Burial Rites is set in 1829, in Iceland’s far north, a servant woman called Agnes Magnúsdóttir 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. She would be the last person executed in Iceland. 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 Kornsá, where she must remain in custody until the date of her execution. Here she meets the farmer, his wife, and their two daughters. The family are horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, and 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.
You are the co-founder and deputy editor of Kill Your Darlings, so please can you tell us about this?
Kill Your Darlings is a quarterly publication that I co-founded in 2009 with editor Rebecca Starford. We were both in our early twenties, and keen to create a magazine that would foster rising talent in the Australian literary scene, as well as facilitate established voices. We publish engaging, clever writing that combines intellect with intrigue. Over the years we’ve expanded the Kill Your Darlings project beyond the printed issue of commentary, reviews, fiction and interviews, and we now publish a huge amount of additional content and regular columns on our website. We also run writing workshops, panels and other community-minded events.
Kill Your Darlings always been a labour of love, and a huge amount of hard work, but it’s also been very satisfying. I’ve learnt so much about writing and creative industries from my work as deputy editor, and to see the project continue to evolve and be embraced by the Australian literary community is a huge buzz. Come visit us at www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com
Please tell us about your PhD that you are currently studying.
I’m currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing at Flinders University. My thesis, which is roughly 75 per cent creative product and 25 per cent scholarly research, is about representations of historical murderous women in contemporary literature. How have we spoken of and portrayed women convicted of murder in the past? Why are we so keen to pigeonhole them as monsters or angels? What is assumed, and what biases affect the way we think of them? How can fiction, written by contemporary novelists, perhaps subvert our preconceptions about women who kill? It’s a fascinating subject to research, and has certainly informed the way I have portrayed Agnes in Burial Rites.
This is your debut novel, so do you have plans for more?
Writing is what I love, and a long time ago I promised myself that I would keep doing it for as long as I was able to ‘get away with it’. I don’t have plans to stop anytime soon.
Currently I’m researching my next novel, which will once again be historical literary fiction. I never actually planned to write historical novels. Burial Rites came out of my fascination with a particular story, rather than a desire to explore a historical setting, but I’m addicted to the research now. It’s exhilarating, discovering the way people used to live, and noticing both what has changed, and what remains universal.
Without giving too much away I can say that my next book will be set in Ireland, in Country Kerry, in the 1820s. I’ve always been very intrigued by superstition and folklore, and while I touched on it slightly in Burial Rites, I’m hoping to explore these subjects more thoroughly in the next book. I’ve also always had a keen interest in Ireland.
Please tell us about when you first heard the story of Agnes Magnusdottir.
I first heard about Agnes Magnusdottir in 2003, when I was living in a small town in north Iceland, as part of a year-long Rotary Exchange. During the first dark, wintry months of my time there I happened to drive through a very striking place called Vatnsdalur. When I asked my travelling companions if the area was significant for any reason (it was covered in small hills that almost looked like burial mounds), they told me that it was the site for the last execution in Iceland. Immediately curious, I pressed them for more information, and was told that two people had been beheaded for the murder of two men. The last person to be led out to the block had been a woman: a servant called Agnes. I was instantly fascinated. During the course of my exchange, and in the years that followed, my curiosity about this woman, and about the murders, deepened.
How much research was required for the 1829 setting for the book?
A lot of research! I spent approximately two years reading everything I could get my hands on about all aspects of nineteenth-century Iceland: what the people ate, the clothes they wore, habits and customs, popular hymns sung at funerals, seasonal and daily chores, the most prevalent diseases – I needed to know it all. Did the men have beards? What colour underwear did people wear? How heavy is a chamber pot? What’s the best way to skin a lamb? To answer these, and all manner of other questions, I read diaries by nineteenth-century travellers to Iceland, the Icelandic sagas, fiction by people such as Halldór Laxness, history books, law proceedings, journals - everything from very dry academic articles on smallpox epidemics, to poetry. I also spent six weeks researching in Iceland’s national archives and libraries, where I was able to study censuses, ministerial records and ‘soul registers’, and where I learned most of the facts of Agnes’s life. I also spent some time visiting the places where the novel is set. It was a very intense, very rewarding process that required a lot of translation and a lot of patience. I loved every part of it.
What was the appeal of her story for you?
While I never really understood my initial fascination with Agnes as an exchange student, the eventual compulsion to tell Agnes’s story was borne out of frustration. I decided to write something based on the murders and execution for my Honours thesis in 2007. As soon as I started researching the events, I was struck by the way Agnes was either portrayed as a manipulative, evil woman, or was hardly mentioned at all. My decision to write about Agnes was triggered by a longing to find the real woman behind the stereotype. I wanted to discover something of her life story, explore her ambiguity and complexity, and counter the popular opinion of her as a monster. I also, around that time, was very keen to write something set in Iceland. My year of living there had ultimately been an extraordinary experience, and I was homesick for the country. Writing about Iceland’s beautiful yet hostile landscape was the next best thing to being there.
You have received a lot of praise for your debut novel, so how much has this given you a boost?
The response to Burial Rites has been both overwhelming and immensely gratifying. I still can’t quite believe it, especially as the manuscript was originally written for a PhD qualification and nothing more; I never expected publication. I feel very grateful that Burial Rites has found a readership.
There is no doubt that the positive response to the novel has validated my decision to study and pursue creative writing – something I have been doing from a very young age. There was not one day that passed during the composition of Burial Rites that I questioned my own ability and the worth of what I was doing. While I still have my moments of self-doubt, publication has certainly boosted my confidence as a writer, as well as my determination to continually improve. I want to be doing this for a long time.
Who are your favourite reads?
That’s such a difficult 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 her narratives. I think she’s a genius. Thomas Hardy is a favourite, as is Halldor Laxness and Angela Carter. I’ve really enjoyed recent books by Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue, and Edward St Aubyn. Gosh, there are so many – these are only some who come to mind.
What is next for you?
I’m currently travelling around the UK and US for the release of Burial Rites in the northern hemisphere, then I’m hoping to bunker down and continue work on my next novel, fitting in a research trip to Ireland along the way. I’m looking forward to it.