WA scientist and emerging writer Tracy Farr has spent much of her adult life an ocean away from seaside Cottesloe, where she grew up.
But Cott never fully left her psyche: her debut novel, The Life And Loves of Lena Gaunt, is partially set here. Tracy’s book tells the tale of Lena, a musician, whose glittering career takes her from Sydney and Wellington to the world stage in Europe. It ends with her as an old lady in Cottesloe.
Wellington-based Tracy, 51, is back in town for the launch of her book, published by Fremantle Press.
Tracy chatted with The Starfish over a coffee in Napolean Street.
Tracy, tell us about The Life And Loves Of Lena Gaunt?
It’s the story of a woman’s life, spanning the 20th century. Lena was born in Singapore in 1910. She becomes a famous musician, then sinks back into obscurity. At the end of her life, she’s living in Cottesloe and reflecting on her life, telling her story to a film-maker. Part of the book is set in 1991, when she’s 80 years old.
Your Cottesloe background clearly inspired some of the book’s setting?
That’s right. I lived in Cottesloe, in Lyons Street, until I was 11. I went to kindy in Marmion Street. I have enduring memories of the beach, and the smell of the beach. That experience of looking over the water and seeing Rottnest. And the Norfolk pines. Also the Bathing Pavillion at Cottesloe, where I learned to swim. And those lanes between the houses!
When did you move overseas?
After I left school I studied at UWA, where I got a Science degree, then an Arts degree. Then I ran away to Canada with the man who’s now my husband. We lived in Vancouver for five years, then moved to New Zealand. We’ve been in Wellington for 17 years, since 1996.
So you‘ve been working as a scientist?
Yes, and in my spare time publishing short stories. Then two years ago, I decided I’d had enough of science, it was too demanding. I needed to find more time to concentrate on my writing. So now I have an office job, still science-related but less full-on and it frees me up to write.
But you’ve already had work published?
Yes, short stories. But for ages I’d wanted to write a novel, I just didn’t have the right story in my mind. About five years ago, I had the idea that the main character would be a woman who played the theremin.
What is that?
It’s the first electronic musical instrument, essentially a box with electronics in it and a metal loop and aerial sticking out of it. When playing it, you don’t actually touch it. Look it up, there are lots of theremin fanatics on the ‘Net!
Do you have one?
My husband and I have a couple, yes. When played well, they sound beautiful, a bit like the cello. It’s almost as though they have a voice. They’re odd, beautiful and weird. I decided to write a book about a character who played the theremin brilliantly, who’s actually met its inventor and had wonderful adventures.
When did you start writing the book?
In 2008. I won a place as writer in residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Greenmount. I spent a month there and I was really able to get stuck into the book. It was extremely beneficial. It was great to spend time writing solidly, but also spending time running some ideas past other writers. By the time I left, I had half my first draft written.
How many drafts did you do?
I lost count! The one I first sent Fremantle Press was my eight draft. They liked it, but it needed revision. They worked a lot with me, giving me great suggestions and feedback. The book evolved a lot as I went along. I always knew how it started and finished, it was the bit in between that I wasn’t sure about!
Did you have to do much research to capture Cottesloe in an earlier time frame?
Well, one of my grandmothers actually lived down at the Cottesloe Bathing Pavilion (where Indiana is now) during World War II. I know many of her stories. There was a flat in the pavilion and that’s where she lived for several years from 1942, when my mother was little.
Have you shown your grandmother the book?
She’s lost most of her sight now, so I’ll have to read parts to her. I’m staying with her during this visit, which is lovely. She’s 95.
Is there anything raunchy in it?
Not particularly. There’s lesbian sex, and drugs. But I wouldn’t say it’s raunchy. I don’t think my Grandmother will be shocked at anything I’ve written. She’s wonderfully broad-minded.
Can you see yourself living back here in Cott as an old lady?
(Laughs). If the place is still affordable. Who knows? Whenever I come back here, I feel so at home. It’s always great to come back.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press) is out this month. Thanks to Tracy for generously reaching into her gran’s family album to supply us with these great pics of Cottesloe Beach in the 1940s.
We have three copies to give away. Just Like The Starfish page on Facebook to be in the running, and email us saying in one sentence why you’d like the book.