My interview with author Mark Brandi

Mark Brandi: How two characters went in search of their author – and found him
Maggie Jankuloska

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.

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 It didn’t harm that last year the novel won the British Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger, an award for unpublished manuscripts.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been compared to Jane Harper’s hugely successful debut, The Dry, which won the Victorian Premier’s award for an unpublished manuscript, and Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones.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

WIMMERA
Mark Brandi
Hachette $29.99

Featured in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

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Short Story – Treat

Treat

She was exhausted, buried by her tweed school uniform, waiting for the tram. The heat was stifling, early summer. That was the fateful day it first happened.

After two sleepless years of cramming, expensive lessons and university-level textbooks, the exam for a Year 10 scholarship was over. Alice’s brain felt dissected. Alice, along with six hundred other anxious girls, pushed through the three-hour ordeal, prudently shading in bubbles on an answer sheet that would determine their future.

Things were black and white in the world of exams. Things were black and white in her parents’ world too. If Alice was accepted into the leafy suburb college, she’d be considered worthy. If she wasn’t, she’d be considered a failure, not as smart as so-and-so’s daughter. It seemed there was no in-between.

The tram was delayed and the heat was scorching, so Alice walked into the air-conditioned Carlton bookstore. Her eyes widened, the store was bigger than her entire home and there were books from floor to ceiling. She circled past the new-releases, memoirs, adventures, classics. Alice picked up a Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel and winced at the $32.00 price tag. She placed the novel where she found it, but a wicked little voice whispered inside her mind. Do it, this can be your secret, you deserve it. No one has to know.

Novels were forbidden at home, an unnecessary frivolity, a hindrance to exams, chores and homework. Novels were for indulged, lazy girls, according to her mother. Novels could fill her mind with silly ideas; fray away all the years of moulding a perfect student.

Yet, the scholarship exam was over and Alice thought she deserved a treat for all her efforts. She looked over her shoulder, the sales assistant was gabbing on the phone. Alice carefully peeled the book’s barcode and slid the book in her blazer. Her heart was thumping; she had never felt so wicked. She felt wicked, but alive. She was defying her parents, she was rebelling against order. In that moment, she was everything she had never been: brave, a rule-breaker, a criminal. Cavalierly, she walked out, alarms were not raised, and no one stopped her.

She returned to the tram stop, climbed aboard and once the tram started rattling, retrieved her prize from inside her blazer. She caressed the embossed sepia cover and dove into post-war Barcelona, a realm where her anxieties did not exist.

Alice devoured the book in two days, tucking it under her mattress as if hiding love letters. Knowing the forbidden item was with her made her giddy, in control of her destiny.

Yet Alice could not keep the novel. That was never her intention. She would read it, copy out her favourite lines and memorise them, allow the words to seep into her soul. Then she would return the book back to the shelf. Her guilt would lessen; she wouldn’t be a thief, just a book borrower.

Returning to the bookstore, Alice placed the book where she found it, careful not to leave any creases or marks on the pages and covers. She was not spotted, so Alice browsed the other shelves, her eyes mesmerised by a book of poetry by Lang Leav. Her hands twitched and she licked her lips. Within moments, the book of poetry was inside her blazer. Alice returned home ecstatic.

As the last term of Year 9 trickled away, Alice’s book acquisition continued. The bookstore was sleepy during the 3pm slump. In the summer months, she read Nabokov, Orwell, and Emily Brontё. She read the words of rebels. She plunged into a pool of vibrancy. Alice felt alive, unchained in those final days of freedom.

Two months after her first book acquisition, Alice received a letter. The prestigious inner-city college accepted her to start Year 10, the following year. She was one of the lucky eighty girls. Her stomach was in knots. This was all she ever wanted, wasn’t it?

That afternoon her parents showered her with attention, they phoned overseas and boasted, bought Alice mud cake and balloons. Yet, the same words flooded her mind: law, engineering, medicine, Maths Methods, Physics, and Chemistry. She was returning to the world of black and white.

The new school year dawned and Alice’s book acquisitions did not recommence. There wasn’t any time to read for pleasure. She was drowning under the weight of glossaries, formulas and scientific journals. She was gasping for air. Her hair fell out in clumps. Her nights were sleepless, with purple rings circling her eyes. Alice carried a mountain of pressure on her back.

The year passed, so did others. Alice’s days were full of academic responsibilities. She seldom thought of the novels she once read and her desire to read others waned. The prospect of reading was exhausting, not worth her limited time. Weekends were spent revising or consulting frazzled friends on their assignments.

Alice’s hard work paid off. She finished high school with immaculate grades and was accepted to study medicine at Melbourne University. Another six years passed in a blur.

One rainy morning, Alice walked past the familiar bookstore. She has just returned from her first serious job interview at a goliath medical research centre. She was offered a salary that doubled her parents’, a neat little office too. She walked home with a spring in her step. Yet a familiar itch found her. After a long break, she walked into the bookstore. The familiar smell met her, but the displays were all different. It was like returning to a home you once grew up in. Alice prowled around the best-sellers, fingering a wartime romance which had been adapted into a film. Her parents no longer cared if she read novels. For once, she had a bit of time to spare. This time, she could easily afford to buy the novel, she had the money.

Yet she wanted to do it again, for old time’s sake. After years of hard work, she deserved a naughty treat. She wanted the thrill, the ill repute. Alice wanted to secretly rebel after over two decades of obedience. She took the risk, sliding the book in her handbag. She exited the bookstore with the same adolescent bravado.

But Alice was rusty. She did not remove the security tag on the book. The alarm was triggered. “Miss, excuse me,” the sales assistant pointed and stomped towards Alice.

In a state of panic, Alice ran. One moment of foolishness could unravel all that she had built. She would be handcuffed and dragged to a police station, her parents would be mortified. Channel 7 would flash her face, a would-be doctor caught stealing books. Who would hire her? She ran in her uncomfortable heels, jostling past people on the footpath. The sales assistant did not slow down. Alice retrieved the stolen book and threw it. She lost the evidence. She looked back and saw the sales assistant stop and pick it up.

Alice ran across the road, not bothering to look out for traffic. A Volvo’s tyres screeched, but it was too late.

New Short Story, published by The Regal Fox

Word by Word

 

maggiej

Seeing the dismal book choices in the prison library, if you would call it a library, I think of the old man. I can almost hear him sneering and shaking his head in disapproval.

The books are in tatters, with frayed spines and water-stained covers. They are all the same moralising tales, same censored swill meant to extinguish any desire to kill or thieve. I rummage through the pile and come across Dostoyevsky. I smirk, the old man must be here in spirit, laughing at me. The book cover is the same seasick colour as the old man’s copy in his bookshop. The same book could fetch approximately eight dollars on the outside. I once told him, he couldn’t pay me enough to sit through reading such a brick, but look at me now. Life has a way of playing these tricks on us.

The summer I was fifteen, I needed money and I hadn’t discovered petty theft yet. My father wasn’t around to take me to his worksite for a few dollars. I preferred to be out of the house and out of my stepfather’s hair, so I roamed the streets  until something purposeful caught my eye.

I could sell books. What did I know about books? Nothing. I hated school, dreaded returning the following year. My writing was appalling, an assault to the eyes as one teacher put it. Yet I wandered into the bookshop, hands in pockets and full of adolescent bravado.

The old man was reclining in his chair. The radio played his jazz tunes and he languidly smoked his pipe, immersed in a book. Despite the scorching heat, he wore a suit, his pants bore a sharp crease and his collar was white and crisp. He looked impeccable, unlike anyone in my neighbourhood. My stepfather didn’t own a suit and my father only wore his at funerals.

I can’t say what he saw in me, perhaps it was companionship or the need to mould me into someone with a purpose. He didn’t pay much, but then again the job wasn’t that difficult. For a few hours in the afternoon, I’d sort the shelves, dust, check inventory, and assist with any inquiries. The old man was there to correct me. No, that’s not how you spell the author’s last name, no that doesn’t belong on that shelf, move it. To him, books were salient things – who would have thought I’d use one of his big and fancy words? “People will disappoint you and abandon you, but books never will. You’ll never be alone if you read,” he said. I didn’t believe him at the time. I regret not finding out his story. I was curious, but I was shy and proud to ask him questions.

Business was never great, but he had enough money to live on and throw a few dollars to me. He seemed content, brewing his coffee on the stove, listening to old world music I couldn’t decipher, twirling his worry beads in his leathery hands. He talked with a lilting accent, deep and harsh. He’d open a Russian volume of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky and he’d pull a blank sheet of paper. He’d read a sentence in Russian, pause and write it out in English, his lettering neat and graceful.

“Um, there are English translations of that book,” I’d shake my head.
“I am aware, but where is the fun in that?
So you are going to translate the whole book, how can you be bothered? It will take you forever, you are not getting any younger.”
I’ll get there, step by step, word by word, page by page. Patience is a virtue, friend.”

He didn’t force books upon me. I learnt what sold and what didn’t; I learnt what was trash and what was treasure. There were times when I watched the old man and envied the joy he felt when he read. He’d retell me the story, but I’d snort and pretend not to care. When he’d leave for dinner, with a carnation habitually attached to his lapel, I’d sit in his chair, smoke some of his cigarettes and rummage through his belongings.

I never took anything from him. I just opened his favourite books, the ones which were not for sale and were kept hidden behind the counter. Taking a breath, I would power through, first a paragraph, then a page and then a chapter. There was history, philosophy, poetry, Dickens, Victor Hugo, James Joyce. When the old man returned to lock up, I’d run away from his spot and feign indifference. What I regret most is not telling him how much I appreciated the books I sneakily devoured and how much I appreciated him.

I can’t remember how my employment ended. Summer ended, I returned to school, got preoccupied by other shenanigans and pushed away the people who reached out to me.

One year, when I was in my blurry twenties, I heard the bookshop burnt down. The old man survived, but I never saw him again. I never found out where he moved to. Why didn’t I ever try to find him? Today the bookshop has been rebuilt as a Chinese takeaway shop.

In my cell, all I have is time. My hand caresses the cover of The Brothers Karamazov, I smell the dusty smell of the yellowed paper.

“You must be feeling brave, if you are about to read all of that. I haven’t touched a book since primary school,” my cellmate smirks.
Got to keep the mind sharp, I’ll get there. I’ll read step by step, word by word, page by page. Patience is a virtue, friend.”

I find myself repeating the old man’s words. Wherever he is, in that moment, I feel the old man close to me.