Award-winning author Hannah Kent has come a long way since she became a household name overnight with the publication of her debut, Burial Rites. She has found her footing in research and success in other areas of writing, with her first foray into script writing for the Netflix thriller, Run Rabbit Run. We chatted to her about her career ahead of her event at the Craig Bassingthwaighte Long Table Dinner as part of the Storyfest Writers’ Festival.

Hannah Kent began writing her first book before she even had an inkling that that’s what it would be. Burial Rites started out as an honours thesis following an undergrad in creative writing and a life-changing trip to Iceland. Even then, fate had a lot to do with what would become an award-winning, bestselling book. 

The birth of a story and a writer

When Hannah applied for a Rotary exchange program, she had no idea which country she’d end up in. While the program took each person’s preferred destinations into consideration, it eventually came down to what they deemed a good fit. When she thinks back to the interview now, Hannah can pinpoint the exact moment that marked her path to becoming a writer.

“I remember being asked by a Rotarian how I would cope if I was sent somewhere where it was dark 24 hours a day in winter. And I, perhaps stupidly, said, ‘ah, I think it would be fascinating. I would love to experience that.’ I swear he got his pen out and just marked a big tick on the page.”

That’s how Hannah found herself in Iceland, weathering extreme weather for twelve transformative months.

Had she been assigned to a different country, she might never have found out about Agnes Magnusdottir, and she might never have become a writer.

But Iceland proved to be a fertile ground for a budding storyteller.

“Iceland is an extraordinary place for writers. They really love writers and reading and books and they break all these records: most books published and most books bought per capita. Although I had loved writing for a long time, I was still very uncertain whether I could pursue it with any kind of seriousness. Suddenly being in a country where poets are revered and the landscape is literally signposted with things that happen in the sagas was incredibly validating. And then, of course, coming across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, was the cherry on top.”

Hannah Kent in Iceland
Hannah Kent in Iceland

Hannah feels that her stories have always had a way of finding her. It was no accident that she ended up in Iceland – she had the beginnings of a story waiting for her there, and by her own admission, it always felt like her writing had been decided for her.

But having a story is not enough – it wasn’t enough for Hannah. It needs to be backed up by research, a process that she has come to love and perfect over the years.

“The seed for Burial Rites was planted in Iceland, but as I became more and more obsessed with the story, I realised that in order to tell it well, I had to learn how to research.

“Before I started taking writing seriously, I always thought that one undertook research to inform a book that was already there in one’s mind, but the more I write, the more I realise that research is a source of inspiration in and of itself. Historical research, in particular, brings difficulty, joy, and a lot of surprises. I fell in love with it.”

Burial Rites
was followed by another historically-set novel, The Good People. When asked how writing her second book compared to that of her first, a passion project many years in the making, Hannah tells us that the two experiences are incomparable.

“The great gift of any debut writer is that you can write without expectation, without the awareness or anticipation of an audience. You write for yourself in many ways. When I sold Burial Rites, it was part of a two-book contrac, so I always knew that I was going to have to write this second one. And this time around, I was aware that there was a likelihood of an audience, certainly of publication.

“It was a very disorienting and, to a certain extent, paralysing experience to write the second book, knowing it would be published and that there would now be certain expectations from readers. I suddenly felt pressure. It proved to be an exercise in growth as a writer – I had to learn to find a way to continue writing for myself. It is easy in those early stages when you’re working with a manuscript to lose sight of what you’re doing. You have to take it step by step. It took six months of freaking out to learn to ignore it all, and to just write.”

A foray onto the screen

Another successful historical novel – Devotion – later, Hannah tried her hand at something different: writing for screen. As she says, there's nothing like having to start a new project to feel like you don't know what you're doing all over again.

Coming from her background as an author, Hannah found writing the script for Run Rabbit Run a gratifyingly collaborative process – something that stood out to her after years of solitary work on long pieces of writing.

“To be part of a creative team and to relinquish the autonomy that comes with writing a novel was very inspiring and rewarding. It was really enjoyable and I learnt a lot – it's more of a baton race, rather than the massive marathons of novel writing I was used to. You feel like you get to do your part and try to make everyone else proud.”

She loved it so much, she’s already working on two different scripts: one is an adaptation of The Good Place, which is in its final stages, whereas the other is an adaptation of Devotion

For a love of reading 

In the meantime, and whenever free time is a thing, Hannah loves to read. Having two young children, reading had taken a bit of a backseat over the years, but she tries to prioritise it as much as she can.

“Having kids has made reading more precious to me because I have to carve out space for it within my day – I have re-evaluated its importance and realised that it was not only crucial to my creative practice, but also something which is really necessary for me to enjoy life. I've had to fight really hard to sustain a reading practice – but it’s worth it.”

“I’ve been a reader for far longer than I’ve been a writer – it’s a great love of mine. I’m very excited to be invited to Storyfest, and I hope I can pass on some of my passion for the written word, for research, and for the cultivation of writing practices at the Long Table Dinner.”

Hannah Kent will be talking more about the kind of stories she’s drawn to and how she finds them, or more accurately, how they find her. To find out what’s next for her, book your tickets here!