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Interview: Adrienne Jansen talks about Light Keeping

A long-time creative writing teacher, Adrienne Jansen founded the Whitireia Creative Writing Programme and co-founded Escalator Press and Landing Press, a small poetry publisher that now takes most of her time.

Light Keeping was one of three novels shortlisted for the 2021 Michael Gifkins Prize. Adrienne’s previous work has been shortlisted for the 2019 NZ Booklovers Awards and longlisted for the 2019 Ockham NZ Book Awards. Adrienne talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Light Keeping.

It’s a contemporary novel about a lighthouse, and the lighthouse keeper and his wife, and their two grandchildren who must deal with tragedy as children, and with the consequences of it as adults. It’s also a generational story, and it’s about story-telling. It’s set in two time periods, 1977–1985, and 2019, and the novel moves between these two.

What inspired you to write this book?

That’s a difficult question. I don’t know why I decided to write about a lighthouse, although I think our heads store up all kinds of ideas, and it must have been in there somewhere. But I was certainly interested in writing a story about several generations of one family, and in this novel I was writing about two great loves of mine, stories and the sea – which are always inspiring!

What research was involved?

I had to learn a lot about lighthouses. I created a fictional lighthouse for the novel, but it’s a composite of several New Zealand lighthouses, and I needed to know about the structure of lighthouses, and the day-to-day life of a lighthouse keeper, and also the history, particularly of the automation of lighthouses. Historian Helen Beaglehole’s excellent books on lighthouses were a key resource, and of course there’s the internet. But when I started writing this novel near the end of 2019, I expected to spend the first months of 2020 physically visiting lighthouses – I love that kind of research, physically going to places and getting the flavour of them. Then there was the lockdown, so it wasn’t going to happen.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Process first. I did something I hadn’t done before when writing a novel. Structure isn’t my strength, and I didn’t know how to structure this generational story that moved between time periods. Plenty of novels do both those things, but some better than others. So I went back to a novel that I greatly admire, No Great Mischief, by Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, and I charted the structure of that novel, chapter by chapter. It provided me with a blueprint. Of course, very quickly the momentum of my own story took over, and the blueprint kind of disappeared, but it gave me a good sense of structure. I needed that.

I’m not good on routines, mainly because my life isn’t very routine. I worked on this novel in two chunks of time, late 2019, and during the lockdown in 2020. For me the lockdown was a gift – weeks of uninterrupted time when I had a clear head, and could let the novel evolve, which it did.

And then I rewrote it. I aim to get a first draft down quickly, because for me everything happens in the rewriting.

If a soundtrack were made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Here are a couple of odd choices. But music does feature in the novel, and I would choose two songs from there. One is ‘On the banks of Allan Water’, an old Scottish song which the grandparents sing around the piano, and the other is a 1970s children’s song, ‘The Lollipop Tree’ which the family also sing, and which becomes a small turning point for one of the children. Not exactly deep and meaningful songs, but I think they are poignant in the novel.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Sam Neill for Bill, the grandfather, and Melanie Lynskey for current-day Jess, the child who in 2019 is her 40s. I’m still thinking about the others.

What did you enjoy most about writing this novel?

I loved writing this novel. I’m usually a very spare writer, and I allowed myself to be a bit more expansive because I love language. But I was also pulling into the novel a lot of my own family history. And because I started with just the bare bones of a story, the novel evolved, and I was constantly making discoveries. I think novels are always like that, but this novel was particularly so. I enjoyed all of that.

What did you do to celebrate finishing Light Keeping?

We launched the novel at the Trades Hall in Wellington – a very appropriate place because the novel is also a story of automation/loss of jobs/protest. There was 1970s food, and the book was launched by Ashton McGill, from Maritime New Zealand, who had helped me with parts of the novel. All organized by an exceptional team on the Whitireia Publishing Programme who in collaboration with Quentin Wilson Publishing produced the book.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

The Piano shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart. It’s a mix of memoir, history of pianos, relationships, and it’s about Paris. It’s not a new book, but I thought I had discovered it, until I talked to friends about it, and it seemed like everyone had read it!

What’s next on the agenda for you?

At the moment I’m completely immersed in the next anthology from Landing Press, a small Wellington publisher that I’m part of. After that, I’m not sure – or maybe I don’t want to commit myself just yet!

Quentin Wilson Publishing


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