Life & Style

‘Stories are always moving’

Australian author Markus Zusak says, our lives begin long before we are born and we carry those histories with us

Thirteen years after the well-beloved The Book Thief comes Markus Zusak’s sprawling, brawling multi-generational Bridge of Clay. Talking of the reason for the gap, Zusak writes over email, “I think I made up my mind after The Book Thief that I had published four books that meant something to me, and one book that meant everything. I never wanted to settle for just something ever again. I’ve realised that what I’m trying to do is write better than I actually am. Maybe I only want to write books I’m not sure I can actually write. I think that is why this book took me so long. In many ways, I was writing for the world championship of myself, to see if I could do it.”

Calling Bridge of Clay his hardest book, the Australian author says, “I always thought it was my best idea. With The Book Thief, the hard part was thinking that no-one would ever read it (I thought it was doomed to fail) and writing it anyway. With Bridge of Clay, it was a sense that people would judge this new book harshly compared to their love of The Book Thief and writing it anyway. To be a writer, I think you’re always being tested.”

‘Stories are always moving’

Zusak says, “I was 20 years old when I saw in my mind a boy building a bridge, and the boy’s name was Clayton, and that was the luckiest part of it. I thought I would call the book Clayton’s Bridge, and a few months later, I thought of calling it Bridge of Clay. Instantly, a whole new depth of meaning and emotion entered the idea. I saw a boy building a bridge of stone or wood, but also of himself. He would mould his life into that bridge, and within that idea was the thought that Clay is both a name and a material and clay (as a material) can be moulded into anything, but it needs fire to set it. I saw what I wanted to do, I just wasn’t ready to write it. There would be five more books as a training ground, before I actually would be.”

Bridge of Clay has been long in the writing. On whether the story and characters changed in the process, Zusak says, “If you are working on a novel for a long time, you should change. What I found is that it doesn’t have to be at its absolute best until it is heading to the final printing. The person doing the last edit is me. The responsibility is mine. The person finishing still understands the person who began it, but he edits that person, and brings him closer to where he is now. The book is finally ready when that gap is brought together.”

While Zusak’s books are classified as young adult fiction, they are different from the gloomy dystopian world that most YA seem to inhabit. “I don’t even think about occupying a YA space, or any other space for that matter. Bridge of Clay will be released in the majority of territories as general fiction, not YA. I’ve loved YA books, and still do, but I’m never conscious of trying to fit in, or stand out. I have a very clear vision of what I want to write, what I want that writing to achieve within itself, but never a clear sense of who should read it, market it, or categorise it. My only job is to stay focused on writing for my characters. I think that’s the only way to find the readers who might love you. I love my readers, but not in a way that disrespects their intelligence. My readers owe me nothing, and I owe them everything.

“This isn’t to say that teenagers or young adults can’t read Bridge of Clay. I’ve always loved that audience because they are actually capable of reading anything. I think we need books that are for them, about them, and in their voice, but we also need books that say, ‘You can also read this, but you have to come up here.’”

A story of five Dunbar brothers, Bridge of Clay deals with “before the beginning and after the end.” “The book is structured in a tidal kind of way, where Clay is constantly moving forward, going out to build his bridge, but the stories of his memory, and the Dunbar history come inward. Our stories are always beginning. Our lives begin long before we’re even born and we carry those histories with us. That’s why Matthew talks about before-the-beginnings, and after-the-end. We’re constantly living between the present and the past, and future aspirations, and these stories are constantly flowing back and forth, inside us. Stories are always moving.”

The book deals with the loss of parents through death and disappearance. On whether is too intense for young readers, Zusak says, “I can’t concern myself with that. Is it too intense for the characters in the book? Is it right for the story I’m writing? I never set out to write for a particular audience, my greater responsibility is still to the book. And I think readers of all ages can cope with a lot more than we think they can. I set out to get the Dunbar family right, and I set out to write a big-hearted and a good-hearted book, and sometimes I think that has to be enough.”

Research for the book included “endless studies of bridges and bridge-building even though I didn’t want the research to overwhelm the story. I also did a lot of reading and study of Michelangelo – especially his sculptures – and rereading Homer’s epics. Then there were various aspects of life in Eastern Europe during the time of communism, and horse-racing. (The Dunbar family live in a fictional racing neighbourhood in Sydney, and a major character in the book is Clay’s best friend and greatest love – Carey Novac, who is an apprentice jockey). Lastly, I did a lot of research on animals, and especially mules. (because the Dunbar family have five animals, including a mule named Achilles).Most of the research, however, was a kind of internal cataloguing – to get the characters right.”

For the most part, Bridge of Clay is Clay’s story, Zusak says. “It is also the whole family’s story, and Matthew’s story, in the telling. Clay touches so many people around him, and is touched, by them. It is the bridge that connects all of them and the book also belongs to the stories themselves, of a family’s travels: from love and loyalty to complete desolation, and back again.”

The classics and a typewriter feature prominently in the book. Zusak however says they are not symbolic of a desire for simpler times. “They were just elements I was attracted to, a desire for a world where stories are celebrated more than technology.”

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 11:54:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/stories-are-always-moving/article25931358.ece

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