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March 10, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Lamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown (Victoria University Press)

Lamplighter is set in a place somewhere between folklore and reality, on the brink of civilisation and wilderness. It’s a coming-of-age and ‘coming out’ story, but it goes a lot deeper than that. Lamplighter asks questions about fear, identity and prejudice that make it a ‘crossover’ novel challenging enough for teenage and adult readers alike. The story grapples with darkness in a way that’s rarely been done in New Zealand young-adult fiction, and never in such a richly layered alternate universe. The village of Porbeagle is infused with tales of swamp monsters – but where do the real horrors lie?

Kerry Donovan Brown lives in Wellington, and is a recent graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria. Last week, he shared some thoughts with me on Lamplighter.

He arrives an hour late, a bit all over the place with his book launch the next day, apologising profusely and offering to buy me absolutely anything on the menu. I insist it’s fine and feel rather sorry for having put him in such a state. He’s not an Intimidating Published Author at all. He’s a totally normal young person who’s humbled by it all, and eager to talk about this book that means a lot to him.

“Where does the village of Porbeagle come from?” I ask. The first thing that struck me was the vivid setting. I knew if I were to open my copy of Lamplighter right now on the table between us, I’d be transported completely to a murky, sunken swamp world. “It’s actually semi-autobiographical,” Kerry tells me. “The village is similar to the little South Island settlement where I grew up.” He adds hastily that of course his grandfather’s not a lamplighter, but in some ways it’s real.

“What about the names of the other towns and settlements?” I loved the names, so I have to ask. “Naming is always such a complicated thing for me. I’ll often get bogged down trying to name places. The place names in Lamplighter – Porbeagle, Anchorite, Hellgrammite – they immediately felt good.” There’s something great about hearing the word ‘Hellgrammite’ pronounced out loud. Kerry tells me it’s an imagined version of Wellington, and it’s the name of a fearsome aquatic larva. “I imagined a New Zealand that was more preoccupied with the natural world,” he says, “and I think about what it’d be like if our towns were named after minerals or microscopic creatures.”

We both have trouble articulating our thoughts when it comes to the strange art of lamplighting which is becoming arcane in the world of the novel. I wonder whether there are parallels with real life in the way this old coming-of-age tradition is tantalisingly wonderful at first, but then descends into something sinister when Candle learns frightening things about his grandfather’s past. “That’s a sharp reading,” Kerry concedes, but I think I’ve read too much into it. “I guess Candle’s main conflict is homophobia, but it’s not his coming out that’s driving the narrative. I guess my experience living in a small South Island town – my parents and family were supportive, but there was homophobia from people peripheral to me – it came really easy to me to write about that …” he trails off, unsure he’s really answered my question. But what he says makes perfect sense.

He names Ursula Le Guin as one of his favourite writers and The Last Unicorn as his favourite book. “I’m influenced by young-adult writers – so it was going to show through in the book.” As for New Zealand young-adult books with a ‘coming out’ narrative? There aren’t many. I realise I’ve hardly seen even one, though in North America it’s become increasingly mainstream for young-adult writers to write queer characters. Kerry mentions titles his teacher pointed him towards when he was young, but these are the kinds of books that would’ve scandalised schools back then. “In the year I was born, it was still illegal to be gay. My hope for Lamplighter is that it finds a wider audience in the community.”

Kerry says Lamplighter really came alive when he spent five weeks down south in his hometown. When he got back to Wellington, he wrote the bulk of it at Zealandia. “I love the crossover of wilderness and civilisation.” This is evident in the book; there are many paradoxical points of contact between modern life and myth. And if it weren’t for someone that pointed him towards the IIML, he reckons Lamplighter probably never would’ve happened.

I hope he’ll write more stories set in this world. He thinks he might. “I want to explore the idea of fear – not terror, not fear of monsters, but fear for one’s own happiness. Maybe that’s just the sort of state I’m getting to in my life – I sometimes fear for where I’m going. But I would like to go back to this world. What’s great about Lamplighter is that I kind of knew I was onto something. Once I had the bulk of it down, I knew that it was a story worth telling.”

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