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 It didn’t harm that last year the novel won the British Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger, an award for unpublished manuscripts.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been compared to Jane Harper’s hugely successful debut, The Dry, which won the Victorian Premier’s award for an unpublished manuscript, and Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones.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

original

 

I boarded the train. Although I shed my work uniform the hospital smell was still imprinted on me. The twelve-hour shift passed like some hazy nightmare. My matronly shoes – which promised comfort – started to pinch as I got off at Northcote. I dreaded my dinners with Evelyn, but even after all the years, I couldn’t say no to her. A part of me still thought there was something to resuscitate, some common thread keeping us together.

We met at a gentrified pizzeria, where the flour was organic, the pizzas were undersized and the prices were steep. Evelyn was early and she met me with a huge hug, smiling as if she’d had a lobotomy or fallen in love with some charismatic cult leader. Knowing Evelyn, it wouldn’t surprise me if she had. She looked fabulous, wearing her willowing bohemian dress, her hair like an alluring siren.

‘Ciao, daaaarling!’ Evelyn kissed my cheeks. ‘How’s the house hunting, Frankie?’

‘Oh, it’s horrendous, half-a-million dollars for something the size of a prison cell,’ I joked and grabbed the menu. ‘Prisoners at least get free gym membership and meals.’

‘That’s an awful thing to say, we have a terrible justice system,’ she pouted.

‘Yeah because every thug is out on bail.’

‘Frankie! You are so bad!’ she playfully slapped my hand. She was still full of the fervour and naïveté which I had outgrown. Evelyn lived in a pink fog of delusion and good intentions. Sometimes I envied her innocence.

‘What’s new with you?’ I asked and waited to hear a deluge of adventures.

‘Still studying, but I got to take a break and visit Nicaragua to volunteer,’ she took a sip of her mojito. ‘It was just so powerful, so humbling, makes you realize how lucky we are – besides, which employer wouldn’t hire someone who decides to uproot their life and do something radical?’

‘I mainly saw photos of you getting plastered drunk with other aid workers. Perhaps you should finish your degree before you talk about employers. You’ve dragged a four-year degree into seven.’
‘Don’t be such a prude. I’ll finish it, eventually. It’s a bummer I can’t get more government allowance, some rubbish about my parents being doctors and earning too much!’

I didn’t know whether to laugh or slap her. She ordered a pizza which was three times as expensive as the one from my local and didn’t bat an eyelash. Hers was a charmed life. While I worked in a kitchen through university, paid rent and studied at dawn, Evelyn snorted cocaine at nightclubs and holidayed in Ibiza. Naturally, it all worked out for her.

‘Can’t believe you’ll be in the northern suburbs, man, you’ll miss this,’ she looked around and spread her arms like an earth goddess.

‘If I want to rent forever and fight some hippie housemate over kale, I could continue living here. Look around, these people are so spoilt and entitled, they can’t even be bothered to pick up their food,’ I pointed to the line of Uber drivers loitering near the kitchen, waiting to pick up orders.

‘Drivers earn a wage from people’s laziness, that’s the world we are living in.’

‘That’s kind of cool, isn’t it? Ten dollars don’t mean much to one person, but a lot to another.’

Evelyn ran her fingers through her hair and stared into space. She meant well, but she was testing my patience.

Her parents sheltered her from the world and all its ills, wrapped her in cottonwool and filled her pockets with money. I remembered the first time we met at university. I found her crying outside the library because she couldn’t decipher the campus map. I was drawn to her, she reminded me of a stray kitten. I was living alone for the first time and her sobbing revealed all that I had bottled inside me. I led her to her room and she hugged me. From that day on she clung to me like a child. She was my shadow; until she learnt to stand on her own two feet. Then we saw less and less of each other.
‘Can’t believe you are married! It’s crazy that we live in a world where marriage is still the norm. You’d think we would’ve evolved past it. I’d only marry if the detention centres close, or if Harvey buys the pear-shaped diamond ring from Tiffany.’

‘You are a real riot girl,’ I rolled my eyes. Evelyn fished for coins from her hemp wallet. I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t have enough money for her dinner.

‘Oh man, being a student sucks. I’m in poverty,’ she sulked. I didn’t say anything, I pulled out my wallet and paid the bill.

I walked her to her car. We walked past dreadlocked men drumming for coins on the kerbside. Evelyn’s eyes twinkled and she started to dance. People stared.

‘Don’t you just love exotic men?’ she laughed. ‘Melbourne is just so multicultural, I love it.’

‘Evelyn, you hadn’t met a Middle Eastern person until you started university. You didn’t believe me when I told you Niger was a country, you thought I was being racist. You constantly called Macedonia macadamia.’

‘You just have a snarky comment for everything,’ she waved goodbye to the kerbside drummers, not even thinking to spare some coins.

She had parked in a No Standing zone and a ticket was stuck to her dashboard. I couldn’t help but smirk.

‘Look at you Evelyn, an eco-warrior driving such a petrol guzzler.’

‘Present for my 25th birthday and for breaking up with Amir,’ she shrugged.

‘Do you have any plans for tomorrow?’ I suppressed a yawn, dreading returning to the hospital for another mind-numbing shift.

‘It’s just so hot this week. I was planning to go to a rally against racism, but I think I’ll hit the beach. Harvey’s parents own a beach house, you know.’

‘Have fun, don’t forget your fine,’ I handed her the slip and watched her speed away.

***

Months later I received an invitation in the mail. The cream envelope was covered in graceful calligraphy.

Evelyn Haze and Harvey Garret would like to invite you to their marriage ceremony in Bali. Instead of a present please donate to a charity preserving Bali’s cultural heritage.      

‘I guess he bought the Tiffany ring,’ I said and threw away the invitation.

Published by Feminartsy

Scents and smells in the novels of Dickens

Fascinating podcast about the role of scent in the works of Dickens. Incredible for writers of historical fiction, especially for those exploring the Victorian world.

Charles Dickens wrote about a time of rapid industrialisation in Britain, which brought wealth to some but misery to many. What would it have smelt like, and how does smell evoke corruption, despair and hope? Great exploration of setting.

https://radio.abc.net.au/programitem/pgW7zemNjV?play=true

By the Sea

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He was perpetually seasick, while she still hungered for the sea. The sea was a majestic force, evoking fear and worship.

Despite their lifetime of differences, here they were, pale feet sunk in the sand, senses transfixed by the spuming green waves. It was their last outing together. Soon they would be separated by something bigger and stranger than the sea. Soon they would be separated by something people seldom understood or welcomed.

She held his leathery hand as his breathing grew shallow and the wind blew through his silver hair. They didn’t need to say a word; they had said it all. His body was ravaged by illness and age, hers was not much better.

How many waves had crashed against the sand? Was there a limit to such forces of nature? Did the waves ever cease to crash, did they suddenly stop like the fragile human heart?

His heart ceased to beat that night. Her heart beat in solitude, searching for its departed mate. A fortnight later, they were both reunited by a majestic force.

Published by Veronica Literary Magazine

Books I read in 2015

Finding time to read is a challenge, but this year I was lucky to tackle over 20 books. Some were good, some were great and a few were sub-par, but each was a journey. I’ve read and discovered some brilliant Australian authors and delved into some Y.A and children’s fiction.  I’ve highlighted some of my favourites.

The Lieutenant – Kate Grenville

Stasiland – Anna Funder 

No Regrets, Edith Piaf biography – Carolyn Burke

A Story Lately Told – Anjelica Huston

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

Drink, Smoke, Pass Out – Judith Lucy

A Feast for Crows – George R.R Martin

Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt

Peaches for Father Francis – Joanna Harris

A Movable Feast – Ernest Hemingway

The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

The Star of Kazan – Eva Ibbotson

Almost French – Sarah Turnball

The Woman in Black – Ann Hill

Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

The Orphan Choir – Sophie Hannah

The Post Office – Charles Bukowski

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

Velvet- Mary Hooper

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The Star of Kazan

Book Recommendation: The Star of Kazan

I recently had the pleasure of discovering a lovely children’s book, The Star of Kazan by the late Eva Ibbotson. It has been a while since I have read a book aimed at children, but Ibbotson’s  2006 offering left me feeling awe and delight, teleporting me back to my youth of reading Heidi by Yohana Spyri.

Precocious Annika is a foundling,  as a baby, she is found by two maids in a church on an Australian mountaintop. “It was a lovely church – one of those places which look as though God might be about to give a marvellous party.” The maids decide to raise the child in the kitchens, in the home of their three employers,  three delightfully eccentric professors. However, Annika’s normalcy is disturbed when her aristocratic mother decides to find her and takes her away in her country abode, shrouded with secrets.

Ibbotson masterfully captures the beauty of 1908 Vienna, especially in the first few chapters. She is a master of characterization and the characters are vivid and memorable, especially the maids and professors.  Yet at the same time, the novel hints at England-based Ibbotson’s nostalgia for an earlier time and her motherland Austria. “The world was so beautiful in those days, Annika. The music, the flowers, the scent of pines…”

The novel is 380 pages, but it flows beautifully and it’s ideal for seasoned readers ages 10 to 14. Intrigued to read more of Eva Ibbotson’s work, especially her Y.A books.  The Star of Kazan is a heart-warming , timeless  story which takes me back to my own childhood. Instant classic!

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George R.R Martin on Writing Fantasy

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“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”