Q&A: Hannah Kent, Award-Winning Author of ‘Burial Rites’

May 31st, 2016

South Australian expatriate and award-winning author Hannah Kent’s career to date has, in her own words, been “quite a ride”.  From low expectations for a manuscript she first published as part of her PhD thesis, Kent’s novel Burial Rites became an international success.  Now the book is set to be made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Kent, who will speak at Spence Club’s High Tea event on June 19, talks about the under-representation of female authors, shares her tips for aspiring writers and reveals her favourite aspects of coming home.

Your first novel, Burial Rites, has been an extraordinary success. Did it exceed your expectations?
Kent: Oh yes. I wrote Burial Rites as a PhD student at Flinders University. It was going to be a component of my creative writing thesis, so my expectations were low. I thought it would be read by my examiners, and perhaps my family, and then put in the bottom drawer to languish. Then I very unexpectedly won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, which resulted in my securing an agent and, in time, publication around the world. Burial Rites has now been published in around 30 different countries. I didn’t expect anything to come from writing it except a PhD qualification, so it’s been quite a ride.

Tell us about the writing process. How long did it take to write the novel?
I first heard about the true story Burial Rites is based on when I was a seventeen-year-old exchange student in Iceland, but I didn’t start writing the manuscript until around eight or nine years later. The whole process of researching and writing the novel took me three years of full-time work. A great deal of that time was spent translating sources. It was slow-going. When I began I had no idea how ambitious the project was for a first-timer, but by the time I realised that it was too late to turn back.

We hear the book is set to be turned into a film featuring Jennifer Lawrence. How did this come about and when will the film be released?
Yes, this is true! It’s all very exciting. I have an agent in LA who told producer, Alli Shearmur, about my book. The film rights were then picked up by Lionsgate, and Jennifer Lawrence committed to playing the lead role. It probably won’t be made for some time, but it is in the pipeline. I won’t be writing the screenplay or having a great deal to do with it, but am more than happy for others to reinterpret my book for screen.

Hannah Kent
As an SA expat, what are your favourite things about visiting home?
I grew up in the Adelaide Hills, and there is nothing like returning there after too many months in Melbourne or abroad – especially in Autumn when the colours are at their best, and there is that hint of wood-smoke in the air. I love SA’s wineries, I love the beaches, and I always try to squeeze in a visit to the Central Market during a visit. I can’t wait to move back home, actually. I’ve lived in quite a few places all over the world, and I think the lifestyle in Adelaide is one of the best to be had.

Are there any challenges that you think are unique to female authors or is it a pretty level playing field these days?
It’s getting better, but I would not call it a level playing field. The Stella Prize was founded in 2012 in response to the under-representation of women writers in Australian literary culture. The Prize also holds Stella Counts, where they collate information on local and international literary prizes, and the ratio of books by men and women reviewed in major Australian publications, to highlight the ongoing gender disparity and under-representation of women writers. For instance, in 2014, they discovered that nearly 70% of the books reviewed by The Weekend Australian were written by men. Reviews are hugely instrumental in securing authors their readerships, so the ramifications of such a disparity are significant.

As a successful author, what advice would you offer to young aspiring authors?
The advice that has helped me wade through the various mires a writer must face is always beautiful in its simplicity. Read a great deal. Write as often as possible. Accept that doubt is part of it all. Work hard. Don’t expect it to be easy. And don’t wait to feel ready, because you will never feel ready. Most of this advice also applies to life, too.

You’ll be speaking at our upcoming high tea event! What will you be discussing on the day?
I’m looking forward to talking about my writing career thus far, as well as a few of the stories behind the writing of Burial Rites. I’m also really excited to tell you all about my newest book, The Good People, which will be coming out in October, as well as what it’s like to be working in the Australian arts today.

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent is a Melbourne-based writer, born in Adelaide in 1985. Her first novel, Burial Rites, has been translated into more than 20 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 has most recently been longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Kent will speak at Spence Club’s High Tea event on June 19, 2016 from 1.30pm at My Friend Louis in Adelaide. Tickets are available here.