Markus Zusak, internationally best-selling author of The Book Thief, makes his long-awaited return with a profoundly heartfelt and inventive novel about a family held together by stories, and a young life caught in the current: a boy in search of greatness as a cure for a painful past.
Join us for a special evening at the National Library as Markus is joined by respected journalist and presenter Caroline Baum to discuss his much-anticipated new novel Bridge of Clay.
Image: Markus Zusak, courtesy Hugh Stewart
Author Talk with Markus Zusak
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Markus Zusak (Z), Carolyn Baum (C)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 12 November 2018
M: Welcome to the National Library of Australia and I'm glad that you’re all in your places now and you’ve beautifully obeyed and you’ve gone in the centre first and you haven’t left too many empty seats so thank you for that.
So look, welcome to the Library tonight. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres and it’s my privilege to be the Director General of this, your own national library. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the Ngambri and Ngunnawal peoples who are the traditional custodians of this land on which many of us live and on which we as the National Library do our work for Australians. I thank their elders past, present and emerging for caring for this land we are now so privileged to call our home.
I’m also delighted that so many of you have joined us today to hear Markus Zusak speak about his much anticipated new novel, Bridge of Clay. Markus is the author of five books including the international bestseller, The Book Thief which spent more than a decade on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into more than 40 languages, establishing Markus as one of Australia’s most successful authors. And I’m sure there’ll be many people in the audience who like me will remember reading those first few pages of The Book Thief and thinking what is going on here? And thinking that it was the most inventive way to start a book I’ve seen for a very long time so –
In 2013 The Book Thief was of course adapted to film by 20th Century Fox with a cast headline by Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and Sophie Nelisse. Markus has been awarded numerous honours for his books. Now these range from literary prizes and I'm sure all authors love to have these but also many readers’ choices awards so prizes voted on by booksellers who know what their readers really like. In 2014 he won the Margaret A Edwards Award from the American Library Association which recognises an author and a specific body of his or her work for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.
Now joining Markus this evening is journalist and writer, Carolyn Baum. Carolyn is the author of Only, a singular memoir published last year. She won the Hazel Rowley Fellowship in 2015 and is currently the inaugural reader in residence at the State Library of New South Wales and you might be able to ask her afterwards what that is like. We don’t have a reader in residence here at the Library but in any given year we actually do have 27 or 28 fellows and scholars coming and using our collection in depth so I guess they’re all readers in residence pursuing their own work.
So please join me in welcoming Markus Zusak and Carolyn Baum, thank you.
Z: Thank you. Hi everyone.
C: Thank you very much, Marie-Louise. It’s lovely to be here. And thank you all for coming out on this wonderful, warm, beautiful evening. But why wouldn’t you come here? I mean this is a very special treat to have Markus here. We have all been waiting for this evening for quite a long time and well I can tell you if you haven’t read the book yet that it was worth the wait. But imagine the relief for Markus who has laboured over this book for 13 years but been thinking about it for 20, to have it born now and out in the world? Especially after a promotional campaign that trumpeted the most anticipated book of the decade. No pressure.
Z: I didn’t write that.
C: No, I know you didn’t write that but I mean really talk about no pressure, that is very no pressure. Bridge of Clay is a big ramshackle book bursting with tenderness and violence, loss and love and laden with symbolism that takes in Homer, Michelangelo, horses, bridges, pianos, you name it. It plays with time, it’s full of humour and irony and it’s a rich feast of a book that you simply cannot take in in one read and for me that really is the sign of the fact that this book is destined to be a classic. I’ve been rereading it now for the second time, amazed at the layering of images and symbolism and themes and I know I'm not getting it all on the second read and I know I’m going to have to go back and read it yet again to excavate the sort of full richness of it. And you know most contemporary fiction that you read these days, you read it once and then you pass it on. That is absolutely not the case with this book so you are in for a real treat.
Z: Sounds like hard work.
C: Not at all. I thought what we would do just so that we can sort of set the tone and give you a taste and a flavour of this wonderful book, if maybe, Markus, you would like to start with a reading and perhaps introduce what you're going to read to us.
Z: Sure. The first thing I’ll do though is I just want to say thanks for coming tonight, you could be at home watching tele and you know these nights are so great and thanks, Carolyn, for doing this as well. But you start these things off and you remember – like I remember when I was 24, 23 and my first book came out and I got sent over to Western Australia to do my first ever reading at a library, it was Margaret River library. And I’ve got nothing against Margaret River even after this story but I went there to do the reading at the library and everyone said oh this is going to be great, it’s a great town, it’s - they love the arts here, they love books and of course I went to the library to do the reading and no-one turned up. And that’s not even the best part, the best part is that the librarian still made me read from my book just for her and - actually I’m lying, there was a guy there, he just wasn’t there for me. He was reading a fantasy novel on the couch at the back and every now and again he’d look up, he’d interject something and then he’d go back to his book.
So for me I never take anything for granted and so it’s great to be here in Canberra and that you’ve all come so thank you and I'm hugely grateful and it just shows as well, it’s a testament not only to an event like this in a library like this but that we still love stories and books and so it’s a real privilege so thank you. You can see I’m just trying to put off reading from the book which brings me to - I just think growing up and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do tonight and if I was going – see now I’m putting it off even more.
But there are just stories that you get from being in a family and growing up a certain way and I grew up with a brother and two older sisters and one of my favourite memories from that childhood was the very first time at Cronulla Beach when I saw – I’d never surfed a wave properly before and – this is a bit like the book, this is going somewhere, you just have to trust me, alright? And just this perfect lump of water came towards me and I remember it was after school, our mum had taken us down there to surf and I went and this perfect wave came towards me and it was probably about this big but in my mind it was this big and it ca – and I just without thinking turned and paddled for it and I caught it and I stood up and I just went straight across the wave. I didn’t do anything else, I just went straight across the wave and out of the corner of my eye standing on the beach was my brother who had already got out of the water. So I was 12, he was 14 and out of the corner of my eye I could just see him standing on the beach and he had his towel around him and I could actually see out of the corner of my eye his arms in the air cheering. It’s one of my favourite memories from my childhood.
C: And he’s here tonight.
Z: My brother is here tonight. One of the best things about that story is I hated my brother, you know? He hated me and I mean that’s the joke you have to tell at the end of all of that but it’s not that, it’s those moments when you grow up fighting and measuring each other like who got the most alphabet soup and who got the most of everything and then it’s those moments where you go oh he does love me, you know? I love him and so they’re the moments you hold onto and they’re the moments that are important to this book. What I’ve found is that I think I’m sort of – not trapped but in a good way of remembering stories about growing up and I think every book is about growing up in a way, you grow up in the writing of a book.
Now it’s my own kids who give me the stories and I was down the coast a few – well four years ago with my family and for whatever reason, I don’t know why – we’ve got two kids, two cats and two dogs and in the back of my car there’s just dog hair, sand, lolly wrappers ‘cause my kids are such slobs, they never throw anything out. I took my t-shirt off and I was brushing sand out of the back of my car and I don’t know – I never take my t-shirt off, I never just do that but I did that day and now I know why, it was because I was about to be given a gift, alright? And the gift was that my – and it was a gift for this book and it was because my son came around the corner and he saw me, he’s four years old. There I was without my t-shirt on brushing sand out of the car and Noah, my son, comes around the corner and he stops and he looks at me.
Now to go into the backstory of something else, to preface this story because there’s a story under a story under a story is my kids don’t call me Dad, my kids call me Pop and the reason they call me Pop is because we unearthed all old books I read when I was a kid that have my brother’s name in them. One was the series of the Berenstain Bears and in that – in those stories you know how like there’s the kid and the dad’s always trying to teach him stuff but the dad’s a real idiot? And they call him Pop so my kids started calling me Pop. Alright? So my son came around the corner and he saw me without my t-shirt on and he’s gone hey, Pop, what are you doing here in just your nipples? I don’t know how I reacted but I stopped and I just went but that’s genius, that’s absolute genius and only a four-year-old can come up with that. Of course my second thought was I might be able to use that and –
C: It’s in the book, it is one of the lines in the book which I thought had such a ring of authenticity about it that I thought you must have heard that from a kid. I didn’t necessarily guess that it was your kid but I thought maybe it had happened in your family and that you had just retrieved it because that line is just pure gold. Now you are going to read.
Z: I’m going to read. So I’ll read a couple of pages and we’ll see how we go. It’s another thing, I remember doing a reading in Wodonga.
C: I’ve got no questions, that’s fine.
Z: And a woman came up to me afterwards and she said I really like your books but your reading is atrocious and people say the best things to you when you're a writer. So anyway this is the Dunbar family. Clay Dunbar is the main character in this book, he’s the fourth of five brothers, his parents are Penny and Michael and then Matthew is the narrator telling the story and then there’s Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy and this is what their lives look like.
Once in the tide of Dunbar Pass there were five brothers but the fourth of us was the best of us and a boy of many traits. How did Clay become Clay anyway? In the beginning there was all of us, each our own small part to tell the whole and our father had helped every birth. He was first to be handed, to hold us. As Penelope liked to tell it he'd be standing there acutely aware and he’d cry at the bedside beaming. He never flinched at the slop or the burnt-looking bits as the room began to spin. For Penelope that was everything.
When it was over she’d succumbed to dizziness, her heartbeat leapt in her lips. It was funny, they liked to tell us, how when we were all born we all had something they loved. Me, it was my feet, the newborn crinkly feet. Rory, it was his punched-up nose when he first came out and the noises he made in his sleep, something like a world title fight but at least they knew he was alive. Henry had ears like paper, Tommy was always sneezing and of course there was Clay between us, the boy who came out smiling.
As the story went when Penny was in labour with Clay they left Henry, Rory and me with Mrs Chillman next door. On the drive to the hospital they nearly pulled over. Clay was coming quickly. As Penny would later tell him the world had wanted him badly but what she didn’t do was ask why. Was it to hurt? To humiliate? Or to love and make great? Even now it’s hard to decide.
It was morning, summer and humid and when they made it to the maternity ward, Penny was shouting, still walking and his head was starting to crown. He was very nearly torn rather than born as if the air had reefed him out. In the delivery room there was a lot of blood, it was splayed on the floor like murder. As for the boy, he lay in the muggy atmosphere and was strangely quietly smiling. His blood-curdled face dead silent. When an unsuspecting nurse came in she stood open-mouthed and blaspheming. She stopped and said Jesus Christ. It was our mother all dizzy who replied I hope not, she said. We know what we did to him.
And I’ll stop there. I could get to the nipples part but you know you’ll find that out for yourself hopefully but –
C: I think what that passage does though is capture the poetry and the humour and the humanity of the book in all its glory but before we talk about the Dunbar family who are such a fabulous family that in a way remind me a lot of the kind of families that Tim Winton described in Cloud Street let’s just talk about those 13 years because that’s been sort of written about a little bit in a terrific piece in The Good Weekend about how difficult this book was to get born. And I'm just wondering can you just talk us through some of that business of working on it, abandoning it, dumping huge chunks of it? It’s a very, very painful process that has led to this wonderful creation.
Z: Yeah but having seen someone give birth twice it’s still a lot easier than that. I love it when a man comes up to me and says when are you going to give birth to your book? And I say don’t even talk to me like that because that whole process, it’s hard but it’s my life that I’ve chosen to live and I love – one of my favourite interviews is – this shows how old I am so I’m 43 years old which doesn’t seem that old to a lot of people here but to younger people it is ‘cause I still watch DVDs, alright? And when I watch DVDs I always watch the extras and I watch the extras of The Club by David Williamson and there was this great bit in the interview afterwards where he says oh you see these writers and they say every word is like a drop of blood on the page and then he just stops and he looks at the camera and he goes bullshit, you do it because you love it. You know?
And of course there were times when I didn’t love this book and in times now I don’t, I’m really worried about it and how it’s going to go and how it’s – people are going to compare it but the thing is, the reason it took so long I’m realising now, and I would remind myself this on really bad days and there were a lot of bad days writing this book, I’d just say it’s because you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before and that hasn’t – certainly hasn’t been done by you. I realise now that what I was trying to do the whole time was write better than I actually am. And to me hopefully that’s a noble pursuit. I was never just try – what I’ve realised I don’t want to do is write the same book I wrote last time, I want to get better every time and I don’t just want my career to be more of the same, more of the same. I don’t want to be reliable, I don’t want to be – like the people I admire the most like the Neil Youngs of the world like you can get five Neil Young albums in a row and they’ll – four of them might be terrible but he needed to produce those four to make the one genius one.
So I want to push myself into areas – and I kind of want to push the readers of my books as well to not just expect more of the same, I want people to have to - and some people have said this is a hard book to get to know and I tell them that in the beginning but what I should say as well is that the real unsung hero of this book is actually my wife and that’s because she made me quit in 2016 for four to six weeks and that was the best thing that could have happened because I had to live with it. You know she said I’m giving you one week, she said it’s been 10 years, I'm giving you one week. And it wasn’t a week to get happy – to finish the book, it was a week to get happy again writing it. And I’m not a depressive personality so – I get sad but not to that element where I feel like a failure there but I’m still okay –
C: In the rest of your life.
Z: - with the kids in general with a tinge of that sadness but not – doesn’t consume everything. She said but if you can’t get it together in a week I think you and Clay need a break and it was kind of nice that she talked about him as if he lived in our house with us and that week – that’s a lot better than her saying I think you and I need a break. So – but that week came and went just like all the rest and what had to happen was I needed to hit a point where the old cliché was true that you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. And in these four to six weeks and I started – like she really kicked me when I was down like she’d made me get a – I wouldn’t be on social media at all unless it was for her and she made me write – like she made me get a blog and now – she said now you're going to write your blog. I was like no like anything but the blog and so I started writing a project that was reading all the books like one book per week that I should have read in the time I was in the Bridge of Clay swampland. I started doing that and it just felt empty because I thought - I hit that point where I just went God, when I was writing Bridge of Clay I was writing for the World Championship of myself, you know?
Now I’m writing this which doesn’t mean as much and so after the six weeks came through I went right, I think I’m ready. The difference became instead of working really hard at working really hard I just went get your hands dirty and love it again and it was then that all these great things started coming up. I was worried about readers not loving the book and that they – that it was too long and so my chapters were reading like chapter summaries, not actual chapters. Then I would remember things like what Noah said to me when he came around the corner and they found their way into the book and I was starting to be alive again. I’m at my happiest and my best and I will vacuum the house and do all of those things better when I’m writing well. I don’t do those things to procrastinate, it’s like life gets easier when I’m writing well.
C: But so much of what you’ve said, I mean that’s a very dense kind of analysis of what was going on for you and a lot of that really to me, I’m hearing a lot there about expectations. Your expectations of yourself and also the expectations of your fans and your readers who are waiting patiently and thinking when is it coming? When is it coming? That is incredibly anxiety-inducing but what I think is really interesting is that in 2014 you went out in public and you talked about your relationship with failure and your interest in failure and I always think that failure is a fascinating subject because it is the laboratory for success. If you don’t have the failure you don’t know how to make anything better. You talked in the TED talk that you did about failure as your friend and failure as motivation and I’m just wondering what from 2014, how you kind of harnessed that interest in failure and turned things around, not just not diminishing your wife’s contribution but your mindset changed.
Z: Yeah well she didn’t write anything and – but it’s – nothing – the other thing too is that I have to really stress is that even then, even when I was at that point and I wasn’t working on it I’m still an external optimist and I still actually deep far down somewhere, I know I can do it and I know I'm going to do it. I know that something is going to happen and it’s going to turn it around and I’ll be able to do it. That’s why I tell people – like when people say do you have any writing advice I say take it easy on yourself a bit too like don’t feel like you always have to feel like writing.
So one hand just take it still – don’t call yourself pathetic because you didn’t get anything written today but at the same time cultivate the iron will you need for the day when you go right, this is it. I know that that day is always going to come, there will always come a day where I say come on, you pathetic loser, now you can actually do it and then ‘cause I have these routines where sometimes I do go away to write just for three or four days. Any more than that and you start to waste time and I want to start work at 7:00 in the morning and the easiest thing to do is it hits – you look at the clock and it’s 7:03 and you go oh well, that’s that day shot.
C: Gone. Totally.
Z: Then – but the thing is the wasting of that day, though, might not be the waste you think it is because you might watch Chariots of Fire, Ghost World and Dead Poets’ Society and make notes in your notebook ‘cause you’ve seen them that many times that you’re thinking about things and you feel terrible and then the next day you're even more galvanised and then you do the work.
C: Chariots of Fire creeps into this book so watching the video or the DVD in your case is justified entirely. I’m just wondering in that process and in the way that we’re sort of unpacking your psyche and the way you kind of psyche yourself into the work, are you competitive? The reason I wanted to ask you that question is there’s a lot of competition and rivalry in the Dunbar family, there’s physical kind of competition and there’s all sorts of ways in which people are tested and there’s all sorts of things to be won and lost. Are you competitive with yourself or are you competitive in terms of thinking of a bigger arena and you’re trying to beat someone out there?
Z: It’s a bit of everything. I can’t even say no, I’m not competitive because my brother’s here and he probably remembers me blowing up when we played Trouble when we were kids and that wasn’t very pretty. But losing against him and getting beaten up by his friends in the backyard when we played onehanded boxing ‘cause we only had one pair of gloves, we just had one glove each, actually really steeled me. There’s something in me that likes losing as well like I’m sort of drawn to the sad part because I know that it’s fuel, it’s fuel to do better and – but the best piece of advice when it comes to competition did come from my dad with nothing to do with writing, it was when - I thought I’d won an athletics race and I got put in sixth position and I went whinging to him and he said right, I thought you won as well but you made a big mistake. You didn’t win by enough. You got to win by so much that they can’t take it off you.
Now talking about competitiveness, now it’s my mum who says that. That’s one of my lines you know he stole it off me and so now I think - and the way I think about that in writing is I can’t control numbers, I can’t control who buy, who the be – and I’ve never considered – I mean how The Book Thief is a bestseller is still a mystery completely to me, it was never supposed to be and I’ve never – and on the whole I don’t even like the big budget movies, the big blockbuster – I’ve still never seen Titanic, I’ve never been interested in those things. What I'm interested in often are the movies, are things that you go to more like a Palace Cinema-type experience –
C: An art house film.
Z: Yeah, a little bit more, somewhere between the mainstream and that but – so what I'm trying to do is I’m never trying to beat anyone, I don’t but what I'm trying to do is instead of that distance being to win by so much they can’t take it off you, I try to write so much like myself so that no-one else could have written that. I know, particularly in the case of The Book Thief and now this book, I know that no-one else could have written either of these books and that’s what makes them what they are. That’s my other bit of advice to people when they’re writing is, try to find what it is that makes it you so that you can say this book is actually me even though it’s a work of fiction.
C: Gosh, that’s very profound and very insightful. Of course – well we should talk about the book and we’ve touched a little bit on the Dunbars, you’ve introduced us to them and I’m curious about the fact that there are five of these boys. That’s a lot of characters to juggle. You have one brother who’s here, you’ve got two sisters, why did you decide that you needed five boys and why no sister?
Z: I grew up in – closer in age to my brother and my two sisters are older so I feel like we were the real sparring partners of my childhood and in good ways, in all good ways. It had nothing to do with my own life that it was five brothers, it was purely because I remembered seeing – I remember when The Book Thief was done I went right, I’ve got a choice here, I can write something small and just go right, get another book out of the way or I can bet everything. I can bet everything, I can – like two brothers, three bro – no, let’s make it five brothers and he’s building a bridge, alright, now it’s going to be an arch bridge like now – okay and there’s a girl – he’s got a best friend, she’s a jockey.
I need a mule in the book so they live in a racing quarter and it was sort of like I just wanted it to be everything I’ve got, everything I could put in like – and it was sort of like be ambitious and if you fall it’s going to be a great fall. Like I didn’t want to back up The Book Thief with some – I needed to prove something to myself, forget the world, forget readers, forget everything, it’s like can you do it again? Then for a long time I couldn’t.
C: So this is going back to that quote of Beckett’s that you like, fail better, isn’t it?
C: You love that quote. One of the key figures who recurs throughout the book, who’s woven into the book in the most beautiful and complex way is Michelangelo in reference to a book called The Quarryman and one of the important sort of ideas that we understand about Michelangelo is this idea of the human form that was in the marble. His job was simply to kind of extract the human forms from the marble, that they’re waiting there for him to kind of just chisel them out and bring them to life. Is that how you see the writing process? Is that what you’re doing? Do you have an affinity with Michelangelo or else what’s he doing in the book? Why him?
Z: It was more to do with the idea that what I noticed when I went to Florence to – this is where you never complain about your job, where I went to Rome, Florence and to Avignon in France where there’s the great Roman aqueduct just outside of town, the Pont Du Gard and – which is all these magnificent arches. I'm the only person who could go to Italy and to lose four kilos so – and almost starve to death ‘cause I was so embarrassed about not being able to speak Italian. But I went to the Academia Gallery where the statue of David is and I went in January where there aren’t many tourists. I’d been there before and you see all the tourists, they go past, they go through to the David who’s in this great dome of light and he is, he’s like a prince. It is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, it’s the most magnificent thing.
On the way though are these four statues and plus an extra one but these four statues called The Prisoners or The Slaves and they’re unfinished. All the scratch marks are there, one of them still has the block on his shoulder that he’s trying to kind of get off his head and I immediately saw what I loved and that was I actually loved the slaves more than the David. I knew that Clay was a sort of character who would say anyone can love the David but I still feel like them. That’s no different to the night before you go to bed, you go right, I'm going to go for a run in the morning and then you’re optimistic, you should really go for a run then, alright. ‘Cause then your alarm goes off in the dark and you go oh God, it’s a bit dark out there, not going to go – and in a way that’s the comical version of what I’m talking about, is that we all want to do such great things and beautiful things but we’ve got to scratch our way out of who we are to get there.
And so there is a moment where Clay talks to his dad and his dad – they’re talking about making the bridge perfect, really to atone for their own past and his dad says I’d love to make something like the David one day and Clay actually says – and I ummed and ahed about a young – a boy sort of nearing adulthood having the insight to say – but I thought he'd been through enough to say but we live the lives of the slaves. So it’s less to do with any - that idea of – like Michelangelo was a genius and I’m a tradesman and when you’re trying to create a sort of art form but you never forget that you’re a tradesman. But when you read books about him he was nicer than people give him credit for and God, he worked him.
C: I don’t think he was a tradesman, I think what you mean is he was a craftsman as well as a genius so I think you're a craftsman rather than a tradesman, I think you're talking yourself down there. Just to stay for a moment with – one of the big themes of the book of course is the relationship between this father, Michael Dunbar, and his son, Clay, in terms of the bridge and of course the bridge is symbolic in so many ways but we’ve talked about these five brothers and while I was reading the book for the second time I wondered, there’s a lot of romantic writing in the book and a lot of tenderness between men that you might not expect and that you might not find in other books. Tim Winton has been quoted as saying recently in relation to his book, The Shepherd’s Hut, that he thinks that Australian men are going through a period of toxic masculinity. I wondered what your take on masculinity is, what it is about masculinity that you’re trying to express in this book because you’re not afraid of sentiment and you’re not afraid of tenderness and being romantic.
Z: Yeah well there’s a moment in the book – so the first thing I do is sort of go to a moment and there’s part where the youngest brother is Tommy and when their mum has died and their dad has fled them they end up realising the best way – they sort of spoil Tommy a little bit and they buy him animals. The first animal that – but they hate the animals at the same time and especially the names he gives them which are after – in honour of their mum who really is the heart of the book which is the other interesting thing, that so much is made of the masculinity in the book but it’s actually a woman who’s the centre of it. But anyway they’re looking for this cat, Hector, and – ‘cause he’s gone missing and they’re giving it to Tommy, they’re just relentlessly just this bloody cat and finally he just stops and he’s – runs at them and he kicks at them and he punches them and he’s spitting at them and everything and then he stops and he just says I really miss them and he’s talking about their mum and dad. At that point they all fall on top of him and they pick him up and they take him home.
That leads to the other idea, there’s a bit where Henry slaps Clay across the back of the head after a few choice insults and Matthew, the narrator, says – and it’s one of the biggest lines in the book, actually – he says it’s a mystery even to me how boys and brothers love. So I think I’m not sure I agree that this era of toxic masculinity is true. I think at the end of the day I’m bringing my own, just my own experience of that, is that I feel there’s a lot that’s unsaid but it’s there and it’s buried and it comes out when you need it. I think this book, as well as there’s a – and I didn’t realise this until after it, that there’s kind of a river that runs under that house and it’s actually the love story of these brothers and when they need it they just reach down into it and they take what they need and then they go back to being men. You know?
But that’s a part of being men and so I just like the idea that not much needs to be sa – a lot of those things, it’s like Matthew also says we don’t mind touching, shoulders, knuckles, elbows, arms and so – and certain things where all of my editors are women and there’s a moment where Matthew promises Clay that if he leaves to build the bridge and betray them but he’s going to cop it when he comes back. No-one could understand what was going on ‘cause they thought well why doesn’t he just beat him up now? It’s like no, it doesn’t work like that, he’s got to let him – he respects him by letting him go but he says you’re going to be – I’ll let you back in but first you got to pay. Then they do, they carry Clay back in.
So I think it’s just a – I think there’s a series of knocking down and lifting up and that’s how they prove that they love each other. Actually Matthew is writing this book for one reason and I didn’t realise until I got to the end of the book why he was the right narrator and that’s because he’s writing this story – not even that he has to prove it to himself but he sees how much he loves his brother and that’s why he’s writing the story.
C: Absolutely, it is kind of a love letter to his brother. Time is running away with us and that gives me the perfect opportunity in fact as a segue to ask you about time in the book because you do this very interesting kind of contrapuntal time twostep backwards and forwards but I have to say that all the time that I was reading the book I actually had no idea when it was set. Rereading it in the last few days I’d been waiting until I bumped into some indicator of digital life like a mobile phone and I can’t find one and I’m absolutely puzzled, I don’t know when this book takes place. So can you just talk a little bit about time in this book and how you want it to be experienced by the reader?
Z: Yeah, I hate phones in books and if I pick up a book and the first thing’s an email I just don’t read it. It’s not because I don’t like email and I don’t like phones, I just feel like I want books to still be sacred in a way and there are phones in the book. I can pretty much find a spot pretty much straight away where there is a – there are a couple of - and you might not have it in that version ‘cause I might have put it in later but there – so Hector, the cat – so people often say the real love story of this book is Rory, the really tough brother, the human ball and chain and Hector, the cat and – because he wakes up hung over and that is wrapped around his neck like a wrestler, purring. Then when he first swaps bedrooms he gets out of Henry’s bedroom and he ends up in Tommy’s and the first thing he says is get the cat off my bed, Shithead. Hector, the cat is sitting on the bed going, your bed? And so often he wakes up and his phone is actually squashed under him.
There’s a part at the beginning where - now I’ve said that I can find it. Trust me, I can find it – is where they say if anyone photographed Clay’s training or took a video they’d be taken around the back of the grandstand and duly thrashed. I actually didn’t have any of those things in there but the book is actually set – if you really want to get down to it – sort of around 2000 – in the 2005 to 2010, I just didn’t want to put a number on it. They watch old movie – some people think it’s set in the 1980s because they watch movies set in the 19 – that were made in the 1980s but that’s in homage to their mum who watched those movies to learn English when she moved to Australia. So she loved The Goonies and she loved Mad Max which is technically made 1979 and there’s a whole argument about that as well so it just – I wanted things to be – you’re never told that it’s set in Sydney but if you know Sydney.
C: Well you do refer to the bridge and the bridge is obviously something that they can see and visit so you know that but it’s not kind of rammed down your throat as a Sydney book.
Z: Yeah. I wanted it to be a city that people could recognise and so whether they read a book – and I’ve never – except The Book Thief which was so clearly set in Nazi Germany in that time I never – I’ve always just had a city or a suburb ‘cause I want the reader to bring their own suburb or city into it. The racing quarter where these boys live even down to the – and this shows just – how I said I don’t listen in on people’s conversations but I know something when I see it? That was there used to be a sign in a place where I lived in Sydney in the suburbs where there were two horses on a paddock next to the railway line and there was a sign on the fence and it said anyone caught feeding these horses will be prosecuted and anyone was spelt e-n-y-o-n-e and prosecuted was spelt right.
Then you start writing and then you set a book in a racing quarter. I wanted there to be a mule in the book, the mule is called Achilles, that’s why – all the other animals are in there for the mule to be there and it’s why they live in a racing quarter, it’s why Clay’s best friend is an apprentice jockey, everyone thinks you got to have a great imagination to be a writer but you just have to have a lot of problems. The problem in this book was I needed a mule in it because Clay is a really ambitious character but the idea then is that all ambition is an ass. I knew what the ending was going to be without giving away but the mule is really important to this book and then you start dragging those things in like the sign on that field. It made the racing district work because you could start to believe because the small details and all those little things add up to making a book itself and all these years later, to be sitting here is a minor miracle.
C: We’ve got about 10 minutes left. I don’t know if we can have a little bit more time because we may have started a little bit late so if you’re getting restless and shifty and you’d like to ask Markus a question we have got microphones and we are going to ask you to wait until the microphone comes to you to ask questions so if at this point you’re dying to ask Markus a question then perhaps you’d like to raise your hand and we will come to you. We’ve got a question in the middle, the lady with the specs and then we’ll come to you next. Thank you.
A: Thank you and thanks for your comments so far. I loved The Book Thief but I actually wanted to ask you about my favourite book which is The Messenger and to build a little bit on the comments you made about masculinity and so on because it seems to me that it draws a picture of those characters which are the horrifying, badly behaved, beautiful, vulnerable teenage boys. I haven’t read this one yet but it sounds like the same but I wondered whether you could comment a bit about drawing that character who’s pretty much hated in every society, teenage boys and really drawing them out so beautifully is really a magnificent thing.
Z: Oh thank you. It’s funny hearing people sort of make that noise of agreement when you mentioned The Messenger and I’ve actually found – I was in America for three-and-a-half weeks, I was in England for a week before I started this trip and we had a decision, to either do this here at home first or at the end and we decided to do it in the end and it would – to get people to rea – hopefully gave people time to read the book. What I found on that trip was how many people mentioned that book which I’d always sort of steered away from ‘cause I was embarrassed about the ending and I didn’t quite get the ending right and you realise that now I can look back quite happily on that book and realise that it’s actually had an impact on a lot of people. It’s been – come as a real surprise ‘cause everyone’s always going on about The Book Thief which is great, The Book Thief is a gift but it brought a lot of people back to The Messenger.
I think I was scarred when someone had written on like Amazon or something like that, there was a one star review of I Am The Messenger as it’s called in America and it said I cannot believe the genius who wrote The Book Thief wrote this pile of shit and you get that and being a writer you got to cop that every now and again. But I think that was just that one little thing that kind of got into me a little bit about The Messenger as well and just to show how crazy these people one of the best – like I got a one star review for Bridge of Clay from someone in England who said this author just put this book out ‘cause they – he knows people will read it ‘cause everyone loved The Book Thief and it’s just a quick cash grab. I’m like – like he’s just going for a quick buck and I thought that is the slowest quick buck in the history of writing.
So you realise these people are crazy but – so in talking about mas – that idea of young boys, I mean I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer when I was 16 years old and so I wrote about that. My first attempt was terrible, eight pages that could be entered into a competition for the worst box ever written. So I was in my early 20s when I wrote - I was 23, nearly 24 when my first book came out and I was - in my writing mind I was still at that age and so I understood what it was to feel like a teenage boy, to feel much maligned, to feel – but not whingeing about it either because I had good people in my life as well who told me I was okay. So you feel kind of sick and depraved and dirty and all of that sort of thing and you love that part as well but you also know in your heart that you can do good and that’s what Cameron and Reuben Wolf were and what Ed Kennedy was as well, he’s just an older version and in that book I actually really wanted to make something happen. So thanks for mentioning The Messenger and every now and again I think I might write something with those characters again but nothing stood up in front of me yet but it might.
C: This lady in the blue jacket –
Z: I’ll try to be more concise –
C: - with her hand up.
A: The anticipation. Hi, thank you so much for coming out. You’ve kind of touched on the narrative voice of it being Matthew talking about Clay and how important that perspective is and I’ve also as mentioned before having death as the narrator in The Book Thief is obviously – packs a punch. So at what point in the process do you choose your narrative voice? Is that something that comes along initially or is it something that you realise you need someone who’s outside or unreliable to tell that story?
Z: Okay, really great question and it’s different for every single book. I Am The Messenger or – ‘cause I’ve been away calling it that ‘cause they – anyway I’m not going to go into why it’s called that but The Messenger, the voice was there straight away, straight away. That first chapter wrote itself almost, it’s the only time that’s ever happened to me. The Book Thief voice was a bit different, took a little while to get and even I wrote 250 pages with death as the narrator and then I swapped to Liesel as the narrator. It’s unthinkable to imagine that book without death as the narrator. It’s likely I wouldn’t even be sitting here and you would all be at home watching tele. That was when I had to fight for more and it was when I’ve discovered – I thought oh if – oh this is it, I thought of the last line of the book and I went what if death was afraid of us? Or afraid for us? That’s when it started to work.
With this book I had – there was at one point – for the first six years, actually, not at one point. For the first six years – this is a pretty staggering fact, actually – for the first six years Bridge of Clay, the narrator was a girl called Maggie and she was Carey Novak’s sister, Carey being Clay’s best friend and apprentice jockey and after six years I went I actually don’t like where this is going, I finally admitted the truth and I went right so now what do I do? Clay could never be the narrator because Clay does all of these heroic – he’s the Achilles of this book or the Odysseus and I couldn’t get him to bignote himself about how fast he could run up the stairs or how he was a great 400m runner and he’s also – you spent the whole book getting to know Clay. Actually you don’t find out everything there is to know about Clay until the 99th chapter of 100 chapters, that’s how long it takes to get to know him fully. So Matthew in the end was the right choice. I have Henry, I had – I even tried Rory, I tried Penny beyond the grave, alright? I went can’t have death as a narrator and now the dead mother being the narrator. It’s not going to work. Then I tried the dad and he was just too sad and –
C: Did you try the cat?
Z: I drew the line at the animals. So then I even tried that sort of muse-like character like – so at the start of The Iliad and The Odyssey where it says tell us, muse. He tells the horrible journey that Odysseus had getting home and so there’s a point where you go – I think it’s different for every book where you go oh, this is it and you know when it was for this book? It was when I rewrote the prologue and I had – instead of Matthew sitting on the roof I brought him into the kitchen and now – it was just that little thing where I went now he’s inside the house and he’s in the most important room in the house where everything in this – so much of this book happens. Their mum tells them they’re going to die in the kitchen – that she’s going to die in the kitchen – sorry, not that they’re going to die. That’s death on the first page of The Book Thief.
All these big things happen in the kitchen and – sorry, you’re getting a much longer answer than you probably bargained for and – but it was when he said I’m writing this on a typewriter and I had to go and dig the typewriter up from an old backyard in an old backyard of a town and I went I’m playing now, I’m in the sandpit. That’s when I knew Matthew was going to be the narrator of the book. You’re just looking for a little gift and that’s usually how but not always and it can take 10 years. Or 10 minutes.
C: Not to discourage you in any way but – and of course the typewriter is not the only keyboard in the book so the typewriter keyboard is offset by the piano keyboard and there’s a beautiful symmetry and resonance between those things.
Z: That’s good, I hadn’t actually thought of that. But what I –
Z: I know. Although you are right because that’s how – sorry to undo all your good work, that’s what I'm here for is - Michael Dunbar does actually propose to Penny by writing it out says Penelope Leshushkle, please marry me, across the piano keys so there is – there definitely is and there’s always more at play in a book than the writer thinks.
C: So no more dumb questions or observations from me –
Z: Everything else is totally on purpose.
C: Do we have another question? The lady here.
Z: And I promise I will be shorter.
C: Yeah, right like in this book which meanders all over the place and that’s the great pleasure is – in fact if you look at the generosity of the answers that Markus has given us tonight they are absolutely expressed and reflected in this book which takes you on so many sort of false journeys, down all sorts of kind of red herring sort of lanes but that’s part of the joy and the pleasure of this book. Over to you.
Z: I agree with you on that one. But everything I’m doing now is what this book does ‘cause there’s a – like I said there’s a story under the story and under that story there’s another story and it’s just the idea – sorry, we’ll get to your question in a sec – it’s just the idea that we are all who we are long before we’re even born and those stories are actually in us. Okay, question.
A: The personification of death in this book I thought was a lovely link to The Book Thief and I thought – I took this message from that that death is always present. Did that just occur organically, that you personified death, he’s sitting watching them and waiting and – or is that something that was a conscious decision?
Z: So having gone from using death as the narrator in The Book Thief, in Bridge of Clay death does make a few little appearances in the guise of how we normally see death in something as in we see death from the outside. There’s a point where he’s sitting up on the curtain rod and there’s another point where he's hanging from the powerlines looking at the pigeons either side of him and the last one, he’s got his arm draped around the fridge and it says if he was minding the beer he was doing a bloody good job which is a reference back ‘cause something in the book always does as well is it – there’s repetition in the same way that there’s repetition in The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s just that oral tradition of telling stories. I did do it for all The Book Thief readers out there and I just went oh come on, I’ll give you something and I put – but I did it as a sort of thing of – I would never be so cocky as to wink at a reader but I did it in a way that I just thought – I mean look at all of you like I’ve got – every writer will say I’ve got the best readers in the world but I actually do.
I wanted to just – it just felt right, it felt right for the book, it felt right for readers of The Book Thief and so I just thought let’s leave it in, let’s have a bit of fun. I do also think that – and of course it turns back on itself as well later on when Mathew says we’re always trying to shut the door on death and so just when we got rid of it – but he was always on his way back to us, either on the footpath or on the bus. Then later on he says - by the end of their mum dying he says we always tried to shut it out but now death had so many gives to give. So death in the end always has the last laugh but it’s also our last laugh because death is our ultimate thing that looms over us that makes everything we do worth it. So thanks for noticing and I hope you liked that little cameo in there.
C: That little crumb that he just gave you. We’re nearly out of time but lady in red –
Z: There are three, I’ll try to answer all of them and I’ll be quick.
C: Short and then we’re going to come to you.
A: Hi, I was just wondering which relationship between the Dunbar boys is most like the relationship between you and your brother?
Z: Okay, that’s an interesting one. I would say – that’s a hard one. I think ultimately it’s Matthew and Clay and that’s because I think my brother and I are a lot – we’re chalk and cheese but we’re also a lot more like each other. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and I go oh my god, I look just like him and – in a good way, you know? Sometimes I say something, I say something and I can actually hear his voice and I think it’s all of the relationships, to tell you the truth in one because there are – I had one brother in my life and there are five brothers in that book and I took everything we had and I just dispersed them into the five brothers so we’ve been Henry and Rory constantly fighting and that like the hair of them is described as pointing north, south, east and west as they come up and there’s Lego and just stuff, even socks everywhere in the bedroom. Tommy, sort of the tenderness of the relationship with Tommy as well so I think it’s all the brothers combined, to tell you the truth, is the true answer.
C: That was a short answer apparently.
A: Hi, I wanted to ask, after the success of The Messenger and of course The Book Thief and now this book’s received fantastic reviews as well and the great turnout you’ve had tonight shows how well regarded you are, are you starting to trust yourself more and the voice that you have in your books and basically I’m asking will we wait 13 years for your next book? Do you feel you won’t be as hard on yourself having to emulate the success of The Book Thief for the next one, that you can just trust your instincts and go with the story that you want to tell?
Z: Thank you for that and it’s – I’ve got a funny feeling I’m going to write another book pretty quickly. I’ve fallen – I’ve come out of this whole experience realising how much I love it and how much I need it and actually it’s your failures again that are your friend because actually – and in a lot of ways I can’t believe I’m saying this but the pressure’s off, I’m not on contract, I’m not on anything, I can just do what I want. Maggie, who was the first narrator of Bridge of Clay, I actually think there’s a book for her and I think that much as I’ve always said The Book Thief will never ever have a sequel I don’t think Bridge of Clay will have a sequel but I think it may have a companion piece because you’ve got The Iliad and The Odyssey running through this book and The Iliad is the war and The Odyssey is the journey home of one of the characters. This book was the war and there might be a book about coming home so we’ll see, not promising anything but I think I will write more quickly next time and we’ll see.
C: That is I think a pretty beautiful place to end. Thank you so much, Markus, for your generosity this evening, you’ve been so abundantly kind of giving in your answers and in your insights. Will you please join me in thanking Markus Zusak?
Z: And Caroline as well, thank you, thanks everyone.
M: Perhaps just – I’ve just been reflecting on the love of reading that we have in the audience here and about the eternal optimism of librarians that the book will endure and continue and I’m not sure whether to say this, Markus, is that maybe is a prompt to getting the next book out a bit more quickly. I’ve just calculated in my mind and in that 13 years we’d have collected about quarter of a million Australian publications in that time so – however most people, we don’t fill the theatre for most of those quarter of a million publications so anyway that’s just something to keep in mind. Look, that does bring our evening to a close and I hope you can all join us, of course, for refreshments upstairs in the foyer. Copies of Bridge of Clay are of course for sale in the bookshop tonight and you’ll receive your 10% discount if you do decide you have to take a copy home. Markus has really kindly agreed to sign copies of his books which I know some of you will really appreciate. So thank you for coming this evening, thank you for loving reading books and thank you for loving writing books and talking about them. Thanks very much.
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