KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON: AN UNEXPECTED PATH TO PUBLICATION
Just over two years ago, I was – to put it plainly – shitting myself. It was January 2011, and the novel I needed to write, the historical novel that was to be the creative component of my PhD in Creative Writing at Flinders University, could no longer be avoided. While, in the first few years of my degree, I had managed to stave off my supervisors’ queries with promises that I was performing ‘very crucial’ research into nineteenth-century Iceland, the time had come for me to finally produce my first attempt at a novel. My supervisors, their smiles slipping, were asking to see the goods. My scholarship – my only income – was rapidly drawing to a rude halt. The problem was, I had no idea how to write a book, and that terrified me.
I first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir when I was an exchange student in the north of Iceland. It was 2002, I was 17 years old, and I had left my home town of Adelaide for Sauðárkrókur, an isolated fishing village, where I would live for 12 months. This small town lies snug in the side of a fjord: a clutch of little buildings facing an iron-grey sea, the mountains looming behind. When I arrived it was January, and the days were gripped by darkness, 20 hours at a time. There were no trees. The town’s houses were hostage to snow, and in the distance the North Atlantic Ocean met the north sky in a suggestion of oblivion. It felt like the edge of the world.
I was intensely lonely. The community was tightly knit, and I was an outsider. Everyone knew me as the exchange student – cars would slow to a crawl as passengers gawked out of the window to stare at my foreign face – but few people approached me. For the first time in my life I felt socially isolated, and my feelings of alienation were compounded by the claustrophobic winter darkness, and the constant confinement indoors. I turned to writing for company, to fill the black hours. I sought shelter in libraries, consolation in books.
It was during the first difficult months of my exchange that I travelled through a place called Vatnsdalshólar. It’s an unusual tract of landscape: a valley mouth pimpled with hillocks of earth. When I asked my host parents if the area was significant, they pointed to three small hills, nestled closely together. Over 100 years ago, they said, a woman called Agnes had been beheaded there. She was the last person to be executed in Iceland.
I was immediately intrigued. What had she done? What had happened? Over time I discovered that Agnes was a 34-year-old servant woman who had been beheaded on 12 January 1830 for her role in the 1828 murders of two men. It seemed a tragic tale; Agnes had been unequivocally condemned. Retrospectively, I can only speculate that the strange, isolated place of Agnes’ death made me think of my own feelings of loneliness; that I thought of Agnes as a fellow outsider in a remote Icelandic community, and I identified with her in some small way.
Even as my loneliness eased and I fell deeply in love with Iceland, a compulsion to tell the story of the execution, or more specifically Agnes’ story, continued to grow. Surely there was more to her character than the stereotypical ‘monster’ spoken of in the records of the murder? I felt haunted by Agnes, feelings heightened by my lack of knowledge and understanding about her life and the events that condemned her.
When I returned to Australia and embarked on a Bachelor of Creative Arts, thoughts of Agnes continued to seep through the layers of my consciousness. She stayed with me in such a way that, by the time I graduated with Honours and decided to embark on a higher-research degree in Creative Writing, it seemed logical that I make Agnes’ story the subject of my PhD.
It was, looking back, probably one of the most uninformed and ridiculous decisions I’ve ever made. Unpracticed and unskilled in any form of novel-writing or biographical research, I publically committed myself to writing a full-length manuscript about a historical figure I knew nothing about, set in a country not my own, in a time I was utterly unfamiliar with. Some people kindly called it an ‘ambitious’ project. I think ‘indicative of a student who has no idea what she’s doing’ would have been more appropriate.