The 17-year-old girl stood in front of the selection panel. She was both starry-eyed and nervous. A panel member frowned, learned forward and asked, “Hannah, how would you deal with being sent to a place where it was dark 24/7 in the winter, where it was snowing and you were confined to indoors?”
“Oh, I think that sounds fascinating,” the girl replied. “I’d love to experience that.”
Little did the girl know she was the only applicant for a Rotary Exchange to go to Iceland. All she really wanted was to see snow.
Quicker than you can say Reikjavik, she was flying to the other side of the world.
“I remember the three panellists looked at each other and made a mark next to my name,” says author Hannah Kent, 27. “I must have been the only candidate who seemed remotely keen to live in 24 hour darkness.”
Her trip to Iceland in 2002 was more than an extraordinary journey to a foreign world of ice and snow, it was the beginning of her love affair with the country. It was also the beginning of a journey into history, and a grim history at that.
It was during her exchange trip that Hannah first heard about the execution, in 1828, of Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant who was beheaded by broad axe and had her head set on a stake for the grisly murder of two men. However, the girl from the Adelaide Hills did not know then that the story of Agnes Magnusdottir would shape her later academic and creative life.
When she arrived in Iceland, Hannah Kent was sent to Sauoarkrokur, an isolated fishing village in the country’s north. She says it felt like the edge of the world. She was overwhelmed by loneliness and homesickness.
Everyone knew each other in the village and regarded strangers with suspicion. In spite of this and the sub-zero temperatures, Hannah felt an indescribable connection with the landscape.
“During the first few months in Iceland, I travelled through an area in the north with my host family,” she says. “We were driving along this ring road, there was a sweeping glacial valley and then suddenly, right at the beginning of the valley, were hundreds and hundreds of small hills.
“It looked extraordinary. It looked quite surreal.”
Hannah mistakenly thought the small hills were burial mounds. However, one was, she was told, an execution site.
“My host family pointed and said, ‘Over there is where the last execution took place in Iceland’. They told me that the last person to die was a woman. They weren’t even able to tell me her name. I don’t know why, but I became very curious about this woman.”
Years later, Hannah’s curiosity about the unchallenged representation of Agnes Magnusdottir as a scheming Lady Macbeth figure became the focal point of her honours degree in Creative Writing from Flinders University and her subsequent doctorate and first novel, Burial Rites, published by Picador.
Hannah believes her interest in Agnes’ execution was driven by her feelings at the time of her exchange.
“I think I saw, in the story of Agnes, a woman who belonged to a very small community but at the same time was very separate to it,” she says, adding that her perceptions of Agnes in that way reflected her own feelings of isolation and separateness at the time.
“And maybe something in that lonely landscape resonated with me.”
Hannah found that the more research she did on Agnes, the more questions she had. She says that even when she had been working on her doctorate for two years, she only had three facts.
“I knew her name, the day she died and I knew she was a servant,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘bloody hell, I’m meant to be writing a book about this’”.
Hannah was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship from the university that enabled her to travel to Iceland again. It was on this six-week trip that she started to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And with her supervisor breathing down her neck, the pressure was on for her to finish the book.
She says the only reason she finished it was because it was part of her doctorate. “When I finished the draft, I printed it out, put it in a folder and shoved it underneath my desk.”
She only thought about it again when a friend convinced her to enter the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.
She says she was having a coffee with her friend and moaning about how she was earning a miserable $20 for each book review she wrote and that she was penniless and back living with her parents. Her friend told her to focus on her own book rather than write reviews about other people’s books.
So Hannah spent the next few days frantically editing her manuscript before submitting it to the award with 15 minutes to spare.
A few weeks later she got a call saying she had won.
She then found herself at the centre of a bidding war among publishers wanting her book.
“I never thought the book would be published,” she says. “It’s really difficult to assess your own work because you’re just too close to it. I think you can be objective about your work but I don’t think you can ever compare it to other published works which you approach as a reader.”
And there were plenty of times she’d had enough. Drifting between terror and self-doubt, she had almost resigned herself to waking up at the crack of dawn as a pastry chef.
“If everything didn’t work out, I decided I would become a pastry chef. That’s still my back-up plan if no one likes my book. I think it sounds like fun.”
But for the woman who spent a decade obsessed by the mysterious and gripping tale of a woman’s execution, this is the beginning of what she hopes will be a long career as a writer.
As she toasts her family and friends with a glass of champagne and looks forward to a whirlwind trip overseas for book signings, she’s admits to another burning curiosity.
“I’ve been forbidden from talking about it but I will say that my next book is going to be set in Ireland, probably based around the same time period on a true incident.
It deals with superstition.”
Hannah Kent talks with SMH Literary Editor Susan Wyndham about Burial Rites, one of this year’s most talked about novels, tomorrow. Event 222 ‘Love Letter to Iceland’, May 26, 11.30am-12.30pm, Pier 2/3, The Loft.