside of our control, have enormous import on where we end up. And also, enormous import on the choices that we feel are available to us, which I think can sometimes lead people to make bad choices, because that's their only means of agency.
And so, I think I'm drawn to these characters because they are so vulnerable in many ways. In the case of The Good People, I think I'm actually just really interested in the intersection of gender and poverty, and the ways in which that drastically limits the opportunities for these women. And so when they have occasions of misfortune, in the case of The Good People, when they're faced with the death of loved ones, or extreme poverty and the possibility of starvation, or they are made vulnerable through social mores and customs, or they lack a kinship network, what is left to them to assert themselves? Because everyone wants to have some sense of control, or some sense of possibility. Therein lies the possibility of hope. So, I think that's what interests me.
Nic: The poverty certainly comes through, well in both, but particularly in The Good People. It's just horrific lives that those people have to live.
Hannah: It was incredible, actually. There were many details. I had to rein it back. There's so many accounts of extreme hardship, extreme poverty, that I encountered that to include it in a novel… it wouldn't work. It would alienate the reader. Stories of people actually sleeping in puddles because their homes were so damp, or they were forced to build them in a turf bank. Things like this, you just... there's a limit to everyone's empathy. You just can't imagine what that would be like, and so I think people would disconnect from the characters. Terrible.
Nic: And to make a connection with Australia, you can see why, particularly from Ireland, as horrific as it might've seen, the possibility of a life on the other side of the world in this inhospitable continent was a positive. It's like, hey...
Hannah: It's an opportunity.
Nic: Give it a go, it’s an opportunity that we're never going to get here.
Nic: And we're going get a sense of that. Tell me a little about your writing process. Do you set hours a day, do you work from an office, a home? Are you in longhand, keyboard? People are fascinated by the way writers work.
Hannah: Yeah, I'm fascinated by the way other writers work.
Nic: And I've heard you're very, very dedicated and you stick to...
Hannah: I think I have to.
Nic: You have a very strict routine.
Hannah: Yeah. I really rely on a routine, because writing needs to become habitual for me to do it. When I started writing Burial Rites, I was on a scholarship. I was working other jobs, but they largely allowed me to work from home. And with The Good People, I still work from home. I'm very fortunate in that sense. For study, I try to keep to office hours. That's largely for me to have the feeling that I'm doing a proper job, like everyone else I know who goes off to offices. It makes me feel like I'm not missing out. But also, I do know that if I sit at the desk, and even if I do get only a certain amount of words out, something's going happen. It's a step forward. So, I really try to cultivate a discipline, I suppose, or try to consider writing as a discipline. Because again, the experience of writing both books is that talent and aptitude and all these sorts of things are incredibly valuable in giving you a head start, but ultimately it's just showing up that gets things done. And that's true of so many other things in life as well.
So, a routine for me allows me just to ensure that I show up, day after day. So, I work best in the morning. I try to have an early start, if possible. So, I'll get up and have breakfast, and maybe go for a walk, and then I'll sit down at the desk and... It depends if I'm researching, my routine's a little bit more loose, because I might need to go to a library, or I'll be doing a lot of reading and making notes. But when I'm writing a draft, particularly a first draft, I will have an alarm set for break times, because you do develop that problem, and ensure I take them. My goal is to hopefully, by the end of the day, write 1,000 words. And very often, these 1,000 words are drivel. They're terrible. But I know that by 50 days, I'll have 50,000 words, and that's 50,000 words more than I had last time.
And again, knowing the importance and the value of rewriting, you know that you might find something of value within that pile of muck that you end up with.
Nic: I'm just tipping your thousand words are drivel, and not a thousand words of drivel for most people. But there you go.
Hannah: Oh, you'd be surprised! You would be surprised. There's a reason I do so many drafts. There's a phrase I heard once, which is ‘I'm a terrible writer, but I'm quite a good rewriter’. And I fully subscribe to that. It's quite dull, really. I'm not particularly superstitious. I don't need a particular kind of candle burning or all my pens in a certain order. But I do try to work five days a week. I used to work weekends, but I don't think that's sustainable. And also, there's more to life than writing.
Nic: Can you keep your brain sticking to office hours? That's the hardest thing now, exactly.
Hannah: No. Well, this is the other thing.
Nic: So, it's always there?
Hannah: Yeah. When I'm writing a book, it's the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing when I go to sleep. And that sounds kind of cliché to say that, and probably... but it's true, it's absolutely true. I'm thinking about my characters, and I'm thinking about things that I want to include, or choices that I might make. It's an endless musing. So that ticks on constantly.
Nic: How do you escape that, or do you not want to escape?
Hannah: Oh no, I enjoy that. The writing is the hard bit, the imagining's the joyful part.
Nic: Let's turn to literary magazines and journals. I wonder, what prompted you to co-found Kill Your Darlings? How did that come about?
Hannah: It was, again, completely unplanned. When I was about 11 years old, inspired by Joe in Little Women, who was of course inspired by Pickwick Papers, I established my own newspaper, The Owl. I had an initial subscription list of about five friends.
Hannah: And that eventually expanded over the two years that I did it. It was a monthly sort of thing that I created, and my mother who worked at a school kindly photocopied them over half, and I mailed out. It had recipes and serialised stories, editorial commentary and puzzles, all these sorts of things.
Hannah: So, I'd always sort of loved that. And then years later when I was doing my honours, I had an opportunity to do some work experience at the Australian Book Review, organised through my university. And it was there that Rebecca Stafford, who was then deputy editor at that publication, she became my boss. I went there for two weeks in production and enjoyed myself, and they would fly me in to do basically proofreading and small editorial tasks. In the months that followed, I did consequent issues, and we became friends over that time, because we bonded over, you know, we liked to read similar books. But also, I think we really wanted to see another publication in Australia that not only supported early career writers, but also published them alongside established names.
There's a lot of wonderful publications like Meanjin and Overland and indeed, ABR, where you have a lot of established writers being published, and their work is fantastic. But I think it can be quite difficult when you're starting out to have your own reputation bolstered by a wonderful, strong company of fellow authors. And this is something we wanted to achieve.
So, we sat down one night, and we just thought, ‘Let's just do it. No one's going come up with it’. So, we went out and had a coffee and came up with some very idealistic plans, and then we put our ideas to a few other people, who had far more experience than we did. And they were all very supportive, but at the same time saying, ‘You realise it's going to be a lot of work, and where are you going get the money? How are you going get subscribers?’ But it was through a combination of, I think our naivety and our idealism with their experience and know-how that we published the first issue of Kill Your Darlings in March of 2010. We then published a quarterly magazine all up until April this year, which is our 29th. And then we've now just gone online, which has been wonderful, actually. It's been really exciting. And we're able to publish more content and pay our writers more, and establish creative writing unpublished manuscript awards, and all these sorts of things that we probably wouldn't have been able to do had we stuck to print.
Nic: That is also a pity, because it was such a beautiful looking print publication.
Hannah: It was, it was. But we've kept our illustrator, and it's one of those things. We always promised ourselves with Kill Your Darlings that we wouldn't do something for its own sake, that we'd always respond to what the readers wanted, and where our readership was headed. And it was very clear to us that it was becoming increasingly online. And of course, we were incredibly sad to say goodbye to the publication, but we could've kept doing that and not changing. And ultimately, it came back to what we wanted to achieve with the whole publication and the project, which is to engage the community of writers and readers as much as possible. And we can do that... we have far better, longer reach doing that as a digital publication than we do in print.
Nic: Sure. I heard a whisper you're writing a script at the moment. Is that true? Can you tell us about it?
Hannah: It’s true.
Nic: Is it TV, film, play? All I knew was that it was a script.
Hannah: It's a film. Look, it's been a fascinating process. I was approached by two producers in Melbourne who had read my novels, and they asked me if I had any ideas to pitch.
Nic: Another article you've read. ‘Ooh, yes, I've got one!’
Hannah: Well, I ended up meeting with them because this is with Screen Australia, which had released some funding called Gender Matters. So, this is all about getting more women involved in some of the seminal roles – director, producer, writer – in screen production in Australia. And they approached me and said, ‘Look, do you have any pitches? Any ideas? Maybe we could put in an application’. And I met with them and I basically pitched them a bunch of short story ideas. They were very polite and said ‘Thanks very much for your time. Let us know if you've got anything else’. And then as we were finishing our coffees, we just got to chatting and they asked me what my third book was going be about. And at that stage, it was this sort of bizarre concoction involving this strange thread of reincarnation.
Nic: In the 1820s?
Hannah: No! I think it probably was, actually, sometime in the 19th century. And anyway, they said ‘Look, this could potentially work. Did you want to put in an application for this?’ So, I went back and thought more seriously about the idea, and in the end we came up with this original concept. It's contemporary, not set in the 19th century.
But yeah, it's been wonderful for me to work collaboratively, but also to learn something completely new, because I don't know what I'm doing. Screenwriting's such a different craft.
Nic: So, what are the main differences you find? What are the main challenges? Your novels are extraordinary... we talked a bit about the Icelandic landscape, and your novels have paid great rivers to the landscape of Ireland and Iceland, so they're very visual.
Nic: Which is what you want a screen, script to be. So, it would seem to me that it's quite a natural progression for you, but obviously, what are the main challenges and differences in sitting down? Is there a different thought process? Are you looking at things visually rather than looking at the words?
Hannah: That's certainly a big part of it. The visual… I think to me, the greatest challenge I realised was so much of my characterization, and certainly a lot of the plot stems from characters just ruminating on things. You don't have that interior space in a film.
Nic: No, that's right.
Hannah: And so that's been a real challenge in leaning on visual cues to suggest as much. So, it's basically going from writing a novel to trying to condense the same emotional depth into a poem, basically. You're looking for concision and precision, but with that same sort of, I don't know, sweeping atmosphere of a novel. And that's been the challenge, is trying to learn how to do that successfully. You might have good ideas, but also it's about trying to communicate that in a script as well. So, adapting to another, simple sort of structural differences in writing a script compared to a novel.
But like I said, it's been really enjoyable. I've learned a great deal, and it's been a wonderful opportunity for that reason, if not anything else.
Nic: Have you ever spoke about the difference between also working collaboratively, which you don't as a novel until you start working with an editor, but that's very different. You like that collaborative approach, talking and bouncing things off?
Hannah: Yeah! It's a challenge, because with screenplays, as I've learnt, you get a lot of feedback from first draft. And I'm used to presenting draft 10 to people, by which stage you've settled on your characters. You're very familiar with them. You know what it is you're doing. But often in the first couple of draughts, in my experience, I don't really know what I'm trying to say. I work that out through the process of writing. So, having a lot of feedback from the word go is kind of, I don't know, it really makes you work out very quickly what it is you're trying to do from not just a creative perspective, but what is the narrative here? What is this actually about? And that's been really useful for me, because like I said, I spend way too much time coming to that conclusion.
Nic: Well, the other big difference, of course, is that when you've finished a novel, you've got the words there and it's going be given to the reader in exactly the way that you want it to be given to them, which of course is not the way with screenwriting. You give it and then it's made, it's edited and directed and what have you. You happy to hand it over and see what comes, or is there sort of a control freak part of you that's stressing out about the thought of it?
Hannah: No, it doesn't really. I've never really been particularly bothered by that. I think it's because the way I see novels is that, you only ever can half-finish a novel. I think a reader finishes it. And the multiple responses, and very varied responses I've had to my two books have shown me just how no two people read the same book. So, you do have to relinquish the story, even as a novelist. I don't think you ever have complete control about how people are going to come to your characters, or to come to the message of a book, if there is such a thing. A film does that, but in a much more blatant and obvious way.
Nic: And at the same time as working on the film script, you're also writing a third novel?
Hannah: I'm researching my third novel now, yeah.
Nic: Researching. You going tell us anything about it?
Nic: Someone asked me to ask you that! And they said you'll get nothing out of it, but I'm going throw it in there and ask!
Just finally, I'm going throw a hypothetical at you. You can invite four writers over for dinner, dead or alive, doesn't matter. Who would you invite over and why?
Hannah: Oh my goodness. This is the sort of question I need days to think about. That's really tough. In my current mood today, with the writers that spring to mind… We mentioned Thomas Hardy before, I would love to have Thomas Hardy around. Margaret Atwood, because I think she's wonderful, and she's long been a huge inspiration to me. The New Zealand writer and poet Janet Frame, because I love her work, and I loved her autobiography as well. Oh, God! This is really hard. Oh, no! I don't know, I don't know. Whoever I'm going say last, I'm just going, as soon as I walk out this room...
Nic: We'll have a spare chair. We'll have a spare chair.
Hannah: Yeah, and a spare chair for anyone who wants to come up. Yeah.
Nic: Hannah, I'd like to thank you very much for your time today talking to us on The Garret. It's been absolutely fantastic and I can't wait to see the film, and also read the third book, probably in about six years or so. Thank you, Hannah.
Hannah: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.