Markus Zusak is the author of six novels, including The Book Thief (2005), which spent more than a decade on the New York Times bestseller list. His other novels are The Underdog (1999), Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2000), When Dogs Cry (2001), The Messenger (2002) and Bridge of Clay (2018). In 2014 Markus was awarded the American Library Association's Margaret Edwards Award for his body of work.
ASTRID: Markus Zusak, welcome to The Garret.
MARKUS: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
ASTRID: Markus, you need no introduction. You published six novels, including of course The Book Thief, and your work has been translated into 40 languages and hit the bestseller charts around the world. Congratulations are in order for Bridge of Clay, which you have just published.
MARKUS: Thanks, yeah, it's good to finally have it done.
ASTRID: Now, Markus, I teach at RMIT and you have become something of an icon for budding writers. I woke up this morning and my social media feed was full of posts from my students of you last night in conversation with Magda Szubanski. How does it feel for you?
MARKUS: To me I spend so much of my time alone and working to get all of this right. And so, to me nights like last night when you get to talk about writing, and books, and everything like that it just doesn't feel like work. It's just a real privilege and people often say, 'You must be exhausted,' you know, and I go 'No, I'm not.' I just I love books and I love stories and I love reading and writing and so to get to talk to people about that and hear what they are saying as well. It's just a real privilege so I'm... I'm one of the luckiest people in the world to get to do this job.
ASTRID: You just said lonely, and that was actually one of my questions for you. It can be very lonely or maybe isolating to be a writer. How do you deal with that?
MARKUS: I think firstly to be a writer you have to like being alone. And I do. I love being alone but I'm also... but I also love people. And so that's why being on a trip with a book is actually really gratifying because people are, you know... people in my everyday life aren't that excited to see me. [LAUGHS] And so, when you go somewhere and people are excited to see you because you've written something that means something to them is, you know, you just can never take that for granted. And so, the loneliness of the job, yeah sure. You're always feel like it's up to you no matter how much help you get from people or how collaborative you are, which I'm not usually, I just feel like you've got to take this job on your own and you've got to love that challenge. And I love the idea that writing is one of those jobs that is always testing how much you want it. How much do you want to do it, because it's all up to you. You don't have a running partner you don't have someone to help you along. It has to be how much you want it. And in a case like a book like The Book Thief, I thought, 'No one's gonna read this book, that's gonna be so unsuccessful, it's gonna be ridiculous.' So, do you still write it? That was the challenge with that book. This time around it was people are going to compare this to The Book Thief. And people have strong... some people have strong feelings about that book and people might not love this book and won't love it. And will you still write it? So, it's a new challenge. So, there's always something there saying how much do you want it. And I think that's what tests if you really want to be a writer or not.
ASTRID: Have you ever had doubt?
MARKUS: Well, took 13 years to get this book written so... I have doubt, all the time. I have doubt now about it. I'm really worried about this book and how it's going to how it's going to do. And even though in my heart I know every single word, comma, full stop, every scene, every single story under the stories, and under the story, everything is there for a reason and everything is how I wanted it. And even though I feel like there'll be 20 per cent improvement in this book until the day I die, this was the best I could, I could make it at this point in time. So, I'm kind of at peace with this book now, in a way that I like the idea even we found a typo in it. I found one typo in it and my editor was so devastated that I just said to her, 'You know it's actually really nice. It's actually really nice. It's like Achilles poking his nose through. And Achilles being the mule in the book who sort of exists in that book because you've got a really ambitious character in Clay. And, of course, all ambition is an ass on the other hand. So, I mean I love just the idea then that you've got to let go of it because you can make it more 'perfect' but that doesn't mean you're making it more right. But I wasn't embarrassed when I did the reading for the audio version of it and just in the writing itself. And so, I thought, I think that's going to have to do.
ASTRID: What is it like to be confronted with your words and you narrating your own novel?
MARKUS: To me I had done it so many times throughout the editing and I read aloud when I edit. And so, the way I generally tended to edit this book in the end was I knew I could read it in two days or one and a half days. I'd read five parts one day, the last three parts the second day, and what I do is I just read through it with a highlighter and I don't make any edits on the spot. I just go... not happy. And when I would read through it with other people like with a work colleague from the publishing house, from Pan, and like I remembered... she's just like, 'just put that bloody highlighter away!' You know, 'It's fine!' and, 'No, there's something not quite right there.' And so, then I would go through it and I find where the highlighted bits are and sometimes it's, 'Yeah that's right. I was unhappy with that word', and you change it or, 'That's going too far' or 'There's not enough there', and slowly you're editing out what you don't like and putting new things in that you need.
ASTRID: Have you always approached your work in that way, right back from when you first published? Reading aloud?
MARKUS: I think so, because I think it's always helped me concentrate and it does feel like... it's almost like an unnatural act in that. And sometimes I think it's detrimental, because I think, I don't read books aloud when I read them. But I think that it helps you engage more with the rhythm of it. And this book was written in a very specific rhythm that runs through the centre of the writing. It does veer either side of it where some passages are less rhymey or less rhythmical, but it always comes back to that which was sort of just in the idea of it being an epic suburban story. And the idea of Homer's epics being poems. And so, on listening as much as I'm watching for what I'm looking for.
ASTRID: I began my career as a Latin teacher, and I have so many questions about how you draw on the Greek and Roman epics in Bridge of Clay. But, before we go there, can you explain to our listeners that idea of rhythm and how you put that into the words?
MARKUS: It just started with kind of the idea of playing with words and... or it's a combination of things. So, I generally feel about writing that that you do all this hard work. Like I love when people say, 'So do you dream about your characters? And do you talk to your characters? And do you attack... do your characters take control of the story and talk to you?' And I go, 'No.' I just work on them, all the time, I'm working on them. and chipping away the things that I don't think they need and giving them everything that they do. But you do get given gifts as your writing and they're your little discoveries about what you're trying to do. And in this case, I'd given the characters nicknames like Clay is the Smiler. He's brothers... he's got these four brothers and Matthew is the responsible one. Rory's the human ball and chain. Henry's the money maker, and Tommy is the pet collector. And I like the idea of nicknames especially because they're training at the start at this athletics field and is this larger than life suburban atmosphere. And then, I thought of how in the Iliad and The Odyssey it's never... Achilles never just enters the war. Like, he Achilles, it's always 'the fast-running Achilles entered the fray' or resourceful Odysseus, or patient Penelope, and... some of my favourites like, Agamemnon king of men, and Hector of the glittering helm, and Hector tamer of horses, and so on. And as soon as I thought of the Dunbar brother’s mom being the mistake maker and the next line, I heard was just those repetitions of things like, the wine dark sea, and the watery wilderness. And as soon as I heard watery wilderness in my head, I thought of Eastern Europe, and I thought 'I know this story' and my... my parents in law came from Eastern Europe to Australia in the early 1980s. And I went, 'Oh I know what I'm trying to do here.' It's this... it's a suburban story but they're... but these boys are heroes, you know, and not heroes in that lame way we talk about heroes, often, as in you know just in a glib sort of way. It was sort of like these were larger than life characters to me living big lives in a way, we think our suburban dreams and everyday lives are ordinary and mundane. But we all fall in love, and we all have people die on us, and we all get together, and fall apart, and have arguments in the kitchen, and throw wooden spoons when we get really mad and so on. So, they just, so all of that just felt right. And so, then the idea of just journey making and that's another word that's so overused these days of... Oh it's the journey of–
ASTRID: Odyssey is the original journey. Is it not?
MARKUS: Yeah. It's just I think journeys are perfectly acceptable as long as it's not applied to Australian Idol or something like that.
ASTRID: As long as you're talking in the Homeric epic sense.
MARKUS: Or a book in any in any sense.
ASTRID: I'm so glad with everything that you just said because I've written down here the broken-nose bride, clear-eyed Kerry, these are the epithets that you apply to your own characters like in the Iliad and The Odyssey. And there's a section in Bridge of Clay where you even draw out what you just said the characters are talking about resourceful Odysseus the wine dark sea, which is perhaps the most famous. Was that a deliberate acknowledgement to the classics?
MARKUS: I think it was it was more... it just felt right. And I think one of the things that happens after you've written a book is the meaning starts to come to the surface. It's all buried in there. And you know, it's sort of there but you haven't really articulated it in your mind and... and so it's probably taken six or seven years. And so, I can more readily say it about The Book Thief where people would say, you know, you've got to have... I had a hilarious moment when I've been overseas for the last five weeks and I was actually in an elevator and a guy, the security guard in the elevator, said, 'So what's your book about?' And we talked, we said, this is literally the elevator pitch for, you know, because you get asked, 'What's the elevator pitch for this book?'
And I realized after six or seven years talking about The Book Thief and scratching around well, what is this book about, that you know to say that... Well in Nazi Germany, Hitler destroyed people with words. And this book is about a girl who steals the words back and writes her own story through that ugly world and it's a beautiful story. And... so, in the case of, you know, the idea of journey making and Bridge of Clay and what all this is about and am I saying something about the classics? I don't think I really was. But I know I think what I'm saying is how much I think we're made of stories. And if you take stories off us, or away from us, there's actually not much left. I mean you've got our bodies, but I think stories are actually what our souls are made of. And that's what we're made of. And it's what makes our lives worthwhile. And I think it just so happens that it makes sense to go back to the beginning or the origins of what that is. And you've got the Iliad you've got The Odyssey. And in this case, to the third book that doesn't get mentioned but there's a third book and it's not 'The Quarryman' and which is a book I made up about as a sort of biography of Michelangelo. But the other book that runs through the whole thing underneath it all is actually the Bible. And it's not in a religious sort of way but, you know, it even starts with 'In in the beginning...' And Rory carries a letter box home in his drunken sort of way from the pub and he's carrying the letter box over his shoulder sort of like a crucifix and... and he says something that he feels is side splittingly funny and I just almost like an image system through the book that's there. And if you've read it on that level you know that the book is about a miracle, and the miracle being that Clay wants to walk across the top of the water on top of a manmade structure though. So, I was just interested in the idea of someone trying to make something beautiful and great but knowing that he can't. The only greatness that he will achieve is doing it, anyway, knowing that he could be great. So, I kind of liked that sort of... I don't want to use the word irony because it's something different to irony. I think it's just... it's more of a truth that's a beautiful truth.
ASTRID: As a reader, the way I approached it was that was his epic quest. That was his journey that he had to fulfil. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing David Maloof and we discussed Ransom which was his retelling of a part of the later part of the Iliad. And he has very clear opinions on what current readers and current writers miss out on if they haven't read the Iliad and The Odyssey. And I was wondering what your opinion is?
MARKUS: I think I – and mine will probably be quite different from his because he's five hundred times smarter than me – [LAUGHS] And so mine is I think... I think it's what I've talked about earlier, or touched on a little bit, is just the larger than life-ness of it. And because it's so over the top a lot of the time and... and that... even that idea of, you know, when someone enters the you know the fighting or whatever, and just the descriptions are just so... and some of them are so bloody and so I think the first thing that everyone's missing out on by not reading those two books is just the sheer entertainment and in some cases the sheer comedy of just that... there's some of the descriptions and so just... But I think what it's doing is it they've written with such colour. And so, I think what I think what people are missing out on is the sheer vitality and brilliance in the sense of the brightness of it. And I think they're really... they're really more readable than people would imagine. They go, 'Oh God, you're reading that?' Because I had a copy of The Odyssey and I was reading it on a plane and someone said to me, 'Oh God, you're reading that? Good luck!' I went, 'No it's not... It's not Ulysses.
ASTRID: [LAUGHS] It's not Ulysses.
MARKUS: Although that was one of the names for it. All those, all the–
ASTRID: The Roman version?
MARKUS: Yeah. And all those years ago... And even then, Ulysses is based... it is a retelling of it. I think people, you know, what you understand is that these stories are being told and retold over and over again and it's the foundation of storytelling in the modern world. So, I guess they're missing out on that history lesson. But, most of all, I just think the sheer entertainment of it.
ASTRID: As a teacher, a classicist, and a reader, as I was reading Bridge of Clay, I was secretly hoping, because of course a physical copy of The Odyssey appears throughout the characters are literally reading Homer's Odyssey, I hope Bridge of Clay spikes sales of the classics at some point in Australia. I think they will be better off.
MARKUS: It's better than 1984 being popular for other reasons.
ASTRID: Yeah. There's always that. Now in terms of writing Bridge of Clay and the structure of it, I was really interested in why you kind of posed for the reader rhetorical questions at the beginning. For example, 'Why did he fight but not to win?' referring to Clay.
MARKUS: Yeah. Why was... I think I've always done that. And it's just as... I always feel like my narrator, or me, are sitting in a room in this case Matthew sitting in a kitchen and he is writing to someone. He's talking to someone and I imagine somebody else over in another far-off place I don't know. I'd like... this just as a little bolt of lightning that I just sort of hit me. I mean something like in the film Amélie where there are these two characters. There's Amélie and then there's... I can't remember his name is it... it's not Dominique. It's something else, that's another one. And they... they are flashing little mirrors of each other across the city not knowing who each who they are. But I always sort of imagined that Matthew in this case his talk– typing out and he wants these words to reach somebody else and its sort of easy letting out that line of words and, you know, to reach this other person. And I've always... and that's why I think in my mind the writers always talk to the reader as if it's sort of like here where we are or they are just sitting in the kitchen together and he's telling them a story even though he does it in this you know stylized formal way and there's the repartee. But then there's the oral tradition that he's repeating by saying, 'Once in the time of Dunbar past...' or, 'And so it was' or, 'Before the beginning there was this.' So, there were all these... these repetitions through the book as well so I think that's, you know, he's often just saying well what would you... what would you do, what would you say. And so, I liked the feeling that the writer of the book or the narrator of the book and the reader are in it together and that's the other reason. I mean now I realize now like looking at... it doesn't bother me that other writers do this, but I never talk about having fans. I just I can't use that word to me. I just think I always say readers because I'm a reader and, you know, and I'm a writer too, of course, I'm... but I'm only a writer because I am a reader and so I feel... I want the readers of these books to feel like they're in on it. You know, they're part of it. They're not just reading it from some... from the outside looking in there. I want them to be inside the book.
ASTRID: It's a very intimate experience. It does feel like someone is telling you the story but with you in your own presence.
MARKUS: Yeah, I hope so. And I don't think I've... I've never done that consciously. I've just always... and maybe that's just maybe that's a lot of the books. I mean I don't actually know but probably a lot of the books that I've loved do that, I would say, because you feel like you feel like you really know that person.
ASTRID: Tell me about, as a writer, how did you structure Bridge of Clay. It is, of course, long. Epic length.
MARKUS: Basically I... I have several notebooks that I use. And I usually have a notebook per story idea that I, or per book idea or, I used to now. It was one of the great things writing Bridge of Clay when I was struggling people would say just write one of your other ideas. And I would say, 'That's the problem. I haven't got any other ideas.' [LAUGHS] That now I realize every idea I was having was going into this book. You know there's so... And it was one of those things that I think people can criticize it or say they don't like it, well whatever they want to say, but they can't say it doesn't have any ideas it.
And... and so I structured it by... what I do is I just write chapter headings out over and over and over again. Even in January this year, you know, the book's pretty much sewn up and written. But I did add one last... I changed one last chapter... and out of necessity because I made the change earlier on and I wrote a chapter called 'The Last Letter' and that... it's really a small chapter that's where one seemingly...not insignificant character because without Abby Hanley, Michael Dunbar's first wife, the Dunbar boys wouldn't exist. And... and so that just that one thing and so... I'm always trying to find the right chapter to fit into the right place. But the structure of the book was... I didn't mean it to be, to begin with, but I knew I was going between past and present, generally as the main structure that I liked. The idea that it's the sort of tidal structure which fit in with the idea again of The Odyssey, and the Iliad, and the ocean, and building bridges, and water. And so, the water is always coming in as Clay is going out. And so, Clay's living his life, moving forward to build this bridge, but his past which has started... I just liked the idea that who we are starts long before we're ever born. And we carry a lot of that with us as well. So, I liked the idea that as he's going out the tide of Dunbar past is coming in and that's where we see Penelope's story, the Dunbar boy's mom, and Michael's story. And then the story of the family as they were, as they were before they were decimated by this one event, really. And... And so, I kind of liked that idea of everything shifting, and stories have beginnings, and stories keep beginning over and over again in our memories. And that's what Clay's bridge is actually made of, both present, and past, and future aspirations.
ASTRID: Who was your first reader?
MARKUS: As in the first person who ever read this book?
ASTRID: Tell us about along the way?
MARKUS: I guess, you know, the cop out answer is to say well it's Me, over and over and over again and... I'm trying to, I'm actually trying to think. I mean, a friend of mine died while I was writing this book but that happens when it takes you 13 years to write, to write one. And... And, you know, and she was pretty sick, and she was the first person that I actually ever read the book aloud to and it was just early, the early chapters. And it was actually when it had a totally different narrator, Kerry Novak, Clay's best friend and apprentice jockey, she had a sister at one point called Maggie. And Maggie was the narrator of the book, and it's why then later I had all these problems with Kerry as a character because Kerry was always perfect, she was this perfect character. And this youngest sister was always sort of rubbing up against her saying ah, you know... even I loved Kerry and I hated her for being so perfect. And as soon as I took her out Kerry was quite bland because there was there was nothing rubbing up against her suddenly. And so, I had to really work hard on making Kerry more human. And so, I made her less good at things than she originally was. And I was always lovingly trying to describe her.
And I think that's when whenever someone asks me, 'How do you get people... if you want your readers to love a character how do you get them to love them?' And I don't know how. I'm trying to work that out myself all the time, but the answer I came to with Kerry was I thought, yes, she doesn't... I thought, she's not doing enough that... I can lovingly describe her as much as I want. I can I can describe every freckle on her face, and every part of her hair, or every move she makes. But... like make her do something. And that was why in part 6 there's a chapter called 'Arkansas' I think... actually I know – I mean I shouldn't even muck around, I know every single piece – but it was a new piece I added in when I just went, oh. she actually... she comes to Clay, she just runs at him, and she just hugs him and, you know, in the line was always, 'She hugs him, fierce and friendless.' You know, it's more than friendship. And she's standing up on his feet and it's often the little details she's barefoot and she's standing on his shoes and just hugging him and there's such life in that moment. I thought, that's how you do it you bring her to life by making her live a life and, you know, rather than having the ultimate description of her and so... you'll learn these lessons over and over again as you're writing. You're always like why isn't this working? Why can't I get it to work? It's no different to surfing or something like that where you go, why am I always the shittest surfer out here? [LAUGHS] And then you realize because they're surfing more.
ASTRID: Just in time [LAUGHS]. So, tell me about the editing process.
MARKUS: It's pretty arduous in a lot of ways. And so, I tend to... I need to perfect things before I move on. And so, this is a book written in eight parts. And so, I would say one of the reasons it took so long was because I had problems with part one and I just perfected part one... just over it. And that part I don't know how many pages it is in the book but in my manuscript, it ended up being something that part ended up being something like 39 pages or 38 pages around that. When it was first written was 57 long. And considering it's a book that spans so many decades and this was the first night. And so, getting that right, what I realized... it was actually really detrimental to the whole process in terms of time. I mean I don't regret how long it took me to write this book because I got some of my better ideas for it in the 11th year and in the 12th year and, you know, that chapter of 'The Last Letter' to me was a real revelation in the book where you have a character who isn't seemingly an important character, she's a side character in the book, but she comes out a moment to deliver something really important that gives Clay the impetus to actually go on and finish the bridge. And so, you'll get ideas later on. So... and I mean and that's the other thing that I say to people is take it easy on yourself too. Like if you want to be a writer that, you know, you're going to have so many days when you don't feel like writing. And that's okay. Because I beat myself up all the time and, you know, I just say, 'God, you know, what's wrong with you?' But I think you need to get to that point to then say... because, you know, even while you're having days like that where you do make excuses, and you don't write and, you know, you probably you are still working. Like that's the other thing, working for me sometimes watching two or three movies that I've seen several times before, and thinking about, or just making notes in my notebook, or writing out those chapter headings to organize the book. But you're also cultivating an iron will for the moment because you know the moment is coming when you go, 'This is it. There's no turning back now. Now I have to make it happen.'
And so, the editing process was get part one done, get part two done, and then edit that, and then start part three. But I found myself exhausted then. Like... it was like I'd already written a couple of books and I still had three quarters of the book to go. And so, again I don't regret it because it was it felt very much... I think I was very much in tune with Clay as a character, and the bridge is made of him, but the book is kind of made of me, as it's pretty much everything in me. And I feel like now, up to The Book Thief, I felt like I'd written four books that really meant something to me, meant a lot to me. But then I read a book that meant everything, and Bridge of Clay I thought... well, let's bet everything I've got again let's try to do it again. And, you know, and it's the one thing that I'm, you know, I have a lot of doubts and fears but I also... I think I also know a good effort when I see one. And I felt like this book if nothing else was a hell of an effort at something.
ASTRID: I can only agree. At what point you know at the eleventh hour did you decide it's good enough to go to your publisher? You've got to put it out into the world.
MARKUS: I'd had a really hard couple of... There were two years in particular within the 13 years between the books that were really hard. And there was one... probably 2016 was where I hit the absolute bottom. And so, I've been, you know, I've got a 12 year old and an 8 year old. They'd never seen me put a book out. And I'm... actually the unsung hero of the book is actually my wife because she said, 'Right. It's been a decade.' This is in 2016. She said, 'I'm giving you one week'. And it wasn't to finish the book, it was just to get happy again writing the book.
ASTRID: So, what did you do in that one week?
MARKUS: The same as what I always did. And that weight came and went, just like all the rest. And she said, 'And I think you and Clay actually need a break.' It was not... she talked about him as if it was someone who lived in our house and with us and I guess he kind of, you know, and that's a whimsical idea in a way because obviously he didn't. But it was such a part of our lives. And I think it was hard for everyone. And even though I can separate the writing me from the... the living in the actual world me. But it's still... I think you still carry pieces of it with you and the disappointment. So, I think there was a cloud of disappointment in the house as well. And so, I did stop writing it for about six weeks and it was the same old not... oh, I guess, it is a cliché that you don't know what you've got until you lose it and have it taken off you. And I started writing a side project which was reading like... I thought in the 13 weeks of winter I'll read 13 books that I should have been reading while I was in the quicksand of Bridge of Clay at least, you know. I started doing that and there's nothing wrong with a project like that. You know, you can only kind of win it in so many ways. But there was just this pervading feeling where I just went, 'God, what are you doing this for?' Sort of like, 'When you were writing Bridge of Clay you were writing for the World Championship of yourself.' You know, like... you were just, you know, it was the biggest and best kind of fight, in a way. And it was great because of that. And so, sort of six weeks went by and I went I'm ready now to finish it. And it's what the amazing thing is, and this is why I tell people don't beat yourself up because you've often done a lot more work than you think. And so, when I got back onto it, I stopped... the big thing was realizing that what I was... one of the traps I'd fallen into towards the back end of sort of 2013/14/15 was, I was worried about how big the book was getting. And so, I started trying to trim chapters down to the point where chapters started to read more like chapter summaries than actual chapters. And so, I went back in and the big breakthrough was going back in to the first chapter of, or past chapter, of Part Five 'Growing up the Dunbar Way', where we see the Dunbar family as they were when they were happy, and altogether, and happy in that arguing. It's like my family whenever we go somewhere, you know, like we went to America for the first part of this book coming out and I said, 'Well, you know, we argued our way around New York', for a while but that's kind of a good life. And... And so, just all those arguments and that, and I went, 'Go into that and make it feel like you're living it and don't worry about how big it is.' If it's good enough, it's short enough, you know, or it's you know... And I've always had the idea that a book is as long as it's ideas and it takes as long as it takes to get those ideas right. And once I got my hands dirty and I found the joy again of even the struggles it started to come together, to what I was just about to say earlier, which is I'd actually written I'd done 97 percent of the work. And I'd written 85 percent of the book and it was just, you know. What I hadn't written, there were treatments, and notes, and things I'd written in notebooks from years earlier, and even typed out, that I just needed to write properly and put into the book. And I did have one day, it was December 18 2016, where I got up and I was due the next – because I did say to my publisher and that was how I knew, you know, when you say to a publisher I think I can get it in. And I worked from six thirty in the morning that day and I finished at seven thirty the next morning. So, I just didn't, I didn't really stop and even then, I was so far behind. I was literally just... I had all these notes and it was 4:30 in the morning and I was just furiously just... looking like, punching out, like I'd punch out a chapter in about 15 minutes. And then I'd look at it and I'd go, 'Oh I don't think that's going to work.' And, but the fat, but the funny thing was it was there in its most raw state, and it pushed me, and pushed me, and pushed me to that other realization is... You know, the end of Gallipoli, where Archie Hamilton's in the trench and he says to himself 'What are your legs? Steel springs.' And the reason it brings such emotion to you is that you've seen him do that before. And so, there was one of the last scenes of Bridge... of one of the last scenes of Bridge of Clay where we understand why Clay carries a peg in his pocket. I was like, 'Why isn't this working? Why isn't this working?' And when you're pushing yourself beyond where you can go at quarter to five and you've been working for close to 24 hours you go, what we need to do is let the backstory come back into the book now and give it the meaning. And that's where the emotion is. The emotion is knowing what's happened to the character before and understood... and bringing it to a new understanding and making it worth something now. And so, figuring those things out you only find that out when you, when you have taken that step of saying it's now or never.
ASTRID: You've been living with this book for 13 years. When you handed over that manuscript that, you know, you just finish off after a 24 hour writing stint and, you know, you get comments back from the editor, from the publisher, how do you actually deal with that process with the editor, given that you've been over every word?
MARKUS: I think having been over every word makes it easier because you know what you're willing to fight for. And it's actually, you find that the things that they're asking to change aren't often that big. And so, they don't feel as insurmountable. And so, I’m often willing to bend on 90 percent of things, but there are 10 percent of things that I won't. And, you know, there are times where I had three editors for this book, one from Australia, one from the U.K., and one from America. And there were times, you know, and each brought something different. Like one would just throw a grenade into it and say, 'Well, I don't know?' And that was I think from a more commercial standpoint. And I've never considered myself, you know, a best-selling writer or a commercial writer. And I look at my tastes, and they're not really my tastes either. And so, in cases like that I was able to say, 'How can you even ask me that? How can you even ask me why they call him the murderer?' I mean that's, you know, and like why there needs to be this conflict at the start of the book. I'm sort of like, if you take that out, if they're happy to see their dad at the start of this book, there is no book. But it's good when someone asks you those sort of questions because if you are so... if there's a point if you're sitting there going, 'Oh, you've got a point there,' like, you know, and that's often on a line where you say I think this might be a bit over the top and you go, 'I think you're right. We can change we can take that out.' But if you're going well, firstly, and then secondly, and then there was once where I got up to seventhly the reason that's there is... So, if you find yourself saying there's a reason for it whether it's one reason or many, you know it belongs in the book. Later in the year...everyone laughed because a track changes were just coming into things when The Book Thief was published and then now everyone was saying, 'Jeez are you gonna be okay with track changes?' It's like I'm 84 years old or something. Oh yeah, I can do track changes. And I did it, and I actually loved it because it lent a more collegial feeling to it all where it's not so messy on the page. And so, you could have jokes and you could say things like when, and especially when you know the people quite well, I could say look just so we're clear on this one I would rather cut off a finger than change this. And then you get back a, 'Ah okay. I see what you mean. Yeah, we can... Maybe we'll leave that in.'
And even just other things like getting comments like, 'We should get a T-shirt made that says, "That's just how Matthew talks, okay." or "Deliberately. That's deliberately different."' because, yeah, I like the idea of just the combinations of words. I love seeing things like the old binary code things we're like just all these zeros and ones zeros and ones that would make up you know all those combinations is how I sort of feel about words and how you're just trying to put words together in combinations that make you see the world in a totally unique way that also feels familiar. And I love that idea of playing with words. It's like my favourite line from a book is Michael Choban's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay where he describes a boat coming into New York Harbor and he says, 'The Rotterdam came into New York Harbor like a mountain wearing a dinner jacket,' you know, this big ocean liner and you go what a combination of words.
ASTRID: That comes back to the rhythm that you were discussing at the beginning, how you tell the story throughout Bridge of Clay. It feels very beautiful for the reader.
MARKUS: Yeah, I think it's not just about the story and every sentence I sort of feel like, I hope this doesn't sound twee or whimsical, but I feel like every sentence is a story and every sentence has the capacity for a surprising in it. I don't want to say a plot twist because again I don't... I don't really concern myself with twists in, you know, like I'm not a crime writer or... but I like the idea that you can be surprised by words. And words were... And I like the idea that someone can say, 'That doesn't make sense,' and you go, 'Yeah, but it does make sense. It just doesn't make sense on the top level of things. It makes sense as a feeling,' and then there were certain... like one of the moments in the book that was really questioned at certain points was, 'Why do Achilles – the mule – and Clay seem to have this relationship where they understand what's going on?' and an editor would say, 'Can you make that more clear?' And I'd say, 'Well what do you think it is?' And then they'd tell me, and I'd say you're exactly right. So, I'm not going to explain it because I want the reader to bring that to it and they'll get it. Let's pay them the respect that they need and that they deserve because, you know, let's let them be surprised. Let's let them have those moments without us telling them the punch line or what something means. They know. They just don't know on the most obvious level; they can feel it.
ASTRID: In those 13 years that you were developing and thinking and living Bridge of Clay, did you ever start a different project that might be viable one day in the future? Or is everything in there?
MARKUS: Pretty much everything's in there. But what I've learned writing this book, and you'll like, you will understand this immediately, that when... Well, firstly there are a lot of characters in this book and a lot of them could have had novels of their own in a lot of ways. And when I finished The Book Thief and people would say, I remember one person saying, you didn't say what happened to Liesel between, you know, when all the bombs came down and then you see her all these years later in Australia, like why didn't you tell that. I'm like 'How big did you want the bloody book to be?' And as I've always said I'll never write a sequel to that book. I'll never write it, because it's just had a charmed and magic life and in a way the stories of my parents are buried in that book and so is my love for them and admiration as well. And... But Bridge of Clay is different. And like it's also sacred to me that book. But in a different way. Because I feel like there's a lot of elbowing for room in that book and a lot of characters, as I said, could have had bigger stories of their own. And it's funny there's a failed... sometimes a failed story can become your next book. And Maggie as the narrator, originally, I thought, there's actually I feel like there's a book there and there is, I don't want to say unfinished business, but there's there are places to go. And... but the big thing is, and the main reason I feel like there may be another book that – as a companion, it doesn't have to have the same characters in it – but the Iliad and The Odyssey run through this book and they're... and they're aware of it.
ASTRID: They're twined.
MARKUS: Yeah. They're a pair of books and I feel like this book was the war and that there might be a book about coming home. And it's not necessary... and I don't think it's all about Clay's journey home. I think there are other characters who still need to come home to a different understanding of... and not home as a home, as a place where you live, but different ideas of home. So, there may be a book there and a few things have started standing up in front of me, so we'll see.
ASTRID: For everyone who is not in the room with us right now Markus is smiling. [LAUGHS]
MARKUS: It's one of those things that I realize that, people say 'Why are you a writer or why do you write?' And I'll give a couple of different answers, but one is that I do listen to music sometimes when I write, and I put my favourite C.D. in, and I listen... I'm waiting for my favourite song and then suddenly THE C.D. is finished, and I didn't even hear my favourite song. That's one of the reasons and the other is–
ASTRID: Do you want to share what your favourite C.D. is?
MARKUS: I don't know. I think I just had different... I'm trying to think what some of them were. I did, I guess now, have playlists, you know, I guess I did. But for Bridge of Clay and this is fitting for Clay, I had more like a warm-up song, you know, like I, you know. And I had one of my favourite ones that was this live version of this Neil Young song, 'Crime in the City' that I'd listen to, and then I'd listen and the other thing then I would listen to one of Yann Teirsen's songs from Goodbye Lenin because I love that soundtrack. And there's one that's even called 'Mother's Journey' and it's such a beautiful piece. So, they'd be for a long time my two warm up songs before... and then – so it's a song to sort of take you up and then one to calm you down and then say, right, now we're gonna write. And but, the other thing too is that, it's really interesting that you said you know noted that I'm smiling, is that when I start to talk about a story or stories or, something in a book, whether it's a story I'm working on, or a book that I've read, or, I feel myself come to life. And I think this is what I'm life for. And that's... that's when you know you're a writer and... but also, a reader and just someone who loves stories and, you know, that's why even though it can take 13 years to write a book I still feel really lucky and I go back to the David Williamson quote, now I'm just going on, but the problem with being a writer is you spend so much time alone. But then when you start talking you don't shut up. Is that... it shows you how old I am. It's just that... my DVD of The Club and it's got extras on it and there's an interview with David Williamson and he says, 'yeah, you see these writers and they say every word is like a drop of blood on the page,' and he looks up and goes, 'That's bullshit. You do it because you love it.' And I love that idea, you even love the bad days.
ASTRID: So, your name now comes with a certain cachet, I guess, with publishers but also readers. Have you ever thought about putting something out under a pseudonym, a pen name? I mean, you know, Stephen King did it. J.K. Rowling's done it.
MARKUS: I don't think so because it takes me so... It's so hard for me to write a book. [LAUGHS] I might as well put my name on it. I think I was more likely to do that earlier because I was just a bit embarrassed, you know. I just thought Markus Zusak was a bit of a weird... I didn't like the name Markus for a very long time and now I just feel like... I mean I think there's a very big difference between Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and me. [LAUGHS] I think there's a bit of an abyss there.
So, I've... I've never really. And I don't think, you know, in terms of if I were to say, I was to write something controversial or something, would I do that? I don't know. I just I kind of feel like I'm, i've always been very open about things and sometimes to my detriment, you know, where you give answers to things where you point out what you didn't think was good in a book you write and then that's the one thing that gets written about or whatever and the paper. But I just feel like I'm exactly who I am. And I think there are some writers that you meet and yet they're kind of totally different to their books. But I feel like I'm very much what my books are. And so, I don't think I would use a pseudonym that you know who knows what might happen.
ASTRID: You've just come back from the United States on the book tour for Bridge of Clay. You must come across writers, readers, editors, publishers around the world. When you think about writers trying to get published or trying to get their first break in Australia how can they take advantage of what we have here in Australia?
MARKUS: Yeah. I'm probably to be honest one of the worst people to ask that question. Because when I first got published. I mean I came up on the slush pile. I didn't even know writer's festivals existed. I didn't belong to a writer's group. I didn't... All I knew was that books had changed my life. And so, now I encourage people to be much smarter than I was. And I think honestly, I feel like I came in towards the end of what was a great like a very, very, long golden age of book, and books and publishing. So, now I think the advice I would give to people is, okay, firstly know what you love and don't... I feel like I think I'm trying to take guilt out of the equation for people. For me it's more about the actual writing itself and that is just don't feel bad about, you know, what you're trying to do. But at the same time – I had something better that I was going to say, but I've lost it – Is just too to give that time to make it as best as it can possibly be before you show other people. That said, that's me. I think a lot of other people are more collaborative. And so, yeah, I mean be part of a writer’s group, although I never have been, and I don't advise it, only because I wouldn't be able to do it. And I also think in those situations, I remember doing creative writing at university, and I was... I didn't have the flair to do well in those sorts of tasks, and so I think sometimes belonging to a group can be detrimental. But at the same time, that doesn't matter either. You don't have to shine in the group at all. Because I didn't get good results in creative writing at school, ever. I got good results for essays and I think you need to be a good essay writer to become a novelist because it's all about organizing your ideas and you can have flashes of brilliance but that's not all you need. You need more substance. So, what's available? I almost don't even know what's available because I'm not smart enough to utilize it. But I would say to just get out in the world more and into the writing world more and to go to festivals and to be part of a writing community, I think is smarter, if you can possibly do that. Not that I would.
ASTRID: Markus you are most definitely a reader. What is the book that you most often gift or recommend?
MARKUS: I think it's What's Eating Gilbert Grape because, I mean, and the proof is in this story that I'd given... I had... it's for a very long time, and probably still, not the easiest book in the world to get your hands on at least. I mean, I'm sure now on Kindle, and stuff like that it's really easy, but for a long time as the sort of book that you had to order in, and it would take eight weeks to get here. So, then I'd have it and I'd give it to someone. And so, I was in Portland at the great independent bookstore bookshop, Powell's. And they had about four or five first editions in hardback. And so, I bought one – I mean I should have bought all of them – I bought one, thinking, right, now I've got a first edition. I'm not going to give this one away. And I gave it away. And so, now I still don't have a copy of What's Eating Gilbert Grape but it's, the it's the book that often... the book you give out most as a gift is the one you don't have.
ASTRID: Indeed. Markus, thank you so much for your time on The Garret.
MARKUS: No. Thanks for having me. I could have talked all day as you can see, as you can tell. It's great just to talk about books and writing with people who love those very things.
ASTRID: Books are the best.