When Hannah Kent gave a talk recently, she was reprimanded by a member of the audience. Her crime? She had referred to ‘the good people’, a term commonly used for fairies, in the past tense.
“I was quickly pulled up,” she says on a visit to Dublin.
“I had to realise that for many people such folklore is not just history. It’s contemporary.”
The Australian author got the idea for her second novel a few years ago, when she was researching her multi-prize winning debut — the story of the last woman in Iceland to be condemned to death.
“It was probably five years ago. There was a lot of research for Burial Rites, and it required me to translate from sources of standing.
"It was a tedious process and one afternoon, when I was sick of it and procrastinating, I thought I should still do something under the auspices of research.
“I decided to read old British newspapers, because I knew they sometimes remarked on foreign executions. I didn’t find the Icelandic case, but there was this brief syndicated article about Anne Roach who, in 1825, had committed a serious crime.
"She referred to herself as a female doctress, and said she could not be held accountable because she was only trying to cure someone who was fairy struck. She was trying to banish a changeling,” she says.
Hannah had heard tales of changelings — where a child is believed to be spirited away by fairies, and replaced with an ugly or sick one, but she had never thought that a belief in such folklore would end in violence.
“And it was certainly strange to find what you believe as a fairy story recorded in the legal system in Ireland.”
The case stayed in her mind, and when Burial Rites — the novel which started life as a PhD thesis — was being considered by mainstream publishers, she was asked if she had any ideas for a second book.
And she picked the Anne Roach case, because she realised it would sustain her interest for the required three years of researching and writing.
“It seemed such a bizarre case to my modern ears. I grew up in a world of a certain type of scientific rationality and logic and it took a while and lots of research to appreciate the logic which does exist in those other folk cultures.
"I needed to understand that in order to portray the way in which the two systems don’t necessarily get on.”
Starting with stories about changelings, she read essays, and Angela Bourke’s Burning of Bridget Cleary, and realised what a rich vein she had stumbled on.
“I saw that fairy stories could act as the vernacular with which we could discuss the taboo, or the things in society which we are not allowed or approved of without actually naming the issue at hand.”
Anne (named Nance in the book) is a strong influence on the villagers. A healer, she helps women in childbirth.
There is a graphic scene inspired by Hannah’s research on the superstitions surrounding midwifery, which included the writings of Oscar Wilde’s father, on the subject.
With 50,000 words written, Hannah made a trip to Ireland, to try and glean more about the case. This proved difficult.
“I struggled to find anything in the records, and decided to search the newspapers. I spent three days in the National Library in Dublin looking at a Kerry newspaper on microfilm, and I was getting closer and closer to the trial date, when the newspaper date jumped a year forward, and I realised I was never going to find out anything. I was devastated, because I was so invested in the project by that stage.
“I started flicking through a Cork newspaper to get more information on what was happening in Ireland during that time; and out of the corner of my eye I saw the name, Anne Roach, and a story which had been syndicated from the Kerry newspaper.
“Then, in a second article about the case, it mentioned a grandmother and a maid, and I realised their three lives had converged. I thought that was so interesting, that I ditched the 50,000 words and started the novel again with the three women at the heart of it.”
It made all the difference to the text, giving it life, as it focused more on the theme of motherhood. “There was much more to explore now that I had the crone, the mother and the maiden.”
Hannah has used the three women to brilliant effect. The book opens with the sudden death of Nora’s husband. Their daughter had died recently, and her husband left their child, Micheál with his grandparents.
The boy can neither walk nor talk and this puzzles Nora, since when she had last seen him he could do both.
When Nance offers to help Micheál, Nora accepts with alacrity. Getting increasingly pulled into the world of faith and folklore leads her towards danger.
“With Nora, I was really interested in looking at a woman undone by grief. A woman completely ravaged by her emotions to the point where the darker side comes out.”
Many people named as changelings, she realised, were those who had developed various illnesses and disabilities.
“It’s clear that some were suffering from cerebral palsy, autism, meningitis or Hunter’s syndrome. It would have been easy for me to list symptoms for a specific illness, but I stopped myself and deliberately confused various symptoms. I wanted to leave in that ambiguity that perhaps he was a changeling.”
Along with the many Australian prizes — and the international short-listings, (including The Bailey’s, The Guardian First Book Award, and Impac Dublin Literary Award,) Burial Rites was translated into almost 30 languages. Did that success make the follow-up harder to write?
“The pressures were different,” she says.
“I had to write Burial Rites because I had a PhD deadline; but I expected that only two examiners and my parents would read it; with the expectation for The Good People, I know people will pick it up and spend some hours of their life reading it. I didn’t want to let down my readers, and there were some anxious moments.
“I was talking a lot about Burial Rites, and when you focus on finished work that has been polished and drafted 14 times, you can quickly forget how terrible first drafts can be. I had to have a stern conversation with myself about what a wonderful thing my success was and how fortunate I was to have it.”
By basing her novels on real events, thereby necessitating such rigorous research, isn’t Hannah making life hard for herself?
“I enjoy the difficult. I enjoy the challenge. There is a particular ethical obligation when you are an outsider writing about a history and a culture that isn’t your own. But this is what I love to do.
Hannah has been enjoying her publicity tour too. In Dublin for a public event, she is flying to Perth next, for a literary festival.
“I love meeting readers. The fact that people want to come out in an evening and hear you speak and come and talk to you afterwards is a joy.”
Especially as their words add to her learning.
“I hear fascinating stories about people’s own Irish grandmothers. There were some at the event last night. You start to see how people have similar experiences even if it’s still such an alien world to us. I’ve spent three years devouring this stuff, and to hear more anecdotes is thrilling!”