Author Q&A: Markus Zusak

Bridge of Clay (Doubleday, £18.99) 

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Five Dunbar brothers are living – fighting, loving, grieving – in the perfect chaos of a house without grown-ups. Now, the father who left them has just walked right back in. He has a surprising request: who will build a bridge with him? Bridge of Clay is the first book in 13 years from the author of international bestseller, The Book Thief. 

Bridge of Clay has been 13 years in the making. Why did it take so long to write?
Well, there was a fair bit of failure for a long time, but I remind myself now that it’s because I’m always trying to write above myself – to write better than I actually am. In that way, it feels natural to encounter hard times in the process – but it’s also what makes it all worth it.

It’s your first book for adults so you’ll be bringing a lot of your past readers with you. Do you think your stories will continue to age with your audience or do you see yourself returning to YA fiction? 
I think I just see myself writing exactly the kind of stories that are calling to me, and then leave it up to readers to decide if it’s the sort of thing they want to read. What I love is stories, and books, and it wouldn’t really serve me or readers well if I started categorising before I even start writing something. I’ll just try to keep doing what I’m doing, which is to write from the inside out, and then hope it finds an audience.

Social media and smart phones have progressed a lot in the last decade or so. In an age of one-minute reads and communicating through emojis and limited characters, do you think young people are less likely to stick with a 600-page book in the way they did with The Book Thief?
I’ve learned not to underestimate young people at any place, or point in time, ever. People were asking me if young people could handle the length, tone and themes of The Book Thief, and that was before the emergence of social media – and I still get letters and messages from teenagers, and even younger kids, to this day… so I feel like this is a question that’s always been around. In the end, I write books, I love writing books, and I would do it even if I was told no-one at all was going to read it.

Some might assume the brutality and violence in the Dunbars is a prerequisite to brotherhood. Matthew blames the fact they were taught piano and this was seen as unmasculine. What is its root cause?
I think I arrived at writing about the Dunbar brothers in a way that represents boys both as they are and how we would like them to be. As the youngest of four siblings, I know I had backyard boxing matches with my brother and all his friends. I didn’t want to whitewash the physicality of boys, but hopefully combine the complexity of violence and conflict, with love and loyalty, too. I feel a lot like Matthew Dunbar sometimes, who narrates Bridge of Clay, when he says: “It’s a mystery even to me sometimes, how boys and brothers love”.

You are one of four brothers, and the son of German-Austrian parents. To what extent was this book autobiographical?
I think fiction is often both more and less autobiographical than we think. In some ways, there’s more of ourselves in every character, but there’s usually less when it comes to the actual plot. In this case, the story of Penelope – the Dunbar boys’ mother – was based on a true story, but even then, her love of the piano, and of The Iliad and The Odyssey, were elements I brought in through just chipping away at the book. Something might start out as factual, but you shape it piece by piece into fiction.

Matthew says he’s known for bruises, muscle and blasphemy but he’s also sentimental, nurturing, and knows a thing or two about epic Greek poetry. Does Australian culture have a particularly narrow definition of masculinity and what are the implications of this?
I would certainly say it’s no narrower than many other societies. Honestly, Matthew’s view in that particular quote probably has more to do with a sense of being working-class, and having left school earlier than he might have. He’s also talking about reading and knowledge as something we can have without wearing it as a kind of badge. That quote is from the first page of the book, and hopefully it shows us from the outset that not everything might be as it seems.

Conversely, can manual labour help connect people to others and themselves and has this been lost in the mechanisation of traditional trades?
I grew up with a father who was a house painter, and a mother who cleaned houses for a living, so I’ve always had something of that in my blood. I’m writing these answers on a train where people are working on rooftops out the window. People are in all kinds of jobs in and out of railway stations. I’ve always had some sort of connection to work in my books, and I feel like all kinds of work connect us. I’ve just had more experience – or been surrounded by –hands-on jobs, especially in my upbringing.

In our recent interview with Pat Barker* on her new book The Silence of the Girls – a retelling of The Illiad from a female perspective – she said that modern writers continue to be inspired by classics because “perhaps, in a time of rapid social and political change, people need the stability of stories that have stood the test of time.” Would you agree with that?
I do agree, and I think we like to see the origins of things. When we think of Homer, we’re thinking of where stories actually started, and we see instant and sometimes surprising similarities to how we live and tell stories now. In my case, I found a similarity in The Iliad and The Odyssey to Australian culture with the love and usage of nicknames. Achilles is always ‘the fast running Achilles’, Hector is ‘the panic-maker’, and then others, like ‘laughter-loving Aphrodite’… I then saw similarities in storytelling, travelling, and the way we mythologise our lives, even in the heart of suburbia. The classics remind us that humans have always told stories, and always will.

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