Markus Zusak on why his follow-up to The Book Thief almost broke him
It can be hard to follow up one of the most beloved books of all-time.
Just ask Markus Zusak, author of the best-selling phenomenon The Book Thief, which is currently competing for the crown of PBS’s Great American Read — with early reports indicating that the historical novel ranks in the top 40 of the country’s favorite novels ever. Published in 2005, The Book Thief would go on to be developed into a feature film, win several major awards, and sell more than 15 million copies worldwide.
Now, 13 years later, Zusak is finally publishing another book. No pressure, right?
Bridge of Clay follows Clay Dunbar, an orphan of sorts: His mother has died and his father has abandoned him. He and his four brothers are left to raise themselves in the Sydney suburbs; but as the novel begins, he’s left to grapple with the re-emergence of his father, who asks for all of his children’s help in building a bridge into the wilderness. Clay, at least, agrees to join him. The novel weaves between different timelines, ultimately coming together as a family epic that adds a new dimension to the young-adult genre — not unlike The Book Thief.
Yet what truly stands out about Bridge of Clay is the intensity of the prose — the potency of the heartbreak. The depth of grief and loss is so palpable you can all but feel the blood, sweat, and tears that went into crafting the story. This was more than a decade in the making and a true test for its author. “I lost belief in myself for a long time,” Zusak reveals.
He first developed the idea when he was 19 or 20 — surely, not yet prepared as a writer to tackle the story, which spans lifetimes and continents. But Zusak knew it to be his next project after The Book Thief. “I really only wanted to write books, at that point, that I might not be able to write — just that feeling of trying to write above yourself, to write better than you actually are,” he says. “When you start with that mentality, you immediately put pressure on yourself.” That pressure lasted for two decades. And it impacted his home life — his wife told him several years into the process that he needed to “stop,” and several “hard decisions” were made as the book took shape. Initially, for instance, Bridge of Clay was framed by the narration of the Dunbar boys’ old neighbor. “After that much painstaking work with her as the narrator,” Zusak begins, as if still smarting from the decision, “I took her out.”
Zusak ably conjures the chaos of family life and the scars of abandonment; the way memory and tragedy inform the story reads, at times, nothing short of visceral. He drew from some personal experience to write this, but also built out the story by interviewing people, to give the characters’ specific experiences the ring of authenticity.
At over 400 pages, Bridge of Clay is another thick, demanding read from Zusak, and he’s skeptical about the broadness of its appeal. Same went for The Book Thief, though: “I’ve often said to people that book would sink without a trace: ‘Who the hell would want to read that? [It’s] narrated by death; you know everyone dies; [over] 500 pages?’” He believes this book demands more of his reader than anything he’s written before. “Even more consciously than The Book Thief, I was making the world of this family,” he explains. “I wanted all of the countries that needed to be on the map to be there — to make it a full world.” It’s a slower build. The details are more intricate. Nuggets dropped or questions asked in the first hundred or so pages pay off in the book’s back half. “I just wanted to ask the reader to do a bit more work in that way,” Zusak says.
In that way, perhaps, the experience of reading Bridge of Clay may — appropriately — mirror Zusak’s experience of writing it. “You have to do a bit more work but I think the rewards are greater, too,” the author argues. “I hope so, anyway.”
The book is going out into the world as Americans continue to vote for The Book Thief as an all-time classic, right alongside the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. Zusak remains stunned by the frenzy and, as he continues to live in his birthplace of Australia, he’s contentedly removed from it. But what affects him most personally is the knowledge that The Book Thief is so singularly his: “You want to write a book that no one else could’ve written — I know only I could’ve written that book.” He turns back to Bridge of Clay, noting the same is true of his new novel: “It doesn’t have to be better or worse than anyone else’s.”
And that, Zusak, concludes, is why he feels strangely at peace with Bridge of Clay — relieved such a long process has come to a happy end. “I might still be in the glow of the fact that it’s actually written,” he says. “It’s done. It’s done — the book I was at war with for such a long time. The real job’s been done.”