At home with Mark Brandi

Mark Brandi's debut novel, Wimmera, won the coveted British Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger, and was named Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year, and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year. His second novel, The Rip, was published to critical acclaim and his third novel, The Others, was released during Sydney's 2021 lockdown.

Mark graduated with a criminal justice degree and worked extensively in the justice system, before changing direction and deciding to write.

Mark has appeared on The Garret before to discuss his first two books, Wimmera and The Rip.

At home with Mark Brandi


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Mark.

MARK: Thanks Astrid. It's such a pleasure to be here.

ASTRID: It really is a pleasure to be talking to you again. And we are both in Melbourne, and Melbourne is a happy and comfortable city at this moment. And I like to think it will be when we release this episode. However, I know, because I follow you on social media, that you are launching a book this week, Mark, and some of your book events and launches have been cancelled due to lock downs in Sydney and the ongoing coronavirus world that we live in. My first question for you is this is your third novel, you know how to launch a book. What is it like for you to have all of those plans up in the air now?

MARK: I guess I'm pretty philosophical about it, relatively, I think. I was really... And I can say this with the benefit of hindsight, I was really fortunate with my first two books to launch them into a relatively normal world without the threat of a pandemic upending the publicity plans. And in this case over a couple of days, things change really quickly. So, that's just the way it rolls. I mean, having seen last year, what a lot of [taboo 00:01:32] authors went through and knowing how hard it is to get your first book out into the world and how much is hinging on that. And you your hopes and dreams in a lot of ways, and not having that ability to go into bookstores, meet book sellers, and also for readers to go into bookshops and have that hand selling experience from booksellers.

I think that, that would have been so tough and I really feel for those authors. I feel lucky to be in the situation I'm in, on my third book, even though there's all this uncertainty out there, which is certainly, I wish it wasn't happening now, and I'd love to be heading up to Sydney tomorrow to do all these events and stuff, but that's just not how it happened. And there's still fingers crossed, the prospect of my Melbourne events ahead.

ASTRID: Oh, I am all for Melbourne events these days. We missed out a lot last year, Mark. The Others, which I have just finished is your third book. And I'm really interested, before we go into the plot and the actual writing of The Others, I'm interested in your experience as a writer, putting this book out into the world. Was the launch delayed because so many books were delayed in 2020, or are you still writing and editing throughout that most awful of years?

MARK: Yeah. Look, I was editing through that period, which actually worked out really well for me. I wasn't one of those authors who had a huge creativity spurt during lockdown and wrote half a dozen manuscripts or anything like that. In actual fact, I felt, in a creative sense, quite stunted. And it was really that uncertainty. You didn't know what was coming tomorrow, next week, next month, let alone thinking about a year and a half down the track when another book might be coming out. So to have edits to work on was kind of like a good left brain exercise for me. Like to just have those deadlines and have that stuff to work through, which just gave me a bit a distraction in some ways I would say. But, given the subject matter of The Others it was, in some ways, a little bit close to home with some of the stuff going on out in the world.

But, I feel again really lucky to be doing the sort of job that I do and I can work from home, and isolation doesn't bother me particularly. And probably one of the most difficult things I found, and my partner won't like me saying this, but she was working from home for 12 months, and I got so selfishly used to having the whole house to myself during the day. And what I didn't realise was how much I talk to myself when I walk around the house, and it's quite embarrassing. I really had to stop myself from doing that. So, I'm a changed man, but I don't know if that's part of my writing process. Maybe it is, I guess time will tell.

ASTRID: I suspect my partner learned a lot about me given I have been working from home for all of this time. And when we were in lockdown and he was working from home, I think that might've been a little bit of a surprise for him. So, it has been a renegotiation for everybody who lived through. Melbourne's great lockdowns. You said a lot then about creativity and you felt a little bit stunted. I talked to a lot of writers, and I think that is one of the most common responses to 2020. The only person I know who had a fully-fledged creative experience was Tony Birch, who has now released two books that he put together in lockdown.

But aside from Tony, I think your experience, I would like to go into that later on in our interview, because I think your experience is very common, and would be difficult for a writer. Before we go there though, I really do think it is time to introduce The Others. This is your third novel, and it feels like a progression of you. If that makes sense. Progression of Mark Brandi, the author, but it also feels very different from the first two. So given this is a new book and we know that your Sydney launch is not happening as it was planned. Can you give us the introduction to The Others?

MARK: So it is a little bit different. The Others is the story of a young boy, Jacob, and his father, who were living a very isolated existence on a property out in the middle of the wilderness. And the father gives Jacob a diary, ostensibly, to help with his reading and writing because he's being homeschooled. And Jacob then proceeds to record the goings on the farm. And this is the form in which the story is told. And we see, I guess, Jacob's understanding of the world around him, but we increasingly say the father is very protective of his son and warns of dangers outside their land. But inevitably Jacob's curiosity gets the better of him. And he then makes what is really a shocking discovery up on the hill, which makes him question, I suppose, everything that his father has told him up until that point.

So, I suppose there's a coming-of-age element to the story in some ways. But in thinking about it, probably the question that drove it mostly for me was one around nature versus nurture and the impact, I guess, of those early childhood experiences. And to what extent they shape us later in life. Those are things I suppose I've only, or questions I've return to since writing it. I wasn't necessarily having those front of mind in the drafting process.

ASTRID: Because so much of this novel is written as a diary, as you have said, and it is the voice of a protagonist, Jacob. He is a young boy who does grow up through the course of the heart of the book, the diary part of the book. Where did you find his voice? And was it always in diary format?

MARK: I guess there's a short answer and long answer there. I suppose, if I go back to where this story started for me, it was really there was a short story I wrote back in 2016, I think it was. It was called The Fox. And it was based on some true events from my childhood, growing up in rural Victoria, we lived in town, but we had a farm outside of town where we had shaped... Of course having shaped, you have issues with vermin, like foxes. And we had rabbits and mice and all that sort of stuff. And we used to go hunting on the land when I was a kid, which I had really mixed feelings about, because I loved animals, but I understood, if we're going to have shaped that this was part of our life. But my dad used to set traps around the farm too.

And I don't know if you remember, certainly they were legal back then, they're illegal nowadays, so it's horrible, like steel, jawed traps. He said those around the place. Now that we're quite terrified. You're always worried about stepping on one. But on one occasion he went out to the farm and he came back and he said, ‘Mark come out to the car. Come and have a look’. And went out there, and there's like a little bundle in the back. And he reaches in, and in this blanket he had a little fox, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, like this live fox’. And I was transfixed by it. And he then took it inside the house and started to care for it. Started to dress this wound on its leg from the trap, and made a, enclosure for it in the backyard.

And we proceeded to look after it as a pet. And I guess as a kid, I was confused by this, because I thought, here's an animal which we tried to kill really. And then we used to shoot at if we saw it on the farm, that we were looking out for it as a pet. I suppose it was one of my first insights into some of the complexities and contradictions of adulthood and also parenthood. So I wrote these short stories based on those real events. I wrote a fictionalised account of it, which was published in The Engine. I guess it was partly a return to that voice. So that voice was, I guess, it's partly my inner child in a way, returning to that. But I think the more that I've thought about it, the more that I've thought about the arc of the story, it's in some ways a reflection of the relationship my father had with his father, my grandfather.

My grandfather was a very violent man and alcoholic, womaniser. And my dad grew up in rural Italy on a very remote property. He was the second oldest of seven children. He grew up during the Second World War. And it was really a subsistence existence. And they had no running water, they had no gas or electricity, nothing like that. And so it was a really, really tough, tough life. And my dad had this incredibly difficult relationship with his father, as you might understand. I guess I was interested in probing that question, because my dad was really determined to not repeat the sins of his father in a way, and not repeat the same kinds of behaviour. And it's just interesting, I think to examine how someone growing up in a really difficult environment can still turn the lights in a way and find the right path in a way in life and not sort of repeat those same behaviours.

So I think that that was probably the deeper question that I was exploring. And in some ways I think I have been exploring that issue of trauma in all my books. I think in Wimmera, we've been fed, and in The Rip too, with Dani as well, and the way that her experiences play out in her adulthood. So yeah, I guess this is a deeper examination of it. And writing from that perspective of that, the young boy, I loved it. Because, it really is such beauty in light, in the child's point of view. It doesn't matter how green the circumstances and the way in which he heats the lights to the natural world around him and animals, and even the old magazines that he has from his mother, that take on this much larger form in his imagination. So, yeah, it was a real pleasure to write, in a lot of ways. But the limited palette you have with the child's point of view, that constraint that can make things tough, sometimes, when writing perspective as well.

ASTRID: Oh, I have no doubt. It might make it tough for you as the writer, trying to tell a story for adults to read. As a reader, my response was I loved it. I loved inhabiting Jacobs world as small and constrained and lonely as it is, and his interaction with animals going back to the fox, but all of the animals on the farm and those that he just sees in nature around him. That viewpoint is beautiful. And so often we, as adults, lose that kind of thing.

And I guess my follow-up question is having found the voice and having found the character and also that motivation, that real life relationship that you were exploring between your dad and his father, how did you make it so realistic? I mean, I don't know what a 11 year old, 12 year old, 13 year old boy is often thinking, particularly when they live on a farm. To me, it felt realistic. And his development, his analysis of his father, his thinking through the situation, his looking up words in the dictionary to teach himself something that he might not know, but kind of has a feeling and he's looking for the language to describe his own actual thoughts and life. How did you find that and balance it, so it would be so realistic for a reader?

MARK: Oh, I guess that's the great mystery, Astrid. In The Rip, a writing from Dani's perspective, where she was living on the streets, that had really serious heroin addiction, and that wasn't something that I'd experienced, but I disappear a little bit when I'm writing. Like I go into that world, and I was thinking about this earlier. Like the way that I approach my writing on a day is once I've worked up to it and I've done all the kind of admin sort of stuff that I normally do, whatever, build up to actual writing, when I'm in front of the screen, everything else disappears. And I go into that world and I see the world through those eyes. I see them through Jacob's eyes, as I'm writing it, I'm exploring the world through him, and on discovering the story myself as I'm writing.

And I think that it's a really weird experience for me. And I find that when I'm in a draught, I can't have break away from it. It sort of breaks the spell a little bit for me, and I have to stay with it. And that's why when I pull out of a draught and have a break before the next one, it's like coming up for air. And when I was in Jacob's world and on that farm and the examination of his father in that dynamic, he's just kind of growing understanding of the world around him. A contained world. And it takes something out of you. Like writing from that point of view. And I haven't written anything like this before, apart from that short story. I mean, The Rip was from Dani's point of view, but it was a bigger world there.

This is a much tighter world and it's always hard to compare books, whichever was more difficult to write. But I think I found this one the hardest in a lot of ways, in terms of just personally what it took out of me, just my energy in terms of writing it. It sounds kind of contradictory to say, because I love doing it, but when I get to the other side, it's like, man, that's like aged to me, I think, five years. Writing that book, like killed me. So I think it's partly...

You'd remember, of course, Ania Walwicz, who was a teacher at RMIT. I'll never forget those classes. Because it was actually in my first year there at RMIT in creative writing program, and the classes that we had with her for short story. And she would bring short stories to the class, which were more or less like a prompt first to start working. One of the wonderful things that she showed us that she gave us in that class was liberty to really open our hearts on the page. Not to self-censor, just let it all out. That was such a gift. I'd never experienced that. I'd been writing on the side a little bit outside my professional work for years, but I'd been more in my head than in my heart, I think. Whereas, I think what she showed us is there's another way. And that's the way that I write. And I think I increasingly adopting that method, and that's probably why it's so draining for me now. Whereas, if it's kept more as a cerebral exercise, it's probably something... It's healthier. But you can sustain for longer. But yeah, I don't know. The next one might kill me, I think.

ASTRID: Well, please don't say that, Mark. Well, listeners of The Garret who don't know who Ania was, Ania Walwicz, a phenomenal poet and I'm going to call her a dissident. Ania was special. Ania was different. And Ania did things her own way. Ania taught at RMIT's associate degree of professional writing and editing for about 30 years. She taught you, Mark. She was my colleague and she did pass away in 2020 in Melbourne's long dark lockdown. And she is missed. I was going to ask you about Ania. And I think that you might have already answered this, Mark. But how did she influence you? Not just in the writing of this book and the short story, but what you will take with you for the rest of your writing life?

MARK: God, I think as an adult writer, she's the person who most inspired me, and continues to inspire me. I think I remember the works that she brought to us in class vividly, and what it showed was really a completely democratic approach to writing into reading. She wasn't a snob. She didn't look down and knows that commercial fiction or whatever. Like she brought stuff that you'd never would have picked up otherwise. And we might read Stephen King one week, and then Franz Kafka the next... It was just a smorgasbord. And what mattered was the creativity in the beauty, in the work and in the written form. And one of the incredible things with her was that she would... We'd do a writing exercise and then write out our stuff to class. And there's a really unpolished gems, I would say at best, sometimes a really rough stones.

And she would always, and not in a kind of... She wasn't faking. She would listen to, and she would find the beauty there and she'd find something positive in everyone's work. And it wasn't fake. She loved language, she loved storytelling and she loved performance too. And I think in a practical sense, what I carry with me from her, I think it's more just that she really sparked a love of writing in my adult life and showed me that I might have something, I suppose, and that it was worth pursuing it. And that's her greatest gift and legacy to me.

ASTRID: Thank you for talking about that, Mark. I think Ania would love The Others and I think she would love it for two reasons. Firstly, because you wrote it and she would be very proud. But secondly, because of your word choice and your work at the sentence level. There's not a whole lot of extra stuff in here. You tell a story and you wield your language and your nouns and verbs and everything at that tiny minute level, very sparingly and precisely. And I think that she would applaud you.

MARK: Oh, thanks, Astrid. That's really kind. I've actually got a picture of her, a watercolour of her up in my study. So I see, every time I go down the steps sort of looking out at me, and yeah, I can still hear her voice and it's a really beautiful scene.

ASTRID: The Others is just out and you won't have huge feedback yet from readers and booksellers because this is a very new work, but I'm interested in where you place this book and what genre you think it is. I know you were originally pegged as a crime writer after your first novel. But this is not crime in the traditional sense at all. This is fiction, literary fiction, commercial fiction. But what do you think?

MARK: It's a tough one, isn't it? Because I'm sure my publisher would have loved... Well, I shouldn't say what my publisher would have loved. But I think it's easier a lot of the time for publishers and for booksellers, if you stay in your lane-

ASTRID: There love it. They know how to sell you then.

MARK: Exactly.

ASTRID: I know writers hate this question, but that's why I'm asking it. Because so many people in the industry actually love this question. So I am going to force you to answer this in the kindest possible way.

MARK: Fine. That's completely just. Look, I would see it as, I guess literary fiction, kind of Gothic one, perhaps. It's a tricky one. It's not an easy book to categorise. It's certainly not rural crime in the traditional sense. It has a rural setting, but it doesn't have those. And I don't say this in a pejorative way at all. It doesn't have those tropes of the crime fiction in terms of investigation or an investigator. It's quite a different kind of book. I don't know.

I feel very... And this is going to be my wimpy way of answering this. But I feel pretty lucky that in my book so far, I've got crime readers, I've got literary readers, I've got literary crime readers. And crime readers are great because they're voracious, and they'll read heaps of books. And they're great supporters of literature and bookstores. And literary readers are fantastic too. So, I feel lucky that I get a bit of the best of both worlds in some ways, and long may that continues. So, as much as I'd like to continue answering this question, I don't want to upset anyone.

ASTRID: That is totally fine. I will move on. In The Others, because this is the diary of a young boy, there are often pictures, and his picture of a fox, a sheep, a goat and other things. I was wondering personally, did you draw those pitchers?

MARK: Yes. I did.

ASTRID: I love that. And what is the process at the literal page layout when this is going to print and forgive my ignorance and my odd question, but does it cost more? Is this a negotiation with a publisher? Like how do you get these kinds of things in what is essentially printed and sold as a novel, but it has these pitches in it that really do emphasise and explain part of the text sometimes.

MARK: It's probably best explained by the process that I went through in drawing those pictures too, because when I was writing the first draught, I didn't originally think there were going to be pictures in it. But as I was writing the diary entries, I thought, and I mean, Jacob's point of view. I thought, oh, he'd draw a picture now. This is what 11 year old boy would do. He'd draw a picture to explain what he was talking about. And what I did in terms of the drafting process was I just left room more or less and put a little kind of placeholder, saying, picture to come later. And so I was really looking forward... It was kind of a motivator to finish the first draught because I was looking forward to doing these pictures right. And so I finished the draught, it was fairly late at night, and got out a whole lot of paper and just sort of scroll through a screen and found where the pictures were and started drawing.

I didn't think about it too much. Again sort of a little bit like what Ania talks about, like resisting that self sensor. I just let it out. And I never thought at that point that those illustrations would make it into the finished book. I thought, firstly, I hadn't really discussed the manuscript with my publisher. So I didn't even know if they would be up for this kind of story. Secondly, I didn't know whether they'd be up for a story with pictures in it. And thirdly, I thought if they were, surely they'll get someone proper to do the pictures, it's not going to be me. So I just thought these were kind of just my random little pictures there. And then as it progressed through my agent and my publisher and we went through an editing process, and it was never really expressly discussed. I'd have to say.

Which I thought that, I wouldn't say anything. They're not saying anything. And then when it comes out to the layout phase, there are the pictures and I'm thinking, holy shit, those are going to be the pictures that are in the book, which I think was a real blessing in a way. Because, if I had a thought at the time, these are the pictures that are going to be in the finished book, I would have agonised over them. And I don't think that that would have been right. So I think it actually worked for me just to let it all out. And as bananas as they might look sometimes, that's what an 11 year old boy would do. And so that works really well. And you know, I do... As you were saying, like, I think there was such a crucial part of the story.

And, as I was redrafting, it became even more so. And as I like pared back the work, which is what I tend to do in the drafting process, they'd take on a greater significance. Then in terms of the layout stuff, that was a really, I think educational process for me, because I didn't know much about that either. Like, how's this going to work? And we got the press pages and yeah, there was a lot of discussion and debate with me and my editors about placement on the page, size. So certain illustrations are larger than others. And we'd have to move texts in order to have the image in the right spot so it would have the most impact. So that was like another dimension to the editing process, which would never normally happen in a typical manuscript, but I'm really grateful to Hachette for backing me with it and just doing such a beautiful job with the book. So, I think that the book looks incredible.

ASTRID: It does. I have to say I have read some books for adults with some pictures in it and mostly, I don't remember them, to be honest. This, I will remember, your pictures, the book, the story, Jacob's development, his diary and his growing emotions, all of that works in your words. You don't need the pictures, but there are a few placements. I remember turning one page and it was like a Kuma guts. That little picture that's on the next page. I mean, I know that you've talked about layout, I guess you discussed it, but it adds a feeling to the reader beyond even your words. And I really enjoyed it.

MARK: Oh, that's wonderful to here Astrid. I won't say what those images are, but I know the ones you're talking about where you do turn the page and it's just like a kick in the guts. So it's funny. I don't know if I'll be doing any picture books anytime soon, but time will tell.

ASTRID: Oh, you never know, Mark. You never know. Keep crossing genres and boundaries and different places in the bookstore confused those booksellers more.

MARK: But that might be a very hard one to market, I would say.

ASTRID: I have one final question for you, Mark. You are in the process of sharing your third major work with the world. How do you think... And this is clearly subjective. But, how do you think that you, as a creative, have changed over the last five years?

MARK: In a practical sense, I think I'm slower, I'm a slower worker. I'm a little bit more careful about the way I work. And still feel a kind of anxiety that drives me on, that creative push that you want to get work done and want to get it out there. And like, while you've got time on this earth, and that's part of the drive in a way. But it isn't dialled up to 10 the way that it was with my first couple of books. Like always really felt like I need to get this done and it needs to be yesterday for it to be published and for it to reach readers. And I need to get everything absolutely right all the time. And obsessing over things.

I think I've probably slowed down a bit in the last five years, and become a little bit more circumspect and careful about my work. And, that isn't to say that my earlier work didn't have care. It certainly did, but I just approach a little bit more, I suppose, yeah. I mean, I still feel the push. I still feel the push to want to get work at the... But isn't driven from the same place. I think it's driven from a better place. It's more that I feel as though if I'm going to say something, it has to be something I feel needs to be said. It isn't just because I've got a contract and therefore I need to deliver on it.

A real privilege to be a writer in this world and to have your books published. And you need to make the most of it. And I think that that's changed my practise. I have probably as well... I mean, I always respected other writers. Increasingly, I look at other writers around me who consistently put out fantastic work and have done for sometimes 20, 30 years. And I just think it is phenomenal that they can do that. It's wonderful to be part of a creative industry that's still surviving and thriving even through this tough period.

ASTRID: Thank you for that generous answer, Mark. And I agree. The industry is still thriving in this very, very strange time. Thank you so much for joining me again on The Garret.

MARK: It was such a pleasure, Astrid. Thank you.