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INTERVIEW: Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites is one of the many authors I'm looking forward to hearing speak at the Sydney Writers Festival this year.

Born in Adelaide in 1985, she travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange as a teenager, and there heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Hannah is the co-founder and deputy editor of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Burial Rites is her first novel.

Hannah is appearing at the following sessions:

Historical Fact and Fiction
People of Letters
Stella Prize Trivia
Love Letter to Iceland

Go to the Sydney Writer's Festival site for more information. 

What is your latest novel all about? 

Burial Rites is based on the true story of the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes Magnusdottir was a woman who was sentenced to be beheaded for her part in a gruesome double murder of two men, and the fire that was lit in an attempt to hide the evidence. My book, which is based on a great deal of research, imagines the last six months of her life, as she is held in custody on a farm in north Iceland. 

Much of the novel explores Agnes's relationship with the family who is forced to live with her, and the young priest who is assigned to give her spiritual care. As the months go past, Agnes starts to tell her side of the story, and they realise that not everything is as they originally thought. 

How did you get the first idea for it? 

I first got the idea for Burial Rites when I was an exchange student in Iceland, over 10 years ago. I lived in the north of the country for twelve months, and during that time I frequently passed the site of Agnes's execution. Hearing snippets of the murder story filled me with curiosity, and when my desire to know more increased rather than abated when I returned to Australia, I decided to research the events and write a novel. I wrote Burial Rites to address what I saw as some pretty wild assumptions about this elusive convicted murderess; to try and find answers for my questions.

What do you love most about writing? 

A hard question! I love so much about it. I love the research that goes into a book. I love the slow deliberation over what words to use and what order to put them in, so as to convey or suggest a very particular idea or feeling. I love the way it lets me inhabit other worlds and other lives. I love the fact that I can do it in my pyjamas. I love the feeling of connection it gives me - that through writing I can explore something bigger, more universal than myself. 

What are the best 5 books you've read recently? 

Another hard question. In the last two months I've read and loved Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman, Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire (not a huge crime buff, but I loved this second novel in his Millenium series), Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, and Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family.

What lies ahead of you in the next year? 

I'm very fortunate in that I have quite a bit of travel coming up. I'm looking forward to travelling to the UK in August for the release of Burial Rites there, and later to the US for the Sept 10 release in North America. Other than that, I'm hoping to have some time to knuckle down to my next book.

INTERVIEW: Karen Maitland, author of 'Falcons of Fire and Ice'

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Are you a daydreamer too?
I was always in trouble for day-dreaming at home and school when I was child. They said that I’d grow out of it, but I never did. I all too easily fade out of what going on around me disappear into another world. The great thing about being a writer is that daydreaming becomes a virtue if you can turn those daydreams into stories on a page.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always told myself stories ever since I was a small child. I loved going to bed so that I could lie in the dark and tell myself the next instalment. I played with toys in the same way. Each of my marbles was individual person who had adventures in the caves beneath the chest of drawers or on the mountains of the bed.
I wrote in secret as a child. I’d spend hours in class and at home writing stories and poems instead of doing my schoolwork.  But I never told anyone I wanted to become an author, I was sure they’d laugh and say ‘What you – you can’t even spell the word author!’

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I spent my early childhood on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Watching the colourful processions as they carried the garlanded statues of the saints from the churches into the sea to bless the fishing boats and the torchlight processions of the three magi on horseback, really fired my imagination. 

I’ve worked in many places around the world including Africa and finally settled in the town of Lincoln in England which has a wonderfully preserved castle and medieval buildings including some of the most haunted streets in England.

 I love travelling, especially to wild places such as Greenland, Iceland and Albania and I have a certificate to say I spent the night in Vlad the Impaler's castle in Transylvanian, where I got hopeless lost in the shadowy candle-lit corridors. I nearly had a heart attack when a cloaked-figure clapped his hand on my shoulder. But it turned out he was an opera singer who kindly helped me find my way back to my room.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for 'Falcons of Fire & Ice'?
Some years ago, I was in Iceland and was taken down into a cave. At the bottom was a hot water lake where in Viking times women came to give birth and elderly people were brought to keep warm over winter. The entrance was so well concealed in the mountains that for centuries people had used the cave to hide in times of persecution.  

About twenty years before I went into the cave, a group of bathers had been swimming in there. They had just got out of the lake when the water started to shoot out great jets of steam and the temperature rose in seconds to over 200O C. They would have been boiled alive if they’d still been in the water. It was such a strange atmospheric place, that I could almost see the ghosts of the people, who for centuries had taken refuge in the cave, circling around me in the steam and the shadows. I knew had to write a novel about that cave and its dark secrets.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I have to write a brief synopsis for my publishers before I start, so I know how the novel will begin and end, some of the main characters and a few of the ‘firework’ scenes in the middle. 

I usually write the novel from the synopsis until I get about half way through the first draft of the book. By then subplots have developed which weren’t in the synopsis and some minor characters have become major players, so at that point, I stop and take a week off from writing. I spend that week just plotting in the form of brief bullet points, using three or four bullet points per chapter, so I can see how all the strands are going to weave together, then I carry on writing from this plan. The writing of second half of the novel usually goes much faster than the first half.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I dream vividly and often wake with a scene or image in my head which sometimes find their way into my novels.  Years ago I dreamed I was in a room at night and everyone else had fallen asleep. I heard a tapping on the window and couldn’t wake anyone else, so I opened the curtains and three men were standing there with cudgels in their hands wearing terrifying owl masks. This later became one of the inspirations for my medieval thriller The Owl Killers.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
When I was researching The Falcons of Fire and Ice I discovered that the nightstalker or draugr which is a creature written about in the Icelandic sagas was also recorded in a book written by an English medieval clergyman only about ten miles from where I am now living and that right up to the 19th century people claimed to have encountered one of these creatures.

Before I began writing I knew something of the terrible suffering of the Icelandic people in the 15th and 16th centuries, but I didn’t realise that at one period a man could be flogged and have everything he owned confiscated just for selling a fish to a neighbour or for giving a foreign sailor a piece of his wife’s knitting in exchange for a fishing line.
Where do you write, and when?
Most of the time I write on an old marble washstand in my bedroom, but if I really need a few days to plot intensively I hire a little one-roomed cottage on the saltmarsh in Norfolk where there is no phone or internet and no street lights, just the sounds of marsh, the wind and the distant sea. 

I try to keep office hours when I write, working 9.30am to 6pm. It’s the only way to meet the deadlines. In the evenings I sit with a pile of books and look up the answers to questions which have arisen as I’ve been writing that day. Questions like –
Which spices would have been most commonly used in meat dishes in France around 1224? 
What did 14th century priests wear under their robes? 
What poison would they use on the spike of caltrop?

Keeping a list of questions to look up later means I don’t have to interrupt the flow of a scene while I’m writing to find a name or a word.

 What is your favourite part of writing?
Once I’ve written a complete first draft to end of the novel, I can then start to flesh out the scenes and the characters, polish the language and descriptions. That, for me, is the best part as it’s far easier to play around with words already written down than a blank page. 

I also love unearthing the pieces of folklore, historical snippets and myths which I use to start each chapter in my novels. That’s great fun especially when I come across something like this which I discovered in a 13th century grimoire –

‘If a woman does not desire you and you would arouse her and make her lust after you, take the genitals of a wolf together with the hair on its cheeks and eyebrows and burn them together. Then give the ashes to the woman to drink in such a manner that she does not suspect. Then she will desire you and no other man.’

What do you do when you get blocked?
If I’m in Norfolk, I go for a walk across the saltmarsh to the sea, just looking at the birds, water and sky without consciously thinking about the problem. By the time I get back, the resolution has popped into my head. If I’m at home in Lincoln then I usually go out into the garden to re-pot some plants or cut the lawn, again not thinking about anything. Doing something physical seems to unblock my mind. Talking a hot bath often works too.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
By reading all kinds of genres of fiction. I love audio books and always have one on in the kitchen when I’m doing domestic chores like cooking or ironing.  Visiting museums or reading the potted history of an old country church often gives me a little snippet which eventually becomes an idea for a story, as do old folktales and local myths. Going to visit places such as lakes and old buildings are also a great source of inspiration. Just walking through a wood or standing in a ruin can make me see characters acting out scenes just as if I am watching a film. Places tell stories.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Regular cups of tea are a must, but I’m also one of those writers who need silence around me when I write. Any noise when I writing really disturbs me, except natural sounds like wind and birds, as because it pulls me out of the scene I’m both picturing and hearing in my head.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Only ten? That’s hard. Angela Carter, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Margaret Atwood, Graham Greene, Patrick Süskind, Ruth Dudley Edwards, C.J.Samson, J.K.Rowling, Minette Walters, Alan Bennet

I love C.J. Sansom's books too!

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Writing which produces an image, scene or character that lives on in my mind after long I’ve closed the book.  But I believe that any novel or poem is a dialogue between the author and the reader. Only half the book is written by the author, the reader writes the rest by bringing their own imagination, personality and experience to the pages. So both reader and writer have to work to together to achieve a ‘good’ book. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don’t put pressure on yourself by thinking your first piece has to be published or imagine you’re a failure, if it isn’t. You wouldn’t expect to go on stage and perform a play for the public or play an instrument at a concert without a lot of rehearsals.  

Write until the end of your daily session without editing your work or correcting the spelling/punctuation or tidying it at all. Put it away without reading it. Then start your next writing session by reading over what you’ve written the day before and editing it. That will get you back in the ‘voice’ of the piece and by the time you’ve finished editing you’ll find you’ve automatically started writing on. This means that, after day one, you will never have to face a blank page, because your first task will always be working with what’s already there. 
Warning! Only ever edit each section once in the first draft, otherwise you’ll get stuck, like a hamster in wheel, going over and over the first few pages and never moving on. After that first edit, if you think of some change or addition that needs to be made to an earlier section, note it down in a list of changes and make the changes only when you have finished the first draft of the whole story or novel. 

What are you working on now?
Three things – I’m writing what I hope will be the final draft of a full-length historical thriller novel The Vanishing Witch set in the 14th century and based on a true story. I’m also beginning another full-length history novel called The Raven’s Head, which was inspired by a rather sinister-looking ruined monastery I visited. 

But as well as writing my own novels, I also write a joint novel every year with five other medieval crime writers – Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight and Ian Morson, together known as the Medieval Murderers. So we are trying to devise a plot for our tenth Medieval Murderers’ novel. We’ve just been put the finishing touches to our ninth novel, The False Virgin, and are getting very excited about seeing what the cover design for that will be.

Thank you so much for interviewing me. It’s been great fun!

Karen Maitland's website


BOOK REVIEW: 'Falcons of Fire & Ice'by Karen Maitland

Monday, February 18, 2013

: Falcons of Fire and Ice 
Author: Karen Maitland
Publisher: Penguin
Age Group & Genre:  Historical supernatural thriller for adults

The Blurb:
The year is 1539 and the Portuguese Inquisition ushers in an era of torture and murder. When the Royal Falconer is imprisoned on false charges to remove him from the inner circle of the boy King, the Inquisitors strike an impossible deal with his daughter, Isabela. Bring back two rare white falcons from Iceland within the year or her father dies.

Meanwhile in Iceland, a menacing stranger appears to have possessed the soul of a woman chained up in a volcanic cave and is threatening to destroy the community. The woman's twin sister, Eydis, is desperate to intervene but vivid dreams suggest the twins' only salvation lies with a young girl from afar, travelling in search of white feathers ...

Isabela's quest might hold a more crucial purpose then she could ever imagine and there are those among her travel companions who have an interest in doing her harm. But in order to fulfil her destiny, first she must reach Iceland's shores. Alive

What I Thought: 
Karen Maitland has not written many books, but each one of them has been an absolute winner – thrilling, chilling, and utterly compelling . She is so good that as soon as I finished the first book I read of her – ‘Company of Liars’- I rushed out to buy her next one.  ‘The Owl Killers’ was just as good – if not better – and so, utterly hooked, I have since pre-ordered her books to make sure I got them as soon as they  hit the bookshops. 
Her latest book, ‘Falcons of Fire and Ice’, begins with the burning of a man in an auto-da-fe in Portugal in 1539. It’s a hideous scene, yet utterly compelling. The action then moves to the story of Isabela, daughter of the Royal Falconer. When somebody kills the royal falcons – two rare white birds – Isabela’s father is arrested. She is given a year and a day to capture some more, but the man behind the falcons’s death will do anything to ensure she does not succeed.

On a journey fraught with danger and betrayal, Isabela sets off for Iceland, not knowing that among her fellow passengers is the one she thought she has left behind. 
This book was so good I couldn’t bear to put it down. On three nights in a row I read long past bedtime, desperate to know what happened. Karen has an uncanny way of bringing the world of the 16th century vividly to life, while never allowing the suspense to flag. Brilliant!

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