Lifting the lamp on Kerry

When Kerry Donovan Brown was 11, his mother enrolled him in the Christchurch School for Young Writers, where he wrote poems about Persian cats and plotted elaborate storylines for fantasy novels.

Credit: Grant Maiden

Seventeen years on, the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) Master in Creative Writing graduate has his first novel, Lamplighter, under his belt—an otherworldly coming-of-age story steeped in folklore and superstition.

Set in the fictional small New Zealand town of Porbeagle, the story is centred around Candle, apprentice lamplighter to his grandfather, Ignis. As electric lamp posts are being introduced into the town, Ignis, gruff guardian against swamp spirits and spinner of yarns, is set to retire.

“The image of the lamplighter walking along the stopbank lighting lamps and creating stories popped into my head first, but I knew it wasn’t a modern-day concept,” says Kerry. “So Porbeagle was always going to be a village preoccupied with archaic traditions, although the novel is set in the 90s.”

The setting for the novel is inspired by Kerry’s home town of Waikuku Beach, a coastal village in North Canterbury.

“A lot of people from there who read the book will recognise the place,” says Kerry.

The landscape may be familiar, but Porbeagle is a village where people say ‘avaunt’ to get rid of bad spirits, ‘hail’ each other in greeting and take turns as life-drawing models at town meetings.

“I have always loved worlds that are slightly off-kilter, but familiar in a lot of ways, to the point of being very domestic—such as the writing of Ursula Le Guin or the films of Hayao Miyazake,” says Kerry.

Much of Lamplighter draws heavily from real-life experiences, says Kerry, alongside characters and scenes that are completely fictional. It touches on Candle coming out as a young gay male and is infused with fear of his alcoholic grandfather. The book is just 160 pages long, with short, bite-size chapters.

“I quite often find myself reading before bed, and aesthetically I wanted to write a book that offered logical points for the reader to stop reading for the night.” Kerry read folklore for inspiration while he was studying writing.

“I found the constructive criticism in the workshop environment in the Master’s course particularly nourishing,” he says. “At my book launch, it was really important for the nine other students in my class to be there because they felt so central to my success.”

As winner of Victoria University’s 2012 Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing for best manuscript of the year, a prize won previously by acclaimed writers such as Eleanor Catton, Catherine Chidgey and William Brandt, Kerry’s book attracted considerable publisher interest. However, he settled on the familiar territory of Victoria University Press.

“Having my book published is a foot in the door and I feel lucky to have been picked out of so many incredible writers. “Since the launch, it’s as if something has been surgically removed from my brain and I’m feeling really creative again.”

One of Kerry’s dreams is to take up writer’s residencies overseas, although he would like Wellington to remain his home base.

“The great thing about the IIML and about Wellington is that there’s a real sense of community among writers. That’s what I want to be part of. I don’t think I’d do very well cloistering myself—I think I’d go a bit mad.”