Five questions with: author Markus Zusak

Reading: Markus Zusak, Bridge of Clay

Iowa City Public Library — Monday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.

Markus Zusak will read from his newest novel at the Iowa City Public Library on Oct. 21. — Elena Seibert

Markus Zusak was already a successful author before the publication of The Book Thief, the novel that propelled the Australian writer to international stardom, in 2005. But it was another book that he struggled to write for many years. Eventually, he found his way into the story and that book, Bridge of Clay, was released this year out in paperback. Zusak is returning to Eastern Iowa to read from Bridge of Clay at the Iowa City Public Library on Monday, Oct. 21. Readers are asked to bring only one previously-purchased book for signing; copies of Bridge of Clay will be available for purchase and signing at the event.

What was the origin of Bridge of Clay and its story of the Dunbar brothers? I know the book took you quite some time to complete, and I’m interested in what you found to be the particular difficulties involved in its writing.

Bridge of Clay first came to me when I was about 20 years old, walking around the suburb I grew up in. I saw an image of a boy who wanted to build a bridge, and it would be his one attempt at greatness — to make something perfect and beautiful. To think it’s now 24 years since then makes more sense than I originally thought. It took five published books (plus several other failed writing projects) to truly feel ready for Bridge of Clay.

Even when I started, after The Book Thief, I realized that I was trying to write better than I really am, trying to touch something I couldn’t quite reach. I have no regrets about that now, even though it’s the toughest book I’ve ever had to write. I feel like that’s what I should always be trying to do — to be in at least slightly deeper water than last time.

You’re the narrator of the audio version of the book (and you do a bang-up job). What was the process of recording the book like? Did you find the process of reading it aloud revealed any surprises for you in terms of how you thought of the characters or their story?

Thanks for being so nice about that. Of course, I did worry about how I would go, but I loved every minute of it. I loved going into the studio each day and working with people. (It took just over a week.) There was a camaraderie that I don’t get in my job as it usually is. Rather than hold any surprises, it validated how well I knew the book, and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to it.

‘Bridge of Clay,’ Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2018

You’d had quite a bit of success before The Book Thief, but that novel, of course, really set your career on a new trajectory. Did having an international bestseller of the sort teachers assign in school add any pressure to the composition of Bridge of Clay? Or to think of it another way, does being an internationally beloved author come with any challenges when it comes to sitting down and doing the actual work of writing?

It affected things more than I thought. The beauty of writing The Book Thief was that I expected it to be the least successful book of my career. A book set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death. I thought: No one will want to read this. Then, with Bridge of Clay, I realized a lot of people would actually be waiting for it — but still, one of the best parts of writing is that it always pushes me to go to the areas I need to go. I can’t finish a book unless I feel like it’s the right book for the characters. I have to cross that line (of writing for the people inside the book rather than the audience) and hope it finds its readers by doing that.

Your books are categorized as — and win awards for — YA literature, but I don’t know that Bridge of Clay, for example, is obviously (or exclusively) for younger readers. Do you think of yourself as a YA writer and if so, how do you think that manifests itself in your work?

I agree that Bridge of Clay isn’t really a YA book, which isn’t to say teenagers can’t read it. There were similar ideas when Bridge of Clay was released all those years ago. Rather than position myself in a particular category like YA, I’ve always felt more like it’s my job to grow as a writer, to always look for new challenges, to never write the same book twice, and I think at some point it’ll be nice to look back and be able to say, “I didn’t often take the easy options. I tried to write books I wasn’t sure I could write.”

You’ve been to Eastern Iowa before, for the Out Loud! Author Series in Cedar Rapids, and I know we have a mutual friend in Amanda Zhorne, a key influencer in our local book community (and an all-around great person). Still and all, Iowa is a long way from Australia, so I wondered what you do and don’t like about touring in support of your work and what you might be looking forward to in your return to our community.

The world needs more Amanda Zhornes, because people like her are kind and perennially positive and generous. She held a great event for The Book Thief a few years ago, and one of the best parts of being a writer (for me at least) is meeting readers. When people ask if I’m exhausted at a book event, I say, “This isn’t even work.” Work is being at home, writing — which is the work I love and the only job I ever wanted — and being out in the world with readers is a privilege.

That said, I’ve traveled a lot this year, and 2020 is already set down as a home and writing year. I miss my family while I’m away. I miss my dogs. The trade-off is that when I’m home I’m always home. I don’t go to an office or a job that sees me leave the house early and come home late. I’m just here annoying everyone, and at some point a book gets done, and someone says, “How about Iowa?” and I say, “How could I NOT go to Iowa?” I still feel like one of the luckiest people on the planet.

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