21 April, 2019

Stealing a moment from the #Author of The Book Thief

It is testament to the power an author’s words wield over his audience when he draws the one of the biggest crowds. We reached the venue of the session half an hour before, and were able to get a front row seat. As the crowd increased, book lovers even sat on the warm grass of the lawn. When we looked behind, we could see the audience standing even outside the hall, quite happy to even hang on to his words, if not be blown over by the smile he had as he spoke. Perhaps some of the organizers and volunteers may have been surprised, but knowing the author’s most celebrated work, we weren’t surprised to see so many bibliophiles waiting to steal some moments from Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, I am Messenger, and his most recent work, Bridge of Clay.

A book lover who sat nearby narrated her experience to us. She had met Markus wandering in the book shop at the venue, and approached him for an autograph, and he had not just signed the book but personalized it for her. We knew at that moment he was humble, approachable. This was assured when we saw him at the other end of the venue as he waited to go on the dais. While the organizer assigned to the session requested fans to be seated and not approach for selfies with the author, Markus himself was as calm as a cucumber, not losing that charming smile of his for even one moment. We record his session for a while, hearing him express his gratitude for accepting his work The Book Thief, and taking it to the heights to which it has gone. He even jokes about the cricket between Australia and India, immediately putting the audience at ease, if they weren’t already. After that, we go away from the video, and just listen. One can’t help but be captured by his words. 

It takes us a while, a day in fact, before we can get that chance of a lifetime. An interview with an author we have admired. We know we are nervous, but it is a happy nervousness. As we try to break the ice with an apology for the nervousness, he just shrugs it off calmly. He talks with us as if we’re three friends catching up over coffee. For us, though, he’s a superstar. 

Markus Zusak’s latest offering Bridge of Clay is a novel that has a constantly shifting chronology. That in itself offers a challenge, but to add to that, the book has a lot of characters and is narrated from the point of view of a single character. We thought this might have made the book difficult to shape. 

When we ask him about it, he doesn’t seem to think about it before he replies. “I wanted the book to feel tidal”, he says, “like the tides going in and out. For Clay, water is important in the book, because he is building a bridge. I always wanted that idea, that the waters then come together. Yeah, it was hard, but I guess then it is a different way of writing, and the struggles are also good struggles.In the end, I just stuck with a present-past-present-past kind of structure, and the things come closer and closer and closer together.”

Any reader who has read The Book Thief would know that Death plays a big part in the novel. While Bridge of Clay doesn’t have Death as a character or narrator, even this novel has death in a significant way. A heart-rending subject but put in a distinct manner in both books, we wondered if that has an impact on the reception of the book from his readers. We asked him about that. 

“I try not to think about it. I love all my readers and they have been quite good to me, quite generous, on the whole, but sometimes they can be punishing when they don’t like the book, or they can be quite dismissive. I am grateful to the readers for taking The Book Thief to where it has gone. I think there comes a point in every book where you cross a line, or two different lines, one that says I’ve been trying to look after you for this long in the writing of this book to keep you reading this, to keep you loving this. The second line is that you are always trying to please the readers, and you’re trying to make them happy, but then there comes a point when you say, I’m writing this book for the characters in the book, and that’s who I write for in the end. When I’m writing the end of a book, I’m writing for Liesel and Rudy and Max and Clay and Penelope or Michael. When I read for someone and they say, why are you crying they’re not real, I say they are real to me coz I’m inside them.”

As readers, we can understand that last part. We’ve fallen in love with the characters too, so in a way, we too feel they are real, and we feel the sting of their departures at the end. 

Even though we try not to do it, at times other books do influence our perception of a book. If that’s the case, we wonder if an author’s style is influenced by the script of a movie based on his book. We ask Markus about this, if his inputs were sought on the script of The Book Thief, and if it was, did it have an influence on his writing style for Bridge of Clay. 

Not at all,” he replies. “I didn’t do any work on the script of The Book Thief. I think that is a good thing that I don’t have control of the movie.” We share that we thought Sophie Nelisse was the perfect fit to play Liesel Meminger in the movie. “It was the one thing I found for that film, I found Sophie. I looked through thousands, and I suggested her to the movie company, and she ended up getting the role. 

Having heard Markus Zusak talk earlier, we thought that he felt Bridge of Clay was his magnum opus. Readers worldwide might consider The Book Thief to be that magnum opus. We asked him about his thoughts on that.

“I think they are different from each other. Bridge of Clay is going to be a tougher book for people to read. The Book Thief has a lot of exuberance and a lighter touch. Bridge of Clay doesn’t depend on Death as the narrator, it’s an epic of a book. With The Book Thief, I feel like I went too far sometimes, though I don’t regret that because I look back and think that was better than not going far enough. Bridge of Clay is a book that demands more of the reader, but I also think the rewards are greater for that. I can’t decide on that. To my mind, Bridge of Clay is actually the better book and its purely because, at least from a writing point of view, but doesn’t mean the world has to agree with me. There’s this idea now that The Book Thief is universally loved, but when I go back and look at the early review, even the local Sydney Herald didn’t necessarily give it a favorable review. Over years, and years, it found the heart of so many readers, even some critics. Readers might forget all that stuff, but the writer never forgets.”

In an earlier interview, MZ had said that all he wanted to do was write someone’s favorite book. There’s no doubt that he has done that, with so many across the world embracing The Book Thief as they have done. We wondered if that was still a factor that drives MZ to write. 

“I think it’s the ambition I have when I sit down to write,” he says. “But it is not front and centre. With Bridge of Clay, you could say it was the opposite. Many have come to me and said that The Book Thief was their favorite book. So this time, I thought I had to write with the idea that Bridge of Clay would be nobody’s favorite book. Am I still gonna have the courage to write, and write it the way I have to write it? Because ultimately, you cannot sell someone their favorite book. You gotta write it first, and write it for what it is, make it beautiful within itself, and as I said earlier, write it for the characters within the book, and forget the reader. The irony of that is that’s the only chance you have of writing someone’s favorite book. You have to try, and that’s the hard ambition, but falling short is no surprise."
We ask MZ if writing Bridge of Clay has changed him as a writer in some way. 

“Absolutely, and in one thing, it stands very small. And that is, up until Bridge of Clay, that I thought I really loved writing. When I wrote Bridge of Clay, I had lot of problems, lot of hardships writing that book, in the actual writing, you know. All the rest of my life is going really well, and so my love for writing was really put on the line hundreds and hundreds of times. Matthew, the narrator in Bridge of Clay, I think writes that book to understand his brother and in the process he realizes how much he loves im and misses him and wants him to come home. I think that’s what writing Bridge of Clay was for me. I was waiting to come home again to the realization of how much I loved writing only to discover I loved it much more than I originally did. I’ve come out of that book really understanding how much writing means to me.”

We ask him, “There has been more than a decade between TBT and BOC. And you just spoke about how you love writing and discovering what writing means to you. From a reader’s point of view, is there already a book in your mind to write next or is it something that might still take a while to come out?” 

He contemplates a moment, and replies, “We should never say never. But one thing I can say for sure is that I will never write a sequel to The Book Thief. It’s just that I can’t. It’s not even an idea of perfection, it’s just that it means so much to me, and it means so much to a lot of people, so I’d have to be an idiot to try and write a sequel. Whereas Bridge of Clay is different because of the way it is written, and because The Iliad and The Odyssey run through the book. And as we know,  The Iliad is the war, and The Odyssey is journey home. Bridge of Clay in a way felt like the war, but there’s a story about coming home I reckon and a story of another time which has always sort of been there so I’m starting to think about that possibly. Few fiction ideas and also a non fiction idea. So I’m not sure just yet, it’s sort of like a barren wasteland out there, in the distance it says in big letters OTHER IDEAS and all these things start to shoot up, so waiting to see which one grows the fastest.”

Special Thanks to Jaipur Literature Festival & Teamwork Arts for making this possible. 


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