Monster Making 101

Recently I braved the heaviest rain of winter to attend the WORD Writer’s Workshop “Teaching the Monster to Speak” hosted by the energetic Tracy Farr.

Tracy Farr (image credit, Matt Bialostocki)

Cover of The life and loves of Lena GauntTracy, who was born across the ditch but who we’ll claim as a Kiwi as she’s lived in Wellington for the past 20 years, wrote The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt in 2013 and received accolades for creating characters so real they could walk off the page. Tracy started her second novel and was determined to achieve the same rich characterization. She investigated her writing process so she could replicate it. The twenty or so other workshop attendees and I were fortunate enough to be able to share her wisdom.

To make truly original, realistic characters, Tracy advises authors to stitch them together, physically and psychologically. To extend the Frankenstein metaphor further, she suggests splicing character traits and collecting body parts. Take your mother’s dark eyes, your cousin’s dress sense (or lack of), your colleague’s habit of giving you compliment sandwiches and your dentist’s squint, and you’re on the way to making your Monster. Tuck away images or sayings specific to your Monster into a real or virtual folder via Pinterest or Scrivener. Make mood boards and observe, collect and record “whatever buzzes”. Place your Monster into a setting and move it around so it can start to take on a life of its own.

The idea is to transform/invent/disguise people you know to create your characters. Tracy says “be aware of when you’re copying and when you’re creating” and encouraged us to do a writing exercise every day. She assured us that, if we do this, something (or someone) will turn up.

Cover of WriteTracy based her workshop on four main writer’s resources: Sarah Quigley, Write; Linda Barry’s nearsightedmonkey Tumblr; Jason Steger, It’s fiction and that’s a fact (on Helen Garner’s The Spare Room); and The Exercise Book: Creative Exercises from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters (see also

Tracy Farr’s new novel, The Hope Fault, is due for release by the Freemantle Press next year. Make sure you keep an eye out for it – an eye, his ear, your brother’s obsession with drones, the butcher’s stutter, the purple coat you saw at Farmers… Make it real then make it strange. Happy stitching!

More WORD Christchurch

The novel and the theremin: WORD Christchurch

Cover of The Life and loves of Lena GauntThe Sunday Fringe: WORD Christchurch  was a brilliant new aspect of the festival,  in partnership with radio station RDU98.5 and art space The Physics Room. The Novel and the Theremin was an intriguing and seductive kick 0ff. Tracy Farr’s book The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt tells the story of fictional theremin star Lena. We were lucky not only to have Tracy, but also  John Chrisstoffels – who can play that most intriguing of instruments. Lynn Freeman of Standing Room Only on Radio New Zealand was the chair.

The theremin favours those who like to solder and tinker, as you can build your own (apparently Jaycar have a kitset you can make!) Theremins can also use transistors or valves. Apparently valves are coming back into fashion for the warmth and livingness of their sound. Robert Moog came to invent the synthesiser through building theremins (and it was a Moog that John was playing for us).

John Chrisstoffels: The Novel and the Theremin
John Chrisstoffels: The Novel and the Theremin

The two talked about their various introductions to the theremin via B Grade movies, tv, and seeing Pere Ubu in concert. Apparently Hitchcock movies Spellbound, and Lost Weekend both have a bit of theremin action too. At its most classical, the theremin can sound like a violin or a female voice. This is what makes it uncanny.

Tracy read a piece from the book, where an elderly Lena goes swimming and does a theremin concert. While Lena is a fictional character, there was a real life virtuoso who played with Leon Theremin himself – her name was Clara Rockmore.

Tracy imagines Lena more Tilda Swinton-like then the lady on the front cover. In her mind, the older Lena looked like Barbara Brinsley of Dunedin (you can see her in this Ageing with attitude article).

John explained the technicalities of playing the theremin – glissando, using sightlines in relations to your fingers in the air, as well as pointing out some well-known tracks. Good vibrations was a bit of a cheat because it used a theremin with a keyboard. John thinks the theremin is a wonderful accompaniment instrument, as it’s “really expressive to play with someone else, and for playing along with records”.

Tracy noted Jon Spencer’s theremin humping antics:

This was one of my favourite sessions at WORD – two engaging speakers, a keen crowd, a  dollop of fantastic music  – and we all got to have a play on the theremin at the end. Bravo!

Tracy Farr: The Novel and the Theremin
Tracy Farr: The Novel and the Theremin

Tracy Farr: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Tracy Farr – writer

Cover of Paradoxical UndressingWhat (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

 Some wonderful musicians – Kristin Hersh and Dave Graney, who I’ve loved for years; and Aldous Harding, who I’ve just discovered – are on the programme. I’m interested in music in fiction, and I love a good music memoir or band bio (my novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt could be described as a fictional musical memoir).

I’m also looking forward to discovering new books and writers. I always try to go to a few wildcard sessions, where I’ve never read anything by the writer, perhaps barely heard of them. I love the element of serendipity that festivals offer.

What do you think about libraries?

I love them. They’re my happy place. I had a student job years ago, working in the main library at University of Western Australia. I was one of a small team that would go in for a few hours before the library opened. We’d be allocated a stretch of shelves each morning, and we’d check that the books were all ordered correctly, pull out any strays, and align the books a neat knuckleslength back from the front of the shelf; a sort of book-based meditation, repetitive and with not too much thinking involved. Other than the early start, my idea of heaven.

Cover of The Life and loves of Lena GauntShare a surprising fact about yourself.

 A New Zealand seaweed species is being named after me. It combines my name with a mermaid deity.