Interview by Samuel Elliott
Like other Victoria-based novelists Elliot Perlman and Jock Serong before him, Mark Brandi, had spent decades in a career revolving around the legal world before answering his true calling in the decidedly more uncertain vocation of writing. Prior to establishing himself with his debut novel, Wimmera, taking out the prestigious U.K. Debut Dagger Award, the fearless, life-altering choice to focus singularly on writing novels in place of a respectable (and well-paid) career with the Department of Justice might’ve seemed, to some, as ill-advised to the point of unconscionably reckless. Though Brandi soon reveals early into our chat that the decision was made not upon his volition alone, but as a result of a (violent)
intervention of fate.
Wimmera is a patently Australian tour de force, following two inseparable youths, Ben and Fab and the hardships their mateship endures slipping from childhood into adulthood in the titular country town, a familiar coming-of-age story that takes a sudden, tragic turn, forever altering both their lives and their attachment to one another.
Brandi first discusses the origins of the story, revealing that his own youth growing up in a small-town in Western Victoria mirrors much of the opening of Wimmera, including the plight of Fab.
‘Particularly growing up as a migrant as a small town left a mark on me,’ the author was born in Marche, located within central Italy, before moving to Australia. ‘There was a sense of being an outsider, and as an outsider you closely observe, you’re forced into that situation of trying to fit in, so you’re watching other people quite closely.’
He points out that, although he dedicated himself to producing a novel, he never intended on it being one stepped within the literary genre, which many the upper echelons of the Australian literary society have classified it as. Brandi clarifies that instead of abiding by the clumsy constraints the literary novel genre enforces, he instead focused on the characters and allowed their interactions to make the tale flourish, fleshing them out through the many memories, some haunting, others joyous, of his own upbringing.
‘I think that, there’s the cliché of write what you know, but it’s something in your subconscious, with unresolved issues and writing from that you are inevitably pulled to those sort of things. Growing up was definitely instrumental.’
Part of what leaves a reader so devastated at the conclusion of Wimmera is how, much like the lead characters who are victim to the tragedy, we are totally taken by surprise. To counter those that have tried to pigeonhole the work into the literary genre field – it also cannot easily be classified as crime either, despite one crime triggering an ever-worsening succession in a text-book ‘ripple-effect’ thereafter.
That is at Wimmera’s climax, though, prior to that, the novel revolves exclusively around the Ben and Feb and the natural trials and tribulations all youths undergo, such as burgeoning sexuality and a lack of opportunities to explore it, the inherent, racially-motivated bullying found within any schoolyard, right through to the strain placed on a friendship by a tyrannical father in order to maintain such a strong friendship.
Brandi expands more on how the many threads of stories were threaded together to form a cohesive Wimmera. ‘It all originally grew from a short story, To Skin A Rabbit, published in an obscure Irish literary journal that probably doesn’t exist anymore,’ he confides with a chuckle. ‘It was a story about a young boy on a hunting trip with his father.’
That self-same scene can be found in Wimmera and proves to be one of the most poignant of the lot, examining a familial relationship, one borne on the expectation of duty and conditioned through a strict upbringing, yet hindered precisely because of it.
In compiling all these experiences and fragments of short stories to ultimately create Wimmera, Brandi also explains that he had always planned for the shocking event that would both change the remainder of the story and define the novel. ‘I had a broad sketch that there was a crime involved, but I was again really focused on character and the relationship between Ben and Fab. Looking at it now, if I were to characterise it, there’s a story of crime, but it is also a coming-of-age story. But I never really singularly focused on one or the other, I knew that there was a sinister aspect of the town and the neighbour, and I just really wanted to do that in a delicate way.’
The delicate way he is referring to is building a profound sense of dread within the reader, enough so that they aware that they are hurtling toward some terrible end, yet not revealing so much as to gauge what was to occur before it happened. A trope that can be commonly found in crime and thriller novels, yet seldom exhibited in such a unique arrangement, Wimmera takes its time with pacing and establishing the characters relationships avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘fast-burning’ thrillers. To prevent any prediction as to the destination, Brandi kept the focus (and perspective) as only that of Ben and Fab – ‘I wanted the reader to really see through those young people’s eyes.’
It is in these perspectives that Wimmera distinguishes itself from many of its ilk, via an abrupt shift from one major character’s perspective to another’s midway through the novel. Brandi does this with great aplomb, producing that feeling of frustration at being ‘taken’ away from the former’s eyes – right when you desperately want to be witness to the key event, or given what that entails – maybe not.
He addresses making this daring decision, one rarely undertaken by debut novelists.
‘That was in the back of my mind right from the start. I know that I did want to show the longer-term impacts of trauma. By the end of the editing process, it ended up like that. I think in showing that impact later on, that’s probably part of reflective of my work, my old job.’
Brandi was no stranger to trauma prior to penning Wimmera, having experienced the pernicious and indelible effect that abuse can have upon a youth during his work with the Department of Justice. With this insight enabling him to craft characters with a degree of understated realism that few fellow writers can aspire to. He explains that what first piqued his interest and imagination in crime and eventually compelled him to set out for his own career in law was eagerly following those of his siblings.
‘I have three older brothers working in policing. One’s a prosecutor for Victoria police, one’s a forensic science and one works in records for Victoria Police. In some ways its inevitable that I write something about crime, I’ve always been immersed in it.’
As an inquisitive teenager passing through that naturally morbid phase of being obsessed with crime, Brandi would pore over his brother’s collection of police journals, piecing together the stories in which they briefly and sparingly alluded to, while allowing his vivid imagination to render the rest. These were reports compiled by those not necessarily skilful in writing, with brevity being key in place of immense world-building. This created an unvarnished account of what they were investigating, an unintentionally noir-esque, hard-boiled approach that was instrumental in forming Brandi’s future prose and how he himself would go about writing a novel featuring crime at its centre.
‘I also read about various criminals that we had in our prisons with my work and I would visit prisons quite often and I think that kind of, by osmosis, you learn a hell of a lot about criminality and criminal procedure.’
Brandi weighs in on what draws us as a united people to tales firmly set within the crime genre, given it is still the reigning champion for the reading public, from Poirot to Jo Nesbo, which could be viewed as alarming, given it has a tendency to explore the darkest, foulest recesses of the human condition.
‘I think there’s something primal about that, there’s that vicarious thrill in about reading crimes and danger and about vengeance, when someone has finally had enough and had an extreme reaction. It’s such a rich area, whether or not it’s crime genre or it destroys that fear of crime, if you look throughout human history, it’s just an enduring theme.’
At its conclusion, Wimmera has proven to be relentless ride that includes depictions of crimes that society would collectively deem to be the worst of the worst – that of the grooming and abuse of children. The author discusses his process of tactfully and tastefully penning a novel that features such subject matter. ‘I find it most effective when it’s left off the page, when it’s hinted at, or your left for your imagination to do the work more or less. I didn’t at the same time want to cop out, but I didn’t want people to put it down and have to stop reading either, I find the most effecting depictions of trauma are those that allow you, the reader, to paint that picture.’
In order to accomplish this, the author chose to keep the perspectives as that of Ben and Fab, therefore maintaining the tone of childish innocence. Brandi also abided by the golden authorial rule of show-don’t-tell, to fully drive home the gravity of what was happening. ‘It’s about respect for your reader, your reader is smart enough to put it together. That’s something I appreciate, as an author I respect readers enough for them to paint the picture themselves.’
A fine technique that he acquired after decades spent feeding a voracious reading habit. For Brandi’s journey to becoming a fully-fledged author was a long one, having dedicated much of his adulthood to a distinguished career within the field of law and its offshoots, including a stint as a political advisor, still, he always indulged in his passion for writing on the side.
Gradually the aspiring author felt the need to pen stories overrode all else, including the stability of a full-time job. ‘I felt at a loose end in the justice department and the government, there was nothing holding me there,’ he confides, but pointing out that he didn’t dive in head-first initially. ‘I went part-time first, reduced my hours down to four days a week and started a course at RMIT, a creative writing course. And that was all going fine, I had a few short stories published and I was enjoying it,’
The nascent beginnings were soon overshadowed by being struck with a twist of terrible luck, literally, which very nearly claimed his life too. ‘I was riding down Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, and a driver hit-and-run me. I had a broken ribs, my collarbone separated from my shoulder, I had two operations, I was out of action for about six months with recovery and everything else. I was lucky though, a few meters either side and it could’ve just been over. But it gave me perspective, and that was when I quit my job and focused on writing full-time.’
This literary epiphany was not so enlightening as to spare him any misgivings about setting out to complete such a feat, knowing full well the remote chances of attaining some measure of success within the tiny, competitive realm of Australian literature. ‘It was a big leap, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It’s a really tough industry and it’s probably just as well that I was naïve and optimistic.’ Aside from having an positive outlook, the author found that his enduring passion for writing was what prevailed and saw his efforts duly rewarded. ‘In my heart I did really know it was what I loved doing and when I sat down to write I was never thinking about doing something else, or getting restless. When you are doing something you’re enjoying, you’re always feel like you’re working towards something you want to do. But looking back, it was the bike stack, the driver, he did me a favour in some ways.’
After his recovery, one of the newly-ambulatory author’s first forays into novel-writing was completed through the tutelage of the prestigious Varuna residential fellowship, an institution that offers the guidance of a dedicated team at a retreat at its idyllic and serenely isolated Blue Mountains location, one that has proven conducive to writing a great Australian novel, with many of its former alumni and alumnae proceeding to the glorious, ethereal reality of having their works snapped up by major publishing houses – Brandi is one such poster boy for the immense success to be potentially found in securing a spot at the highly sought after institution and cannot sing enough praise accordingly.
‘Every time I go there, I’m surprised by the impact it has on me, it’s so quiet up there. It’s one of the few places dedicated to writing.’ The retreats offers its namesake – a place free from the normal distractions that plague any writer determined to put the finishing touches to a manuscript. ‘It’s particularly good for editing and re-writing, and those were the times that I really needed hundred percent focus on the work. Having that at Varuna is great, it’s a great institution, in Australia there’s not that many.’
Aside from the peace and quiet afforded at the stunning site nestled amongst the verdant hills, Brandi also praises another crucial aspect of the fellowship – the opportunity to work with seasoned figures within the publishing industry, those that nurture budding talent. Such was the case with the reception Wimmera received. ‘The editor was really enthusiastic about my manuscript, it was a watershed moment, such serious praise from a serious industry figure. It made me bite the bullet and send the manuscript to Curtis Brown. Up until that point, I wouldn’t say I was shy, but I just felt that I wasn’t ready. I got picked up in the slush pile there. It was a pivotal moment, having an agent along the way, just in terms of the editorial input and having someone in the industry who knows people in the industry is important.’
Since the fledgling early days of breaking into the biz, Brandi has been the recipient of a stream of praise from critics and contemporaries alike, culminating in perhaps his greatest accolade to date – taking out the coveted U.K. Debut Dagger Award for Wimmera. Now with a full schedule of touring and promoting the book ahead of him, surely there must be some reflection at how far he has come, along with some trepidation at now being expected to candidly and informatively speak about his writing through addressing large, sold-out functions.
‘I was apprehensive about it, you spend most of your time on your own as a writer and you’ve got to enjoy your own company, whereas the publicity side of it is kind of the opposite of a writer’s existence.’
Early jitters aside, the author has found that he has enjoyed the overall experience thus far, discovering through discussions with interviewers, MCs and of course, fellow writers, that they share invaluable insight into his own writing. ‘That’s an amazing experience. That’s partly again going back to your subconscious and going back to things on the page that you weren’t overly conscious of. That’s really an interesting process. Doing the public speaking, doing the interviews. You get used to it.’
As many a writer catapulted to the forefront of contemporary literature can find themselves, Brandi is focusing both on staying grounded while still learning the ropes of the promotion aspect and being sure to continue to put pen to paper in rapid succession. Though he remains politely tight-lipped about what projects he’s currently working on, in between the obligatory flurry of festival appearances and signings. ‘I’ve got a couple of manuscripts bouncing around, I’m a little hesitant to talk about them until they are finished.’
He doesn’t shut the subject down completely, nor is he being superstitious, his reticent response proves well-founded. ‘I had a non-fiction manuscript a while ago, and I was talking about it and when I sat down, the magic had died.’
Brandi still assures that he’s hard at work on his next big thing, which will be disclosed in the fullness of time when he deems the project to be polished and ready for the eyes of the discerning public. ‘It’s a happy distraction to have a book out, in shops and social media and everything else, but to have another one to devote your energy to, is really important and keeps you centred. That’s the writing ultimately.’
Considering that his debut novel netted the Dagger award, along with several other nominations and praise gushing from the lips of prolific authors and venerable literary critics from across the globe, it is a safe bet that Wimmera will not be the only novel from the author to capture the attention of those that love Australian fiction.
About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: