More than a decade after the publication of his last book, the international bestseller The Book Thief, Australian author Markus Zusak returns with a much-anticipated new novel. A family saga, Bridge of Clay tells the story of Clay, one of five unruly Dunbar brothers, who possesses a secret that could shatter the lives that the boys have built in the wake of their mother’s death and father’s abandonment. Zusak spoke with PW about his two-decade journey writing Bridge of Clay, juggling notes from multiple editors, and the young adult categorization of his novels.
You’ve said that the idea for Bridge of Clay has been with you since age 20. Now, two decades later, the result of that idea is about to be available to readers. Much has changed in the world and, I’m sure, personally since that initial idea and since you first started writing the novel. How has working on Bridge of Clay over a period of so many years affected your writing process and the story itself?
I actually wrote the book when I was that age. It’s almost unrecognizable now. The one thing I can say is, back then I couldn’t really write, but I at least had some sort of editorial eye. I could recognize that [that attempt] wasn’t “it.” That wasn’t the book. You spend a lot of your time as a writer doing that. I mean, I had a totally different narrator at first. There was a character named Maggie in the book for six years [as the narrator], then I cut her out. Talk about killing your darlings! She was there for so long, then I realized she wasn’t right for the book.
I do spend a lot of time scrambling around in the dark and sometimes I do think, “Gosh, I wrote part one of this book in 2009 and then suddenly it’s 2016 and I’m still writing new material.” So, yes, keeping consistency is a challenge at times.
I think I’m just always chipping away, taking pieces and adding pieces, and trying to make it one whole, complete world. I sort of feel like I could write [Bridge of Clay] forever. At some point, I had to say that’s as good as I can get it; I’m going to hurt it more if I keep going.
Maggie, the character you eliminated, was the narrator? How did Matthew end up the narrator?
Yes, she was the narrator for quite a while. Matthew was the only narrator who worked. In the end, you do what works. But then you need to ask, why was he the one who worked; the one who could carry it through to the end?
There was a time where I tried everything in this book. I was always in deep water. One of the things I tried was cutting the other three brothers out, leaving only Matthew and Clay. That’s what happens: you try something because you have a problem, then end up with a new problem. The new problem then was that Matthew and Clay are the two brothers that are most alike. Suddenly, everything was the same color and the same shade. And you couldn’t believe that the two most serious brothers would have a mule, which is so important to the book.
I think Matthew is the responsible brother. He’s responsible for the family, so it makes sense that he’s responsible to tell the story. Apart from Clay, he’s lost the most. He’s the one who has the most to be angry about because everything has fallen on him. He’s the narrator because he deserves it. He deserves to go out and dig up the old typewriter and be the one who gets to tell Clay’s story. Which, in their world, is a bit of a privilege.
Did the success of The Book Thief affect your writing process when approaching Bridge of Clay or other subsequent projects?
Yes and no. There’s no definitive answer. I was more beaten up by The Book Thief than I thought. Finishing that book felt like such a hard thing and took a lot out of me. It took a while to start Bridge of Clay—and I wasn’t quite ready when I started. Then, The Book Thief started doing well.
When a book does so much better than you’ve anticipated, so much good stuff comes with it. You get to visit countries you’ve never been to before and do things you’ve never dreamed possible. But, when the doors open that wide, a bit of darkness comes through, too. You’re going to get more bad reviews and readers who don’t like your book—and people who are extremely happy to tell you so. That’s part of being a writer. You’re always having to ask yourself, how much do I want this? It wasn’t a struggle to put food on the table and that sort of thing, so writing became more of a quest of will. Eventually, you just do the work, you let go, and you become yourself again. And you realize, my job is just to make this book how it needs to be. Then, it can go into the world and everyone can have their opinions.
I don’t feel any different personally [with this book]; I still never expect anyone to know who I am or what I’ve written, so for me it’s still the same kind of nerve-racking experience. But, I think it’d be unrealistic to say it isn’t different, because I know more people are watching and waiting. I know that there are a lot of people who want to really love this book and, also, there are some people who really don’t want to love it. It’s all just understanding that all of that is okay and the world is going to go on no matter what. For me, Bridge of Clay is the biggest thing in the world, but it’s also just a book.
In an interview, you mentioned that writing this book was difficult, so difficult that you even put it aside at one point. In hindsight, what was the most difficult part of writing this story?
Perennial self-doubt. The most difficult thing was finding the right narrator and the right voice for that narrator. I think I had that voice all along, but I kept wanting to make it easier for the reader. Make it shorter. Make it less. But the problem then was that the chapters were reading more like chapter outlines instead of actual chapters; it was just a telling of what happened. I just kept thinking, “This isn’t it, this isn’t it.”
My breakthrough was quitting the book. First, I quit for less than 24 hours, then I just rewrote the prologue. There was a totally different prologue for about six years. I knew it so well, I could recite it, but it had to go. Then, about a year later, my wife gave me a week to get back on track and be happy again. It was totally what I needed. A week went by and I still didn’t have it, so I lived without writing the book for a month and half. Then, I realized I didn’t want to have a life where I didn’t finish this book. I don’t mean for that to sound any more dramatic than it sounds—I just had to finish it. I would have obviously lived on without finishing it, but I wouldn’t have been happy. I started being a little less precious about everything. Instead of worrying about the writing or working really hard at working really hard, I just did the work and stopped worrying about making things easier for everyone. As soon as I did that, the whole world opened. I was writing with more joy and that started to come through.
With The Book Thief, I told myself, no one is going to read this, so you should do this exactly how you want. This time around, I told myself not everyone is going to love this, so I might as well do it exactly how I want. Then I was writing from a much purer perspective, which is to do what’s right by the characters in the book.
This novel follows multiple characters, spans decades, and plays with chronology. How did you ensure that the details were consistent?
With great difficulty. I changed as a writer by becoming a parent, becoming really interested in backstories. We’re all made up of so many things. We’re made up of stories—not only the stories of our lives, but the stories of lives that came before our lives. Clay builds the bridge and it’s made of him, but so much of him is made of his mother and father’s stories. It is kind of hard keeping all those balls in the air. I knew [the many characters and shifting chronology] would be challenging for the reader at times, but it was how Matthew would tell the story.
Bridge of Clay is the first of your books for which you’ve narrated the audiobook. How did you prepare for recording? Were there parts of the process that surprised you?
The hardest thing for me was slowing down because I read quickly. If I read it at my pace, I would have been rifling straight through. The surprising thing was how unnatural it was; I had to slow down to such a point that it didn’t even feel like me reading the book. I needed to remember that people aren’t reading the text and listening to it at the same time, so you need to slow down to a point where people can process what is being said. The guys I worked with in Sydney were fantastic; we had such a great week and half reading it. As the author of the book, you know where every single comma and every word in the book is, so the mistake rate was quite low. We did the final part with pretty much no stoppage whatsoever. It was lucky I didn’t make any real mistakes because going back to add something new would have been impossible. We couldn’t go back when reading with that depth of emotion; it can’t be replicated. It was such a gratifying thing to do. I loved it, I absolutely loved it.
Did reading your book aloud from cover to cover change how you related to or experienced the story?
It’s how I edit usually. Reading aloud helps me concentrate on everything. The big test in reading the audio was whether I’d be embarrassed about certain things. If I read The Book Thief now, I see so many parts where I think, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that.” It’s a good thing because it shows that I’ve grown as a writer. When I was reading Bridge of Clay, I didn’t ever feel embarrassment in terms of the writing, metaphors, or language elements. I’m sure, in five years, I’ll have a different perspective, but right now I know it’s the best I could do.
You’ve worked with your U.S. editor, Erin Clarke, for many years. How has your relationship evolved after working together for so many years? Were you in close contact in the years you spent writing Bridge of Clay? Do you work with another editor in Australia?
Erin’s great because she knows when to just leave me alone [laughs]. It’s probably the editor’s greatest skill. She knows when to say “this is too much” or “this needs more.” Our relationship feels a bit like family; really, everyone I worked with kind of became a Dunbar boy. She can just look at me a certain way and I say, “Yeah, I know.” I feel safe and confident in our relationship. I can ask her anything and I’m not afraid to hear hard truths from her either. I don’t feel injured or upset. That’s where I am with my Australian publisher and editor and U.K. publisher, too. I feel really connected to Erin; we are part of a tight-knit community that is the book.
How does having multiple editors affect the editorial process? Do different editors focus on different elements of the book or writing?
The big change with this book is the simultaneous publication [in multiple countries]. That didn’t happen with The Book Thief, which published in 2005 in Australia, then six months later in the U.S. So, when it came to doing edits for each country, they were spaced out. For Bridge of Clay, I’d do an edit for the Australian edition, then I’d turn around straightaway and do an edit for the American edition, then the Australian edition again. The Australian and the U.K. edits were the same in copyediting, but, early on, the three structural edits were unique. It’s harder, but you also uncover more, too. Keeping the editions consistent, apart from certain small language differences, is important. It was interesting doing the audio: I had to stop at certain points to read through for differences in each edition.
Each editor has their own style; everyone is useful in a unique way. Cate Paterson, my editor in Australia, who has helped me with this book for so long, has quite visceral responses. I see her much more often; we have a no-holds-barred approach. It’s often like Cate, Erin, and I are thinking the same thing, which makes things run smoothly. My U.K. editor, Jane Lawson, is great because she asks a lot of hard questions and gives tough love. I’m lucky to have been able to work with three really amazing, skilled editors.
Like your previous novels, Bridge of Clay is being positioned as YA in the U.S. How do you feel about this categorization? Some countries marketed The Book Thief as an adult novel; is this also occurring with Bridge of Clay?
To my knowledge, only in America is it coming out as a young adult book. We talked a lot about this with The Book Thief, whether it was appropriate for a young audience. As the writer, I don’t think about categories, I just think about books I’ve loved. Loved books transcend categories. This time, the answer is a little bit different. I still wholeheartedly believe what I just said about books transcending categories, but it is a different book and this book does ask a little more of the reader. That’s not to say teenagers can’t read Bridge of Clay, of course they can. The thing is, I love the people I work with and I didn’t want to go to a different division of the publishing house. It’s a book about loyalty and I love the team, so I wanted to put Bridge of Clay out with them. So [being published by a YA imprint] is more a reflection of that than anything else.
Will you be traveling at home or abroad to promote Bridge of Clay?
I’m coming up to America for three weeks. I love visiting and meeting readers. Then I’m going to the U.K. for a week, then coming home and doing a three-week tour in Australia. People always come up at signings and say, “Oh, you must be exhausted!” Well, not really—this is the fun and easy part. The hard part is writing the book. Catching up with people who love books isn’t a chore at all. The alternative is that no one cares, so meeting readers is a privilege.
Are you working on another novel, and is there anything you can tell us about it?
I’m not sure yet. When I was having trouble writing Bridge of Clay, people would say “If this one’s so hard, just write one of your other ideas.” And I would think, “That’s the problem! I haven’t got any other ideas!” I realize now that I have a lot of other ideas, but, then, everything was going into Bridge of Clay. Several parts of Bridge of Clay could be a book on their own. I don’t know if I’ll do something with one of the characters from Bridge of Clay.
I’m often asked if I’ll write a sequel to The Book Thief, which I’ll never do. I feel like it would cheapen the book. But, with this book, I’ll just see. There are ideas there. The Iliad and The Odyssey run through Bridge of Clay. I feel like this book was the war—or at least writing it was—so maybe the next book will be more of an exploration of coming home. I’m just not sure; I’ll just have to see how I feel in the next year or so. I have at least one nonfiction idea, too. It’s nice to be in this position for the moment, but little sparks are appearing.
Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. Knopf, $26 Oct. 9 ISBN 978-0-375-84559-8