The Writing of Martin Brennan

Curse of the Tropics

FOUR days have passed since we last saw familiar ground. Our flesh runs with sweat in the pressure cooker of the deep jungle. I lick my lips and relish the moisture. The last of our water ran out this morning, and there is no stream nor pond in sight. A malfunction with the compass, something deeply wrong with the earth here, led us to be lost in this cursed place. We knew we were damned when our native guides left us, melding into the bush like ghosts. I hack at the vines with a machete, but each time I cut one down two more take its place, like some wild green hydra.

The leeches drink their fill of our blood each night. Cracking of twigs and the hooting of wild beasts are enough to drive one mad in the dark where not even moonlight can breach the canopy. Just like Perkins, muttering in his sleep, delirious with fever. They’re coming for you Perkins. I sharpen my machete and wait for the war cries, though none come. Only glinting eyes in the dark. The next morning we eat the last of our food in silence. There is nothing left to say, and our throats are too parched to say it anyway.

My thighs chafe, my skin itches like fire ants are upon it, and I pass the time by reciting Hail Marys in my head. We discarded the map and compass long ago, seeking to navigate by instinct like our ancestors. All we had to do was find the river, there lay our salvation. Perkins drops dead to the ground at mid-day, doing as he was born to do. I rifle his pockets, find a scrap of food, a flask of water. Seems when he lost his wits he lost his memory too. I leave him there for the jungle to claim.

Whether by fate or the hand of God or by sheer luck, I find the river. I shamble ghoul-like out of the trees, fall to my knees in the grey mud of the riverbank, and suck down the brown water. They find me in the same place later that day, drifting downriver in the barge. I wade out to them, hoping no crocodile or worse creature would take me, and they pull me aboard with a gaff.

“Where is Perkins?” they ask, examining me like some rare insect of the tropics.

I pointed back where I’d come, into the dense tangle of trees.

“Go and find him if you wish.”

Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was LOST.


WE just need some space, she breathed, taking another sip of awful filter coffee out of her porcelain mug. I barely heard her over the conversation of the others in the diner, the clang of utensils on the griddle. I took a drag of my cigarette, dribbled ash onto the formica. A wave of nausea built up inside of me that had little to do with the smoke.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. We’d drifted away from each other these past months. Her mother died, and I wasn’t there to comfort her between work and school. There was nothing to bring us back together, like we’d pushed off from each other in the vacuum of space.

The ding of the order bell brought me back down to earth. She was staring at me expectantly with those big brown eyes, waiting for me to say some thing to try and save us. Steam wafted over from the kitchen. It smelled of old grease and burnt potato. I gaped my mouth like a fish but no words came.

A ghost in a blue apron came over, tried to fill our cups. I shielded mine with my hand as if it was poison being poured. It sure tasted like it. I asked for the cheque instead. A slice of cold pie wasn’t going to help us now.

After she left I stared at the space where she sat only a moment ago, the cushion of the booth slowly re-inflating.

Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was SPACE.

Dust to Dust

MY FATHER was a coal man, and his before him. Wasn’t much other work you could do in those days. Not where I grew up anyhow. Ever since I was a tyke I remember him leaving off for work every morning, clean as a whistle, kissing ma on the cheek. She wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole when he got home at the end of a day. Not until he washed at least. I remember her laying down newspaper from the front door to the bathroom so he wouldn’t track so much soot all over her damn floors.

Hard as he worked he still had time for all of us. Whenever there was a work stoppage, or some union problems at the mine, he never spent it sinking beers at the bar like the others. He’d play ball with us, or have a make believe tea party with my sisters. I guess we were lucky he never took out his problems on us. I guess that’s why I looked up to him as much as I did.

Eventually I started doing some, I guess you could say, peculiar things. I’d go out in the yard and find the biggest, nastiest puddle of muck I could and cover myself head to toe in it. Ma had a king size fit every time I did it. After a while she quit being mad about it. Having four other kids to keep track of, she decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. My old man just laughed and laughed. One day he gave me an old cracked helmet he’d found at work. All I wanted in life was to be like him.

Things don’t always work out that way though. I went off to the city when I grew up, chasing the horizon like every other kid in history. I’d see the family at Christmas, call on birthdays, the usual. All the while he kept going back to those mines, day in day out. One day the phone call was different. It’s his lungs, ma said through tears. He’s coughing blood. The dust and the dirt’s killing him.

It didn’t take long. He’d held off going to the doctor as long as he could, so they found it late. Last time I saw him alive he was as clean as a whistle again, lying in a hospital bed. I could tell he hated it, but he smiled at as all just the same. On the day of the funeral I stood at the edge of his grave and crumbled a clump of soil onto his coffin. It was the least I could do for the old man. Ashes to ashes, said the priest, dust to dust.

Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was DIRT.

Canto del Jilguero

AS A little introduction, recently the Digital Writers’ Festival with a few different events, projects, and livestreams that emerging writers could participate in. One such event was the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge, where for ten days a single word theme was released, and you could submit a five hundred word piece on that theme. I managed to submit for five of those days. This is the first, where the theme was HOME.

The trees had not changed, nor had the hills or the meadows, in the years Ignacio had been at war. Golden stalks of wheat rippled in the breeze by the roadside, and his horse puffed and snorted now and then at some familiar scent.

Pain nagged at his thigh, a reminder of the arrowhead that had lodged there. He was one of the lucky ones. Injured rather than sent screaming to his judgement. Mud and sweat clung to his skin in the throes of battle. That washed off at least. Many a man’s blood was still on his hands.

Home was never driven to the dark corners of his mind, even in such a hell. It was the only thing that kept him and the other soldiers going most days. You’d know each man by the name of his village. Cortegana. Mojacar. Inazares. They’d fought and died together, and most never made it back to tell their tale.

Not Ignacio though. He was there when the tide had turned, when the great gates of the capital came crashing down, when they had charged forth to sweet victory. And now he idly rode among the fields he’d known since he was a child. Home to his beloved Maria, and a lasting peace, warm hearth, and honest work. No more killing.

Though some nameless dread nagged at his mind. Once there had been goldfinches chirping, flitting here and there across the wheat, clamping insects in their tiny beaks. There was none of that now, only the lonely sigh of the wind. No woodsmoke hung in the air either. Could it be that the wind had merely swept it away?

Ignacio urged his horse into a trot. The village would be just around the bend in the road, right where he remembered it. Blacksmith’s anvil ringing, the laughter of children at play, the baying of dogs and goats. The sounds of peace. His sweet Maria waiting to take back the favour she had given him for good fortune all those years ago.

It looked as though it had been razed some time ago. Weeds grew among the clumps of charred wood and stone. The bleached bones of a dead dog were scattered in the street. Not a single building was left standing. Despair threatened to drown him, so he dug in his spurs and galloped toward his cottage. Toward home.

Maria did not wait for him there. She was gone, called back to the Lord with the others. He dismounted and limped toward the threshold. A deer raised its head from the wreckage at his approach, turned its great sad eyes upon him, then fled from that place of slaughter. Ignacio fell to his knees at the lintel, sifted his hands through the ashes to find proof that his beloved had ever existed.

A silver cross. It had once dangled from her slender neck and caught the sun. He kissed it and held it close, and wept until the sunset.

Lessons from Tom Waits

Everybody knows me at the dump

— Tom Waits

I CAME across this wonderful interview with Tom Waits that Elizabeth Gilbert did for GQ magazine back in 2002. She mentioned it in her Ted talk Your elusive creative genius which is also a great watch. In the interview there were some gems of wisdom from one of the most unique musicians and writers in the 20th century, certainly one of my favorites. I thought I’d collate the quotes I found interesting here but I’d urge anyone to go read the article itself in full.

tom waits

Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don't care if they lose it; they'll just make another one

Tom said this after relaying a story where his daughter came up with one of the key lyrics to Hold On off the top of her head. What it says to me is that you should focus on just getting creative work out there, and not really worry about whether it succeeds or fails. Just write another story, or another song, paint or draw another picture, just get it out there and keep going.

He believes that if a song "really wants to be written down, it'll stick in my head. If it wasn't interesting enough for me to remember it, well, it can just move along and go get in someone else's song."

I can really relate to this and I’d say it’s part of my creative process, but in equal parts I think it’s also important to do work that doesn’t come to you. Sometimes you need a prompt, or a guide, or something. But all of my novel and longer short story and novella ideas have come to me in this way. I’d read an article, or see or hear something, that gets me thinking on an idea. I don’t write it down. If it’s still stuck in my brain after a few days percolating up there, I know I’ve got something to work with.

A collaborator at heart, he has never had to make the difficult choice between creativity and procreativity. At the Waits house, it's all thrown in there together- spilling out of the kitchen, which is also the office, which is also where the dog is disciplined, where the kids are raised, where the songs are written and where the coffee is poured for the wandering preachers.

This is how I want our house to be as my kids grow older. The boys already like reading, and I hope to continue to guide them that way, and maybe they’ll do a bit of writing when they’re older too. It’s a great outlet. My partner loves it too, reading and writing. It’s one of our common interests that we can talk about for ages (when we can get a word in over the screaming and the barking).

I’ll stop here, but you really should go and read the article. It’s beautiful. Then, go and listen to Rain Dogs, and thank me later.

Man in the High Castle

What profit it a man if he gain the whole world but in this enterprise lose his soul?

— Philip K. Dick, Man in the High Castle

READING about World War II is always fascinating. Tragedy and human suffering was perpetuated on an enormous scale by some of the most despicable men in history. In Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick imagines an alternate timeline of human history where the Axis powers are the victors of World War II. A history where the world is divided up between Germany, Italy, and Japan. The novel is set in a conquered United States of America, in which the west coast is owned by Japan and renamed the Pacific States of America (or PSA) and the east coast is ruled by the Third Reich, with a buffer zone along the continental divide. The central conflict of this novel is the machinations the great powers have between each other and within themselves, as well as the reemergence of American culture, and the idea that the whole world may not be real at all.

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South of the Border, West of the Sun

'For a while' is a phrase whose length can't be measured. At least by the person who's waiting.

— Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun

I‘VE BEEN trying to broaden the genre and writers of the books I’ve been reading this year, so I read South of the Border, West of the Sun as recommended by my partner. I devoured it in just a few two hour reading sessions, and Murakmi’s simple and straightforward writing style mixed with the beautiful imagery he weaves left me thinking about the book long after I finished reading.

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The Hermit, Blood Meridian

A MAN’S at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It ain’t the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.

— Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

The Graduate (1967)

My whole life is such a waste

— Benjamin Braddock

IN THIS classic film backed by a Simon and Garfunkle soundtrack Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a clean-cut golden boy with loving parents and the world at his feet. He has just graduated from four years at college and his future lays vast and limitless before him, and at his graduation party all of his parent’s friends are happy to see him and offer their advice. So why is Ben so eager to get away from the people he has known all of his life, to shut himself away in his room? Why does he look as if he is on the verge of a panic attack while his party guests are all smiles? Why is this young, smart kid so worried about his future?

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The Editing Process

THIS is the first post in a series of posts where I will explore my writing style and process, for a few different reasons. I hope by writing out my process in some detail I can identify areas where I can improve, have something to look back on when I’ve written more stories and novels, and hopefully help others gain insight into different areas of the writing process. I would also love to hear feedback from other writers no matter how far along you may be in your career or hobby. We are going to start toward the mid-point of the novel-writing process, which is where I find myself at right now. I’m writing a book I’m calling Bottom Feeders, which is about the Crabs Motorcycle Club, a group of misfits and losers fallen from grace and at the bottom of the shitheap, doing jobs for a larger club, the Devil’s Faithful MC, just to get by. It’s a mixture of crime, humour, and action and sitting at 85,000 words at the completion of the first draft. I’ll get to how I wrote it in a future post (it involved a lot of cheap notebooks and pens) but for now I’ll focus on the editing.

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