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Hannah Kent is a novelist, screenwriter and co-founder of Kill Your Darlings. Her first novel, the international bestseller, Burial Rites (2013), 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 and the Guardian First Book Award, the Stella Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, among others. It is currently being adapted for film by Sony TriStar. Hannah’s second novel, The Good People, was published in 2016, and is currently being adapted for film by Aquarius Productions. Hannah’s new historical novel, Devotion, will be published in November 2021.

How did you initially discover the real-life characters that inspired your fiction?

Mostly by accident, coincidence and happenstance. Burial Rites was based on the real life and death of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman whose 1830 execution was held a short distance away from where I lived as a seventeen-year-old exchange student to Iceland. The Good People was based on the crimes of Nance Roche, a woman I first read about when researching Burial Rites, reading old newspapers. The characters in my latest novel, Devotion, are fictional, but they are inspired by my own ancestors and the story of a village local to me in South Australia. Each book began with a deep and unwavering curiosity. What happened? Who was this person, really? It’s a little like being haunted. Each novel I’ve written has acted as a kind of exorcism to examine the ghosts that were following me.

Your novels have been set in different countries at different periods of history. What techniques help you to accurately capture these eras?

I am a big advocate of prolonged and rigorous research. Not only do I spend a great deal of time investigating the specific events a novel may be based on, but I also want to understand the wider social and cultural context of these events. I want to be able to visualise my characters’ worlds. I therefore cast my net as widely as possible, accessing archives and history books, but also discovering proverbs from the time, poetry, recipes, artworks. The hunt for domestic minutiae usually takes the most time. Eventually, often after a year or so, I finally I feel saturated in the familiarity I need to leave the notebooks alone and write. Research is the only way to get the important details right. It’s my offering to ensure I don’t upset the dead.

 What is hardest to get right in historical fiction?

I think that each book brings its own unique challenges, but trying not to ‘let your research show’ is always tricky. The desire to admit every tasty historical titbit is strong, but if it’s not necessary to the plot or characters, the narrative will stall under a flood of superfluous information.

Which novelist has most influenced your writing?

Margaret Atwood was an important influence on me as an emerging writer. I don’t really think I knew what historical fiction could be until I read Alias Grace. That novel proved to me that historical fiction could be written in a modern way, could hold mirrors to modern problems. I have no interest in writing historical fiction for its historicity only. Atwood showed me that the genre can be used for so much more than fetishizing the past.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

Trust in the process. Trust in the fact that if your show up to the desk day in, day out, you will write something. Trust in the improvement that rewriting will bring. Trust that you rarely begin a manuscript knowing what you are doing, but that clarity will arrive with time, work and persistence.

You can find Hannah’s writing courses here: