"Bridge of Clay": A Conversation with Markus Zusak

Seira Wilson on November 29, 2018

Zusak225.jpgIt's no small feat to follow a novel like The Book Thief, a story loved and shared by millions of readers over the last decade, but that's exactly what Markus Zusak was staring down when he wrote Bridge of Clay.  Bridge of Clay is very different; it's a labor of love and took Zusak ten years and no small amount of struggle to finish. A family saga that brings readers into the world of the Dunbar boys, Zusak's writing made me feel like I was right there, watching their lives unfold, sharing their joys and sorrows with mule hair (you'll see...) on my pants.

Bridge of Clay takes some time to get into but I implore you to keep going--Zusak intended for his readers to work at it a bit in the beginning (in the best way possible), and in my opinion, the result is well worth the effort.  I underlined passages, laughed out loud, and shed some tears over the course of 544 pages. I went back and forth between book and audio book; Zusak reads the audio edition, and listening to him read in his wonderful Australian accent, became my preferred format. 

Zusak came to our office recently and he was incredibly charming and very funny.  We sat down for a chat to be featured in an upcoming Amazon Book Review podcast, but in the meantime, here is an excerpt from that conversation.

*Bridge of Clay is one of our picks for the best young adult books of 2018

Seira Wilson: You said in another interview that this is the book you’ve been at war with – what did you mean by that?

Markus Zusak: I think there were times when I felt beaten up by this book. Imagine going to a mirror and actually seeing what your soul looks like; I think I would’ve been pretty bruised and battered and had a few broken limbs. And that‘s how I felt for a while…but I love the beaten-up-ness of it as well, and I love the struggles of it, because that’s what makes it worth it. It’s also what makes you believe that this is actually what you want to do with your life. If you can get up and keep going it’s definitely the thing that makes you most alive. 

That’s the other side of it—I’m most alive when I’m writing and writing well and happy. And that’s when I do the vacuuming.  That’s when I do the household chores—not to procrastinate.  When I’m writing and writing happily it gives me energy to do everything else as well.

What I’ve come back to, is that pretty much every single thing in the book is deliberate.  And I’m trying to stop apologizing for parts of the beginning where a lot is thrown at the reader. But I just feel like I wanted the book to be a character’s world.  When you think of your heroes, writers like John Irving, where you go: this book is a world, and it’s written with courage, and there’s so much in it, and it could be exhausting by the end, but it’s exhilarating as well.  I think you’re always trying to write something that’s a little bit better than you actually are.  And I think that’s what Clay is trying to do in the book as well, and maybe that’s why it took me so long to write it. 

I’m always aiming for something that’s just out of reach.  What I love about writing in general is that you try to write a book that you might not be able to write. I think there’s something beautiful in that, even at those moments when you fail, you’ve got to remind yourself that it’s only because I’m trying to do something that isn’t easy to do.

Seira Wilson: What do you want readers to walk away with from Bridge of Clay?

Markus Zusak: I have a good friend who asked that exact same question and--it’s pretty funny--I’m going to give you my two answers: The first one was—and I just joke about this because of how hard it’d been, and when I did let people in I would read through it with them, and I’d look at them after doing two solid days of reading, and people would just joke and say, “I kinda need food now.”  I’d be just so immersed in it, because it was my life, and so at first I’d joke and say “I kind of want people to feel like they’ve been run over by a truck.”  Because I’d visibly watch people age, which at the end of two really solid days of reading, you do. You feel it in yourself. 

But now, what I really want people to take away is not any kind of theme or life lesson or anything like that.  I just want them to feel like they’re a Dunbar boy; that they’re a part of the Dunbar family. And if they feel that when they’re reading that book and when they’ve finished it, I think the job’s been done.

Seira Wilson: Now that your job is done (writing Bridge of Clay) what do you want to read for yourself?

Markus Zusak: I haven't read much Peter Carey, and I think I might want to do a whole Peter Carey run and go backwards from the last book he put out, A Long Way Home.  And I really want to read The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara  but even in this time, I listened to the audio book of The Practice House by Laura McNeal--just a great book and she's such an underrated, beautiful writer. I think I'm a writer because I re-read books, so I did re-read The Cider House Rules while I was writing Bridge of Clay. I've got a whole stack of books and I can't wait to get into those, it'll be a nice relief from writing before I start to feel the itch again to get back to work...

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