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Working with Words: Hannah Kent

Read Sunday, 12 Dec 2021

Hannah Kent is the author of three novels, Burial Rites, The Good People and the recently released Devotion. Her first original feature film Run, Rabbit Run, set to star Sarah Snook, is currently in pre-production. We spoke to her about the daily realities and joys of her life as a writer. 

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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Image credit: Lauren Bamford

An article about Iceland’s use of clean, geothermal energy for Voiceworks. I was over the moon to have it accepted, and seeing my name in print was an incredible moment of validation. It gave me the confidence to continue writing.      

What’s the best part of your job? 

I am deeply grateful to be able to work as a creative. That imagination and creation are so central to my work brings me a profound sense of joy and freedom. I learn so much from my job. I don’t find it easy, but I love that too. I love writing’s difficulty. I love its challenges. 

What’s the worst part of your job? 

It can be quite sedentary. It requires a lot of desk work and sometimes I finish the day with my body screaming for movement. This wasn’t a problem when I was younger – my time was my own and I could exercise in the evening – but now I have little children who require my care and presence. I used to walk for hours after writing. I miss that very much.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far? 

Telling my parents that I wanted to be a writer and receiving their support. I was only six but I was serious about my decision and my parents understood that. Their unwavering encouragement and faith in me for the past thirty years has been everything. I wish every writer had that kind of support. It helped me conquer a great deal of self doubt. It allowed me to keep going, keep writing.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing? 

There is a lot of wonderful advice out there. I’ve always felt buoyed by the advice to never wait until you feel ready to write. You will never feel ready. I think this is true for many, including myself.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself? 

I feel very uncomfortable if I have to read about myself, and avoid it if I can. But I do like hearing my wife’s observations about me. She knows me better than I know myself, and a lot of what she says surprises me in its loving honesty.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead? 

Still writing, but probably also doing some other things. At the moment? Something with my hands, preferably outside. Something I already enjoy. Gardening, maybe. Cooking. Carpentry. I have no idea.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view? 

I think creative writing can be taught to those who are willing to be students. Creative writing isn’t an innate skill, although it is true that some have a natural gift with storytelling. Rather, much like anything, it is something that you can improve upon through guidance and education, but you have to be receptive to being taught. You have to do the work. That work might be formalised education: not only going to uni but reading all the assigned texts and more, participating in discussion, learning how to accept criticism and reflect on your mistakes. Or it might be work you do privately, informally: reading widely, writing draft after draft, trying new things. It is absolutely possible to teach yourself through engaging with the work of others and embracing the possibility of failure. But creative writing can only be taught to students who are willing to be active in their education.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer? 

Get a library card. Become a reader. Accept that a great deal of writing is rewriting. Don’t give up.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both? 

Both, but I much prefer buying them in a physical bookshop. I love to browse, I like to pick books up and flip through them, and I enjoy seeing what other people are looking at. I’m very lucky to live near a wonderful independent bookshop, and the booksellers there are always happy to give me recommendations. Buying books online feels transactional. Buying them in a bookshop feels magical.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

An impossible question. I have too many answers. Frodo Baggins. Orlando. Thomas McNulty. Dead Papa Toothwort. Matilda. Jo March. Ifemelu. Kristin Lavransdatter. I have hundreds of these. 

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Another impossible question! There is no single book. Many books have spoken to me on a deep personal, soulful level, or reverberated through whatever creative project I’ve been working on at the time. If I write any down I know I will kick myself later for not including others. I’ll save myself the regret and simply acknowledge that there have been many and that I am grateful to them all.

Hannah’s novel Devotion is out now. 

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.