Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Hannah Kent introduce her new book, The Good People. Actually, that sounds too grown-up – I was super-excited. I’ve been anticipating this book for years (seriously) and was thrilled to finally get my hands on it.
A newspaper article sparked the idea for The Good People. While researching Burial Rites, Kent spent a lot of time reading in Icelandic – her ‘downtime’ was spent reading old English newspapers and it was then that she came across an article about an old woman, Nance Roach, who was accused of murder. But not a ‘straightforward’ murder – Nance was described as a fairy doctress and it was this that inspired Kent to delve deeper into the lore of rural Ireland.
In pre-famine Ireland, folk and fairy lore was connected to every aspect of people’s lives – the yield of crops, the birth or death of a baby, the ability to churn butter – it was a way of understanding the otherwise inexplicable. Kent emphasised that folklore was less about superstition and more about explaining things that defy logic, particularly in relation to changes in children, animals and nature.
“Superstition is almost a derogatory word. Superstition implies ignorance, doing things because you follow a belief system without question. Irish folklore was not like that.”
The term ‘good people’ was used to refer to fairies and these ‘good people’ had the ability to bestow favour or grave misfortune. As Kent explained, the good people lived a precarious existence in Irish society, simply because the healer could also apply a curse –
“If there is one thing worse than being afflicted by the work of fairies, it’s being powerless to remedy it.”
Folklore traditions coexisted with religious faith. Although the famine and the rise of Catholicism seemingly quashed belief in fairies, it never fully disappeared. Kent told a marvellous story of her time in Ireland, when she met with a priest who had been called to a farm to see what could be done for a very sick cow. The farmer, covering all bases, had also called a vet and a fairy doctor. The priest and the vet agreed that the cow’s time had come. The fairy doctor placed hands on the cow and, according to the priest, the barn filled with warmth and the cow stood up, recovered. What happened next? Well, the priest began filing paperwork with the Vatican, because he’d witnessed a miracle!
Question time is the best, isn’t it? Kent was asked about how she negotiates the balance between fact and fiction. She said that she was strict during Burial Rites and because of plentiful written records, the story was very much informed by nonfiction – she started with fact and used fiction to fill the gaps. The Good People was more difficult because she only had two newspaper articles –
“I had a wonderful problem in that I had the conclusion to my story and had to work back. I had a whole lot of creative license that I’m not used to. I applied ‘the imagination of likelihood’ to fill in the gaps.”
Kent was asked about the use of landscape in her stories. Prior to writing The Good People, she hadn’t been to Ireland but this book took her to the Flesk River in County Kerry. Her visit was a targeted, sensory experience. She wanted to feel how cold the river water was and see how the mud stuck to her shoes –
“I always try to include landscape because modern life is dislocated. Landscape and weather dictated much of historical life… I love nature – what a joy to distill that in writing.”
In a round-about way, someone asked Kent what she wouldn’t write about. Seeing the question for what it was, she said “The Shriver question, as it shall be known!” *big laugh from the audience* Kent answered thoughtfully –
“…if you create literature you also have a responsibility to stand by it, to be sensitive. I ask myself what are my intentions and am I operating from a position of empathy?”
Finally, I asked Kent what was next and was surprised to learn that she was working on a contemporary screenplay (and enjoying the collaborative process). She said that although she loves historical fiction and the associated research, she didn’t want to carve herself “…a niche as the author that writes about miserable women in cold places.”