Author Markus Zusak on following up The Book Thief's success, and being unconstrained by tags

“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right,” reads a line in Australian author Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel, The Book Thief.  Published in 2005, the response to the novel — set in Nazi Germany during World War II — heralded Zusak's stature as a popular author.

Zusak has authored four other books: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, When Dogs Cry (also titled Getting the Girl), and The Messenger (or I am the Messenger). His sixth (and latest) novel, Bridge of Clay, follows the journey of five brothers coming to terms with their father’s disappearance.

This correspondent quizzed Zusak — who is among the participating speakers at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 (24-28 January) — about his writing and more.

When did you come up with the narrative for Bridge of Clay, and how long did it take you to complete?

I first came upon the idea when I was 20 years old — about a boy building a bridge to make one perfect, beautiful thing. I wrote a version of it back then, but I knew it wasn’t the book it needed to be, so I set it aside. I set it aside many times after that, believing it to be my best and most ambitious idea…but after The Book Thief, I knew it was time to step up and write it, completely fresh. Now, there’s not a word from the original novel I wrote 23 years ago. Actually, I don’t know where that manuscript is, and that might be a good thing.

Author Markus Zusak on following up The Book Thiefs success, and being unconstrained by tags

Markus Zusak. Photo courtesy Hugh Stewart

It’s been a while since The Book Thief (2005) was released. What were you up to in the period between then and now? 

For the most part I was working on Bridge of Clay. I don’t even really wish I could say I was off travelling or having a good time — I was very focused on that book for at least the last decade. There were times when I would speak at writer’s festivals, but mostly I was working consistently on the new book, trying to make it right.

Since The Book Thief was received with such an overwhelmingly positive response, was there any kind of pressure you faced while writing Bridge of Clay?

I think there’s always a kind of pressure when you’re writing, but it’s more self-induced. Given that Bridge of Clay is about a person who is seeking a kind of perfection, I think I felt like my writing needed to be more perfect too. There were times when I was trapped in the words themselves, trying to set my own new standard. And the book itself is about the dilemma of pursuing greatness. The first thing that has to be acknowledged is that you probably won’t make something great…but the greatness lies in attempting it anyway.

Death has played a strong role in your narratives. Can you touch upon this a bit? What brings forth the obsession?

I never went out of my way to make death such a central role. In The Book Thief it was more just the gift of an idea. I’d worked in a school, writing with some kids, and I used Death as the narrator of a small piece of writing, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should put that into the book I’m writing set in Nazi Germany…’

In Bridge of Clay, Death makes a few appearances, with his arm draped over the fridge, or sitting on the telegraph wires with the pigeons…I just feel like death is that one shadow that gives our lives value, and meaning. It makes everything we do worth that little bit more, because we’re not going to be here forever.

Do you have a ritual you follow before you begin writing? Can you delve into your process? 

I’m very focused on routines, and I like to start work at the same time every day if I can. I work best in the mornings. I tend to list all my chapter headings, over and over [again], in my notebooks. It reminds me of the world I’m trying to create. It makes me feel close to the story and the characters, so that when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I’m just next door to it, and not a hundred miles away.

Bridge of Clay has been termed as an adult novel, a shift from The Book Thief. Do you believe in tags?

I don’t believe in the tags at all. [What] I try to do when I sit down to work, is to write someone’s favourite book.

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 12:31:32 IST

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