After ‘The Book Thief’, a novel that has been a lifetime in the making

John Boyne: My friend Markus Zusak was born to write this riotous Australian epic

Friends and fellow novelists: John Boyne and Markus Zusak

Friends and fellow novelists: John Boyne and Markus Zusak

 

The first time I met Markus Zusak, he gave me a gift of a book, something no writer has ever done before or since. It was 2007, I was on a book tour in Australia and because my fourth novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and his fifth, The Book Thief, were each set during the second World War and featured young characters as their central protagonists, we were scheduled to read at festivals together. These were the books that would change both our lives and, in the intervening years, we’ve remained great friends, with a particular watering hole in Sydney that we call our own. We meet up there about once a year, discussing books, the ups and downs of publishing and the curious experience of being an Irish man and an Australian who somehow found ourselves discussing the Holocaust with audiences for much of the past decade. On those occasions, I’ve always asked him “How’s the new novel coming along?” but never knew whether my question would be met with an animated response or a look of despair.

Some writers reappear after a lengthy absence claiming to have spent an entire decade working on a book when, in reality, they may have taken a few years off before hitting the desk again. But Markus has devoted his life over this time to a novel that I’ve seen him grapple with, become excited by, and even threaten to abandon at times. And just when I thought it might be gone for ever, an announcement came that it was finished. It’s called Bridge of Clay and it’s the novel he was born to write.

When I’m writing well, time opens up and I have room for everything and everyone. I have the life force to do anything. I’m at my happiest then

It tells the story of the five raucous, vivacious and deeply loving Dunbar brothers – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Thomas – their relationship with the father who abandoned them after the death of their mother, and the difficult romantic life this same man suffered from his youth. It’s a novel filled with emotion, with noisy conversations that spill off the page, with riotous Aussie jokes and loud Aussie men. Talking to Markus over the phone from San Francisco, where he was beginning an American tour to coincide with the book’s release, I compared it to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, perhaps the greatest Australian novel of them all, and he said that mentioning that book “in the same postcode” as his own was more than he could ever hope for.

So why did it take so long to write? “I think I had to grow up as a writer,” he tells me in his languid Sydney drawl, for Markus always sounds as if he has spent the morning sunbathing on Bondi Beach and is now considering having an afternoon nap to get over the fatigue. “I didn’t want to have some quirky voice in the book and so I ended up changing the original narrator, who was a girl, to Matthew, the oldest of the five brothers.”

It was a smart decision. Matthew is a solid, dependable young man, and he gives the novel an undeniable moral authority. Only out of his teens, he’s old before his time, for he was the one left with the responsibility of looking after his four younger brothers when their father skipped town. It leaves him filled with a simmering anger towards the man he calls “The Murderer”, and in the opening section, when the father reappears in the boys’ kitchen, along with a menagerie of animals and birds the Dunbars have adopted, there’s a violence simmering beneath Matthew’s calm demeanour that always threatens to explode into something terrible.

But he needed to change more than just the narrative voice. “I became obsessed with chapters that weren’t working,” he says. “With the chaos and the love of the house.” This obsession threatened his sense of self at times, for he admits that, ‘When I’m writing well, time opens up and I have room for everything and everyone. I have the life force to do anything. I’m at my happiest then.”

Zusak is not one of those novelists who would ever complain about his job, even when it’s proving difficult. He loves writing, he always has. That passion comes across in every conversation we’ve shared. But he thinks about his readers, too, and how they’ll react to his work.

There’s a gut-wrenching honesty that makes the story sound as authentic as if Marcus had left a bugging device in a Sydney suburban home

“I struggled with the idea that readers were going to have to commit themselves more to this book,” he says, and in a sense that’s true, for the story of five rough-and-tumble Sydney larrikins does not necessarily have the same global appeal as the idea of Death narrating the adventures of a young girl stealing books that the Nazis want to burn. However, Bridge of Clay is a much more mature work than his previous novel, its themes and characterisation far deeper and more complex. Reading the book, it never feels like it took years to complete, for there’s a cohesion to the story, a gut-wrenching honesty that makes it sound as authentic as if he’d left a bugging device in a Sydney suburban home. And those, of course, are the hardest novels to write.

It was only in the past couple of years that Zusak looked through his mountain of pages and said, “Pull yourself together and finish it. Get rid of it or make it live, because this has to perfect. It has to be the best that I can do. And so I stopped trying to shorten it,” – the book weighs in at almost 600 pages – “and when I read it again, I realised that I was actually nearly finished.”

Now that the book is being published, I assumed he would feel an enormous weight off his shoulders as he looks towards new projects, but no. “Actually, I don’t feel relieved,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve really missed characters. Maybe because it’s about a family, about brothers. And I had to fight hard for them. When I tried to cut a brother, he always called himself back into it.”

Before leaving for the US, he spent more than a week on Sydney’s North Shore, narrating the audio edition of the book, in what will presumably be the last time he reads an epic that he must know by heart. “It was the perfect way to say goodbye,” he tells me, although the success of The Book Thief, which sold more than 10 million copies around the world, means he will probably spend at least the next year talking to audiences about the Dunbar boys while readers once again get the opportunity to tell him how moved they were by Liesel Meminger and Max Vandenburg. “I’ve written four books that mean something to me,” he says, “but this book means everything to me.”

The day after our conversation, I text Markus to remind him of the novel he gave me all those years ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? by Peter Hedges. “Why that book?” I ask him. “It shows that great characters make great books,” he replies. “And it’s both heartbreaking and funny.”

Which is exactly what could be said of Bridge of Clay.

Bridge of Clay is published by Doubleday, £18.99

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