Writers can’t always predict the journeys their characters will take. So when Mark Brandi wrote a short story about a father and son rabbit-hunting trip, he didn’t think it would lead to the inception of his novel. The story was published, but that was just the beginning for Brandi’s characters.
“Long after the piece was published, the two characters, Fab and his father, lingered – I felt there was more to their story, and that’s where the novel took root.”
Mark Brandi won the Debut Dagger at the British Crime Writers Association awards last year. Photo: Eddie Jim
Mark Brandi’s debut novel is Wimmera, a crime novel that generated considerable buzz before its publication this month. It didn’t harm that last year the novel won the British Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger, an award for unpublished manuscripts.
Opening in the scorching summer of 1989, Wimmera is a coming-of-age story, set against a bleak backdrop. Ben and Fab are on the cusp of adolescence and living in Stawell, in the Wimmera. They play cricket, go yabbying in the dams and plot revenge against school bullies. However, Ben’s unease over his neighbour’s suicide and the domestic violence Fab endures, are left unspoken.
The arrival of a stranger has a profound effect on their lives, but its impact is revealed only 20 years later when a body is discovered. Meanwhile, Ben and Fab’s friendship has disintegrated and life has pulled them in different directions.
“On one level, Wimmera is about crime and vengeance, as it delves into some of the darker aspects of Australian rural life,” Brandi says. “But it’s the friendship of the boys that lies at the heart of the story.”
Given its outback setting, Wimmera has inevitably been compared to Jane Harper’s hugely successful debut, The Dry, which won the Victorian Premier’s award for an unpublished manuscript, and Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones.
“The 2016 Debut Dagger was a big moment. It’s an international prize and no Australian had ever won, so I kept my expectations low. Even when Wimmera made the shortlist, I still thought myself an outsider,” Brandi says.
The shortlisting and then the win led to interest in the novel and paved the way towards Wimmera’s publication. Vanessa Radnidge, Brandi’s publisher at Hachette, was among the first to call. “She congratulated me and, ever so casually, asked to see the manuscript. It all happened quickly from there, but it was a lot of work to get to that point.”
Wimmera was also short-listed for the Impress Prize for New Writers and highly commended in the Victorian unpublished manuscript award.
When Brandi is asked about his success and the advice he would give emerging writers, he says it’s a question of voice. “Being true to your voice and vision is important – it’s what makes your work unique and distinctly yours. Listen to feedback, experiment with your work, but don’t be pushed in directions you’re not comfortable with.”
Despite having worked in the criminal justice system, Brandi didn’t set out to write a crime novel. What really interests him is the social context of crime. Books such as The Stranger by Albert Camus or recent Helen Garner – not so much about the crime at the centre but more about how the society reacts around it – are ones he responds to.
“If you read the newspapers or watch the nightly news, you’d be forgiven for thinking every city is overrun with crime and violence. But news agencies are just reflecting our desire for these stories. As writers, I suppose we take it that one step further,” Brandi says.
“Through fiction, we can gain insight into the horrors that befall others, giving us a sense that we might avoid similar peril. On the other hand, I think there’s a vengeful streak at work – we like seeing villains punished for their misdeeds. From either perspective, reading stories about crime might offer catharsis – it allows us to satisfy these emotions in a safe, controlled way.”
Born in Italy, Brandi arrived in Australia as a young boy. His parents restored a “derelict and rat-infested pub” in the Wimmera that they operated successfully for 30 years.
This is where Brandi was drawn to the mystique of passing strangers.
“Growing up Italian in a small town, I always carried a vague sense of otherness. When you’re struggling to find your niche, you tend to observe people and conversations quite closely, looking for common ground. You notice what people are saying, but also what is unsaid – looking back, I can see how it helped my writing.”
Wimmera is published by Hachette at $29.99
Featured in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald