Hannah Kent was a 17-year-old exchange student in Iceland when she first heard the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in that country before the death penalty was abolished in 1928. “She had been beheaded for her role in the 1828 murders of two men,” says Kent, who was born in Adelaide, Australia. “I was immediately curious about the story. For some strange reason I still struggle to identify, I felt an uncanny kinship with this dead convicted murderess. How had she come to such a sorrowful end?”
Ten years later, curiosity about Magnusdottir’s humanity and motives are twin sparks fueling Kent’s meticulously researched Burial Rites, the story of an Icelandic woman who is charged with the murder of her master and sent to an isolated farm to await execution. The writing of the first draft only took five months, says Kent, but this was after she spent years visiting every place she would write about, sifting through parish records, letters, ministerial books, and censuses, and generally immersing herself in 19th-century Icelandic life: “What was the judicial system like? What did people eat, wear, do every day? How often did they wash their hair?”
Little, Brown vice-president and editor-in-chief Judy Clain was at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival when she heard the pitch about Burial Rites from Pippa Masson at Curtis Brown Australia; Dan Lazar of Writer’s House represents U.S. rights. “I was immediately hooked,” says Clain. “I had that rare and wonderful exhilaration of falling in love with the writing, the story, and almost at the same time visualizing the jacket. A perfect moment as an editor.”
Rights to Burial Rites have been sold in 18 countries, and film rights have been optioned by Allison Shearmur, who was one of the forces behind The Hunger Games film. Little, Brown is planning a first printing of 50,000 copies.