Can you tell us a little about Hanne and Thea, the protagonists of your new novel Devotion?
HK: Hanne is the narrator of Devotion and, when the book opens, a girl on the cusp of adulthood. She is something of a loner in her tight-knitted Old Lutheran community in Prussia, someone who seeks solitude in nature, and yet who also yearns to be accepted. Thea is the daughter of newcomers to Hanne’s village, and the two girls form a friendship that, over time, deepens into something stronger and utterly life changing. I was interested in creating two characters who, while regarded as outsiders by others, accept and love each other fully, without question or condition. They’re very dear to me, both of them.
You’ve really created a whole community of characters - that weave and grow and eventually move continents together – as a writer, is that difficult to do?
HK: The community of characters in the novel grew organically once I decided not to base them on an actual community from the past. Originally, I had looked to the archives as a source of inspiration, but it was much more freeing to imagine those who surround Hanne and Thea – their family, their congregation, their fellow emigrants. I wanted to write about all the various ways people show love and devotion, whether it be to one another, to God, to ideals or country, and the characters developed accordingly. It did mean, though, that I had lots of lists stuck up behind my computer, reminding me of names and ages, and their relationship to one another!
In your research for Devotion, what did you learn about the German-speaking immigrants that settled in Adelaide that surprised you?
HK: I learned that many were superstitious, and that many were quietly rebellious. I discovered some lovely quirks amongst the women. Most of it was found in less conventional sources such as recipe books, or personal anecdote: bread dough placed in warm beds to rise, lemon slices used as a contraceptive, lying about periods to get out of pig-killing. I was also surprised to discover that there was a strong belief in black magic, and that many possessed grimoires and kept them hidden from their pastor. There were also stories of black masses, and more than one person I spoke to told me about an altar used for such things, still able to be found in Kaiserstuhl conservation park…
Your depiction of the Adelaide location is stunning – how did it feel to write about your hometown?
HK: It took me several years to get up the courage to write about my home country. The wonder I felt as a stranger in Iceland and Ireland fed the writing of my previous books, and I was worried that my familiarity with Australia would somehow dull my depiction of it. The opposite was true, in the end. It’s always a challenge to render a landscape into language, but I think my love of this corner of the world helped me push myself. I wanted to honour the beauty of it.
We love how you tell the unheard stories of women – are their real stories often difficult to find in the history books?
HK: I don’t believe it is necessarily difficult to find the stories of women in the history books per se, but it is hard to find their voices. In other words, it is difficult to find stories of women, told by women. This is particularly so when it comes to those who were poor, or illiterate, or who lived quiet, intensely domestic lives. These are the women who interest me. I feel that there is so much they might have said, if they had been given the opportunity, and it is often my wondering about exactly this that prompts me to write.
Devotion by Hannah Kent is available in store and online from 26 October.