Markus Zusak discusses Bridge of Clay

It began with a little boy, fully formed in the author’s imagination, and a name. That Markus Zusak had earlier intended to call his book Clayton’s Bridge is common knowledge. But ask him why he changed it, and how he began writing Bridge of Clay in the first place, decades ago, and memories begin spilling out without pause. Reminiscence is his forte, after all: it forms as large a part of this book as it had of his last one — runaway hit The Book Thief.

Read The Hindu's review of 'Bridge of Clay' here.

The strands of this story first took hold of Zusak when he was walking around his neighbourhood one day — “I was 20 years old and had already written stories that hadn’t worked, or had been rejected by publishers”.

Protagonist Clayton Dunbar had been penned down back then, and left to bide his time in characteristic silence, long before The Book Thief’s Liesel Meminger blinked her way into light of day in 2005 — and even before brothers Ruben and Cameron Wolfe punched, scratched and left their own marks on novels published in 2000 and 1999. In fact, Zusak remembers consciously putting aside a draft of Clayton’s Bridge to focus on Cameron in The Underdog instead. The latter became his first published book. “It was just easier,” admits the author, during a tête-à-tête at Taj Club House, Anna Salai, in the run-up to an interaction at Starmark, Express Avenue as part of Australia Fest.

Creative quirks
  • Zusak’s habit of switching prepositions makes his translators’ jobs much tougher. “I wrote ‘walk at the city’ instead of ‘towards the city’ because it gives a sense of confrontation: he is facing up to the city,” he explains. “My aim is to explore the flexibility of the English language, though it does make translators shake their fists at me.”
  • Taken by how the characters in Homer’s epics always have an adjective preceding their names — “like the patient Penelope” — Zusak did the same for his characters in this book. A key character, in fact, has seven such nicknames.
  • The original deadline for the book was 2008. But Zusak made so many edits to it that it finally came out in 2018.

Bridge of Clay has the family-and-sibling identity of my earlier books, but also the ambition of The Book Thief.” The latter won over readers worldwide with its surprisingly tender personification of Death, wracked with guilt and resentment, always in search of colours and beauty in the midst of a harrowing occupation.

“Every book is a training run for your next book. It always feels like the main event, until you realise that it was just another step. But Bridge of Clay is the accumulation of everything I have written, plus one more big step up and away,” he says.

Zusak remembers when he realised that he wanted to be a writer. That memory has made its way into Bridge of Clay. “I think there are moments in our lives that feel like we are part of a story: a book or a film. I remember being 12 or 13, in my best friend’s house. His mum was dying of cancer. I remember seeing her just a few weeks earlier, and seeing her again that day. I knew what I was looking at was death in a dressing gown.”

But it’s one thing to have an image or a phrase ingrained in your mind, and quite another to pen something that drastic, to publish it. Markus was aware of it, having lost a good friend to cancer, says he worries about the small details in his books. Using the examples of medications whose names he had made up in the story, he explains, “You have to ask yourself if you’re being disrespectful to people in that situation.” But then he wondered what his late friend — “she was such a character, very full of life” — would have wanted. “She would have told me not to pay the illness too much respect. Laugh at it, yell at it, throw stones at it: that’s what she would have wanted me to do.”

Markus Zusak discusses Bridge of Clay

But before life gave him this to grapple with, it gave him a simple image: just a boy, building a bridge. “I thought of Clay as both the boy’s name and the material in the Earth that can be moulded into anything, but needs fire to set it.”

There’s fire aplenty in Bridge of Clay, and moments of crisis, but not nearly as many as the moments of quiet fortitude, premonitions, unshed tears and side-splitting clashes of will. The narrative switches between three timelines: the present, the past and the era that preceded the past. “Early on, Clay just had a brother and a sister. But then I thought: why not five brothers? Then the story looked at where their parents had come from. I like the idea that we are who we are, long before we are even born: stories that come together to make us come into existence, are also a part of who we are.” And so the narrative flits, drawing parallels between different memories — of a middle-aged mother to five sons, a seven-year-old daughter to a railway worker, and a 20-something refugee remembering Home through the keys of her piano.

This stoppered back and forth of narrative makes for some difficult reading — and at points, seems hardly worth the effort — but it does have characters that draw you in and moments that haunt you. The effort behind it is evident. “Every word is thought of, considered... deliberate,” says Zusak.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 12:41:06 AM |

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