Working with Words: Mark Brandi

Mark Brandi writes fiction and non-fiction for print and radio. He was the winner of the British Crime Writers Association's coveted Debut Dagger for an unpublished manuscript last year. The resulting debut novel, Wimmera, will be published in July. We spoke with Mark about self-doubt, creativity and a hypothetical dinner party filled with dangerous, unbearable characters.

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Photograph of author Mark Bradi

Author Mark Bradi

A short story, ‘To Skin a Rabbit’, which was first published by The South Circular, a small Irish literary journal. It was also recorded for ABC Radio National, and features a father and son on a winter’s hunting trip. Long after I’d finished the piece, the two characters lingered. It was as though they had more to tell, and that feeling would lead to my first novel, Wimmera.

What’s the best part of your job?

I’ve never been a planner, so it’s great when characters take a story in unexpected directions. I try to write with as little self-censorship as possible – threads and connections often only become clear late in the process. I also enjoy the solitude. As a writer, it all comes down to you, and I like that responsibility.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Self-doubt can be crippling, but it’s probably vital. It spurs you to work harder – to overcome a feeling that a sentence isn’t as crisp as it could be, or some dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true. If I ever wake up one day and think, ‘I’ve got this writing thing completely nailed,’ I should probably quit.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

The decision to make it a career in the first place – it’s the first job that’s ever felt like exactly the right fit.

If I can cheat and pick one more, winning the British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger for my (then unpublished) novel manuscript. Although I’m suddenly reminded of a sharp piece of advice I saw recently from Zadie Smith: ‘Don’t confuse honours with achievement.’

It’s useful to get feedback from writers’ groups and the like, but never feel beholden to it. No great story was ever written by a committee.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

As many have said, it’s so helpful to allow time between writing and revision. If you can start work on something else, even better. Being objective about your own work isn’t easy, but it’s a skill you can work at.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I’m always happily surprised when someone: a) reads my work; and b) has an insight they’d like to share. In a world of so much literary choice, it’s such a privilege to be read.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Maybe something physical. I’m restless, and when I’m not writing or reading, I struggle to sit still. Having made the leap from a desk-bound purgatory, I could never go back to office life.

Cover image of the book 'Wimmera' by Mark Brandi

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I’m not sure the ‘creative’ part can be taught. The elements that make your work urgent and distinct are so deeply bound in your particular experiences and identity. But I think you can learn about the best approaches to writing, about good routines and process. 

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

It’s useful to get feedback from writers’ groups and the like, but never feel beholden to it. No great story was ever written by a committee.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both, but most often in physical bookshops. It gets me out of the house, and I always like spying on what others are choosing.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I’m attracted to darker stories, so most of my potential dining partners would likely be unbearable (or, more often, dangerous). Of a rough lot, I’d pick Carson Wells, the laconic hit man from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. I like his bone-dry wit, and I’d want to hear more about his ‘charmed’ life, before it was so brutally cut short by Anton Chigurh (who wouldn’t be invited).

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

It’s so hard to pinpoint what influences you. As a kid, I loved Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, even if I was thereafter condemned to live in fear of vampires knocking at my window. It scared me to death, but I still happily disappeared within that world each night, savouring every chapter.

As an adult, I’ve most often re-read Tobias Wolff’s exquisite short story, ‘Bullet in the Brain’. It so brilliantly (and brutally) evokes the elusive magic missing from one man’s life, just as it’s about to end.

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