In conversation with... Tracy Farr

Hi Tracy! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Hope Fault. Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thanks Silvia! On the surface, The Hope Fault tells the story of an extended family who come together, one rainy midwinter long weekend, to pack up, clean up and clear out their family holiday home now that it’s been sold, and to send the house (and that phase of their lives) off and celebrate with one last party. There’s more to it than that – particularly in the novel’s middle act, which plays with time, and moves away from the family in the house – but the experience of this novel begins and ends with a sense of being part of this odd family, in this odd house, doing the things that families do: eating and drinking, annoying each other, ignoring each other, worrying about each other, arguing and making up, keeping and revealing secrets.

The novel is about the whole idea of home: how we make and unmake and remake a home; and how the notion of home (who, where, what is home?) can shift. It’s also very much a novel about anxiety and uncertainty, and the idea that the earth might shift, literally or metaphorically, at any moment, but we can’t know where or when; and we can’t know what the consequences – large or small or none at all – might be.

In The Hope Fault you use different narrative techniques, including poems, letters, faery tales and song. In general, the novel is very lyrical in style. Are you a poet at heart or do you simply enjoy playing with language in a beautiful way?

A: I used to be almost apologetic about loving language for its beauty. But at Auckland Writers Festival in 2015 Tim Winton said ‘I’m just in the business of producing useless beauty’, so I figure if it’s good enough for Tim, it’s good enough for me to aspire to! I respond to beautiful language on the page, when I read, and that’s very much what I love to write, too. The rhythm and sound of language are really important to me.

Other than the language, though, in The Hope Fault I was also very specifically interested in the ways that different texts can carry meaning, and tell stories. So in the novel everything from a cake to a geological bulletin, from postcards and letters to comics, songs and maps, poems and faery tales – even the stitching on a blanket – they’re all texts that tell stories.

What kind of research did you have to carry out for this novel? What aspect of it did you enjoy the most?

A: It might seem odd, with my background in research – I worked as a scientist for 25 years – but when I write fiction, I like to do the minimum of research. My preference is to do just enough research to get by, and then let fiction and imagination – and beauty – fill the gaps. George Saunders has talked[i] about the choice a writer faces between using accurate real-world settings, or making things up: ‘ [as a writer] you’re either a photorealist or you’re a dramatist. I think we have to be beauty makers.’ I guess I side with the dramatists and beauty makers rather than the photorealists. The research I do when writing fiction often takes the form of dabbling and browsing and reading, letting myself follow random threads in search of the serendipitous perfect phrase or element or fact that feels as if it belongs in the story I’m writing. I’m aiming for just enough research so that the writing feels real enough, when the reader is in it.

One of the research threads I enjoyed the most, while writing The Hope Fault, was rediscovering comics and graphic novels, and reading about comics and how they work, how they tell stories through words and images, and map space and time. This was kickstarted when I heard New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks talk about comics, at WORD Christchurch festival in 2014. That led me to make one of the novel’s central characters, Kurt, a cartoonist rather than a filmmaker, but it also got me thinking and reading and writing about how time operates in comics (and more broadly). An unexpected side benefit was that all that reading of and about comics got me doodling and drawing again, after many years of just working with words, and that’s been delightful.

This is a very visual novel. If it could be turned into a film, who would you choose to direct it?

A: I was influenced by techniques of film and theatre as I wrote the novel. I saw the rooms of the house as film sets, or a stage, with my characters entering and exiting, scenes framed by doors and walls and windows. The 2008 film Rachel Getting Married (directed by the late, great Jonathan Demme) was an early inspiration. I wanted The Hope Fault to have that film’s sense of people coming together for celebration, talking over one another, music playing in the background and also at the heart of key scenes, and of the central story being about something (some unstated thing) other than the celebration. In the sad absence of Jonathan Demme, my dream director would have to be Sally Potter (The Party, Orlando), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, The Last Days of Chez Nous, Oscar and Lucinda), or Jane Campion (Two Friends, An Angel at My Table, The Piano, Bright Star) – I am a longtime fan of all their work.

There’s some exciting related news: The Hope Fault is being adapted for the stage, for production by the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 2019/20. I can’t wait to see my characters on the stage!

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: There are a few chapters in the novel that swoop through the house giving short glimpses from the perspective of different characters, often when they’re sleeping, or in between sleep and waking – the effect is perhaps a little bit like witnessing the dreams of the inhabitants of Llareggub in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. I love those chapters – ‘All inside the house, now’ and ‘Dreaming in light and dark’ particularly – and the work they do and effect they have.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: There was quite a lot that didn’t make it into the novel! Just one example: my original, very early inspiration for one of the central characters, Iris, was that she used plants (leaves and flowers, roots and nuts) to dye fabric – but as the writing progressed, I switched that to stitching. That was partly logistics – Iris could pick up stitching wherever and whenever she was, not make a mess or have to wait for hours or days or months for dyes to process – but also to do with how the focus (and aesthetics) of the book changed as I wrote it. All the early research I did on botanical dyeing methods and colour theory wasn’t wasted, though. It ended up helping me paint the background of Rosa, Iris’s mother. You can see the residue of that colour and dyeing in one of the ‘faery tales’ in the novel, ‘The Uncovery of Blue’.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I’m working on my third novel. It’s still in its very early stages – I’m currently flicking between writing a first draft and doing more research. The working title is Wonderland. It’s the story of three sisters, identical triplets, born in an amusement park in the early twentieth century. I think all I’m ready to reveal at this stage is that it’s about reproduction, curiosity, science and the lightness of being. I’m enjoying writing about the past; it’s liberating to write about people who haven’t all got their heads down looking at small screens in their hands!

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: It is a demand on time and energy, but it’s certainly an important public-facing part of the author’s life. What works best for me (though I don’t always adhere to this!) is to treat it as an administrative task, and schedule it into my day, so that it gets done, but doesn’t take over, and leaves me time for writing. Letting myself take a break from social media once in a while, if it’s all feeling a little overwhelming, is a really helpful strategy, too. Having said that, I get a great deal of pleasure (and friendship and information and ideas) from connecting directly with readers, as well as with other writers, so I never stay away from social media for too long.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: I can never say this too many times: read your work aloud (as you write, as you revise, or preferably both).

Thank you for your time!

To find videos, playlists, reviews and lots of other interesting resources about Tracy Farr's The Hope Fault, feel free to click on the icon below:

[i] Auckland Writers Festival: Hera Lindsay Bird interviews George Saunders, The Spinoff, 8 May 2017


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