Mark Brandi's first novel Wimmera (2017) was named Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards and received the British Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger. Wimmera 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 (2019), is already receiving critical acclaim.
Mark's shorter work appears in The Guardian, The Age, and The Big Issue. Mark graduated with a criminal justice degree and worked extensively in the justice system - experience which informs his writing.
ASTRID: Mark Brandi's debut novel Wimmera won the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and the UK’S Debut Dagger. His second novel The Rip brings more of the character-driven intensity to Australian crime fiction. Mark's short form writing has also appeared in Meanjin, The Age and The Guardian, and has received too many awards and short listings to read here.
Mark, welcome to The Garret.
MARK: Thanks Astrid, it's great to be here.
ASTRID: Congratulations on the launch of The Rip, which recently went out into the world.
MARK: Yes, it's certainly... well, it's just been a few weeks. Yeah. So, it's been quite intense.
ASTRID: Give us the elevator pitch.
MARK: Oh man, I always struggle with the elevator pitch I have to say... I remember when Wimmera first came out and I had to go meet, I went to a conference called the Leading Edge conference with independent booksellers there and I remember sort of going out to meet the booksellers and them asking me, you know, what's the book about.
And so how do you convey this work that you spent six years with, kind of slaving over, in one kind of punchy sentence? And I really struggled with it. And I started describing, and I could see their eyes like glazing over. It’s a terrifying thing.
But in saying that I will try with The Rip. So, The Rip, essentially, it starts with a homeless woman sleeping rough on the streets of Melbourne with her best friend Anton and their dog Sonny, and they're basically living life day-to-day. You know, it's a struggle but they've also got joy and hope in their life as well, but they're battling addiction at the same time. And then a guy named Steve comes into the world and Steve offers them a place to stay in his flat which seems like a really good deal at the time, and they move in there. And really in the first couple of weeks things are okay and things are going along quite well. But increasingly Steve becomes more intense and unpredictable and there's a strange smell as well in the flat, and pretty soon they're caught up in something which will, will threaten their lives, really. And I suppose I think of it as a… it's got an element of crime in it it's not unlike Wimmera in that sense. So, I kind of don't tend to, in my own mind at least, think of it as a crime genre book but it has crime in it. But I, I see it as, I suppose, really a story about hope, but also the power of small kindnesses in life.
ASTRID: I know that you have often wondered and there is a debate, you know, is Wimmera a crime. And I think the same debate will probably go around The Rip as well, because you can't read it without being aware that this is very close to the justice system, very close to the police system, you know, things are going wrong. Something has happened and the system will catch up eventually, but we're not really wondering, you know, who did it, as such. Like that's kind of a traditional element of crime novels that is not really here. The Rip does explore homelessness but also what a home is, and drug addiction a nd violence and also a bit of class. I think there's a discussion, kind of by default, of class in Australia. Where did the story come from?
MARK: Yeah. Those are… not unlike Wimmera, it’s something I can only really identify in in hindsight, because I… I basically just sat down one day and started writing and I started writing that that voice, that voice of the protagonist. And when I look back at where this came from, I suppose... Really over a number of years, I have been interested in class. It's something that I think is one of my concerns. But in a more tangible sense around kind of 2016, 2017, homelessness was becoming more visible on the streets of Melbourne. I think we've all seen that and experienced that and it was interesting I suppose to, to see the community reaction to that. Because you have some people who are, I suppose, sympathetic. I think there should be some sort of social intervention. And why is this happening, essentially? You have people I think who kind of are a little bit overwhelmed by it and turn a blind eye, because it's just it's a little bit too much. To witness that kind of suffering. And also, I think there's this section of the community that perhaps, take a bit of a harder line view and look at, look at people and say we're a wealthy country, why are you in this situation, why can't you pull yourself out of it? So, I suppose that was kind of occupying my consciousness and around the same time, particularly around Victoria Street in Richmond in Abbotsford, the heroin problem was becoming more visible as well. And I spent quite a bit of time down there… and it was something I just like could see, aside from the media reporting of it. I just was witnessing it becoming more open in the streets, the dealing, people shooting up, people on the nod after shooting up, sometimes overdosing as well. And we had, I think there was 30, 34. deaths from overdose in a 12-month period in a four-block area of Richmond, like a tiny area. And that really precipitated the… the supervised injecting facility which is on trial now. But again, I suppose I was witnessing all this and it was really, visceral is an overused word, but it was like down there I was like… God this is just happening, we're less than a kilometre from Melbourne's CBD and we’ve just got this open dealing in the street and people kind of living completely on the edge and risk of dying. And at the same time people sort of walking past it and just turning away just because people don't know what to do, essentially. And I suppose I saw parallels between both the homelessness reaction to homelessness and the heroin issue as well. But I was wondering what's going on here like, why is this happening, why are we seeing this. When I first came to Melbourne it wasn't so visible, certainly heroin was around but the homelessness wasn't so visible, and that got me thinking about class and – and really the role of class in our society which is something which isn't talked about very much, which I'm sure we'll probably talk about, but those are kind of the issues I suppose that were bubbling around in me in my consciousness. And so when I sat down to write I think that those were the things that really drove that character and drove her voice. But - but in saying that like the kind of idea around it like a being a crime novel - and I mean it does have those elements of crime in there. So, I never want to, I suppose, prescribe how a reader should take my work. So, it's really up to them if they read it is kind of like a social commentary or it's a straight crime story or just a character study or would it or is a thriller, whatever it might be.
ASTRID: I think it could be all of the above. Now I live and work in the areas that the work is set. Collingwood, Richmond, the Melbourne's CBD and after I read The Rip I was actually walking around looking at landmarks where some of the action takes place in the novel, thinking about things differently. We are currently recording in the State Library of Victoria which even features in your novel, you know your main character Denning gets moved on from being at the front of the State Library by a very nice staff member, presumably. You’re laughing but it’s true!
So, it is a social commentary amongst many other things. I know that you've just said that, you know, you experienced and you witnessed what was happening in an area that you spent time. But I imagine The Rip also took research. I mean the viewpoint of someone injecting, someone living outside the system, someone going to Centrelink. How did you approach that kind of research?
MARK: Yeah. Look I think that that goes a long way back for me because I … in one sense on a superficial level it was almost by osmosis, like I've always kind of been interested in people at the margins. But when I've been thinking about this I actually think it goes … runs much deeper for me, because where I grew up in country Victoria, I grew up in a pub, and one thing I always witnessed was addiction. And we'd have the alcoholics who would rock up at ten thirty in the morning at opening time, be there at the end of the bar all day, drinking.
And also, we had people who were drug addicted coming into the pub because like a lot of things in country pubs, you just get everyone coming in basically. And I suppose for me growing up in that environment … it was kind of normalised in a way. And I never looked at addiction or those struggling with life really as being abnormal or … I never really … I’m no Mother Theresa … but I - I didn't see it kind of through a judgemental perspective. I just accepted them as people. That was Arthur down the end of the bar. And I think that's really that kind of shaped my, my world view in some ways. So, when I when I came to the city, I've lived all my adult life in the city and I've lived in the inner city that whole time, and so I've come into contact with people who were drug addicted. I've worked with people who were drug addicted and also come into contact with homeless people as well. And I suppose I've always been kind of drawn to people at the margins of life, you know, and I suppose I’m open to their stories and open to who they are. It's just my, my kind of area of interest. And I think partly due to my professional background working in the in the justice system and particularly my time in the corrections environment as an adviser, I saw just the enormous prevalence of drug addiction in our prison system and people who come into contact with the justice system. I think there's like 60 percent or over 60 percent who, who enter Victoria's prison system are injecting drug users or have been injecting drug users at some point. And I suppose I I've always been exposed to that world and that information and interested in it. So, I didn't go out and I didn't really do specific research. I think I've been in some respects researching for many years but was unaware. During all this time I never thought, I mean it predated me being a writer, but I never thought I was going to write about these things. But clearly those concerns had formed in my mind. And when I sat down to write they came out onto the page.
ASTRID: I'm really interested in so many things here Mark. But the way you explore what it's like to be an addict, to have that need, and how it…When I ask as a writer how did you, kind of develop Danny's addiction throughout. And it changes her decision-making, it changes her regard for her own safety, it changes how far she's willing to go to look for her friend. You know, if she's wanting the next hit or if she's going to look for Anton like… Tell me how you, as a writer, built that in. Because it's quite subtle but at the same time, as a reader, you can't ignore it.
MARK: Mm hmm. Yeah I just it's a really interesting question because I kind of… Because it is first person, it's first person perspective and in present tense…
ASTRID: Also, from a female point of view, which I want to ask you about.
MARK: Yes. Yes. It’s not a perspective that I've written before in longform. And I found it extremely draining to do it. And I almost had a, well, I effectively had to go into character. Basically, I had to go into her world, into her viewpoint and that was I, suppose, is a process like each day. It was kind of a lot of circling and procrastination. I would just be you know doing a bit of research online, doing a bit here and there and thinking about it, and then ultimately a dive-in for like maybe 45 minutes or an hour and just be in her viewpoint.
And that was, as I said very draining. Tough to do but it was almost, almost as… I mean it was – it was necessary. It was really necessary for me to do that. I know I'm not - I'm not saying that I completely walked in her shoes, I can never do that. But the part of the exercise of being a writer is you know imagination and empathy. And so, I had to, as far as I could, place myself in her world. So, when I started writing The Rip, the very first, the very first scene in which she appears, where she wakes up in the park, Anton wakes her up, Sonny the dog is there…
That is the very first thing I write and I then progressively was just discovering her world and I, I had a sense that she was drug addicted at that point and that just sort of crept into the storyline and became more of a focus in a sense as it pulled her in and pulled Anton in as well. And in writing that it was… It’s a tricky thing because you want to, I suppose, you want to make it seem realm you want it to be real for the reader. But I think part of that experience and part of the use of the description of The Rip really is the sense that you don't really know that it's happening to you. With addiction, and I think that everything everyone who I've known in that situation and everything I've come to understand about addiction bears that out, that often the person involved does not really have the perspective and so they think that everything's okay up to a point. Many people come to a point where they realize oh no it's not okay. But sometimes it takes others to sort of intervene and go you know something's going wrong here. But the reality of the situation is for a great many people in our community, they don't have that person. They don't have people around them. They don't have the support they don't have someone to intervene. And part of what, I suppose, the story of The Rip and the protagonist is, is how other people in the periphery do act and what that means for her ultimately. She has lots of people around her offering little bits of support, nothing that would necessarily change the direction of her life but that would that would give her momentary easy or comfort.
ASTRID: I was interested in the way you depicted her interactions with the system because the system is there and can potentially help her, but it can't connect with her in a way that she needs to be connected with. And in many cases she's not able to connect with the system in the way it needs to, it needs her to engage. And so, you have this disjuncture of services that she might be able to use but she doesn’t. And that comes back to, I think, your comment at the beginning of our discussion. People thinking, oh well, we’re in a rich country, why can't, why, why does this exist, why can't people sort themselves out. And you kind of give an answer to that through Danny's experience. Sometimes they don't match up. So, was that your intention?
MARK: I mean yeah, I think that that's occurred quite naturally, but I think that sort of again, a product of what I’ve seen professionally. A lot of what I saw in reading about peoples’ background and coming to know their offending history and things like that, where there would be multiple points at which they came into contact with the system, interventions were made but they weren't, for a variety of reasons and suitable or personal circumstances, just were weren't able to support them to - to change or to get out of their predicament. And I think you know, it's kind of that, that discussion around self-determination, and this idea that we can sort of pull ourselves out, I think is true to an extent. But I think it is also a complete myth in particularly, in Australia. There's this enormous mythology around the self-made person and that you know, if you work hard anyone can make it here and tied up with that is this idea of that we’re a classless society, that we don't have a class system. And I just think that is garbage, you know. And it's not without sort of going to the theoretical side of it, all the research bears it out that you know, we have, the class mobility in Australia is among the lowest in the OECD. So the situation in which you're born into is largely where you'll end up. So when your kind of, you know, I think of mice, I think we have our personal mythologies as well and you know, when I went round and I started talking about Wimmera and about my story and about how I was published and my background and all these things, I’d sort of tell this nice little story about it which makes it sound as though you know, I did it all myself and that I kind of had a few lucky breaks along the way. But you know, all kudos to me. But I didn't do so in writing the book, I kind of started to question myself around this, I thought well hang on a minute. This really isn't true, because the reality is I had family behind me. I took a risk in changing my career, but I always knew if things fell it fell apart or if it went badly or if no one published my book or whatever I could either go back to my old job. Orr if things got really bad, you know, I could sleep at my parents’ house, whatever, but for a significant proportion of the community they do not have that support behind them. So, when they have something go wrong… Could be they get sick or a spouse gets sick or they lose a job or they can't get a job, those sort of things. Or they get evicted. Things fall apart really, really quickly and I think we underestimate that and there's a little bit of… A kind of a hardness of heart sometimes, and you know the world, like, when I think about my parents, that they were migrants, I came to Australia in the late 50s, early 60s. It was a very different world then and probably was really a classless society in some respects, because the gap between the employee on the factory floor and their boss was not that significant in terms of income. Now that's an enormous gulf and you know, if you like, they came here as unskilled migrants. My mom didn't speak any English. Blue collar workers their whole life.
But they were able to work their way up to become business owners, employers and properties, and all those sorts of things. Now if you came to Australia as an unskilled migrant, firstly, you might not ever get in. But if you did your chances of achieving that are just so minimal. So, I think we have to be clear-eyed about the society that we live in.
MARK: We do. I recently interviewed Jane Caro and she is very clear on the fact that the fastest growing population of homeless people in Australia is recently divorced women over 55. And we don't normally think of that as an at-risk group. Not many Australian writers actively acknowledge that they write about class. Maybe because they are also living in a fantasy that this is a classless society. Obviously Christos Tsiolkas does. Tony Birch I think, does. Do you see that as a gap with what is being written in Australia?
MARK: Well I think Christos has spoken about it recently. I've heard him speak on class and I think Tim Winton has as well. Look, as to whether it's a gulf in literature. I don't … I suppose my sense is that it probably is, because that's why I wrote into that space. You know, that's partly what drove me .I think it's broader than in literature that ,I think it exists across a lot of art forms and a lot of media as well that we just ignore this and the reasons behind it and it’s kind of hard to gauge it up. But I think it's partly human nature because we, we don't want to acknowledge that there's limits on ourselves so limits on others. We want to think that we can do whatever we want. So, it's a hard reality to say to yourself, well no, there’s actually constraints on this. I think secondly there's that kind of colonial link, so we look back or people look back to England and think … well, we’re not like them. And there's always been that sort of attitude in Australia. We're not sort of, you know, stuffy like the English and we're not relying on…
ASTRID: We don’t have a monarchy.
MARK: No, no. And we don't have an… to some extent, we don't have the same extremes of class, we don't have that elite class to the same extent.
But we do have class and I think you know until, until we sort of acknowledge some of those basic truths like, I never want to write a book to sort of deliver a message or sell something to people or offer it to be a sermon. But if it just opens people's eyes a little bit, even just in a subtle way to those issues, I think that's a good thing. And the more that there's discussion around these issues because it is interesting, because I think we engage with – with some issues, political issues quite readily but others we kind of shirk off. And when I speak about class, and I've done it done a few events, you can see people squirm a little bit because the reality is since, since the 80s, particularly the deregulation of the labour market, all those things, many of us are beneficiaries of this class
ASTRID: We have privilege.
MARK: Yeah. We have privilege and so the people sitting there in the audience sitting there up front, we're beneficiaries. The fact that the person down the bottom of the chain is not getting paid as much anymore and we're getting paid more. That's a product of the system. So that's a hard reality to face.
ASTRID: So, I think for people it's a very uncomfortable reality to face and I wanted to ask you about the ethics of writing about homelessness. Now, you are not telling anyone specifically, like not an individual story. You are a storyteller and you are telling a story and therefore you're not kind of appropriating someone's personal experience but I'm making an assumption here, Mark, but I assume that you haven't experienced homelessness yourself. So, what's it like to take on that voice?
MARK: Look I think it's not, not without risk doing that that kind of exercise as a writer. I suppose I was sort of wilfully ignorant to that risk, because I was just so taken with this voice that I thought I have to write this voice. And in all honesty, I probably… having had a first book published you sort of think, well, maybe my next one will be published.
You can't be sure. And when I was writing it I wasn't sure that it would be published. I thought I just want to write this story and I want to write this character. And I was I was, I was driven really to do it and to put it out on the page. So, I became more mindful I suppose of the dynamic you're referring to a little bit later in the piece because I think you know, am I doing justice to this world, to this experience. And every, of course, every homeless person’s experience of homelessness is different. And this is one story of homelessness in a sense. But it isn't … I don't sort of, it explains a lot about homelessness and addiction, but I see it principally as a story about those things. I think it's - it's a story about this character too, it's about her and about her relationship with Anton with her, with a friend and as I think you referred to earlier, about family and home. What is home, you know. And what we see, I think, in The Rip, is that home takes many different forms and we have a situation with – with the main character, and I say, it’s cute, I call Kip the main character, but the reason being that she isn't named until very, very late in the story.
She exists in this world in the park with Anton and their dog. It's a form of, it's family, it's home. And I didn't want to romanticize that or … and I tried to depict the struggles and the realities of it but .. It’s just odd, because you don't know, I heard someone say recently, I'm not sure who said this, but he said that you when you write a novel you need to have something you want to say but you may not know what it is.
And I think that was really true for me of Wimmera, but it was more true with The Rip. Because I, it's only when I look back on it now that I can see that maybe I was saying something about, about home and about family and our concepts of that. Because we all know you can live in a house with people who you know may be the same blood or not and it can be hard. It can be horrendous and it can be dangerous as well. Whereas you can have different experiences of family and of home and of love as well.
And I think again, I think that was probably something I wanted to talk about but I always see that in hindsight.
ASTRID: You are definitely redefining what home can mean and maybe even what it should mean. Danny finds herself in quite a few extreme situations and finds herself thinking she wishes she was home, which is the park, because that would be safer and more controllable and more peaceful for her. She also does remember, you know, her experiences in foster care and her experience in the system, and they were bad, and you can see that although as a writer you don't explain what happened. You know, the inference is quite clear, and she may have been safer out of the system rather than in foster care at various points. So, the exploration of home is quite intense, I have to say.
MARK: Yeah, in touching on those things and it's true of both, both she and Anton, that these aspects of a damaged past really… and it was important to me though that she didn't dwell on those things, was quite a positive person and not ignorant of her past, but just knows that for herself, there probably isn't a lot to be gained by going back and mining that experience. So, she's just trying to carry on and it was very important to me that she had this strength and agency and didn't see herself through that prism of victimhood. And almost actually resented it when other people did it, because she is a person and she feels in control of her fate and that's very important to her.
ASTRID: Now tell me about her agency. She makes money in various ways. She prostitutes herself. She begs, normally, under the influence of the dark character, Steve. I wasn't necessarily expecting that. I mean. You’re taking the voice of a female and I'm just interested how you did this.
MARK: Is this your way in now?
ASTRID: That wasn't even the question I have written in front of me! I'm just genuinely interested because you're telling someone story. And you know, you are a tall white guy, and you do it really well right!
But I wonder like you know where did it come from? And how did you get these insights.
MARK: Geeze. I know. Okay. I could be really flippant and say that, you know that, yeah, there's comments around all our characters as fiction writers are really parts of us. And I- I - I think that's true. I think you know that even though we might not like to read particularly my writing, I might not like to face that with some of these darker characters. Steve and Ronnie from Wimmera and you know these dark characters, but they're all always something drawn from your own experience or your own understanding of the world and of life.
The female character. I mean I, when I started writing her, I didn't… obviously, I knew that she was a woman. I wasn't… it wasn't foremost in my mind when I was writing her experience and I suppose the - the dimensions of her life in terms of addiction, in terms of homelessness with, with the principal drivers of how she lived and her experience of the world and her understanding of the world. But in saying that as I went along I became more keenly aware of her gender and what that meant for her and particularly in the world that she was living in. And that extra layer of, deep layer of vulnerability that that gave her in that environment. So that became really an important part of the story.
So, I didn't, I wasn't worried about it. I thought it felt it – it felt true and I felt right to me and I didn't even tell it like, I didn't tell my agent and I didn't tell my publisher. I didn't tell my partner that I was writing, you know. I was writing this story and I had a female protagonist and its first person. I just thought I'd just write it. I think I was probably, part of you is really worried that one of them might say, well maybe, no. Or, just think about this. But I thought, no, no this is the story I want to write and this is the character I want to write. And I was just kind of obstinate about it. And then I suppose when I got it to a point where it was ready to show other people, I figured my partner’s female and then she was my first reader and my agent is female as well.
Publisher is female and the two other editors who worked on it, also both female. So, I guess I had sort of some assurance that if I was off the mark or if I was, you know, if I hadn't realized this voice or this person or their gender, effectively someone would pull me up. And it didn't … it never felt like a exercising kind of ventriloquism or anything like that. Like I felt, you know, she's part of me and I was part of her. And I think I still am like – like I fell in love with her through writing the story. Still, like, I have deep affection for her. So, it's yeah, she's not removed from me.
ASTRID: To be clear, I asked and I guess I pressed the point not because I think that you did it badly, but because you did it well. And I genuinely wanted to know how.
MARK: I suppose that there's people who I know I would have come to know in my life who are, aspects of her come from them, for sure.
It's women that I've known in my life and people who've come into contact with. It’s little slices here and there that then inform this character. And I think that's true of a lot of variety and a lot of writing fiction. There's a part to it which is pure creation but there are pieces of the puzzle which are based in some reality.
But she's certainly not based on a particular person that I've come to know. The only character that's actually really sort of based on someone true is Sonny, the dog.
MARK: Because my family had a dog when I was growing up named Sonny. He was a Jack Russell, not a bull terrier. As Sunny is in The Rip. But we, my brother did have a bull terrier named Jack when I was growing up, and he basically fits the description of Sonny in The Rip.
He's like this big, white, quite fearsome-looking dog with a brindle patch over one eye. So that was. You've got a character that was directly drawn I suppose.
ASTRID: So, you've mentioned before your experience, your professional experience working in the justice system. And the insight that you gained from that. Now, with the benefit of experience some years later, do you think you have an obligation to tell these stories or is that not to psychoanalyse you, but? If you look at the topics that you cover in Wimmera and The Rip, they are serious, they are lifelong and they are confronting. Not all writers naturally go there.
MARK: I think we need a chaise lounge. No! I'm being facetious but… Well, I think that they are expressions of unresolved issues in my – my psyche for sure or you know. To go back to Wimmera, I suppose, you know I grew up in the country and some of some of the issues of it's… no spoiler really… hopefully a lot of people have read Wimmera now, but a lot of people know that it does deal with issues of child sexual abuse and that was sort of occurring in the periphery when I was growing up. But also, you know, I went to a high school where there was one of the priests who came to the school was abusive. And I'm not sort of telling any secrets here because it came out in the Royal Commission. So those concerns were there, plus yes in my professional experience. A lot of what I had to deal with were child sex offenders, you know, and them coming to the end of their sentence and being released into the community. So those were really difficult subjects to deal with and I think they kind of plant themselves deep inside you, because you can't, when you’re working with them, when you’ve experienced them on some level or you know people who have experienced them, it's difficult to come to some sort of conclusion about it there is no neat conclusion. So, when you're doing something creative – or at least for me – it’s just this expression of something within me I suppose this is kind of bothering me. I guess that’s the best way to think about it.
And with The Rip, I mean in my professional life I kind of entered that world of like working in the justice system, the justice department, working policy areas then working in a political office too. With kind of the naïve, I suppose, idea of doing some community good and like, doing something meaningful for people's lives.
And I'm not so mean and cynical about that because you of course, work in the environment you can. But I-I suppose I found that I was frustrated in that that environment. Like, I'd kind of done all the things that I wanted to do but I didn't feel like I'd really, really done what I wanted to do. You know. And I and I I left kind of working in that world and I think that I suppose part of my process of writing is in some small way trying to open up readers to a different experience or a different way of seeing the world or a different understanding of a of an issue that's out there and it's one of the wonderful things about the novel form too, is that know we get this. This luxury, really, of being in this world for a long time and being able to describe it to a reader and having them engage with it and having that very personal relationship with them when they're doing it and, you know, in other forms I don't I don't think we get that. Like a lot of the media reporting, say, to take the issues dealt with in The Rip, of addiction of homelessness. I mean it only goes so far and we get very stereotypical and very flat two-dimensional depictions of these issues and so I. Yeah. I guess I want to go deep into that world and tell those stories.
Or, my sense is I’ll always be kind of writing those stories of people at the margins, in a sense. But I recently… someone was asking me about this city I don't think I'll ever write sort of a story about a middle-class family. You know, the kind of dramas they're having with one another. I was quickly chastened. She said you should never say never. I was like, right, fair enough.
ASTRID: Fair enough, but I think there is, when I read your novels I feel like you are writing about issues or allowing your characters to have detailed backstories that you may or may not explore. But you're writing that kind of backstory into Australian literature which is not always the case. Often a character just has something happened in their past and it's not explicit or it's not acknowledged or brought to light.
MARK: Yeah I mean I suppose, I grew up with people you know, the town where I grew up was struggling economically. My parents had the pub, so they were okay. And we were okay. But a lot of … there was a lot of manufacturing in the town a lot of that went offshore in the 80s. A lot of people were unemployed, so the town just progressively shrunk. So, I suppose… seeing people kind of struggle and I don't know whether those stories are yeah, given as much light as is that they should be given. Because I think that's just a very real experience for people. And you can only write what interests you, I suppose, and those are the things that interest me. The things I'm interested in reading about as well.
ASTRID: You grew up in regional Australia and now live in urban Australia. Your two books are set in regional Victoria and urban Melbourne. Do you always write about Australia?
MARK: I’m just trying to figure out about what my next book is. Where it’s set. Which is probably like what I'm working on at the moment… doesn’t necessarily have an identifiable setting. I mean it is a default setting but not a particular country. So, I guess the answer's no.
Yeah. I think it's funny because with, particularly with the whole rural crime thing that's been happening. Yeah. I kind of would have, I wouldn't say it would be easy to do that again. It’s never easy to write a book. It's hard. But certainly had an interest in that space. But I don't think you can you can ever write with that stuff, and you can never sort of think about you know what people might be interested in or reading in a moment because that can change. So, my answer is no. I don’t know. I don’t know where my next book will be set.
ASTRID: One of the reasons I ask is because I recently learned Wimmera was published with a different title. It was published as Into the River in the UK. And my question was I mean, I don't think that anybody in the UK would naturally know where The Wimmera was. You know it's regional Victoria. But is place-based setting a barrier to selling into different markets?
MARK: I think it can be. I think it can be. And that was always like, there was a fair bit of discussion around that about the title in the UK with Legend Press as my publisher there and I, yeah. They just felt that it wouldn't resonate in the same way in the UK which is fair enough but I kind of thought too, a lot of people in Australia don't know where the Wimmera is either. But I suppose the sense is that it was kind of an Australian-sounding word and probably a word that where the sound of it is something we're more familiar with than words in the UK. It's – it's quite unusual. I mean, I like the title Into the River. But I think people Jane Harper opened up that market too, so it just depends. It depends on the place and how particularly Australian your story is, so you know the references we read to yabby or things like that. I mean the thing is nowadays we've got the internet, people that look stuff up. It's not that hard.
ASTRID: No, it’s not the barrier that it once. Now if I can, Mark, I’d to talk to you about business of being a writer. So, a lot of people who listen to The Garret would basically like to wake up and have a career like yours. So, the Australian book market is relatively small. So how do you become you know a financially viable writer in this country? You know, for a writer who's looking to publish their first novel, what do they have to do to pay the bills?
MARK: Yeah. It's a combination of things, I think. You know, before or as I was being published around that time I was still doing some consulting work. So, I worked for an agency that consulted back to government. So they would get me in to write reports every now and again.
ASTRID: Professional writing does pay well.
MARK: Yes. It’s very helpful. So you could do kind of like, you know, a few hours here and there and still pay the bills and so I was still able to do the creative work. So I was still doing that when Wimmera first came out, but that rapidly scaled back. Of course, there's going to be, if your book sells well, or you'll get an advance hopefully. And then if you book sells you'll get royalties a couple of times a year. But between that, paying the bills, I do a lot of speaking appearances through an agency. And so they get me out to libraries here and there and in different venues. And that's really like, it's great because I get to meet. I get to meet readers and I get to talk about my book and talk about writing and all those things. But I get paid, too. And you know writing is I think, a lot of people know, it's not the most well paying gig. It's, it's very tough to make a living as a writer. And I don't, you know, like. If I looked at things purely in financial terms I should have just stuck with a career.
But you can't, you know. I mean I feel very lucky to be doing what I what I love. It's a privilege to be doing it. I feel very fortunate to be paid to do it. It is wonderful. But you know it's a work as well and you've got to, you've got to travel which you know, it can sound great and it can be a lot of fun too, but it takes you away as well.
And some days you might be driving a long way to give a presentation to a very small number of people. And so you're going to keep the energy level up and they're there to hear you. They might have paid to come see you. And all those things. So, you know, the business of being kind of… There’s two separate parts sort of I suppose, and two distinct paths, because the process of writing of course is a very solo, isolated activity. Which I love, you know, just being locked away in a room and doing that. And then there's the public part which you have to be prepared for. And I think when Wimmera came out I probably wasn't really I wasn't thinking that far ahead and I didn't even think about you know being a public speaker or anything like that because my natural state is quite introverted and you know if someone had told me I'd be doing those things I would’ve laughed at them at the time.
So, it's funny but yeah, I’m not. And it's not absolutely necessary to do that stuff.
But it helps, you know, it helps with your books. It helps to keep people interested and willing to talk to you and meet you and yeah it's a strange thing, because it's like as a reader I'm probably sort of a little bit peculiar because I don't tend to want to know a huge amount about the authors, I just want to read their works. And so, I won't, I don't read a lot of reviews or about the works or don't read the bios. I just like to read their work and form my own kind of views on it. I might later on find out things about them, but I completely understand the desire to meet and to speak with authors too.
ASTRID: Now I know that you received a grant. Was that to write The Rip? Or was that Wimmera.
That's got to kind of forget about the exact I do my research.
MARK: I think I've got, well I've got a couple of grants. I got two grants from Arts Victoria. So I think one is for an unpublished book or an unpublished manuscript that I've got, and I think – no, no the Wimmera, I have to say, look I know I applied for funding many, many, many times for Wimmera and failed. Which is not an uncommon story. I mean it's a process.
ASTRID: It’s extremely hard to get. It’s a very common story.
MARK: Yeah. Yeah it's extremely competitive and I know I probably underestimated how competitive it is.
And I've since been on the other side of it, because I was on the Australia Council literature panel, and so I got to assess some of the applications this was done last year the year before. And the quality of the applications just made me think my God, I was so lucky to just get the one. Because some of them are incredible and the quality of the work is exceptional and the best advice to I suppose aspiring writers although seeking funding is work really, really hard at it. Get feedback. Talk to the actual funding bodies about what's required and what makes a good application because that makes a difference.
ASTRID: It does. And they're always willing to take that phone call or answer that email. They employ people to do it. Now you studied at RMIT – the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing. Full disclosure I teach there, but I teach after you have left. How useful is studying creative writing and would you ever go back and do you know, your masters or a PhD??
MARK: Well I actually, I didn’t finish. I was a subject or two short of finishing.
But look, it was extremely useful to me. It was extremely useful because I when I entered that that program I was still working part-time in government and I did not have a set idea about what I wanted to do writing wise so I didn't have a thought that I'd run a novel or you know to write short stories or non-fiction or anything. So I just, you know, it was perfect for me because I had all these different subjects like corporate writing, short story, novel, even graphic design. And so, I threw myself into all of them and my, my kind of thought about it was… well, I'll do this. And if I'm enjoying it some good will come of it in some form. It was my attitude.
And so it really helped me find what it was I really loved doing which was, I felt fairly proficient in the corporate writing space because there's what I'd been doing, but doing particularly short story I loved. And novel classes really sparked something for me. And Wimmera grew out of a short story that I wrote in a class with Anya Walwicz which she just gave us a prompt and it was like an automatic writing kind of exercise. And we had a great group. The other students were they were very fortunate. It was a really good group. Yeah I suppose, I mean, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that course I'd say. You need, like aside from the technical advice that you get, I think even more importantly is just the push sometimes and just sort of having someone say you know write, now, you know, you've got this time and do it… it’s just invaluable. And in some ways I miss it. I miss those aspects. But I don't say that, you know, when I talk to aspiring writers that they need to do a course like that because I don’t think it's compulsory. It depends on what you're into.
ASTRID: And there's a lot you can find online as well. It depends how disciplined you are and your existing career and skill set.
MARK: Yes, yes, that's right, that's right. So, it's not for everyone but for me at my the point I was had in my life it was very helpful.
ASTRID: So, when you think of emerging writers, you think of your own career pre- and post- you know becoming a published fiction writer in Australia. What skills or expertise are invaluable you need to be extremely disciplined?
MARK: I would say you need to be extremely disciplined and self-motivating. I would say the most important thing as a as a kind of character quality is resilience. It's a really overused word in lot of different workplaces, but you have to be extremely thick skinned. It – it – it is brutal. It is brutal, because you can be spending years and years working on something with your heart and soul and have someone you know, just say, no. Not even give you an explanation.
And it’s really tough.. I remember going … this was before Wimmera was published, obviously. I went to one of those speed dating guys pitch things. They have, I can’t remember where it was held … but anyway I got myself quite worked up about this. I thought it was my big opportunity and I had sort of part of Wimmera written and rocked up there. And I'd kind of thought to myself, tis story's dark and weird and the only people who would ever publish it possibly were kind of the small independent publishers. And so, you had to queue up and everyone was kind of you know … really stressed. Because these publishers are there and I'd be like, oh I won't name the publishers, but there were a couple of independent publishers that I lined up for first and they were sort of kind of interested in seeing more. I thought, great. I was really emboldened by this. And then … there were a couple of literary agents there and I went to one. And again, I won't name this particular agent. But this particular agent, when I was describing my book, had an almost physical reaction of disgust at what I was describing about the book and it’s like, its hopes for ever being published or being commercial. And this person essentially asked me Have you got another book you're working on. That is not going to be published. And I was like just a kick in the teeth. So I was just, just fortunate. I thought about it afterwards and thought it was so lucky that I didn't go to that person first because I think I almost sort of left at that point.
And that's what I mean about resilience. You’ve got to stay tough through it. And after speaking to that person, who I’m deliberately not identifying their gender or anything about them, there was another publisher in the room who I had no intention of going in and talking to because I thought they'd never ever published my work.
And it was Hachette. And basically, because I thought they were just a big publisher and my work was just too strange and too weird they'd never publish it. And I spoke to Bernadette Foley who, she's no longer with Hachette, but she passed on my after, she left, she passed on my details to Vanessa Redmond who's now my publisher.
So, I think the like, the lessons out of that particular experience were one: around resilience. But also, just having an open mind to like, to you know, who might publish your work or where you might go.
It's a really long answer to your question. Because I think that the skills that you need like the more tangible skills as a writer, I think, are you know the kind of bookkeeping things that you need to be on top of that. What I find are the more tedious tasks of organising your tax.
I think the ability to- to - to talk about your work and talk about it openly. I mean you don't have to be, it's something, you don’t have to tell your whole life story. Don't, that element of you has to be private and kept to yourself.
I think that's really important. Unless it's part of your thing that you’re doing, your personal life story. But it certainly helps to be able to talk about your work. And I, when I first went out talking to booksellers and then having to do presentations and those sorts of things, I was absolutely terrified before doing those things. And I would overprepare. I would film myself. I would go extraordinary lengths just to make sure I got it right because I just felt like it was just an area I was not confident in, and I wanted to build my confidence in doing it. And I just I think, you know, people will … particularly booksellers, book sellers are so lovely. But they want to know something about you and about your approach to the work. And it's tough. I mean, it's a little bit like the elevator pitch. You don’t want to distil your work down into something that just sounds meaningless, but there’s quite an art and a lot of it is practice. In being able to talk your work effectively.
ASTRID: Would you ever write nonfiction? Longform.
MARK: I actually – I started as well. It was kind of it was based on a true story. And I spent 12 months on this particular manuscript which I wrote after Wimmera and is buried in my bottom drawer.
I still like to think about it from time to time. It was this strange thing because I was really excited about the idea, and it was based on a story that actually my mum told me that this person back in Italy, this incredible story. And I went to it. I told a few people about the story and I don’t that helped, actually, telling people, it kind of diminished it for me. But when I when I was writing I just could not… I really, really struggled. It wasn't with the form. It wasn’t with the form. Well, maybe it was the form, because I think I did feel a bit of constraint by writing non-fiction. One of the things I love about fiction is that sense of discovery is going along, what's going to happen.
You know, you have sort of a mind to what might happen but you don't know fully what's going to happen. So, I love that process. But in saying that I, I’ve you know, I've written non-fiction, which I've had published, which I really enjoyed. Writing about my personal experiences about, you know, broader issues about family and I like writing in that form, I do. Whether I would translate that to longer form - I might, I might. I think that I’m more likely to do that than perhaps write about those middle-class people.
ASTRID: I think that is a very good thing, Mark. Thank you very much for coming on The Garret.
MARK: Thanks Astrid, it's been great.