Tracy Farr is a Melbourne-born, Perth-raised, Wellington-based writer—which, had it been planned, would be a pretty good networking strategy for a writer!
Her first novel, the original, intelligent and lyrical The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, introduced a brilliant new talent to literature and was one of my favourites of 2013. Literary award judges were impressed, too: it was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Award and Barbara Jefferis Award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Tracy’s new novel, The Hope Fault (Fremantle Press), was recently released, and I am delighted to be featuring it here.
Here is the novel’s back-cover blurb:
In Cassetown, Geologue Bay, Iris and her extended family gather on a midwinter long weekend, to pack up the family holiday house now that it has been sold. They are together for one last time, one last weekend, one last party.
The Hope Fault is a celebration of the complexities of family—aunties and steps and exes, and a baby in need of a name; parents and partners who are missing, and the people who replace them.
It’s about the faultlines that run under the surface, and it’s about uncertainty—the unsettling notion that the earth might shift, literally or metaphorically, at any moment. It’s a contemporary novel that plays with time and with ways of telling stories. It finds poetry and beauty in science, and pattern and magic in landscape.
And now, over to Tracy…
2 things that inspired your book
1 Rock-paper-scissors Very early in this novel’s life, when I was struggling to work out what it was about and where it went, I started referring to it (almost mockingly) as ‘my rock-paper-scissors novel’. Referencing the playground game that I’m sure everyone’s familiar with, it was a shorthand that encompassed some key elements of the book that I’d decided on very early in the process, even though I wasn’t at that stage clear about how I could or would bring them together: rock for geology, and the Hope Fault, a geological feature that runs across the South Island of New Zealand; scissors for Iris, who works with fabric (I thought she would make marks on fabric by dyeing, but as I wrote, Iris turned to stitching); and paper for fairytales and photographs, poems and maps, and letters (whether delivered or never sent).
As I wrote, I came to think of rock-paper-scissors not just as a convenient shorthand for the novel, but as an organising principle, and as a theme. I became interested in rock-paper-scissors—the game itself—for its universality and its history (it’s existed, in some form and across cultures, for centuries), for its elegant simplicity, but also for its circularity and democracy. As Kurt says in the novel:
‘It’s circular, never-ending, that’s the beauty of it. No one thing wins over every other thing. Any choice you make might win, or it might lose. There’s the potential to win with each choice, each move, but there’s also the potential, each move, to lose…Even paper can win. Paper wraps rock.’
Circularity is important in the novel, and so is the number three (most obviously in the novel’s three parts). Rock-paper-scissors is a fairytale three, a lovely prime number (Kurt’s keen on primes, too: ‘Three’s just one of those numbers. There’s something about primes, but three in particular.’).
2 A bunch of people Another throwaway line I used early on for this novel, when people asked me what it was about (when, honestly, I didn’t really know the answer to that question), was that it was ‘a novel about a bunch of people’. Behind that uncertain answer was one certainty: that it was important to me that this novel featured a cast of characters, with each of their voices coming up in the mix at different times, and with, at times, all of them talking in chorus, speaking over one another. I knew I wanted them stuck in a house, tripping over one another, in a sort of turned-around version of an Agatha Christie-type country house murder mystery (but without a murder). I was particularly inspired by (obsessed with) the Man Booker–shortlisted 2012 novel Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy. I loved that novel’s bunch of people (the family, the friends, the stoner maintenance man, the elderly neighbour, the beautiful stranger), their range of ages and relationships, the sense of unease, and the set-up of the book, where they’re all at a holiday villa in the south of France.
My novel’s bunch of people was also inspired by the bunch of people in Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse (after which one of my novel’s later chapters is named). The Hope Fault’s three-part structure echoes aspects of the structure of To the Lighthouse (including the central part, titled ‘Time Passes’ in Woolf’s novel, which in my novel had a working title of ‘Time Passes (backwards)’), but it was Woolf’s bunch of people—family and friends, out of time, out of place—in their holiday house, the shifting perspective, the sense that nothing much happens (yet everything happens), that interested me. I was interested, too, in the ways that both novels play with time. And would my own bunch of people make it to their lighthouse?
2 places connected with your book
1 There are so many real places connected with this book that I felt I had to invent a fictional place to contain those multitudes. The contemporary sections of the book take place in a family beach house in Cassetown, on the shores of Geologue Bay. There isn’t (as far as I know) a Cassetown, nor is there a Geologue Bay, but I’d hope that Western Australian readers might get a cheeky little zing of recognition and think of Geographe Bay, and recognise in the name of my Cassetown an echo of the real-life town of Vasse. If I had to point to Cassetown on a map, I’d wave my finger over the south-west of Australia, vaguely in the vicinity of Cowaramup, Busselton, Dunsborough and Vasse, but without actually touching down on the map, because Cassetown isn’t quite any of these places. Rather, it’s a mashup of those places, which I know reasonably well from spending holidays there as a child and through my teens and twenties.
I decided on this fictional place for a number of reasons, not least because I imagined a local geography for the house (the house here, by a river that leads to the bay) that none of the real places quite provided. I really like the sense of the universal that’s provided by a fictional place (rooted in real places)—one lovely comment I’ve had from New Zealand readers of the book is that they didn’t realise that it’s set in Australia, they read it as a rainy New Zealand setting. If I’m honest, that’s a response I was sort of hoping for—that WA readers get that pleasing jolt of recognition, but for non-WA readers, Cassetown can read as an Everyplace that’s close to them. The fictional placename also picks up the thread through the novel of names and naming, and of things (and people) having more than one name. And the fictional setting is a nod to the importance in this novel of fairytale, fiction and make-believe.
2 The house in the novel is an amalgam of several real-life houses, mixed and mashed and added-to in my mind to come up with this particular place that forms the stage on which the majority of the novel is performed. Closest in feel and layout to the house in the novel—though furthest in geographical distance—is a house near Te Anau (on the way to Milford Sound in New Zealand) that I found on a holiday home rental site, and stayed at for two or three nights with my extended family back in 2010. Like the house in my novel, it was an old farmhouse on a decent bit of land, though now more or less in the suburbs, surrounded by close neighbours. The hallway at the beginning of the novel is the hallway in the Te Anau house; the big music room at the side, the deck leading off it; the large number of bedrooms (were there eight?!), leading off the hallway, or off each other; the dogleg to the kitchen at the rear of the house, and family meals eaten at the table in the kitchen—they all come from that house in Te Anau. There are other houses that are part of the house in the novel: Normandell House, the home of New Zealand Pacific Studio, where I had a rainy writing residency while writing the first draft of the novel; Olive Cottage in Mildura, where I lived for a midwinter month when I was Mildura Writers Festival writer-in-residence, and where I wrote the last scenes of my midwinter novel; my uncle and aunt’s rambling old house near Vasse; my ex’s parents’ house in Cowaramup; the back verandah and outside laundry (a place of cubbies, dress-ups, and playing schools) of my childhood home in North Cottesloe.
2 favourite characters
1 Luce was the last of the cast of characters that I came up with for the novel, and she is, in many ways, my favourite. She was the missing link, early on; once I introduced Luce, and worked out how she fitted into the family and the story, everything finally clicked into place. She’s the 15-year-old daughter of Marti. Kurt (20) is her cousin; Kurt’s mum (Iris) and Luce’s mum (Marti) are best friends, and ex-sisters-in-law. Luce, Kurt and Iris are the three point-of-view characters in the contemporary sections (the first and third parts) of the novel. I particularly love the way that Luce shines in the third and final part of the novel.
Names are important in this novel, and Luce’s is, on the one hand, dreadful (listen to it: Luce/loose!). She’s never known by her first name, Lucy; she’s Luce, or Lucinda-sky (with diamonds), or Lulu. I’ve been asked if there’s a lot of me in Iris, or partying Marti, the characters closest in age to me. But I think that Luce is the character in this novel who has the most of me in her. Though she’s forty years younger than me, I am, in many ways, still that confused and prickly teenager, socially awkward, both wanting and not wanting solitude, wanting to do the right thing but often not sure how to do it.
2 Iris was the first character I came up with for this novel, and she is the novel’s reference point. I’ve always thought of the cast of this novel (there’s a confession: I think of it very much as having a cast of characters, as if it’s a play or film) as a cloud or network of characters. I’d draw it on the page or whiteboard, and keep it on the desk or wall for reference as I wrote: a network with Iris in the centre, and the others arrayed around her, with lines connecting out from Iris like the spokes of a wheel, but also across and around, connecting character to character. Iris is in her late fifties in the novel, living on her own now that her 20-year-old son’s off at uni. It’s ten years after her marriage broke down, and she’s good mates (now) with her ex, and with his new wife. I always saw Iris as still, stable, quiet, dependable. She’s the person at the centre of the lives of her extended family, her circle of friends. I imagine her as the person who facilitates the celebrations of all those around her (her son’s 21st, her mum’s 100th, her best friend’s wedding), but without really stopping to celebrate her own milestones. She quietly gets on and organises all their lives. Everyone needs an Iris.