Building the Bridge
The name Markus Zusak may not ring a bell. But The Book Thief almost certainly will. Adapted into a film starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson in 2013, The
Book Thief is the story of a young girl who learns to read from a Jewish refugee her family is hiding from the Nazis. It went on to be a best-seller. Now, more than a decade since its publication, Zusak is back with his much-anticipated next novel,
Bridge of Clay, a family saga of five brothers who are bringing themselves up without any adults. He spoke with india today about how the book evolved.
Q: You’ve said you conceived of Bridge of Clay when you were 19. What sparked the idea?
I was 19 or 20 years old, and in my mind I saw a boy who was building a bridge. I named him Clayton, which was the one piece of luck I needed. I thought I would
call the book ‘Clayton’s Bridge’, and then a few months later, I thought: No, not ‘Clayton’s Bridge’—make it ‘Bridge of Clay’. And that was when a whole new depth of meaning and emotion instantly entered the idea. I thought of a boy who was building a bridge of stone or wood, but it was also made of him—of Clay. I immediately saw the dual meaning of Clay (the name) and clay (the material), which can be moulded into anything, but needs fire to set it. That was when I knew there was a book to write.
Q: How did the book evolve in the decade that it took to write it?
When I finished The Book Thief, I knew somehow that I had published four books previously that really meant something to me, and that book meant everything. I never wanted to go back to writing books that meant just something to me ever again.
Q: You have said elsewhere that instances from your own life have inspired bits of the book.
It’s usually just the very small things, and they never exist in a book exactly as they happened in real life. In my own house, for example, we have two children, two dogs and two cats, and in the Dunbar household in the Bridge of Clay, there are five brothers and five animals. There is plenty of chaos in our household with our foursome of pets,
but I elevated it to make it five. The cat in the book named Hector is based on one of our cats, named Brutus, but he grows in the writing of the novel. That’s why I love writing. We see the world in a totally unique way that is also somehow familiar.
Q: The Book Thief had death as a narrator. Do you feel that death continues to be a character in this book?
I guess death is a kind of friend to all of us in a way, because knowing it hangs over us is what makes everything we do worthwhile. Death is still a major force in Bridge of Clay and there are a few cameos, where Matthew imagines Death hanging from the power lines, or sitting on the curtain rod in the kitchen. This time around, what hasn’t changed is finding great life in the face of death.
Q: The premise of The Book
Thief—a family shielding a Jew from the Nazis during World War II—was familiar to readers in the subcontinent. Bridge of Clay is more foreign ground.
It’s a very Australian book in some ways, and I think our countries do have a bond over a particular sport. All of my books are about family. About trying to live decently, to look for laughter and ambition in our lives and, having been to India once before, I know the people are generous and warm, and talkative and kind. These are all the elements I look to write with, and so I hope Indian readers will connect with the Dunbar family, and with Clay, whose story is about building a bridge, to make one perfect, beautiful thing.
BRIDGE OF CLAY by Markus Zusak DOUBLEDAY `799; 544 pages