Thursday, 18 June 2015

Words Out - Mark Brandi at Abbotsford Convent

I was a volunteer at last year's Australian Society of Authors and Writers Victoria 'Literary Speed Dating' event. The Wheeler Centre was full of writers with copies of their manuscripts, prompt cards for their pitches and, understandably, plenty of nerves. I spoke with many people during the course of the day, including Mark Brandi. In a noisy room his poise and composure really stood out, and when I was preparing the February 'Brag list' for Writers Victoria and saw that Mark was shortlisted for Seizure's Viva La Novella 3 award it prompted me to research his work.

Mark's been published, broadcast, shortlisted and successful in journals and competitions both locally and overseas. Originally from Marche, growing up Italian in a rural Victorian town influences much of his work - from 'To Skin a Rabbit'
"Winter came in a squall from the south, rising over the jagged, ancient stone of the Grampians and across the flat Malleee farmland."
"'We keep the liver for your mother,' he said, picking it from the pile. 'Best part, good for bolognese.'"
One of four boys whose parents bought and ran a country pub for 30 years, the professional paths they've all taken is a bit of a family mystery. You'll find Brandi men in the Victorian Police criminal records and prosecution departments and one's a forensic scientist with the Federal Police. After starting a few courses Mark graduated from a Criminal Justice degree and his career includes roles as a policy advisor and project officer in the Department of Justice.

As readers we can thank a couple of unusual events that made Mark switch paths to take on writing as a full-time occupation: a professional development course and a cycling accident near the corner of Brunswick St and the Edinburgh Gardens.

Mark was one of a group selected to attend a retreat that included careers counselling, profiling and taking the Myers Briggs personality test. The end result? Not the outcome his boss was looking for. Mark realised that he didn't want to do what he was doing anymore, that his ambitions lay elsewhere, and started what would be his professional withdrawal by going part-time.

A hit-and-run driver just missed running him over and while recovering from broken ribs and two operations to his shoulder, Mark decided that if he was ever going to give this writing thing a go he "needed to put more on the line".

Since then, in just a few years, Mark has accumulated a series of significant writing achievements, which he describes as "lucky that he's had a couple of things go his way".

Throughout our conversation he consistently expresses gratitude to people who have guided and inspired him: tutor Ania Walwicz who taught him to provoke the subconscious, to write without thinking too much about it; conversations with accomplished writers Gabrielle Carey and Des Barry at Varuna; the Pan MacMillan assessment of his manuscript and his agent at Curtis Brown for working with him to develop his novel, which has gone from 70k words to 43k words and is growing back again.

Mark isn't comfortable talking about himself and doesn't have great affection for his own writing, but is eloquent and passionate talking about other writers and their work. His favourite writers are humanists, people who love people and want to explore life's big philosophical questions. 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus is a book that he rereads and Helen Garner's 'Joe Cinque's Consolation' was a "I'd never read anything like it" book, a witness reporting on a story but bringing in their own personal biases, sympathies and changing opinions.

A lot of what Mark writes and reads examines the complexity of people and the "social context of crime". His first novel, set in a fictional town, explores the darker side of living in rural Australia. "Things happen in small towns and are normalised very quickly." Mark's reflections on these, perhaps coupled with his habit of reading detailed judgements of court cases, are strong motivations.

Photo: abbotsfordconvent.com.au
When I invited Mark to meet me as part of 'Words Out' he nominated the Abbotsford Convent as one of his significant Melbourne places. Most of us go there for the vast green space so close to inner-urban density. I've enjoyed concerts, markets, meals and a wedding there, only associating it with positive experiences. Mark appreciates all of this but is also interested in its conflicting history. Some of the women who were sent or brought there early last century enjoyed the stability and manual labour tasks like gardening, but for others laundering wealthy neighbours' dirty sheets made it more like a prison. In both Mark's writing and here, escaping from his study, he is an explorer, trying to understand people, context and social experiences.

I think that the calm I'd first noticed in Mark is that of someone who considers without judging, who has taken risks to go after what it is that he really wants to do, and though his writing days can be torturous at times this is clearly the occupation that best fits him.

It sounds like his second novel may follow the writing path of his first, from full-length through a cull of anyone/thing extraneous and then a thorough rebuild to tell the story that really matters.

When I drove away on that cold, clear Autumn day, I thought about our conversation and the ground we had covered. There are many positive terms that describe Mark Brandi, but if I was allotted only two they would be: humanity and humility.

I hope that his dedication and conviction help Mark continue to enjoy "lucky breaks" and look forward to reading his published novels. Soon.


Words Out - plotting Melbourne's future literary map
 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

What I Loved: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

In interviews, artists are often asked who they'd like to meet or have at a dinner party, be they real people of fictional characters. I would like to go to the beach with Lena Gaunt.

Throughout Tracy Farr's novel I felt like I was inhaling and absorbing story, smoke and music. I was in the dark, dull shades of Northern Hemisphere blues and grey and felt myself sinking with her into dazzling water, lovers and nightclubs.

I really like the structure of this work, the shifts from now (1991 Cottesloe) to the progression from 1910 on. And the travelling. I grew up in Singapore (more recently than Lena Gaunt's years in Asia) and have also travelled quite widely, sometimes escaping or searching for something I couldn't quite define.

The copy I read is borrowed from the library so I tried very hard not to mark it, but p.109 I had to fold over, to go back to the concept of Tape Recorder Memory:
"…it's not pure memory, it's retelling the story the way it's always been told. There's remembering what happened, then there's remembering how to tell the story, and that's like remembering the way the music is written down, and remembering how you've always played it."
I restrained myself for a while after that, simply enjoying the pleasure of reading.

The book really built for me. I was in it quickly but somewhere past the middle it was hard to put it down and get out of Lena's friendships, loves, dancing and music and loss.
"She was my grace note, my appoggiatura: she added to me, accented me, augmented me. Linked to me with the most delicate of curves, she was not quite there, then she was gone, leaving me bare, unadorned, raw, all alone again. The Italian appoggiare means to lean upon. We leaned upon one another, and when she was gone, for a long time I didn't want to hold myself up without her."
As the reader I was like "the filmmaker"- interested in the untold stories, the stories that hold secrets, absorbing what Lena tells us and the things that she leaves out.

This is a beautiful book and I was fortunate to read it in a beachside setting. I think it's quite fitting that I actually finished it while enjoying a cold beer in a hot bath and when I closed it I felt a strong urge to say thanks, to Tracy Farr and Fremantle Press, for sharing a work of fiction that is as powerful as if it were true, for giving us the life and loves of Lena Gaunt.