Pen pals

John Boyne talks to Markus Zusak

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS -

For the past decade, John Boyne’s friend, fel­low writer Markus Zusak, has grap­pled with, en­thused over and threat­ened to aban­don his novel ‘Bridge of Clay’. Now, as it’s fi­nally com­plete, the pair dis­cuss the nov­el­ist’s quest for per­fec­tion

The first time I met Markus Zusak, he gave me a gift of a book, some­thing no writer has ever done be­fore or since. It was 2007, I was on a book tour in Aus­tralia and be­cause my fourth novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and his fifth, The Book Thief, were each set dur­ing the sec­ond World War and fea­tured young char­ac­ters as their cen­tral pro­tag­o­nists, we were sched­uled to read at fes­ti­vals to­gether. These were the books that would change both our lives and, in the in­ter­ven­ing years, we’ve re­mained great friends, with a par­tic­u­lar wa­ter­ing hole in Sydney that we call our own.

We meet up there about once a year, dis­cussing books, the ups and downs of pub­lish­ing and the cu­ri­ous ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing an Ir­ish­man and an Aus­tralian who some­how found our­selves dis­cussing the Holo­caust with au­di­ences for much of the past decade. On those oc­ca­sions, I’ve al­ways asked him “How’s the new novel com­ing along?” but never knew whether my ques­tion would be met with an an­i­mated re­sponse or a look of de­spair.

Some writ­ers reap­pear af­ter a lengthy ab­sence claim­ing to have spent an en­tire decade work­ing on a book when, in re­al­ity, they may have taken a few years off be­fore hit­ting the desk again. But Markus has de­voted his life over this time to a novel that I’ve seen him grap­ple with, be­come ex­cited by, and even threaten to aban­don at times. And just when I thought it might be gone for ever, an an­nounce­ment came that it was fin­ished. It’s called

Bridge of Clay and it’s the novel he was born to write.

It tells the story of the five rau­cous, vi­va­cious and deeply lov­ing Dun­bar broth­ers – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Thomas – their re­la­tion­ship with the fa­ther who aban­doned them af­ter the death of their mother, and the dif­fi­cult ro­man­tic life this same man suf­fered from his youth. It’s a novel filled with emo­tion, with noisy con­ver­sa­tions that spill off the page, with ri­otous Aussie jokes and loud Aussie men. Talk­ing to Markus over the phone from San Fran­cisco, where he was be­gin­ning an Amer­i­can tour to co­in­cide with the book’s re­lease, I com­pared it to Tim Win­ton’s Cloud­street, per­haps the great­est Aus­tralian novel of them all, and he said that men­tion­ing that book “in the same post­code” as his own was more than he could ever hope for.

So why did it take so long to write? “I think I had to grow up as a writer,” he tells me in his lan­guid Sydney drawl, for Markus al­ways sounds as if he has spent the morn­ing sun­bathing on Bondi Beach and is now con­sid­er­ing hav­ing an af­ter­noon nap to get over the fa­tigue. “I didn’t want to have some quirky voice in the book and so I ended up chang­ing the orig­i­nal nar­ra­tor, who was a girl, to Matthew, the old­est of the five broth­ers.”

It was a smart de­ci­sion. Matthew is a solid, de­pend­able young man, and he gives the novel an un­de­ni­able moral au­thor­ity. Only out of his teens, he’s old be­fore his time, for he was the one left with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of look­ing af­ter his four younger broth­ers when their fa­ther skipped town. It leaves him filled with a sim­mer­ing anger to­wards the man he calls “The Mur­derer”, and in the open­ing sec­tion, when the fa­ther reap­pears in the boys’ kitchen, along with a menagerie of an­i­mals and birds the Dun­bars have adopted, there’s a vi­o­lence sim­mer­ing beneath Matthew’s calm de­meanour that al­ways threat­ens to ex­plode into some­thing ter­ri­ble.

But he needed to change more than just the nar­ra­tive voice. “I be­came ob­sessed with chap­ters that weren’t work­ing,” he says, “with the chaos and the love of the house.” This ob­ses­sion threat­ened his sense of self at times, for he ad­mits that, “When I’m writ­ing well, time opens up and I have room for ev­ery­thing and every­one. I have the life force to do any­thing. I’m at my hap­pi­est then.”

Zusak is not one of those nov­el­ists who would ever com­plain about his job, even when it’s prov­ing dif­fi­cult. He loves writ­ing; he al­ways has. That pas­sion comes across in ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion we’ve shared. But he thinks about his read­ers, too, and how they’ll re­act to his work.

“I strug­gled with the idea that read­ers were go­ing to have to com­mit them­selves more to this book,” he says, and in a sense that’s true, for the story of five rough-and-tum­ble Sydney lar­rikins does not nec­es­sar­ily have the same global ap­peal as the idea of Death nar­rat­ing the ad­ven­tures of a young girl steal­ing books that the Nazis want to burn. How­ever, Bridge

of Clay is a much more ma­ture work than his pre­vi­ous novel, its themes and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion far deeper and more com­plex. Read­ing the book, it never feels like it took years to com­plete, for there’s a co­he­sion to the story, a gut-wrench­ing hon­esty that makes it sound as au­then­tic as if he’d left a bug­ging de­vice in a sub­ur­ban Sydney home. And those, of course, are the hard­est nov­els to write. No relief

It was only in the past cou­ple of years that Zusak looked through his moun­tain of pages and said, “Pull your­self to­gether and fin­ish it. Get rid of it or make it live, be­cause this has to be per­fect. It has to be the best that I can do. And so I stopped try­ing to shorten it,” – the book weighs in at al­most 600 pages – “and when I read it again, I re­alised that I was ac­tu­ally nearly fin­ished.”

Now that the book is be­ing pub­lished, I as­sumed he would feel an enor­mous weight off his shoul­ders as he looks to­wards new projects, but no. “Ac­tu­ally, I don’t feel re­lieved,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve re­ally missed char­ac­ters. Maybe be­cause it’s about a fam­ily, about broth­ers. And I had to fight hard for them. When I tried to cut a brother, he al­ways called him­self back into it.”

Be­fore leav­ing for the US, he spent more than a week on Sydney’s North Shore, nar­rat­ing the au­dio edi­tion of the book, in what will pre­sum­ably be the last time he reads an epic that he must know by heart. “It was the per­fect way to say good­bye,” he tells me, al­though the suc­cess of The Book Thief, which sold more than 10 mil­lion copies around the world, means he will prob­a­bly spend at least the next year talk­ing to au­di­ences about the Dun­bar boys while read­ers once again get the op­por­tu­nity to tell him how moved they were by Liesel Meminger and Max Van­den­burg. “I’ve writ­ten four books that mean some­thing to me,” he says, “but this book means ev­ery­thing to me.”

The day af­ter our con­ver­sa­tion, I text Markus to re­mind him of the novel he gave me all those years ago at the Sydney Writ­ers’ Fes­ti­val. It was What’s Eat­ing Gilbert Grape? by Peter Hedges. “Why that book?” I ask him. “It shows that great char­ac­ters make great books,” he replies. “And it’s both heart­break­ing and funny.”

Which is ex­actly what could be said of Bridge of Clay.

Markus Zusak: “I’ve writ­ten four books that mean some­thing to me, but this book means ev­ery­thing to me.”

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