September 2023: Writing about a lighthouse

What made me write a novel about a lighthouse and a lighthouse keeper’s family? I have no idea. I do think the head is wonderful at storing up all kinds of bits and pieces, and when you go fossicking in the dark corners of your brain you find surprising stuff. Maybe lighthouses were simply lurking in a corner somewhere. Earlier in 2019 (the year I began to write Light Keeping) I had read Jeanette Winterson’s novel lighthousekeeping but it is vastly different from my own novel

What I do know is that near the end of 2019, some free time opened up for me and I wanted to use it to write a novel about generations of one family, and about storytelling, and I had the bare bones of a story about a lighthouse keeper.

Then of course in 2020 there was the lockdown. I know what a hard time it was for many people, but for me it was a gift. There was all this time when I had no obligations because I couldn’t do anything, and we were living in this quiet house above the beach, walking every day, the sea always in front of us. That time provided a clear space in my head, when a story could expand without having to fight for space in my usual cluttery busy brain. So the bare bones began to take more shape, I discovered more about the characters, and the plot had layers instead of a single thread. I also changed the time periods of the novel. Originally it was set in 1977–85, and 2020, but it became clear very quickly that 2020 was not a good year to set a story in, so the year became 2019.

When I started writing, I knew very little about the automation and de-manning of lighthouses, and how lighthouse keepers were losing not only their jobs, but their way of life. But as I began to read more of this history, I realized that it had dominated the 1970s, even though it had already been going on for decades. The uncertainty that lighthouse keepers lived with, the very poor handling of the process, the sympathy for the keepers – it all worked its way into the heart of the novel, and in fact became a defining part of the family’s history.

And more and more I began to pull in parts of my own family history, in particular the story of my great grandfather, Charles Hayward, a seafaring man who arrived in New Zealand in 1855, and spent his life on or beside the sea before drowning when his own boat capsized in 1887. I’ve never drawn on my family history in this way, and somehow, although the story is entirely fictional (and I’ve been loose in my use of the family history!) it’s made the novel personal as well. It became a challenge – where else could I pull in small snippets of family stories or memories? Late in the piece I added a new chapter, where the grandmother Annie is reclaiming an overgrown garden. I thought, this isn’t any old garden, and I gave it terraces shored up by rock walls full of oxalis – exactly the front garden of my parents’ home in Brooklyn, Wellington, where I grew up.

This story is about consequences: the consequences of tragedy in the lives of children; the consequences of poorly-managed technological change in individuals’ lives; the consequences of determined optimism. I’m an optimist myself, and although there are some tough parts of this novel, I wanted to finish it with hope.

One last thing I learnt while I was writing this novel (well, writing a novel teaches you many things, but this is the last I’m going to write about here); I learnt to use language a little more expansively. I’ve always been quite a spare understated writer. But I love words, and I decided to allow myself – or encourage myself – to use more of them! The only person who will notice that probably is me, but it gave me a lot of pleasure.

We live in a house above Tītahi Bay, north of Wellington. We have a big ocean view, and now, late afternoon, the sky is clear and a very pale yellow-blue, and the sea is unusually calm. In a northerly it’s full of wild white water. At this time of day, flocks of birds stream past, heading towards Mana Island to roost for the night.  The light sky, and the birds, remind me of the cover of Light Keeping. We can’t see Mana Island, but we can see the sharp silhouette of Kāpiti Island, and closer, the rocky point beyond Plimmerton falling into the sea. We are surrounded by beauty, and I just hope I’ve been able to catch some small part of it in this novel.