Verity La is all about new and exciting voices in Australian literature, so allow us to introduce you to Mark Brandi. Mark has been published, broadcast and shortlisted in journals and competitions in Australia and internationally. He graduated from a criminal justice degree and his career includes roles as a policy advisor and project officer in the Victorian Government’s Department of Justice, before changing direction and deciding to write. Mark’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and is often broadcast on Radio National. He is the winner of the 2016 UK Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger for his first novel, Wimmera (Hachette, 2017), which he developed during two residential fellowships at Varuna, the writers’ house at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Growing up Italian in a rural Victorian town has influenced much of Mark’s work.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
Congratulations for Wimmera. It is an enthralling, multi-layered, and intricate novel. What was your inspiration for writing it?
Thanks so much.
It grew quite organically (I’m not a planner, in writing or in life), so the precise inspiration is hard to nail down. When first drafting, I tried to let things flow – there was little self-censorship, and I was mostly guided by what felt right for each character. Still, looking back, I can see a few sparks which may have lead to Wimmera.
Growing up Italian in a country town definitely inspired the setting. I’ve spent almost all of my adult life in the city, but much of my writing is still drawn to those rural roots. There must be some unresolved concerns, some kind of truth I’m seeking – I don’t know what it is exactly, or if I’ll ever find it … more like an itch, I suppose. I keep scratching at it.
But my previous career also played a part. I studied criminal justice and worked pretty extensively in the system, including a stint as an adviser to the corrections minister. With three older brothers also working in policing, it was probably inevitable that a crime would feature in my writing (even if I never set out to write a literary crime novel). Although, thinking about it now, some of my favourite books also feature a crime at their centre, even if not identified within the genre.
Speaking of, Albert Camus’s The Outsider hit a particular nerve. I loved his restrained, pared-back style – he allows the reader to enter that sunstruck Algerian world, to walk those hot streets. But more than that, the subject intrigued me – a community judges a man not for his crime, but for his failure to take part in social norms. While I read it many years before I began writing Wimmera, I think it planted a seed.
There is a sense in the novel about the innocence of boyhood, which is contrasted with the messiness of male adulthood. Is that how you see the work at a thematic level?
I’m pleased you picked up on that.
When you’re a child (or a teenager) your world can seem very small, revolving in a tight orbit of family, friends, and school. When those structures inevitably shift and fragment, it can be difficult to know your place.
I think that’s true irrespective of gender, but perhaps more unspoken among young men. It’s definitely a factor for the boys in Wimmera, and compounds the impact of what transpires.
The innocence of their boyhood is also heightened by the period (1980s), as well as the rural location. It’s probably a terrible generalisation, but a different parental mindset seemed to prevail back then, with kids often let loose from the house with little monitoring (especially in rural areas). As long as you were home by dusk, all was okay.
That sense of freedom, a blissful naivety, is something I wanted to capture – the warmth of friendship and the seemingly endless summer holidays, alive with possibilities.
But there are also unspoken dangers, which are sensed by the boys, though not fully understood. Those darker elements are part of an inscrutable adult world, obscured from their view and understanding, but increasingly (and worryingly) apparent to the reader.
Let’s talk about those darker elements. There’s a darkness to masculinity, and there’s a darkness to the particular form of masculinity that emanates from rural Australia (no matter what the era). In writing Wimmera, what was your approach to exploring and rendering the darker side of the narrative?
I think that’s true (about the darker aspects of masculinity). And perhaps it can be especially stark in rural Australia, where physicality tends to dominate. Also, in small rural communities, men can often significantly outnumber the female population – this can become quite toxic, and dangerous.
But there’s no ducking it (when writing that darker side) – you have to go inside the heads and hearts of those characters. Whether it’s the schoolyard bully, the dickhead in the local pub, or the dangerous predator – as a writer, you try to understand what makes them tick. It’s only then you present a rounded view, some light and shade that shows the complexity of human nature. Very few people in this world are ‘all bad’ (or, ‘all good’, for that matter).
In the case of Ronnie, writing his scenes was always draining. Initially, my process was more academic, tapping into my experience in the justice system. But the story forced me deeper, made me delve into the motivations, urges, and careful manipulations of an extremely dangerous man – someone who picks his targets carefully.
I had to walk in his shoes and try to understand his proclivities (whether I liked it or not). It was gut wrenching, but completely necessary if I was to do the story justice.
For you, is writing fiction an act of compassion and/or empathy?
That’s a great way to think about it.
It’s sometimes said that compassion is empathy put into action – so perhaps the act of writing is compassion in itself.
Most of my writing is focused on character, so there has to be empathy (if I’m to do it well). That isn’t to say I need paint a sympathetic portrait – empathy and sympathy are too often confused.
That point is relevant also to your previous question, with respect to the darker aspects of the story. When exploring the more malevolent figures, I had to approach their world with a degree of care, being mindful of the sensitivity of the issues for some readers. That said, no one wants to read flat caricatures of villains – it never seems real.
It might be stating the obvious, but people are incredibly complex. In seeking to understand (and vividly depict) those who might do terrible things (or good things), we need a degree of empathy (even if we might not always admit to it). Characterising people as ‘evil’ only takes you so far – this isn’t to excuse or diminish their crimes, but to better understand them.
But, as writers, we need not lay this all out on the page – so much is often better left unsaid and for the reader to uncover. Cormac McCarthy is a master of this – there is so little interiority shown of his characters, but you still feel a deep understanding and respect shining through them.
You have mentioned Camus and McCarthy. Who are the other novelists that have inspired you?
I’m most attracted to writers whose characters dwell outside the mainstream.
As a kid, I enjoyed Stephen King – I’d often steal his books from my brother, and I loved scaring myself to death. I read Salem’s Lot far too many times (which probably explains my irrational childhood fear of vampires). King has a real knack for creating characters you care about.
As an adult, my preference is for lean, sparse prose – MJ Hyland’s This Is How is a standout of the last few years. More recently, I enjoyed Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide and How to Set a Fire and Why, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation. I suppose I admire novels (and novelists) that trust the reader, allowing space for us to invest ourselves, to add our own interpretation.
I also loved Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows for its delicate depiction of young people grappling with troubled family life. Similarly, both Sofie Laguna (The Eye of the Sheep) and Sonya Hartnett (Golden Boys) show the lives of children with nuance and subtlety.
And while she’s known more for her non-fiction, I’ll cheat and include Helen Garner. I recently read This House of Grief and was struck by the writing – her dignified and respectful portrayal of tragedy is, at times, breathtaking.
What are your hopes for Wimmera?
Accolades are great, but what matters is the conversation with each reader.
One of the most gratifying things has been hearing from those who have read the book and felt a connection to the story and its characters. Reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience.
All the stories I’ve loved become part of who I am – they never quite leave me. So my greatest hope is that readers might engage deeply with Wimmera, and that Fab and Ben (and yes, even Ronnie) might linger long after they’ve read the final page.
Wimmera can be purchased from Hachette Australia
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction – his contemporary dramas plunge into family dynamics, new relationship types, masculinity, history, and the lure of secrets. He is the author of three novellas: The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011). His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collection Joy (2000). In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of the Canberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written for Australian Book Review, BMA Magazine, and Capital. He has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, courtesy of the Launceston City Council, Tasmania; in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La (2010-2014), for which he received a 2012 Canberra Critics Circle Award. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. Visit Nigel’s website for more.