Mark Brandi is an award-winning Melbourne based writer. Mark’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, The Big Issue, and is often broadcast on Radio National. He is the winner of the 2016 UK Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger for his first novel, Wimmera, which he developed during two residential fellowships at Varuna. He now answers the Booktopia Book Guru’s Ten Terrifying Questions.
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Ascoli Piceno, which is a few hours north-east of Rome in the Marche region of Italy, bordering Tuscany and Umbria.
But my family come from Ortezzano, which is a tiny medieval village in the foothills of the Appenine mountains. I still have relatives there and, when visiting a few years ago, I was surprised by the deep connection I felt, despite having been raised in Australia.
My parents were post-war migrants, and I grew up in a small town in western Victoria, where they ran a hotel. Growing up in a pub was a great experience, and I met people from all walks of life – such diverse, colourful (and sometimes quite sinister) characters now offer a rich vein for my writing.
As the only Italian family in town, it was hard going for my parents. Similarly, as a migrant kid in the local schoolyard, I probably faced more hurdles than most. But as an outsider, looking for acceptance, you become a keen observer of those around you – listening to what people are saying, and also noticing what is unsaid.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, I had no idea. But I had a fantastic teacher who encouraged my creative writing, which was mostly inspired by dystopian comic books, or the Stephen King novels I nicked from my brother’s bookshelf. The teacher sent me on a retreat, where professional writers, journalists, and illustrators ran workshops over three days. It was probably the first time I dreamt that writing could actually be a career.
But by the time I hit eighteen, the drudgery of high-school had ended any vague dreams of a creative career. Still, I loved to write, and journalism seemed a good compromise (despite strong advice against it). But I didn’t get accepted, and with three older brothers working in policing, I settled for a law degree (which I then dropped after one year).
At thirty, I’d survived a couple of years as a political adviser, after working in various policy roles in the Victorian justice department. While writing was an essential part of my daily work, it didn’t allow me freedom to express the creativity that still burned. It would take a few more years (and career changes) before I would finally realise the vague dream of my twelve-year old self.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
The common belief of most eighteen year-olds: that I was (despite compelling evidence to the contrary) completely bulletproof. It’s fair to say I put that conviction to the test, and I probably owe my survival through that time – and most of my twenties – to dumb luck.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Tobias Wolff’s masterpiece, Bullet in the Brain, left an indelible mark. It’s a soaring and deeply moving short-story, depicting a jaded book critic in the final few moments of his life. It’s an exhilarating and masterful demonstration of compressed storytelling, with the critic ultimately returning to the feelings of awe and wonder that eluded much of his adult life.
When first drafting Wimmera, listening to The Mercy Seat by Nick Cave was a morning ritual, and surely seeped into my subconscious. In it, a man on death row rejects society and repentance, before a climactic fever of denial where we discover the truth. It’s an intense piece – raw-boned and wild, and with tension that is utterly gripping.
The 1998 film, The Boys, also had a deep impact. Adapted from a stage production, it’s a claustrophobic and darkly hypnotic insight into a deeply dysfunctional and violent Australian family. It was probably the first time I’d seen such a restrained, realistically styled depiction of crime – and its brutal, domestic roots – in Australian cinema.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Writing has always felt natural. In early drafting, if it’s going well, I almost feel as though the conscious mind is out of the picture – like the words are on the page before I can self-censor.
To be honest, I did try piano in high school, but failed terribly. And while I’ve always enjoyed visual arts, the execution is well and truly beyond me.
The writer Gloria Steinem once said: ‘Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel like I should be doing something else.’ That might sound terribly pragmatic, but it pretty much sums it up.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Set in a remote Australian town, Wimmera is a story of crime and vengeance, which explores some of the darker undercurrents of Australian rural life.
We first meet Ben and Fab, who are best friends in the late 1980s. On the cusp of adolescence, they’re enjoying the freedom of a long, hot summer before their final year of primary school.
When a young neighbour dies suddenly, her family leave town and an outsider named Ronnie moves in. Still haunted by the girl’s death, Ben and Fab are intrigued by this new arrival, but unaware of the long shadow he will cast over both their lives.
Twenty years later, Fab is still stuck in the same town in a dead-end job, but hoping for something better. Then a body is found in the river, and Fab must finally face the devastating secrets of his past.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
When I wrote Wimmera, the characters – Fab, Ben, and even Ronnie –came to life. I still feel their presence. Sometimes, I can almost sense them in my peripheral vision – as though if I look around quickly enough, they might materialise.
I hope readers have – to some degree – the same lingering sense of the characters and their story, long after they’ve finished reading. Still, I believe every reader brings something unique to a work. I’ve tried to allow room for that, enough space for the reader to enter this world and make their own interpretations.
To give a musical analogy, I’m a tragic Radiohead fan, and I studiously avoid reading explanations of song lyrics or composition (even by the artists themselves). I like having my own interpretation, and I want that for my readers too – there are no right or wrong answers.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
There are many. At the moment, it’s Cormac McCarthy and I’m gradually making my way through his books. When I read McCarthy, I feel as though entering another realm of existence – it’s difficult to explain, but I become completely immersed in the world he creates for his characters – it feels slightly ethereal, almost trance-like.
And part of me will be walking The Road forever…
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I think most artists seek to create something that feels true to them, whatever the medium.
For me, it’s about the characters. I think readers can sense when it’s forced – when a writer is seeking to create an impression that’s artificial.
When I write (and read) I want to feel like I’m entering the character’s world – as though I’m wearing their shoes, thinking their thoughts. When the writing feels true, it’s like I can disappear completely. MJ Hyland is a master at this effect.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
There is so much advice out there, so I’m reluctant to add another word. But I recently read this quote – attributed to the author, Katherine Paterson: ‘To write, your heart has to be absolutely tender, and you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.’
In other words, if seeking publication and an audience, resilience and persistence count for a lot. But I think the act of writing – of perfecting and honing each sentence, each word – should sustain you in itself.
Thank you, Mark!
In the long, hot summer of 1989, Ben and Fab are best friends.
Growing up in a small country town, they spend their days playing cricket, yabbying in local dams, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab's dad hits him or how the sudden death of Ben's next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid.
Then a newcomer arrived in the Wimmera. Fab reckoned he was a secret agent and he and Ben staked him out. Up close, the man's shoulders were wide and the veins in his arms...
About the Contributor
Anastasia Hadjidemetri is the former editor of The Booktopian and star of Booktopia's weekly YouTube show, Booked with Anastasia. A big reader and lover of books, Anastasia relishes the opportunity to bring you all the latest news from the world of books.