author of Burial Rites
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was the first baby born in Adelaide on the Easter Sunday of 1985. My parents raised me and my little sister amid the gums and oak trees of the Adelaide Hills, where I spent a lot of my time running around in paddocks, building cubbies, and attending the local schools. I had an idyllic childhood.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
An easy question! I’ve had an unwavering desire to be a writer since I was very small. By the time I was twelve it was certainly a burning ambition – I started my own newspaper, called The Owl, which I distributed to about fifteen friends, publishing articles and stories. Unfortunately the little newspaper had long folded by the time I reached eighteen, but I was still keenly writing poems, stories and plays. I was in Iceland for most of my eighteenth year, and the long hours of darkness in winter were very amenable to long hours spent scribbling. I’m not yet thirty – I have about three years to go before I get there – but no doubt I’ll still want to write then, too. I can’t not write. It’s as simple as that.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I believed I knew myself completely, that I would never surprise myself. I believed my character to be static. Now I know this to be false: we can never understand ourselves wholly. There is always the possibility of change, of re-creation, and of growth, particularly when confronted with hardship. I now believe in the continual evolution of selfhood, and that we are all far more complicated than we believe ourselves to be.
The first book that impacted me in a lasting way was Little Women by Louise M. Alcott. I read it on the brink of adolescence, and loved the characters so much that I kept re-reading it, almost as if it were a manifesto – I found comfort in the wholesome themes of kindness and morality. It was the first book I read where the characters became as dear to me as my real friends. Little Women was also the book where I started to seriously consider the idea of a writing career, probably because I saw myself in Jo.
More recently I’ve found that music, particularly that of singer-songwriters such as Laura Marling, influences my writing. I have a lot of admiration for the way in which these musicians can convey whole narratives in a few short lyrics. I admire the concision that requires; their ability to give a three-minute song such incredible depth of feeling. It’s like aural Impressionism – it’s all about suggestion and atmosphere. It inspires me to attempt the same in my writing.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I ought to confess something. When I first decided to write the story that would become Burial Rites, it was going to be a verse novel. The first lines I wrote of the story were poems. I soon discovered, however, that it’s not so easy to convey the unfamiliar world of nineteenth-century Iceland – the setting of my book – to a reader in a few concise stanzas. The novel form, on the other hand, offered me the opportunity to more completely build this strange and unfamiliar world. It gave me the space I needed to plumb the story and its possibilities as deeply as possible.
In 1829, in Iceland’s far north, a servant woman called Agnes Magnusdottir was found guilty of murdering her employer as he lay sleeping. Immediately condemned by the small community she grew up in, she was sentenced to death. My novel, Burial Rites, is based on these true events.
In my book, the story begins with Agnes being taken to the small farm of Kornsa, where she is to remain in custody until the date of her execution. Here she meets the farmer, his wife, and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoid speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed as her spiritual guardian, is compelled to try and understand her. As winter descends and the hardships of rural life force everyone to work side by side, the family’s attitude to Agnes starts to change, until one night, she begins to tell her side of the story, and they realise that all is not as they had assumed…
I first heard the story of ‘the Illugastadir murders’ when I was living in Iceland as an exchange student. Struck by what I thought was the unfair representation of Agnes as a ‘monster’ – an undoubtedly evil, manipulative schemer – in most records, I researched her life story and wrote Burial Rites out of a desire to find her humanity.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope that Agnes remains with them long after they turn the final page. Her story has haunted me for ten years, and by the time I completed the first draft she was as vivid and as close to me as any member of my family. I hope readers are similarly haunted. I hope she lingers for them, and that they are reminded anew of the ways in which history is fallible, and all stories unreliable.
That’s a tough question! There are many authors I deeply admire, and whose work I return to again and again, for very different reasons. Margaret Atwood is an author I adore – I have immense respect for her command of language, and the intelligence behind even the most (seemingly) straightforward of her narratives. I think Angela Carter was a genius. I admire authors who can offer insight into the human condition; who write books that give you heart-stopping moments of I thought that was just me. For me, those books have included those by Virginia Woolf and Janet Frame. Thomas Hardy is a favourite, as is Halldor Laxness. Annie Proulx was an inspiration when I was younger. I’ve become very enthusiastic about Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue, Edward St Aubyn and Ron Rash in recent years. Gosh, there are so many – these are only some who come to mind.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My most recent goal was to be published before I was thirty. Now that I’m in the very fortunate position of having attained that, I’m looking forward to challenging myself in new ways. I would love to be able to speak several languages. At the moment I’m trying Swedish.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
To be a writer I think you must, first and foremost, be a reader. Read as much as possible, as often as possible. Remember to be professional, and foster discipline. Write even when you feel uninspired. Be aware. Practice empathy.
Hannah, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.