Before he wrote The Book Thief, Australian author Markus Zusak was working on another idea—an idea that scared him. For more than two decades, the idea grew and changed, transforming into something that has come to represent much more than the resulting book. Last week, Bridge of Clay made its debut.
Zusak’s first novel in 13 years is a stunningly ambitious family epic focused on the lives of five brothers. Central to the narrative is Clay, a boy caught in a Sisyphean task as he struggles to overcome the tragedy that nearly engulfed his family—only through his meticulous devotion to this task can Clay begin to heal. Zusak, in a narrative trick to mirror his protagonist’s compulsion, delivers a book that revels in its own complexity, each sentence serving as a pointillistic brushstroke. It’s not until the final pages that the reader is able to step back and glimpse the spirit and scale of the whole.
This Thursday, Zusak will discuss and sign Bridge of Clay at Westchester Academy, at a ticketed event sponsored by Blue Willow Bookshop. We caught up with him to talk about his new book, the writing process, and what made him want to tell this story.
You first had the idea for Bridge of Clay when you were quite young—before you’d even written The Book Thief. Where did the idea for the story come from, and why did you wait to begin writing it?
I was around 20 at the time, and I did try to write it back then. But I at least had a small piece of sense to know that what I’d produced wasn’t what I was looking for. As years went by, and the idea grew, I knew I wanted it to be a bigger kind of book. I wanted it to be better than I could actually write…so maybe that’s why it took a long time to start. Not only were the ideas within the bigger idea not fully formed, it was a book I was always quite scared of.
Bridge of Clay has been more than 10 years in the making, and you’ve said that the writing process has been more difficult than that of previous works. Why do you think that was?
I definitely feel like I put more pressure on myself for this book than anything else I’d either written or wanted to write. It kept being shuffled back in the order of my writing. Other books took its place. I never felt quite ready to start. I knew it would be about a boy in pursuit of greatness, and the thought of that added to the pressure I felt. Finally, when I started it, I was writing tensely for a long time, and only when I let go a little, did the book start to come together more.
One dominant theme you explore in Bridge of Clay is the struggle of creating art and yearning to achieve greatness. Rather poetically, it’s easy to draw a parallel between Clay’s struggle to build the bridge and your experience writing the book. Was the story informed by or in any way related to your experience of writing it?
In the end, it was the idea that one of our greatest attributes is striving for greatness even when we know we never truly can be great. I was definitely wrapped up in the pursuit of making something beautiful—something as perfect and redeeming as Clay was attempting in the building of his bridge. Often, I just feel more like Matthew, laying down word after word to bring Clay home, to write more about the attempt of greatness as something beautiful as well. In the end, I know I’m more of a tradesman.
On that note, your writing style seems to parallel the process of artistic creation—each sentence is like a piece of a puzzle, demanding attention and consideration to see the bigger picture you’re creating. What were you trying to achieve on a stylistic level?
I think I just wanted everything to be deliberate—for every word to have its place.
Clay is a very deliberate character. He trains and prepares for everything he does. He remembers everything. He attempts to make one magnificent creation as a cure for things he knows he can’t ever truly cure. And maybe that’s what writing is to me—a deliberate attempt at things I know I can’t quite reach…which feels like a good way to live. Or at least a good way for me to live.
With five brothers, two parents, and a menagerie of (quite well-named) pets, this is very much a book about family—and a complex one at that. What drew you to that theme?
I think all of my stories come from there because I’m the youngest of four children, and I loved my parents’ stories. When Clay loves hearing about the lives of Penny and Michael Dunbar, that’s me asking my mum and dad to tell me their stories again, even though I’d heard them before. I think that’s what really made me want to be a writer.
The best book recommendations come from fellow readers; would you mind sharing a few works that you’ve read recently and loved?
I’ve been buried for much of the last decade, but I did love The Practice House by Laura McNeal, who is such an accomplished writer. It’s just a book you slowly inhabit, till you find it in everything you see.
Markus Zusak reads Book of Clay, October 18. Tickets $30 (book included). Westchester Academy, 901 Yorkchester Dr. 281-497-8675. More info and tickets at bluewillowbookshop.com.