Melbourne writer Mark Brandi’s debut crime novel Wimmera is meeting acclaim. Compared to Jane Harper’s The Dry and Craig Silvey’s beloved Jasper Jones, Wimmera portrays a dark underbelly of rural Australian life.
Wimmera was the winner of the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, a British award synonymous with quality crime writing, established in 1955.
“The 2016 Debut Dagger was a big moment,” says Brandi. “It’s an international prize and no Australian had ever won, so I kept my expectations low. Even when Wimmera made the shortlist, I still thought myself an outsider.” The Debut Dagger Award paved Brandi’s path to publication with Hachette.
“It all happened quickly from there, but it was a lot of work to get to that point,” says Brandi. Wimmera was also short-listed for the Impress Prize for New Writers and Highly Commended for the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, as well as receiving notice by three more international awards.
Opening during the scorching summer of 1989, Wimmera is a coming of age story, set against a bleak backdrop. Ben and Fab are on the cusp of adolescence and living in Stawell, a small rural town in the Wimmera region. Although the boys are inseparable, Ben is filled with unease over his neighbour’s suicide, while Fab tries to brush aside the violence he endures at the hands of his father. The emergence of a stranger, has a profound influence in the lives of both boys. Its full impact reveals itself twenty years later, when a body is discovered in a river.
“On one level, Wimmera is about crime and vengeance, as it delves into some of the darker aspects of Australian rural life. But it’s the friendship of the boys that lies at the heart of the story,” Brandi says.
Brandi was inspired to write Wimmera by his childhood experiences and his previous employment in the justice system. Born in Italy, Brandi arrived in Australia as a young child. His parents bought and restored a “derelict and rat-infested pub” which they operated for thirty years in the Wimmera region. This is where Brandi was drawn to the mystique of passing strangers. “Growing up Italian in a small town, I always carried a vague sense of otherness. When you’re struggling to find your niche, you tend to observe people and conversations quite closely, looking for common ground. You notice what people are saying, but also what is unsaid – looking back, I can see how it helped my writing.”
Some of the novel’s characters have been with Brandi long before he started writing Wimmera. “In 2014, I wrote a short story featuring a young boy and his father on a rabbit-hunting trip. Long after the piece was published, the two characters, Fab and his father, lingered – I felt there was more to their story, and that’s where the novel took root.”
Crime fiction is flourishing in the Australian literary scene. Thrillers and crime novels topped the best-selling list in 2016 in Australia. “If you read the newspapers or watch the nightly news, you’d be forgiven for thinking every city is overrun with crime and violence. But news agencies are just reflecting our desire for these stories – as writers, I suppose we take it that one step further,” Brandi says on the popularity of the crime genre.
“Through fiction, we can gain insight into the horrors that befall others, giving us a sense that we might avoid similar peril. On the other hand, I think there’s a vengeful streak at work – we like seeing villains punished for their misdeeds. From either perspective, reading stories about crime might offer catharsis – it allows us to satisfy these emotions in a safe, controlled way.”
When asked about his success and what advice he would give emerging writers, Brandi says, “being true to your voice and vision is important – it’s what makes your work unique and distinctly yours. Listen to feedback, experiment with your work, but don’t be pushed in directions you’re not comfortable with.”
Wimmera is out in bookstores and Brandi is now working on a second novel, which was commended for the 2016 Fellowship of Australian Writers, Jim Hamilton Award.
Interview by Maggie Jankuloska