Bridge that took 20 years to build

The idea for Markus Zusak's latest book, Bridge Of Clay, came when he was 20 years old and taking a walk one day

Markus Zusak’s Bridge Of Clay tells the story of an Australian family of five boys. PHOTO: HUGH STEWART

Thirteen years after The Book Thief, Markus Zusak has finally released a new novel - a multi-generational family saga called Bridge Of Clay that had been fermenting in his mind for more than two decades.

"I was 20 years old and always felt really committed to being a writer. I used to take long walks around the neighbourhood (where) I lived and once, on one of those walks, I saw in my mind a boy building a bridge. I named him Clayton," the 43-year-old Australian told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview.

"I thought I would call the book Clayton's Bridge, and then a few months later, on another of those long walks, I thought: No, not Clayton's Bridge - make it Bridge Of Clay. And that was when a whole new depth of meaning and emotion instantly entered the idea."

Writing it was a struggle, he says.

Fired by his conviction that Bridge Of Clay was his best idea, he strove for perfection and had such a hard time writing it that his wife ended up telling him that he and Clay, the book's main character, should spend some time apart.

Bridge Of Clay is his sixth novel, and his first in 13 years.

His most famous work, The Book Thief, sold 16 million copies worldwide and was made into a 2013 movie starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Set in Nazi Germany, the tragic novel is narrated by Death and was inspired by his parents' childhoods in Germany and Austria during World War II.

Bridge Of Clay tells the story of five brothers in Australia whose mother, who previously fled the Eastern Bloc, has died. Their father walks out on the family, but later returns and builds a bridge over a dry riverbed with his son Clay. The story has its own parallels with Zusak's life: Clay is the fourth of five brothers, while Zusak is the youngest of four children.

While Zusak uses a computer to write, notebooks are his books' "first stomping ground".

He plans his novels by scribbling in notebooks. There were 13 or 14 of them for Bridge Of Clay and in them, he would write different chapter headings - one early chapter, for example, is Portrait Of A Killer As A Middle-aged Man.

"The purpose of the notebooks is not only to keep track of where I'm wanting the book to go, but also to always feel close to it. It's my way back into the world of the book when I've been away from it."

Zusak's work has often been described as young adult fiction. But he doesn't seem too preoccupied with such labels.

"I always write from the inside out - which I guess means I'm writing from the inner world of the story and not worrying about who the audience is going to be. Yes, you do worry about the audience for a long time, wondering if they'll stay with you. But you also know in your heart that you have to write the book for the people in the book."

He adds that his father played a role in shaping his attitude to writing. "Once, when I was about nine years old, I thought I won a race at athletics and I was placed in sixth position. When I went and complained to my dad, he said, 'I thought you won, too, but you made a mistake - you didn't win by enough. You have to win by so much that they can't take it off you.'

"That advice has stuck with me my whole life - and when I write, I don't try to be better than anyone, or win, or think of success… I just try to write so much like myself that no one else could have possibly written it."

Zusak lives in Sydney with his wife Mika - a business director and consultant - and their two children, aged 12 and eight. He already has some ideas for a new book and says he will start writing again in the new year.

Is he a big procrastinator?

"Oh, there'll always be procrastinating, but I keep telling people who ask me for writing advice to take it easy on themselves on one hand, but to cultivate an iron will on the other. You'll have a lot of days when you don't feel like writing, and that's okay.

"Then there also just comes a point where you say, 'This is it.' And that's the day everything begins."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2018, with the headline Bridge that took 20 years to build. Subscribe