Markus Zusak’s earliest book tours weren’t thriving affairs. At one event in Margaret River, an unforgiving librarian had Zusak read from his first book, The Underdog, to an empty room.
Six books and 18 years later, he’s on tour again, this time to promote his new novel, Bridge of Clay. It’s a full house this time at the Melbourne Athenaeum for the first event on the Australian leg of the tour – a conversation with Magda Szubanski, courtesy of Readings.
Zusak’s international breakthrough came via The Book Thief, released in 2005. Deeply evocative and set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, the novel is narrated by death, a hard act to follow.
It took 13 years for Zusak to finish Bridge of Clay, a point Szubanski raises straight away. “You can’t have needed the dough …” she quips, asking why he bothered with the struggle.
Zusak had Bridge of Clay in mind before The Book Thief was released. The fact the idea is 20 years old goes some way to explaining his compulsion to write it. It’s a story about the five self-raised Dunbar brothers. Their mother, Penny, is dead, and their father, Michael, has fled.
Matthew (the story’s narrator), Henry and Rory are the oldest of the brothers, a trio of loveable but miscreant rascals. Tommy is the youngest, an innocent face in a chaotic world of badly-behaved pets, brotherly bust-ups and bad 1980s films.
Clay, the fourth brother, and the quietest, is the novel’s central character, and takes the world on his shoulders when Michael reappears out of the blue. They build a bridge – both literally, and figuratively – to repair their broken family. There are obvious parallels between Clay’s struggle to build the bridge, and Zusak’s creative struggles. Now that both are finished, Zusak say he’s “empty” – like Clay.
Zusak wanted to write something that scared him, something risky, something he mightn’t be able to finish. Bridge of Clay nearly ended up tucked away in a dusty and forgotten drawer.
“Writing is the easiest job in the world to not do,” he says.
“For a while, Clay lived in the house with us. My wife told me Clay and I needed to take a break. I guess that’s a lot better than her saying ‘you and I need a break.’”
When he did finally finish, the book spanned 100 chapters, and 582 pages. Szubanski calls it a “delight” as she tries to keep her interviewee on one topic. In conversation as in writing, Zusak loves tangents.
This is just one example he shares with the crowd about how the book grew and grew in size. Zusak wanted a mule named Achilles as the crown jewel among the array of pets collected by the Dunbar boys, which meant that he placed the household in the midst of a racing quarter in suburban Australia. In turn, that meant he created another character, Carey Novac – Clay’s best friend, his childhood sweetheart, and an apprentice jockey. So, the book is bursting with horse racing stories – of Kingston Town (who couldn’t win, then won), of Might and Power, and of Phar Lap – all for the sake of the mule.
Therein lies the easiest criticism to make of the book – it takes a while to get going, and at times, it’s slow in the running. The last 200 pages are infinitely quicker than the first 300. Coupled with the fact that the story hops between time periods and hemispheres chapter by chapter, it’s not an easy read – but Zusak says it isn’t meant to be.
“It seems like you’re asking the reader to trust you,” Szubanski says.
Given the widespread love and praise for The Book Thief, most readers will do Zusak the courtesy. Despite the complexity of the narrative, the reward is worth it.
He wanted to paint an entire world, but not just the present one. He tells Szubanski that we’re all made of stories, the stories of our parents and our grandparents and then the stories of our children, so our own individual stories span well beyond each individual lifetime.
Not much goes unexplained in the Dunbar family story, but the descriptions of the location of the house are deliberately vague. What happens in these walls could happen in any in suburban Australia.
Zusak wants his reader to feel like a Dunbar boy, like they’re sitting at the dinner table, or watching Penny slowly battle cancer; bringing their own memories along as they read.
It is a fiercely Australian novel in its idiosyncrasies and in its language, with a nod to Zusak’s Eastern European heritage. Penny Dunbar comes to Australia from the Eastern Bloc, like Zusak’s own parents, who emigrated in the 1950s.
“It’s made of me, and everything in it is deliberate,” Zusak says.
One of the most memorable lines of dialogue was taken from a Zusak family trip up the Great Ocean Road. Zusak needed to clean the back of a sandy car, and caught short of a cloth, he took off his t-shirt. As he cleaned, his son, Noah, asked him, “What are you doing in just your nipples?”. In the book, the youngest Dunbar, Tommy, asks the same question of his father, Michael.
Another is a sign that features in the book as the boys find their mule, which Zusak saw in a paddock in suburban Sydney – “ENYONE CAUGHT FEEDING THESE HORSES WILL BE PROSECUTED”. He’s still trying to work out how someone can spell prosecuted correctly, and then misspell anyone.
“It’s always the little true things that you can use,” he says.
With a self-deprecating laugh at how boring her question is, Szubanski tries to ask what the book is about. She gets 10 different answers.
“Stories. Words. Family. Death. Loss. Grieving. How boys and men love. Violence. Horses…” Zusak says, tailing off.
“So, umm – it’s the vibe.”