Alumni Feature July 2017


Alumni Interview with Mark Brandi

Introduction and interview by Alumni Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Mark Brandi Nothing makes me happier than reading a great novel – unless of course that novel is penned by a Varuna writer, in which case, there’s always an extra skip of joy in my heart. So imagine the little jig I danced after finishing Wimmera, the gripping debut novel by Mark Brandi. Not only do I get to celebrate the success of a member of the Varuna Alumni Association, I get to invite him here to the Alumni Interview Suite to tell us about his book. It’s a beauty.

DJ: Mark, I’m completely fascinated by the list of accolades your manuscript chalked up before Hachette picked it up. Being both unpublished as a fiction writer and very timid about submitting, I’m sort of gobsmacked by it. Wimmera won the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger, for instance, and was both short- and long-listed in no less than five other awards in the UK and the USA. I’m curious about how that all occurred – did you send the manuscript out to a number of competitions all at once or what was your approach? Did you already have an agent at this point or did both publication and representation come as a result of these very favourable notices?

Wimmera cover MB: Thanks Di. To be honest, there wasn’t much strategy to it. The number of prizes probably reflects – more than anything – my dogged belief in the manuscript.

As you’d know, there are a limited number of prizes for unpublished manuscripts in Australia. So once I had a decent draft, I kept an eye out for international competitions that accepted entries from overseas. It is such a subjective business, but I have found competitions to be helpful both to the process of writing (in terms of deadlines) and in gaining recognition for the manuscript.

One of the first significant prizes I submitted ‘Wimmera’ to was the 2014 NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship, judged by an editor from Pan Macmillan. I didn’t win, but the prize for a runner-up included a manuscript assessment from the editor, who expressed enthusiasm for the story. That interest gave me the courage to send the manuscript to a literary agency (Curtis Brown), and I was fortunate to gain representation.

But the Debut Dagger – which was the most significant prize – didn’t come until last year. Winning the prize sparked publisher interest, and it all happened very quickly from there. But there was a huge amount of work on the manuscript that led to that moment.

So I think prizes and recognition in competitions can help you get noticed. I guess an agent or editor will know that others have seen the work and judged your writing to be of high quality – it’s another filter, I suppose, when wading through hundreds of submissions. That said, plenty of writers are published without similar accolades – it isn’t mandatory, but it definitely doesn’t hurt.

Hey Hey DJ: I love all the cultural references in Wimmera, which place the majority of the novel so specifically in the mid- to late-1980s, speaking so clearly to my own memories (and the fateful paddock party that reunites the boys in Part 2 has early ‘90s written all over it). There’s a palpable, nostalgic pleasure in encountering these casual mentions throughout, even as one’s unease builds and builds in tandem. A lot of the novel’s themes are sadly current (child abuse, domestic abuse, bullying, xenophobia), and present day action dominates the second half of the novel, so why did you settle on split perspectives and time periods for telling the story?

MB: I’m glad you enjoyed those references – you can never be sure if readers will connect with those small details. But they’re so important in creating the atmosphere of the first part, and that contrast of the familiar and nostalgic, versus the tension of the unfolding action.

In early drafting, I alternated between perspectives and time periods, as the novel steadily developed. This was a useful way for me to find my way through the story (and the connections between characters and events), but it resulted in a difficult read. I needed to ground the reader much earlier in a point-of-view and stick with it.

It went from four parts, to six parts, to three parts. And I even deleted an entire point of view altogether!

boyhood Looking back, I think the split perspectives heighten the impact of the events – I think you get a better sense of the far-reaching consequences. The split time periods was something I decided upon quite early, as I similarly wanted to explore the long-term impacts of harm, but also how childhood friendships can leave such a deep impression.

DJ: The tenor of the novel is balanced in an interesting way: you have an accessible, engaging third-person narrative that gives us Ben’s perspective in Part 1 and Fabrizio’s in Part 2 (in all but one crucial chapter), but the atmosphere throughout is also very menacing: the sense of imminent threat never wanes. How did you manage that contrast between the extremely sinister elements of the story and the boyhood coming-of-age piece?

Golden Boys MB: I was keen on showing how certain actions can be normalised, particularly through the eyes of children, even where their instinct may be telling them otherwise. The coming-of-age (and somewhat naïve) perspectives of the younger characters allow the reader to observe the darkness lurking at the edges. Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys does this to great effect, as does Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep.

I wanted to convey a sense of powerlessness too – as a reader, with knowledge of the world, you fear for the boys. Had I shown a more adult perspective of those sinister elements, I don’t think it would have had the desired impact.

Also, I think less-is-more when it comes to those darker aspects of a story. In my own reading, I typically find those villains who are rendered with a lighter touch to be far more disturbing. I wanted to leave similar room for a reader’s imagination to do its work (which is so often more vivid than anything which could be conjured on the page).

DJ: You have a Criminal Justice degree and worked in the Department of Justice; how helpful was that background when writing Wimmera?

scales MB: I never actually set out to write a crime novel, but the justice system is an area of natural interest for me. My three older brothers also work for Victoria Police, and my partner works at the County Court – crime and justice has been a permanent fixture of my life.

My professional background was somewhat helpful. There were certain details and behaviours that I knew are common to particular offenders.

When working as a political adviser to the Corrections Minister, I read many briefings detailing the serious offending history of prisoners. This was particularly relevant (and, often, concerning) with respect to those being monitored in the community.

But I think my childhood background, growing up in the country, was just as influential. Writing a novel often draws upon all these apparently disparate threads of your past – oddly, in creating something unified and coherent, it also makes some sense of your own life.

DJ: I’m sure that’s true. Now, I have to be careful not to spoil anything here, but the fate of the two boys is very disquieting. I mulled over it for a long time afterwards, trying to figure out how I felt about it. I’m interested in your thoughts about our society’s notions of justice and the potential miscarriage thereof: were you conscious while writing the novel of grappling with the broader complexities of our legal system as well as with the characters’ individual choices?

MB: Great question – the broad direction of the novel was very much shaped by conceptual questions about the nature of justice. In this respect, aside from my career and previous studies, Albert CamusThe Stranger was a significant influence.

This is How cover Without giving too much away (for those who haven’t read it), [Camus’ classic novel] depicts a man who is brought to justice for a violent crime. But at trial it is his other behaviours – unrelated to the crime itself, but regarded as socially unacceptable – which prove more damaging. Similarly, M.J. Hyland’s This Is How offers a powerful insight into how a man, without any hint of violent tendencies, suddenly gives in to his impulses and commits a terrible crime.

While there’s an enduring and broad interest in the justice system, it too rarely goes beyond the surface. But it does, without doubt, tap into primal emotions of fear and vengeance.

In this sense, I think the notion of what is ‘a just outcome’ is such a fluid concept. While we’re regularly bombarded with news reports of crime and court cases, these often depict offenders and victims in black-and-white terms. I’m probably a nerd about these things, but I’ve read numerous transcripts of judicial sentencing in criminal trials (partly for research, but also enjoyment). They can make for fascinating reading, and it’s often mind-boggling to see the myriad factors that are taken into account both in judgment, and in formulating a sentence. These subtleties are usually lost in news headlines, and I was interested in exploring not just the nature of ‘justice’, but also the notion of vengeance and what that means both in a formal setting, but also in real life.

DJ: Some of the themes of Wimmera will be familiar to readers of Australian literary fiction; it’s terrain Australian writers return to time and again, both in the literal sense of its being a rural/small town setting and some of its tropes. How aware were you of entering an established literary tradition and what do you hope to add to it?

MB: I was largely naïve to it, which probably helped! Since completing the novel, I’ve become more aware of the ‘small town with sinister secrets’ as a literary setting.

I hope Wimmera charts some new territory in this realm. Its focus on character might set it apart – plot was definitely important, but it wasn’t the driving force.

The characters’ intersection with events (and each other) occurred very naturally – I never had the temptation to force them into actions that didn’t feel quite real. Hopefully, as a result, readers are immersed more deeply into the world, and the characters will feel as real as they still do for me.

DJ: Fab’s Italian, copping the ‘wog’ insult and a regular hiding from the school bully Pokey as well as from his own dad. It’s not an easy space for a primary school kid to navigate and his friendship with Ben is the one steady, safe place in his life. Fab’s ostensibly the more vulnerable child of the two, so tell us about developing the shifting dynamic between the boys and how it became a novel of multiple tragedies, with Daisy’s house coming to seem the epicentre of harm, radiating outward like a toxic mushroom cloud.

MB: That was so interesting to work through. I know it will sound incredibly unhelpful, but it was really through redrafting that those subtle dynamics emerged. As I came to know each character with greater clarity, they (and their worlds) became more complex and fraught. As children, we can be so unaware of how our immediate world is impacting us. It’s just a day-to-day reality.

But the shifting dynamic between Fab and Ben, again, evolved quite naturally. We are often unaware (or ignorant) of what is going on beneath the surface of people’s lives. As you say, Ben appears to offer Fab a safe place, and I think we all make assumptions based on superficiality.

As to what happened to Daisy, that came very early in drafting. At first, I was unsure what its significance would be. But it was through drafting that the importance of her character crystallised.

DJ: The portrait of friendship between the two boys feels very authentic – what autobiographical elements helped bring Fab, Ben and the town to life and what inspired the character of Ronnie?

Country Pub MB: Growing up in a country pub, I came to know people from all walks of life. In small towns, you can often get people passing through, or sometimes looking for a clean slate after leaving a troubled past behind. I found some of these characters, particularly those living at the margins of the community, quite fascinating when growing up, but also a little frightening. There was something that felt dangerous about someone about whom no one really knew their past, apart from that which they were willing to tell. So I can see, in hindsight, how some of those characters may have inspired Ronnie in particular.

As for Ben and Fab, I wanted to convey the intensity of friendships in childhood and adolescence – it’s something you never really experience again in life. Certainly, some of my own childhood relationships inform my writing, even if I haven’t had contact with those people in many years.

For Fab and Ben, the intensity of their relationship is heightened by the bullying Fab experiences. As the only Italian in the schoolyard, I also copped my fair share of racial taunts. But I was also fortunate to have great friendships that insulated me from the damage such abuse can do. I suppose that was something I was hoping to capture between the two boys – aside from the overt physical protection, Ben also offers Fab vital emotional support.

DJ: Yes, Ben leaps to protect and defend his friend in the playground, but is unable to protect and defend himself at home – with devastating consequences. Several people fail Ben along the way, including his clueless parents, and the novel provides a terrible illustration of the way authority figures can exploit the trust and obedience of children. What drew you into exploring this terrain and how painful was it leading your young character into this dark world?

MB: To be fair to Ben’s parents, I think it was a different age in the 1980s. There wasn’t the helicopter parenting that exists today, particularly in the country. Kids were basically let loose from dawn to dusk.

But this is a tough question – one I’m not sure I yet completely know the answer to. In some respects, it’s probably a result of some of the kids I knew when growing up. In hindsight, some may have been in peril, but it wasn’t clear at the time. Also, growing up in a pub, I came to know the local folklore – the sinister characters and dark stories. I couldn’t help but be drawn in by those tales – I loved horror, so even if it wasn’t by design, it was probably inevitable that I’d end up writing something in a similar vein.

Then, in my career in the justice system, I had first-hand experience in managing both the political and policy repercussions of dangerous offenders. At the end of their sentences, such offenders need to be housed in the community. Learning about the circumstances of their offending (and their proclivity to re-offend) was an eye-opener. But I was also mindful of the victims – more than once, I had face-to-face meetings with families of victims of serious crimes. Their grief, but also their poise and dignity, left a deep impression.

DJ: I’m sure it did. Just the prospect of their pain puts a lump in my throat.

Mark, tell us a bit about your writing practice: when, where and how do you write? You live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature; how deeply embedded are you in the book scene there, and how much do you think engagement with others writers matters?

MB: I work from home, and I always aim to write (or edit) each day. I’m not a slavish adherent to word counts, but writing centres me. Without it, I feel a bit lost.

Steinem cover But it took a long time for me to realise that writing was what I really wanted to do. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, it’s the only thing I do where I don’t feel like I should be doing something else. Well, that’s probably not entirely true – I also need some balance between my creative work, exercise, and relaxation.

Melbourne is a great city for being a writer, no question. I completed (most of) a writing course at RMIT, which was an important part of my development as a writer. In particular, it helped me establish a network of fellow writers I could bounce my work off, which was especially important early on.

That said, I think writers groups can have their pitfalls. It’s important to take on feedback, but also stay true to the story you want to tell. That’s a hell of a lot easier said than done, but it’s just practice (and a lot of work) that gets you there.

DJ: It’s a tricky balance, especially at the beginning. I was fortunate to meet trusted readers at Varuna – how was Varuna influenced and assisted your own development as a writer?

MB: I think the biggest gift Varuna offered, at least initially, was validation. As mentioned, I was runner-up for a NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship in late 2014 for Wimmera. It was early days in my writing career, and Varuna was (and still is) so respected and admired in the literary community – it was probably the first time I really believed my manuscript could go somewhere.

Since then, I’ve probably spent more weeks at Varuna than anywhere else outside of my home. I do love it there. Most critical for me is being able to work for an extended period without the day-to-day distractions and commitments of home life. This has been especially helpful when redrafting – where I’ve really needed that consistent focus.

I’ve also made some enduring friendships with other writers there. While the life of a writer is marked by extended periods of solitude (which I enjoy), making connections with other writers can be so helpful.

The final thing is something a little more intangible. There’s a wonderful, quiet atmosphere about the place – a calming energy. It’s partly the natural environment, but also that feeling of being connected to a history of writing – a place where the craft is the sole focus. The Dark family has provided such a wonderful and enduring legacy for the Australian literary community.

DJ: Yes, I always rush in on arrival at Varuna and take a big, fat whiff of the book spirits drifting through every room of the house. I love the residual energy of writers and books past. Mark, one of your author bios says you decided to devote yourself to writing; was there a catalyst for that decision, how do you make a living wage from your work and how do you juggle the call to the garret against other demands in your life?

MB: Around 2014 I was at a bit of a loose end and finding my career in government wasn’t where I wanted to be. But I’d always loved writing (and reading). And while writing was an important part of my job, it didn’t really satisfy me creatively.

So I decided to shift my hours part-time and undertake a writing course. That was a really important step, and I loved spending more time on my craft. But a serious bicycle accident was the major catalyst for me focusing more seriously on my writing – it reminded me that life can be very short and it’s important to pursue the things you love. So, I did exactly what people say you should do – I quit my day job.

While I’ve been fortunate to earn some income from creative work, I was also lucky to be the recipient of an Arts Victoria grant for my second novel manuscript. At the same time, bills still need to be paid, so I do some freelance writing work for a consulting firm that specialises in the not-for-profit sector. They have been incredibly flexible (and supportive) of my creative writing endeavours.

But as for the other demands, I think I’ve learned to be a bit kinder to myself and have more balance in life. In the past, I’ve been extremely focused on my writing (which I love), but it’s important to have a rounded existence.

DJ: Something tells me you’d win if we were pitted against each other in the Battle of Two Jugglers.

You’ve had memoir and short fiction pieces published in journals and newspapers here and abroad. Tell us about your experiences getting published and any strategies you’ve learned around submission.

MB: The most important strategy is making a piece (whether it be fiction, memoir, or even an op-ed) as strong as it can be before submitting. For me, this means getting feedback, redrafting, and then leaving it for a while before looking at it afresh. It’s amazing the things you notice when you return to a piece – problems (which you never noticed before) can suddenly seem quite glaring.

Thousands have said it, but reading your work out loud is so important. It helps you notice the glitches, repetitions, or where your rhythm is a little off.

In terms of submission strategies, knowing the publication (and their particular style and aesthetic) makes a lot of sense. If you’re submitting work which would never suit their audience, you’re really wasting your time (and theirs).

Literary Globe But I’d also recommend having an open mind about where you submit. Australia is a very, very small market, and some publications can be quite narrow in terms of the type and style of work they consider. More of my early creative work was published in the UK than in Australia (and also better received in awards and the like).

DJ: That’s good advice. I have a Canadian friend who always scrunches up her face and says, “But Di! Your writing isn’t Australian! Send it to North America!” Maybe one day I will.

Rejection: most authors know its bitter taste. Have you had any painful instances of having your work knocked back and if so, how do you fortify yourself against the worst rebuffs?

MB: God yes.

One of my favourite (and first) rejections of an earlier version of Wimmera actually got the title wrong (although, to their credit, they did still provide some thoughtful feedback).

It always hurts, whether it is a shorter piece or a novel manuscript. But it’s important to remind yourself that it is a subjective industry. People are passionate (often overworked and underpaid) and doing their absolute best to publish writing they believe in. In the end, you don’t want someone to take you on who isn’t 100% behind you … apart from anything else, it’s just too tough a marketplace.

There are myriad reasons why a novel manuscript (or shorter work) might not be accepted, and there’s little to be gained by trying to second-guess what a publisher (or publication) might be looking for. All you can do is control what you can – which is the quality of your writing.

I was recently struck by a radio interview I heard with the UK brain surgeon (and author) Henry Marsh, where he spoke about failure. Obviously, in his profession, the consequences can be catastrophic and even fatal. But to paraphrase, he spoke of the importance of failure – it makes us better, makes us try to improve. I think that’s true of writing also.

DJ: Yes, I think in recent years there’s been far greater recognition and acceptance of the role failure plays in success and it’s a very welcome trend. Mark, you were born in Italy and raised in a country pub in Victoria – what a rich source of potential material that combination must be. The pub in Wimmera plays a small but pivotal role in the story; was this rather like creating a character based on someone for whom you have an abiding affection?

MB: Great question.

The pub I grew up in had such a central role in my whole family’s existence. My parents bought it in the 1960s, and it was derelict and rat infested. They moved from Melbourne to run it, despite having no hospitality experience (my dad was a train driver) and my mum not speaking a word of English. Still, they ran it successfully for over thirty years.

It was originally a gold-rush town, and part of the pub was once the old gold-mining exchange. It was very old, and parts of it ( including the rooms we stayed in) had a decidedly creepy feeling as a kid. Many people had, of course, died in the hotel over the years.

Overlook Hotel So it was rich pickings for the fertile imagination of a kid who watched too many horror movies. The Overlook Hotel from The Shining springs to mind ...

DJ: Fantastic – the hotel and its history sounds like a potential novel in itself. How challenging was the construction and maintenance of suspense from a technical point of view? How did you tackle the spacing of revelation and so on, to coherently harness and escalate that drip-feed of fear about what’s really going on with Ronnie the neighbour?

MB: I know it’s probably very unhelpful, but that was partly instinct (and also knowing what I like to read myself).

Being so close to youthful Ben’s point of view, I wanted the reader to gradually come to grips with his world. When we’re young, we only have the most basic understanding of the machinations behind what adults are doing – usually we’re just dealing with consequences. It’s too hard (or we’re just not interested) to know. By contrast, I think our relationships with childhood friends are often much more sophisticated and nuanced.

So I suppose the suspense and tension came quite naturally, in some respects, as the reader (like Ben and Fab) is only offered glimpses of what the adults may be up to.

I think it helps – in scenes of high tension – to slow things down, to note those small details. There’s no point rushing those moments, as the reader (as we often do in real life) becomes hyper-aware of every detail. We want to absorb as much as possible – anticipation (or even dread) is such an important emotion.

DJ: Absolutely, and it’s fascinating to me that slowing things down in the text has a quickening effect on the reader: we’re breathless at the door, as it were.

Prologues can be tricky and problematic, but Wimmera’s works beautifully. Structurally it’s very effective and it also provides a compelling hook for the reader. Was it always there or was it something that you wrote late in the piece? What was your starting point when you first sat down to write?

MB: The starting point was a short story, ‘To Skin a Rabbit’, which featured Fab and his father on a hunting trip. I knew those characters had more to tell, which was where Wimmera began.

But the prologue came relatively late, perhaps in the fourth or fifth draft.

rabbit Aside from its structural importance, I like that the two boys in the prologue, in some ways, echo the experiences of Fab and Ben. They provide a sense that even though time has marched on, some things might still remain the same.

DJ: Yes, it’s very satisfying, and succeeds in a way few prologues do.

I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone this before, but to what extent is Wimmera the novel you set out to write, and in what ways did the story take you places you never intended to go?

MB: I only had a very rough outline in my mind: of the overarching story and the kinds of elements I was interested in exploring. So I suppose – in most respects – it did take me to many unexpected places.

It was really the characters that determined where things might lead. I never wanted it to be one of those tales where characters are shoehorned into situations for the benefit of plot – it had to evolve naturally.

But as a general comment, some elements of the story (and the characters) took me into much darker terrain than I expected.

DJ: Yes, it gets pretty pitch black in there…

Are there any specific challenges you overcame in completing the manuscript and is there any advice – either practical or whimsical – that you regard as indispensable?

MB: Self-delusion was important in early drafting. Even though it would require many, many more drafts and hours of work, it’s sometimes not a bad thing to kid yourself what you’ve written is already perfect.

The End But it takes enormous tenacity to finish your first novel. At first that felt like an achievement in itself – actually finishing the thing. Then comes rewriting, then finding a publisher, and then – most importantly – the readers. I heard an author saying that being published is mostly about replacing one set of anxieties with another – sounds about right!

But in a practical sense, finding time to work is one of the toughest challenges. We’ve all got competing priorities in our lives, but it’s critical to keep in touch with your manuscript, even if for fleeting moments here and there. I found – especially in early drafting – that if I was pulled away from it for too long, it often took a long time to pick up the threads from where I’d left off.

DJ: Finishing is an achievement in itself – writers should be much kinder to themselves about reaching that milestone.

Finally, Mark, you’re already at work on your next novel – what can you tell us about that?

MB: Very little I’m afraid! I studiously avoid discussing what I’m working on until it’s complete. It’s probably the product of bitter experience, where I’ve spoken excitedly about a project, only to have the magic disappear.

DJ: Very wise. I must say, I like (and admire) how calm you are – you have a very mature, measured – dare I say sane – voice and approach to it all that belies this being your debut novel. I think I’d be a bit hysterical and embarrassing.

Well, it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you about Wimmera, Mr. Brandi. I genuinely love the novel. Congratulations! I feel excited for you and what’s to come now the novel is out in the world, reaching its readers, and very proud that Varuna played an important part in its creation. Best of luck protecting your next manuscript from the Contamination of the Curious – I fear we’ll be beating down your door as we impatiently await your second novel.

(And if anyone’s looking for a rather unconventional ‘writing grant,’ you could do a lot worse than follow Mark’s highly entertaining lead.)

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  • Another fascinating interview, Diana. And congrats, Mark. Wimmera sounds like quite a story.

    Tangea Tansley Tuesday, 11 July 2017 18:37 Comment Link
  • Thanks, Tangea. Great hearing from you and so pleased you enjoyed the interview. I highly recommend Mark's novel.

    Diana Jenkins Thursday, 13 July 2017 12:28 Comment Link
  • Hello Mark, I laughed out loud at your Eddie McGuire story (readers, visit the final hyperlink!) Congratulations again for the launch of your debut novel. You are a role model for your perseverance and resilience. And Di, another insightful interview, much appreciated.

    Elizabeth Smyth Friday, 14 July 2017 07:26 Comment Link
  • Thanks Diana. As a result, I am going to check Mark's story out. Mark, I am excited about sampling the work. Great to know there are many international manuscript prizes going out there and that Australians do actually win them! A solid approach - well done. And did you get back on your bike, so to speak?

    Alison Quigley Sunday, 16 July 2017 15:59 Comment Link
  • Isn't it a cracking story, Elizabeth? I got such a laugh from it too. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview and I'm *positive* you'll enjoy the novel!

    Diana Jenkins Wednesday, 09 August 2017 10:51 Comment Link
  • Alison, hi there! Lovely to hear from you. Yes, I was quite astonished by Mark's classy chutzpah in entering the ms in overseas competitions. I think there's a lot to be learned from his example and discipline so I was keen to share that aspect with everyone as much as I also wanted to make a bit of a ruckus about how good the novel is!

    Diana Jenkins Wednesday, 09 August 2017 10:54 Comment Link

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