Gig Review: Markus Zusak in Bath

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to join a large and appreciative audience, some of whom had come from as far away as Paris, to hear Markus Zusak talk about his latest book, Bridge of Clay. Markus was interviewed by Mr B from the bookshop hosting the event, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. As is my wont, I made notes throughout the evening and the following is a write-up of these. Much was discussed so this post is quite lengthy. I hope it will be of interest.

Markus told us that he started writing Bridge of Clay when he was nineteen or twenty years of age. He is now forty-three. The idea came to him during long walks around Sydney where he was living at the time. He wanted to write about a boy building a bridge and needing to do this well, perhaps better than he was able. He thought of the title, Clayton’s Bridge, then shortened the boy’s name to Clay. Bridge of Clay seemed apt as, whatever materials were used, the bridge would be made of the boy. Clay may be moulded into anything but requires fire for it to set. At this stage Markus even knew how his story would end – it doesn’t end that way now. He believed this was his best idea and set about writing it.

Somehow he couldn’t make the story work. He moved on to write other books but kept going back to Clay without success. After The Book Thief was so well received he had the time to devote himself to the story.

Markus was surprised by the reaction to The Book Thief. He hadn’t expected many people to enjoy a book narrated by death in which a large number of characters die. He knew that he needed to write another book and Clay was all he had.

Around 2007/8 the family structure in the story came into being. Prior to that it had been very different and had gone through many iterations. He introduced the five brothers – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy – when he realised that a menagerie of animals would be involved. He knew that one of these animals had to be a mule (all ambition is an ass) so set the story in the racing quarter of the city to enable this. From here Carey evolved. The original narrator was Carey’s sister but this didn’t work. The character was cut out.

Mr B asked Markus if his writing process is as fluid as it sounds.

Markus told us that he has all these ideas. He claimed not to have a great imagination but rather sets himself problems to solve. He wanted to include a mule so had to make that work. He came across a misspelled sign on a fence warning passers by not to feed a horse and decided he could use that. The feral brothers came from a picture in his head of boys running up a flight of stairs, goading and challenging each other. He needs to know what happens to characters – their backstory which makes them what they are.

The boys’ mother, Penny, started from the idea of nicknames. She was to be The Mistake Maker and it came to him that she would play the piano and love Greek mythology. Her journey to Australia would be like The Odyssey. Homer used nicknames. Markus’s wife was brought to Australia by her parents when she was six years old. Her parents couldn’t believe the heat, the size of the cockroaches. The chapter on paper houses developed from their stories of that time in their lives.

Markus aims to create memorable characters. Penny looked fragile but was incredibly tough. Although apparently based around the five brothers, it is the female characters who are the heart of Bridge of Clay.

Mr B asked about the origins of the fights on the running track.

Markus told us he always needs to train hard to be good at anything. Clay is training but nobody is sure what for – it turns out he is training to build a bridge. Matthew offers motivation but improvement stalls. Rory realises that Clay needs to hurt – to improve at anything it is necessary to make it harder. Markus remembers a teacher telling him that to get good at running on grass a runner should train on sand.

Boys are very physical. He wanted a contrast between the toughness they display and how much the brothers love each other (love runs through the family like a river). Boys don’t mind touching – elbows, shoulders, fists – but they don’t talk much.

Markus writes books from the inside out. He shows how the boys are and how they would like to be, juggling the rough and tumble with emotion. He didn’t want author quotes on the finished book but did think of having quotes from each of the Dunbar boys – “It’s a bit shit but you’ll love it”; “I can get you a good price for it”, and so on 🙂

Mr B asked about the objects, talismans in the story.

Markus is a collector of things. He and his children have a book of feathers. He is interested in memory and what is treasured. The lighter that Carey gives Clay has several meanings – don’t burn your bridges, clay needs fire to set. The monopoly piece is a reminder of a game played while their mother was ill.

Markus is always trying to write a book that maybe he’s not good enough to write. The book is made of him. He is at his happiest when writing and it is going well. Life is stories.

The real hero of this book is Markus’s wife. in 2016 she sat him down and told him, after a decade of trying, that he had one week to finish the book. When, after a week, it still wasn’t finished she told him to take a break from Clay, to write in his neglected blog. He didn’t want to. He started to write up all the books he would read when he finished. After four to six weeks he knew he was ready to get back to it. He started building up the chapter headings he had noted down in an attempt to progress.

He writes at home amidst the family chaos. Occasionally they will all go away for a few days. He remembers one day, it was very hot, he took off his t-shirt – something he never usually does. His son’s reaction amused him and he thought, I can use that. The writing came to life again. He realised that he was 85% done and six months later he finally finished.

One big change in that time was with Michael Dunbar – a painter who loved the work of Michaelangelo. Markus decided Carey and Clay would have a mutual obsession with a book about the artist, The Quarryman. This now has its own thread.

There is a lot going on in the story but every single piece means something and will make sense by the end. Each idea introduced is part of a jigsaw.

Markus had a lot of ambition for the book. We all live our lives moving forward but take everything that has gone before with us. He wanted the structure to be tidal. Beginnings are everywhere and there are many before the beginnings. This may offer a challenge to some readers but hopefully also rewards. In some ways he wants readers to finish and feel they have been run over by a truck – maybe need to soften that analogy – he wants readers to still remember the book in ten years time.

He has always had a good relationship with his editors. With Bridge of Clay, some of the queries he had to point out the answer was coming if they read on. This may not suit all readers but that’s okay.

Mr B was sent an early manuscript copy of the book that contained handwritten notes on illustrations which aren’t in the finished copy. He asked: why is that?

These were an idea that wasn’t included because illustrations weren’t needed. Words alone leave more to the imagination for the reader.

Mr B asked why in America the book is promoted as for YA while here it is primarily aimed at adults.

This is because Markus wished to stay with the same publishers as previously. He felt a loyalty. He doesn’t regard Bridge of Clay as a YA book but it is down to readers.

Questions were opened to the audience.

Markus was asked what he thought of The Book Thief film.

He didn’t expect the book to reach such a wide audience. Dealing as it does with death, when the producers wanted little kids to be able to watch the film it had to be made the way it was. The book is not for little kids. When film rights are sold the story needs to be handed over. Creative people have to be allowed to be creative. A book is a book (although there are elements in it he would now change – he was very young when he wrote it – he is still young!); a film is film (and it opened up a new audience for the book).

A teacher asked how to get young people interested in books.

Markus is asked this a lot and doesn’t know. It’s not his job. He would maybe point out that reading is tougher than football or TV – challenge them. Also, find the right book for the right person. Take them to a good bookshop such as Mr B’s.

Asked why Matthew was the narrator it was pointed out that this is explained at the end of the story. Markus did change the narrator regularly during rewrites. It couldn’t be Rory as he wouldn’t care enough. Henry is too flippant, Tommy too young. At one stage he nearly cut the brothers out but realised he needed them for colour – and to get the mule in.

None of the final characters other than Clay were in the first version of the book. All the brothers are deceptive and offer flashes of insight. He believes in Matthew the most.

Q: What motivated you to keep coming back to the unfinished work?

This was the book he was destined to write – that sounds corny – he felt it was the book he had to write.

Q: What research did you do for the book?

Markus doesn’t look for facts but rather people. Ideas can leap out from their stories and be turned into something else. He uses them as stepping stones.

Q: What are you going to write next?

He may further develop a minor existing character, or look at the time after the setting of The Book Thief – at what would happen next. He is not contracted to anyone so can write for the joy of it and see what happens.

Q: A favourite quote from Bridge of Clay?

“It’s a mystery to me how boys and brothers love”

Q: Did Homer influence the style of writing?

Yes, that was deliberate. The rhythm and cadence, the epic nature. This is a suburban epic. All lives have epic moments.

Q: Does the book feel finished now, after being in your life for so long? Will the brothers grow old as your life progresses?

Markus may well revisit them. Characters don’t arrive fully formed, they have to be worked on and developed. They become akin to friends.

When his publisher suggested he must feel great to finally finish he admitted to feeling terrible. After the high of all the hard work it all felt flat.

Q: Do you have a nickname?

There are many nicknames in the family and all evolve over time. A friend called him Small and his son then became Little Small. His sister called him Golden Boy (here he is with his books) and when The Book Thief did so well this became Platinum Boy, and then PB – he doesn’t think this suits him at all but the stories behind the names are what interest. The dedications in the book are to his family and are their nicknames.

Q: Would you allow Bridge of Clay to be made into a film?

Markus doesn’t know. He loves books and loves films but who should he give it to? They might do something different with it which may work or may not. He would be just as happy if it isn’t made into a film.

Q: When writing are you a prolific reader?

No, but he likes a book with a good voice, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Good characters make good books.

Markus was then asked to sign books and the queue snaked all the way around the large church venue, several people deep, and out the door. Unable to delay so long I took my final few photographs and made my way home. It was an evening well worth attending.

Bridge of Clay is published by Doubleday.

You may read my review here.

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Book Review: Bridge of Clay

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The best storytellers draw the listener or reader into their tale with a mixture of voice, content and anticipation. At each stage in the telling they must provide sufficient background for context but not become waylaid by irrelevant tangents. Their audience must remain eager to know what happens next, attention effortlessly retained.

Bridge of Clay is close to six hundred pages long so holding this reader’s full attention was going to be a challenge. I prefer short books, devoid of padding, where every word is necessary for pleasure and progression. Markus Zusak exceeds beyond expectations, and these were high given his last publication was The Book Thief.

Set in and around Sydney, Australia, the focus of the story is the Dunbar family. The narrator is the eldest of five boys. They are Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy. They live in the family home with a menagerie of unusual pets. Their mother is dead and their father disappeared. Matthew has been breadwinner and de facto parent since he was in his late teens.

It is hard to pin down where the story begins because it is a family history with many players. The pivotal point is the bridge, but to understand why it comes to be built it is necessary to get to know how this family lived.

And so there is a beginning, because the teller must start somewhere. There is before the beginning, and the time around building the bridge. Each part of the tale relies on strands of history – of the boys, their parents, grandparents and key friends.

Somehow the author makes it work. The narrator’s voice is original, compelling and richly resonant. He takes us through the devastating challenges of loss but also the joy of being loved. He takes us through what it means to live.

The boys’ mother is Penelope, born in the USSR and a talented pianist. The reader learns how her father quietly plotted to give his daughter the chance of a better life, and the heartache caused bringing his plans to fruition.

The boys’ father is Michael, a small town Australian and talented artist. By the time he met Penelope his heart had already been broken, his aspirations irredeemably scarred.

There is also a girl is involved, an apprentice jockey named Carey. She and Clay share their love of a book, The Quarryman, which also has a history.

All this we learn in fragments. It is the necessary context to enable the reader to understand how the five boys ended up alone, viciously fighting each other as a day to day occurrence. Matthew worked hard to keep his brothers together after the loss of their parents. When their father reappears asking for help and Clay decides to leave, it is an end that feels like betrayal.

The reader needs to understand Clay’s reasoning, and it is this that Matthew aims to convey in typing out his story on the old typewriter, dug up from a garden where it lay buried for years alongside a dog and a snake. Clay grew up listening to his mother tell him the family stories. He has now tasked Matthew with their excavation and reveal.

There are reasons why beloved boys become vicious young men. Hurts manifest in differing ways. All may not be as it first appears.

Every life is filled with endings and beginnings. Yet still they continue, however difficult each day may feel.

The short chapters switch between the various threads, progressing each along different timeframes and points of view. Even the best meant actions and decisions in life have cause and effect. Bad things sometimes happen, traumatising survivors in misunderstood ways.

The writing is lyrical, powerful and spellbinding. The threads weave in and out around Clay’s pivotal secret. This reader suspected the truth early on but this in no way detracted from the pleasure of reading. The storyteller has perfectly balanced the crescendos, tragedies and reliefs throughout his tale.

Any Cop?: A book to savour, a reading pleasure, a voice that will linger – this is storytelling at its best.

 

Jackie Law