The Stella Prize chats with Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites
Hannah Kent image credit: Nicholas Purcell
Stella: Who did you admire when you were fourteen?
Hannah: Jo and Beth from Little Women. I admired Jo’s vitality and ambition, and Beth’s kindness, and sought to combine these qualities in myself. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but it did make me a rather unusual teenager.
Stella: How do you relax?
Hannah: Walking for hours and listening to music. Idle mornings with my partner and our animals. I’m very fond of cooking, especially for others. There’s something incredibly soothing about the preparation, focus and intuition cooking requires. Anything that’s slow and measured and gratifying – like baking bread – has a calming effect on me.
Stella: Why did you become a writer?
Hannah: I’ve always wanted to write, which I consider different to wanting to be a writer. I was an early and precocious reader, and the idea that I could move and transport others in the same way seemed a wondrous and intoxicating possibility.
Writing feels like an organic, irrepressible act to me. The idea of not doing it is inconceivable.
Stella: Do you care what other people think?
Hannah: I care a great deal what my loved ones think of me, but not so much what strangers might think. You can never please everyone. To continually attempt to do so would be to live a poor and passive life.
In terms of my writing, I value and respect the opinions of those who have taken the time to read and consider my work, although I might not agree with them.
Stella: Do you have a good writing place? Tell us.
I used to write at a desk in the corner of my bedroom when I was housesharing. It was horrible – I could never leave my work alone. These days I have the luxury of a separate study. It’s at home, which means I can freely talk aloud to myself, and I can shut the door and step away from my work at the end of the day.
Stella: Where would you live if you could live anywhere?
Hannah: I’d like to migrate seasonally, if I could. Like a contrary bird. Winter in Reykjavik for the darkness and snow. Autumn in the Adelaide Hills for the colour and woodsmoke. Spring in Paris or Melbourne. Summer in New Zealand.
Stella: Have you ever received a grant, residency or fellowship to write?
Hannah: I’ve received a PhD scholarship and a research grant, both of which have been hugely instrumental in advancing my career. The first bought me time to write, the second afforded me an opportunity to travel – two great necessities for anyone hoping to write a book set in a foreign country.
Stella: What’s the most beautiful word in the English (or any other) language?
Hannah: I think my favourite word is kvöldvaka, which is Icelandic. I find it quite difficult to translate the meaning of the word, although a literal translation would be something like ‘evening wake’. It refers to the time of night in winter when the lamps are lit to when you go to bed. The time of peace and storytelling, and sitting by the fireside.
Stella: How do you know when a story is finished?
Hannah: A first draft is finished when you’ve been bled dry, and there is simply nothing more to write. A story is actually finished when you can bear to show it to the world – when you’ve safeguarded its soul, and it’s strong enough to defend itself.