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Feat of Clay: Markus Zusak on his long-awaited follow-up to The Book Thief

Markus Zusak. Photo/Hugh Stewart/Supplied

Festival guest Markus Zusak talks to Sally Blundell about Bridge of Clay, his highly anticipated family saga about a boy’s building quest.

It was a modest announcement and a rueful apology – a series of handwritten, hand-held A4 signs posted on YouTube last year with the words, “it’s DONE”, “it’s coming”, “BRIDGE OF CLAY”.

It’s 14 years since Markus Zusak wrote The Book Thief, the wildly successful Holocaust novel narrated by a very personable Grim Reaper. It is 20 years since Zusak first hit on an idea for a story about a boy who builds a bridge. Now, the long-awaited family saga about Clay Dunbar and his four brothers, left to fend for themselves within the dust and dreams and dumb violence of suburban Sydney, has finally reached its audience.

And the YouTube clip? “I wanted to have a bit of a laugh about the fact it had taken so long,” says Zusak, “and to be grateful to readers who have been encouraging. But I think I was just relieved I had actually finished and it was the right book. So, you are telling readers it’s done, but you also know some of those readers are going to say, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t like it as much as the last one.’”

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Zusak is running late again, this time for his interview with the Listener. He is parked on the side of the road, on his way from his parents’ home in south Sydney, where he grew up, to the city’s eastern suburbs and the house he shares with his wife and two daughters.

That last one, The Book Thief, sold 16 million copies, has been translated into 40 languages and was made into a movie, but, as he says, it was written without the burden of public expectation. “Bridge of Clay was a much bigger challenge. You have people waiting for this, who want to have the same rewarding experience, so do you try to write it for them or do you write the book that needs to be written?”

In our long roadside interview, he answers his own question.

“I think you cross a line when you are always trying to look after the reader. In the end, I was writing this for Clay and those brothers. I know that sounds whimsical, but it is kind of what made me become a writer in the first place: reading fiction and you know it is not true, but you believe it is when you are in it.”

At 570 pages, Bridge of Clay takes the reader on a long and expansive road trip, covering the story of the boys’ mother, Penelope, exiled from Stalinist Poland by her loving father, her acclimatisation to Sydney’s suburbs and her gentle pursuit of the love-struck Michael. Where The Book Thief took inspiration from Zusak’s immigrant parents – his father is Austrian, his mother German – Bridge of Clay draws on the experience of his parents-in-law, who came to Australia as Polish refugees.

“When they came to Australia, they had never seen a cockroach before – they were horrified. They were sweltering because it was February, and the first thing they bought was a pair of thongs. It’s those little things; you don’t realise it, but you are storing them away.”

This backstory of Penelope and Michael percolates through the story of their five boys: their pain, their loss, their love, their clumsy attempts to make sense of their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance and Clay’s initially inexplicable decision to join Michael in the building of the bridge, the bridge of Clay.

“We are so used to having stories going on in a linear fashion, with little bits of backstory thrown in, but I wanted the backstory to almost be the real story,” Zusak says. “I feel the novel is one of the last frontiers where you don’t get to know everything straight away. You have to apply meaning after meaning or event after event to discover something. I like the idea that you have to be patient with a novel, and for that reason, the rewards are all the greater.”

It is a heroic tale that draws on a Homeric tradition (the boys adopt Hector the cat, Agamemnon the goldfish, Achilles the mule) to tell a grand story of love and loss, frailty and punishing defiance, within knockabout suburban Australia.

“Stories are so integral to our lives, and even though we all think our lives are dull and mundane, we all have people die on us, we all do heroic things every now and again, we all have big arguments in the kitchen and we all fall in love.”

There is a lot of love in the household, but boys will be boys: they fight and beat each other up. For Zusak, this is familiar territory. As the youngest of four children, he experienced backyard scraps with his brother and friends who would beat him up, “and that gave me a lot of resilience”. It’s come in useful in this chosen career.

“I feel I am perennially training to get better at writing. With writing and boxing, there is a point in both those professions where you are on your own and no one can help you and the lights are shining on you. You will get beaten up by bad reviews or if you have been rejected by publishers or by people who don’t like what you wrote or by yourself when you just can’t get this thing to work. And who can help you? So often it is up to you. Nothing was easy with this book.”

When reminded of the success of The Book Thief, he says: “Go back and read the first reviews. Go to Amazon, read what people have said about it and how much they hated it and how they gave it one star because you can’t give something zero stars. It is funny how time alters the truth of a book or a person or someone’s career, even. Now, people say The Book Thief is so loved, but it didn’t have it all its own way. No book ever will.”

Markus Zusak is at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, May 10-11; Word Christchurch autumn series, May 13; and the Auckland Writers Festival, May 18.

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.