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Markus Zusak on how Bridge of Clay left him ‘beaten up and bruised’

By December 19, 2018No Comments

Source : The Guardian

If The Book Thief is the Australian author’s most famous book, this is his magnum opus

On a recent Sydney morning, the author Markus Zusak sat down to write at his kitchen table. Then, out of nowhere, came the sound of some very loud munching.

He looked up to see his daughter Kitty eating cereal. “Are you all right over there?” he called out. “I’m trying to get some work done here!”

She paused, raised her eyebrows, and looked at him aghast. “You? Work?”

Kitty had a point. Zusak may be one of Australia’s bestselling authors. But during her and her brother Noah’s lifetimes (they are 12 and 9 respectively), Zusak had never released a book. Indeed, his latest novel to hit the shelves – Bridge of Clay – took a whopping 13 years to write.

Yet for someone who suffered from years of severe writer’s block – not to mention endless revisions, rewritings, and reworkings which, he told Fairfax, “became like an addiction” – Zusak remains remarkably cheerful.

“Sure, I’m beaten up and bruised,” says Zusak, pouring a cup of peppermint tea in a Surry Hills cafe. “But I kind of love that as well because it’s self-inflicted. I love that it’s not easy.”

Released in Australia in October, and in the UK and US last month, Bridge of Clay is a sprawling Australian family saga, focusing on five brothers abandoned when their mother dies and their father disappears. That is until the father returns and asks his sons to travel to a property in the bush to build a bridge – a literal and metaphorical way of making amends. Only one boy agrees. Clay.

It is, according to Pan Macmillan, the “most anticipated book of the decade” – and not without reason. The Book Thief, Zusak’s smash hit, spent over 10 years on the New York Times bestseller list, has been translated into 40 languages, sold 16 million copies, and was made into a major motion picture starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. For the past 13 years Zusak was able to survive – supporting two kids and his wife Dominika, who manages his authorial administration and appearances – on royalties alone.

But if The Book Thief is his most famous book, Bridge of Clay is his magnum opus. Zusak, now 43, was just 20 years old when he first came up with the concept. All these years later, he still speaks of the moment dreamily: “I thought of a boy building a bridge and he wanted to make this one beautiful, great, perfect thing.”

Clay, of course, is laden with meaning: objects can be moulded from the cold, wet material, but to retain their shape they need to be set with fire. And while Clay the character pours his life into his bridge, Zusak has poured his life into the novel. “That book is made up of pretty much everything in me – that book’s everything I’ve got,” he says.

Much like Tim Winton’s epic Cloudstreet, it is also a celebration of Australia, of the importance of the ordinary, the everyday and, above all, of suburbia. “I like the idea that we think we live these dull suburban lives, but they’re also big lives: we all fall in love, we have people die on us, we all have big arguments in the kitchen. I wanted to write that book which portrayed a suburban richness and wealth.”

Although he now lives in a townhouse in Woollahra, in Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburbs, Zusak – who is polite, modest, and talks with idealistic wonder about the power of books – grew up in the more suburban south of the city. The youngest of four children of immigrant parents – his father is Austrian, his mother German – he was raised speaking German and English.

“Sydney is so much a part of my own story,” says Zusak. “Even the idea that my mum and dad came here with nothing. We start being who we are before we’re born. There are a lot of stories that lead to our very existence. I wanted to pay attention to those things.”

Zusak’s parents grew up during the second world war. Their experiences inspired The Book Thief, a tale of Nazi Germany, filled with suffering and told from the perspective of the narrator Death.

One story in particular hit home. As a child, Zusak’s mother often stopped to watch farmers herd animals down the main street in the small town outside Munich where she lived. One day, it wasn’t animals but people who were being herded: Jews being driven to Dachau.

“And there was an old man who couldn’t keep up – and he was so emaciated he could hardly walk anymore,” Zusak says. “A teenage boy ran into his house and returned with a loaf of bread to give to him. He fell by his knees and grabbed the boy by the feet and cried into his ankles and thanked the boy for the bread. Then a soldier came and threw the bread to the streets, and whipped the man and the boy.”

It sounds like a fable or fairytale. And it is that simplistic quality – of good and evil – that appealed to Zusak. “One is the beauty of the old man and the boy. Then you’ve got the pure evil of that regime in what happens with the soldier. You bring those two things together and you’ve got exactly what humans are capable of.”

On other days, his mother would tell him how she would emerge blinking out of a bomb shelter into the light to find the earth covered by ice and a sky lit by fire.

Such powerful images appear in The Book Thief, where Death thinks in colours; not of scorched red but of blinding white, an unforgiving caustic razor-blade that also finds its way into Bridge of Clay, where the “aspirin-white” Sydney sunlight is far from nourishing.

Hope in The Book Thief comes in the form of Liesel Meminger, a girl who lives with foster parents and who pilfers books.

“Even now, after all those years, the hardest question is what the book is about,” muses Zuzak. “It took about five or six years [for me to realise] the book is about the idea that Hitler destroyed through words and propaganda. And this is the story of a girl who is stealing those words back.”

The Book Thief features a boxer, 24-year-old Jew Max Vandenburg, who hides out in Liesel’s home. In Bridge of Clay the protagonist is also physical; railing against the world, or trying to control it through his very corporality.

“There’s always an element of boxing [in my books],” says Zuzak. “It comes back to being a disciplined writer – I’ve always trained for it. Writing is a solitary profession. It’s up to you. It’s always testing how much you want. I’m not saying it’s as courageous as boxing but in a way it kind of is – because you’re on your own.”

During the last decade, Zuzak has had his low moments (as, needless to say, did his publishers). But for him there was never a wasted moment, never a wasted word. Sure, 13 years on one book is slow. But “it’s the words under the words” that matters, he insists. “It’s all the words no one ever sees that holds a book up to the surface.”


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