Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, was translated into over 30 languages and 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. It was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, the Stella Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and is being adapted for film by Sony TriStar. Her second novel, The Good People was translated into 10 languages and shortlisted for the Walter Scott Award, the Indie Books Award for Literary Fiction, the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Readings Prize. It is being adapted for film by Aquarius Productions. Devotion, her third novel, won Booktopia’s Favourite Australian Book, was shortlisted for an Indie Book Award and longlisted for the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year. Her original feature film, Run Rabbit Run, directed by Daina Reid and starring Sarah Snook will be produced by Carver and XYZ Films. Hannah is also the co-founder of Kill Your Darlings, and has written for The New York Times, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Qantas Magazine and LitHub. She lives and works on Peramangk country.
My new novel is called Devotion. It’s set in the 1830s and is about a young woman called Hanne, the child of Prussian Old Lutherans who are being persecuted for refusing to join King Frederick William III’s Union Church. A child of nature, Hanne would rather run wild in the forest than conform to the limitations of womanhood and she is considered an oddity within her congregation. Then she meets Thea, the daughter of new arrivals to her village. Hanne and Thea become fast friends, and as the community of Old Lutherans seek emigration to South Australia, their friendship deepens into a devotion that must withstand the hardship of a journey across the world, and the mysteries that lie at its close. It’s a queer love story
READ MY REVIEW OF DEVOTION HERE
As soon as my second novel, The Good People, was published in 2016, I started consciously musing on what would become Devotion. That said, there is so much in this novel which I feel has come from deeper wells of memory and interest. In many ways it’s a story that has been growing in me for most of my adult life.
Initially it was a desire to write the landscape that raised me. There is so much nature in this book – Hanne hears it speak to her; she communes with the natural world – and I think a hope to embody the beauty of Peramangk and Kaurna Country led me to my characters and their concerns. The 2017 Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite was another spark of inspiration. That vote was hard for so many in the LGBTQIA+ community, myself included, and it prompted my decision to make Hanne and Thea fall in love. I wanted to create a historical queer love story that did not centre around a narrative of shame or punishment. I wanted something more divine, more joyous. As soon as I made that decision, the heart of the novel started beating, creatively-speaking.
About five years! Longer than I usually take, but I had two children during the process. I spent most of that time reading and researching, thinking and daydreaming and trying to find a way into the story I wanted to tell. The writing process was largely completed in a breakneck six months that I hope never to have to repeat.
Finding the time and headspace to work while severely fatigued from and busy with caring for newborns and toddlers, as well as other work. In the end, my wife took on the huge and total burden of care and household responsibility so I could get a full draft completed. I got there, but only because of her.
I wish I could be someone who carefully plots and plans before writing. It seems so organised and efficient! My process is much more chaotic. I spend a year or so reading and researching the subjects that I feel hold interest for me, or that I know I want to feature in a book. Then I write my way into the writing of it, by which I mean that the only way I figure out how to tell the story I’m telling is to write lots of material. The more I write, the greater my understanding of the shape and pace of the would-be book. I write knowing that most of it will be discarded, which can be freeing. I often write 50,000 words, ditch it, then start over. My approach is non-linear. I do lots of drafts. Sometimes I say that I’m a poor writer but a fair re-writer.
It’s a process that takes time, much like getting to know anyone. I write my way into character as described above, learning new things about them as I go, as I try out voice and daydream about their lives. Sometimes I dream about them, or dream that I’m walking around the place they live. Sometimes I will write something that hits so true, I paste it in a notebook as a reminder of what lies at the heart of that character’s being. While writing Devotion I wrote a small paragraph that I felt perfectly encapsulated the voice I wanted for Hanne. I used it as a touchstone for the rest of the writing process, thinking all the while that I’d never find a place for the paragraph itself in the novel. Funnily enough, it’s now the first paragraph in the published book.
Chronic daydreamer. I can disappear from myself so totally I will not hear someone calling my name in the same room.
My parents say that I announced my intentions to write when I was six. There’s certainly a lot of very embarrassing footage of me solemnly reciting poems about natural disasters and things as a little kid. I used to want to be other things, too, but it was always ‘I want to be a writer and x.’ The x changed. The writing never did. When I was a teenager I wrote, ‘Writing feels like breathing’ in a diary. I think this has always been true for me.
All of my books have been written in different places. Burial Rites was written in a walk-in closet in a sharehouse in Fitzroy. The Good People was written in a spare bedroom in Brunswick. Devotion was written in my study at home in the Adelaide Hills, where I still write and will probably continue to write for some time yet. It’s a lovely, light-filled room with big windows and a view of trees. There’s some built-in bookshelves with a ladder, several neglected pot plants, and lots of sentimental items I like to have near to me as I work. I love it there.
Oh, definitely the daydreaming. I love the time when I haven’t yet put a word on the page, and everything feels so rich with possibility. That said, I also love the moment when I realise I know what kind of book I’m writing. It’s often after throwing away those initial 50,000 words. It’s like finally being able to pull the thread that will tighten what has previously been so baggy as to be shapeless.
I walk. Sometimes I read, but mostly I walk.
I’m not sure. I don’t really suffer much from a lack of ideas; I have always finished a book knowing what the next would be about. I do like to withdraw and retreat a little between novels, but I think that’s more a process of stepping away from the world of publishing and back into a place of play.
I used to, but becoming a mother changed that. I used to keep quite strict hours, for instance, preferring to write when alone in the house, always starting at a particular time. Now I just write when I can, for as long as I can. Bluey might be blaring through the wall, my daughter might be drawing at my feet, I might have to stop to cook or make dinner or do a kindy pick-up. I’m not complaining. My life has expanded. And it will change again when they’re at school. The only thing I lean on to help me write is coffee. Coffee is my current ritual.
I find these kinds of questions to be so hard! I’ll inevitably forget someone crucial. But here goes, the first ten that come to mind: Robin Wall Kimmera, Max Porter, Alexis Wright, Emma Donoghue, Robert MacFarlane, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Charlotte McConaghy, Tara June Winch, Thomas Hardy.
Anything that makes the familiar unfamiliar in such a way that I am moved to state of wonder or awe. Anything that captivates me so fully I forget where I am.
The following is the advice that I try to tell myself:
Begin before you feel ready (I never feel ready).
So much of writing is done by just sitting down at the desk, day after day. Keep showing up. Keep writing. Keep re-writing.
I’ve just started working on a new book, which I’m really excited about. I think it will challenge me in new ways, which is good! I won’t say what it’s about yet, because, knowing me, it will change three times before I even finish a first draft, but I’m quietly hopeful for it.
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