Before 'The Book Thief,' There Was 'Bridge of Clay'

Posted by Goodreads on October 5, 2018
More than a decade after he published The Book Thief, internationally acclaimed author Markus Zusak returns with a novel about a young boy named Clay Dunbar who leaves his four brothers to build a bridge with his father, the man who abandoned them years before. "At its heart it's a book about families and how we all have to strike out on our own but still honor where we're from," says Zusak. "In the case of Clay Dunbar, that means leaving his brothers to build a bridge with the man who tore them apart. His bridge will be made of stone, but it will also be made of him, of Clay."

Bridge of Clay is the story that Zusak has wanted to write since he was a teenager. Goodreads talked to Zusak about the creative challenges surrounding his latest book, the relationships between Clay and the rest of his family, and the signifance of the bridge he builds with his father. "Just like everything we do defines us, the greatness of Clay's bridge—or at least the attempt—will define him," says Zusak.

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Goodreads: You've mentioned having the idea for Bridge of Clay since you were 19. Is there a reason this story continued to stay with you?

Markus Zusak: It's the book I always wanted to write and always had the most hopes for, but I just wasn't quite ready to write it when I was that young. I tried, of course, but I knew it wasn't right. I had a lot of growing up to do, as both a person and a writer. Even in my early 30s, I was ready to start writing it, but somehow unable to finish. It really only started coming together as a whole in the last few years.

GR: How are you feeling now that it's about to be published?

MZ: All manner of things—from relieved it's written to apprehensive about how it will be received. It's a book that makes you work for it a little more than my previous ones, The Book Thief included. But I hope the rewards are greater, too.

GR: You've also said that you could probably continue writing Bridge of Clay forever. There are many authors and aspiring authors who can certainly relate. Why did you feel this way, and how did that shape your approach to the book?

MZ: I usually say that there'll be 20 percent improvement in this book until the day I die, but at some point you do have to let these things go. You realize that you might be able to make them more perfect, but maybe not more right. The thing with Clay as a character is that he's always aiming for perfection, and I think you can fall into the trap of trying to do that in the writing as well. I became too close to it. I was drowning in a sea of words and possibilities and regrets and fears of what was wrong with it. It was only when I remembered how much joy I got from writing, and how writing is what makes me feel most alive, that it all started coming together again.

GR: What can you tell us about Clay and his relationship with his family?

MZ: The irony in a character like Clay is that he's both the most distant Dunbar brother, but he is also the glue that keeps them together. He was the brother who loved their parents' stories and the one described by Matthew (the eldest, and the book's narrator) as the best of them. As the brother who now talks the least, he's the one they listen to the most. And the final contradiction is that he's the brother who has to leave them to bring the whole family together.

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For me, Clay is the kind of human I'd like to be—[someone] who doesn't put himself first, who risks being ostracized for the good of others. He aims to make a miracle, even though he knows he'll likely fall short. But he has to try anyway. In terms of his relationship with his father, Michael, Clay knows something that his brothers don't. He knows why their father left them, and his own part in it, which is something he attempts to atone for. He wants to make a miracle by building a bridge, but the greater feat is bringing his brothers and Michael Dunbar back together—which might not be possible, either.

GR: In the book, Clay's father returns from a long disappearance to ask his sons to build a bridge on his property. Tell us about the significance of the bridge.

MZ: For much of the book, Clay denies that he's building a bridge for anyone other than himself. He claims it as his one attempt at greatness. He doesn't know (at least overtly) that the only way to keep everything that means so much to him (his brothers, his family, and his home) is to walk away from it. He builds a bridge as an attempt at a better version of himself, not knowing that he's also doing it for everyone.

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GR: Art and the challenges of the creative process are an important part of the story as well. Did you feel like there were any parallels between Clay's experiences and your own?

MZ: Well, I think I had more trouble writing this damn book than Clay had building his bridge. It's been 13 years since The Book Thief was published, and I actually had several moments these last few years when I had to face the prospect that I was washed up, that I couldn't really write anymore. I relate to Clay's struggle in that I wanted every sentence in the book to be exactly as I wanted it—every word, every comma. I wanted to write above myself, the same way I think Clay wants to live above himself. I relate to not being satisfied and to falling short, but getting up and continuing on. That's what I love about writing. I've realized I love to be in the fight, and that if I wasn't hurt and wounded sometimes, it wouldn't be worth much at all.

GR: More than ten years later, many readers still point to The Book Thief as their all-time-favorite book. How has the success of that book changed your life? What do you expect in the next phase of your journey with Bridge of Clay?

MZ: When people tell me The Book Thief is their favorite book, I'm still genuinely floored. All writers have different reasons for writing, and for me, part of it is always sitting down and trying to write someone's favorite book, or else what would be the point? The beauty of it is that you also have to reach a point where you stop caring. You have to ignore the audience because you can't write someone's favorite book if you're trying to please them all the time.

Either way, you have to let go and follow your own vision completely and trust your audience to go with you. And I think maybe that's what happened with The Book Thief. It changed my life in more ways than I can even explain, and in most ways so much for the better. It made me realize what sort of writer I wanted to be, at least for now. I want to write books that mean not just something to me, but everyone.

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For Bridge of Clay, it's still too early to say what I might expect. I only know that it's done. It's ready. Every word has been considered. It's how I want it to be, even with that 20 percent I would still love to adjust. For now I'm just relieved it's over and ready to see how it fares out in the world. To give you an indication of that, when I was asked by my publishers if I wanted other authors or luminaries to give quotes to go on the book jacket, I said I didn't want any. I said, "The Dunbar boys have got each other…and they've got me. For now that's enough."

GR: Of course, Bridge of Clay is a vastly different world from The Book Thief. But rather than talk about their differences, let's talk about similarities. Were there any themes or devices that you returned to?

MZ: I became very interested in backstories, which were also important in The Book Thief (although not to the same extent as in Bridge of Clay). Both books feel like coming-of-age and immigrant stories in a lot of ways. Liesel moves to Australia at the end of The Book Thief, and Penelope Lesciuszko—Clay's mother—travels to Sydney to start a new life from Eastern Europe before Clay and his brothers are born.

In terms of writing, The Book Thief felt like I was finding exactly the way I like to write, and that's continued here. Editors still hate me. They plead with me to change an image that seems to make no sense at all, and all the while I'm answering, "It's deliberately different, OK?" And I win some, and I lose some. In the end, I just want the reader to see visions when they read my books. I want them to recognize the world of the book as something they know, but in a way they've never seen it before. I don't agree with the "keep it black and white" rule. I'll happily be criticized for overdoing it now and again. I'll take that over not going far enough.

GR: Before The Book Thief, you wrote other books, including the Wolfe Brothers series. What have you learned from your previous work? How have each of your books shaped you as a writer?

MZ: Bridge of Clay actually feels like the combination of everything I've written before, as well as a book in its own right. Probably the most important thing I've learned from previous work is when to move on. When I was writing the third book about Cameron and Ruben Wolfe (When Dogs Cry in Australia, and Getting the Girl in other countries), I could tell about halfway through that I wasn't quite there anymore. I was restless. It was time to reach for something else.

Slowly but surely, each book has become more ambitious, too. But each book has also been the next stepping-stone. It never feels like it at the time. It feels like the be-all and end-all, but soon you start to feel it again. You see more acutely again what you didn't quite get right the last time around, and maybe that's how you start the next book: to atone for the sins of the last one.

GR: Of course, our YA fans have a voracious appetite for books. What are some of your must-read recommendations?

MZ: These can vary greatly from minute to minute, but here are the ones I'm thinking of now: Old School by Tobias Wolff (so assured from the first word to the last); Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton (her masterpiece, in my opinion); The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (one of the greatest books about being young and loving music ever); The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (both heartbreaking and revelatory); The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith (not many people's favorite book of hers, but the one I've always loved); The Imaginary Girlfriend by John Irving (by his own admission, a very short memoir by someone who writes very long novels); Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (for me, the greatest of the great seven-part series, which is such a gift to all of us); The Iron Man by Ted Hughes (Where did he come from? Nobody knows.).

GR: And finally, what books are up next on your Want to Read shelf?

MZ: I've gone straight for Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, followed by The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. And having read (and loved) The Practice House by Laura McNeal, I'm now listening to the audio version.

Markus Zusak's Bridge of Clay is now available. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf! Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews, and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-50 of 65 (65 new)

message 1: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Thank you for appreciating Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix! Everyone always says that's their least favorite of the series. It's not my favorite, but I think it's very well-written. I think the reason people don't like it is because Rowling is so adept at writing Harry's teen angst that they feel it themselves, and they don't like that feeling.

I'm looking forward to getting my signed copy of Bridge of Clay in the mail on Tuesday!

message 2: by Autumn (new)

Autumn I cannot wait for Bridge of Clay! I preordered it what seems like ages ago. Book Thief is my favorite book and I vote for it every day on Great American Reads

message 3: by Diana (new)

Diana Sarah wrote: "Thank you for appreciating Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix! Everyone always says that's their least favorite of the series. It's not my favorite, but I think it's very well-written. I thi..."

It's my favorite one!

message 4: by Rosie (new)

Rosie Nguyễn Congrats on the new book. I can relate a lot to what you shared about the creative process in this interview. I am glad you overcame the internal perfectionist and let the book come to light. Sometimes the boundary between "it's still not how I want it to be" and "oh it's good enough to go" is so subtle but painfully difficult to cross. I can't wait to read it.

message 5: by Jillian (new)

Jillian I cannot wait for Bridge of Clay! I consider, both, The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger to be two of my favorite books!

message 6: by Serena (new)

Serena Benson Looking forward to the release.

message 7: by Bookworm13 (new)

Bookworm13 Why does no one ever mention the messenger? That’s my fav book of all time! I can’t wait for this new book!!!

message 8: by Ursula (new)

Ursula Thanks for the insights into your writing. I'll be interested to read about the emotions in what seems to be an all-male family in Bridge of Clay.

Now I will be thinking all day of the different meanings and uses and symbols of the word 'bridge'. It sounds like an old Saxon word, or maybe Norse. And 'clay' too!

message 9: by Figgy (new)

Figgy Bookworm13 wrote: "Why does no one ever mention the messenger? That’s my fav book of all time! I can’t wait for this new book!!!"

I agree, Bookworm13!

So much was done with The Book Thief, but The Messenger was AMAZING and no one even talks about it!

message 10: by Juanita (new)

Juanita The "Bridge of Clay" sounds interesting, I'm glad you sent me this information. I really appreciate that you thought of me. I know I will be reading this book. Thank you.

message 11: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn So glad that you never gave up and accomplished this goal of completing Bridge of Clay. I can't wait to read it! Thank you for allowing me to share some of your thinking and insights that went into writing Bridge of Clay.

message 12: by Jane (new)

Jane Stevenson Would love to preview- a definite to read. Thanks for the opportunity of reading the interview.

message 13: by Vandana (new)

Vandana Parashar So looking forward. Loved "The Book Thief" and "I am the messenger."

message 14: by KJP (new)

KJP The book sounds amazing. I can’t wait to dive in!

message 15: by Scott (new)

Scott Feighner I'll be sure to visit my local Barnes and Nobel Tuesday afternoon and pick this up. It sounds like a winner.

message 16: by Veda (new)

Veda Thank you Goodreads for the interview. The story sounds interesting & along a mind-set of my own creative prose - 'Families Are Hell'

It is something I wish to wrote on the Goodread's Creative element & nope it wouldn't be what you think!

The Book Thief was a fav, yet Order is not, that mean lady Dolores & IMO it (along with the Half-Blood Prince) is when the movies started to not match the book in an exacting way, which drives me cray-cray!

I will put Bridge... on my tbr list & wish Mark much success with it & future endeavors.

message 17: by Linda (new)

Linda Markus.....please don’t let anyone or anything change your is many lives have been touched by you, trust yourself.....can’t wait to read Bridge of Clay!

message 18: by Jen (new)

Jen Hodgson Very much looking forward to this next book; didn't know there was another one so that is a happy discovery, will be adding The Messenger to me to read list. Many thanks for the link.

message 19: by Nele (new)

Nele Billen The Book Thief is one of my favorites all time! I surely will read his new book! 9 october, the releasdate, is my birthday 😊. I guess I'll have to wait a little while untill it's translated? 😕

message 20: by Giselle (new)

Giselle Roeder So much in this interview hit a raw nerve in me. To "walk away from it - to bring it home..." , "talks the least, listens the most" and more of those sentences gave me the shivers. I also went far away but kept everyone together.
I loved "The Book Thief" and definitely will read "The Bridge of Clay."
Thank you for sending me the link to this interview.

message 21: by Charlene (new)

Charlene Nelson Yes, I loved the Book Thief and will have to check out this new book .

message 22: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Glad you persisted with the editors in The Book Thief! The unique way imagery was expressed is what I love about the book! Pure poetry!

message 23: by Linda (new)

Linda Hart Looking forward to its release in an audio version!!! The Book Thief is one of my all time favorites. Thank you for writing it.

Dedra ~ A Book Wanderer Just finished Bridge of Clay a few days ago and it was beautiful. I'm still trying to process it. Just lovely.

message 25: by Summer (new)

Summer (speaking_bookish) I loved this interview. It’s so amazing to hear the thoughts of such a gifted writer... can’t wait to read Bridge of Clay!

message 26: by Sara (new)

Sara Downard Looking forward to the release! I wish I could get an autographed copy! One of my favorite authors

message 27: by Maria (new)

Maria Thank you. I am excitedly waiting for “Bridge of Clay”

MoodyReader2.0  Mr. Zusak, I admire your writing style, especially in The Book Thief. I'm looking forward to reading your new book and I'm sure we readers will love it as you have the skill to possess us with your words.

message 29: by Agnès (new)

Agnès I am one of these people who will quote "The Book Thief" as one of my favourite books and I can't wait to get my hands on "Bridge of Clay”. Thank you for the insight!

message 30: by Maria (new)

Maria I love the Order of the Phoenix! It's one of my top three in the series!

message 31: by Jayati (new)

Jayati Many thanks for the interview. Book Thief is my definitely one of my favourite books and am so looking forward to Bridge of Clay.

message 32: by Elisa (new)

Elisa He's such a wonderful person, I'm really looking forward to read the Bridge of Clay.

Also, I will check out some of those recommendations, they seem really good!

Thank you for this awesome interview!

message 33: by Sonia (last edited Oct 09, 2018 04:19AM) (new)

Sonia Flores That was a really good interview. This book will definitely be on my 'must read immediately' list. So good.

message 34: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Sackier Terrific questions, earnest answers. I especially like the nod toward recognizing when effortful work ceases and one must move on to another project. Shelving something, either permanently or temporarily, is simply a fork in the road you may one day revisit. And on that note, I look forward to revisiting Mr. Zusak's wonderful words.

message 35: by Polly (new)

Polly Hall Bridge of Clay sounds intriguing. All family stories are I suppose. How delightful that Mr Zusak tells his editors “It’s deliberately different, ok!”. Let’s all be deliberately different. Ok?

message 36: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Williams Glad I was able to read Mr. Zusak's interview. I look forward to reading this new offering. I think that the family dynamics will relate to many readers.

message 37: by Saralyn (new)

Saralyn Richard I'm sold. As one of the readers who views The Book Thief as a favorite, I'm ready for Clay. As a writer who struggles with the same essential questions as Zusak, I take heart from this candid interview.

message 38: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Krige Great interview. I loved to hear your process Markus, especially the struggles you share as a writer. I get the wrestling with every word and the doubt that comes with putting yourself out there as a writer. Sharing that is inspiration for others who fashion themselves writers as well.
Thank you!

message 39: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Jones I loved reading this interview. Markus, you explain your writing process so eloquently, as well as your aspirations for Bridge of Clay. Being a perfectionist myself, so much of what you said resonates with me. The Book Thief is truly one of the most memorable, beautiful books ever (I have read it 3 times!) and I cannot wait to read Bridge of Clay. I haven't read Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees yet, but her book, A Little Life, is extraordinary.

message 40: by Julia (last edited Oct 10, 2018 11:01AM) (new)

Julia Alberino I loved reading the interview and I can't wait to read Bridge of Clay.

message 41: by Debbie (new)

Debbie The Bridge Clay sounds like something I would enjoy reading, hope I win!

message 42: by Asmita (new)

Asmita The book thief was a book that moved me and shook me from my core. It is one of my favorites but I hope there are no painful deaths in BoC.

message 43: by Bette (new)

Bette Stevens Voted for The Book Thief in PBS Great American Reads and sure look forward to reading Bridge of Clay. Will recommend to our book club.

message 44: by Elisa (new)

Elisa Guenther The Book Theif changed my life. I also LOVE Harry Potter.

message 45: by Larissa (new)

Larissa Siriani That part when he says he thought he'd never be able to write again, that's my struggle as a writer every single day. It feels me with such relief to see my favorite author of all times saying he feels the same way. It's less scary now.

message 46: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Thank you for explaining what it took to have the book that you wanted and what it means to both you and I the reader. I am certain I will recognize Clay's world. Having fallen in love with 'The Book Thief' I am certain I will take to 'Bridge of Clay' as easily. But as of now, 'The Book Thief' will always be my all time favourite.

message 47: by Dana (new)

Dana Salman I heard about this book years ago and when nothing came of it I thought it was just a rumor, I'm so glad it's finally getting published!

message 48: by Kelsey (new)

Kelsey Rae I’ll give it a shot! The Book Thief was wonderful so I can’t wait to read another by him.

message 49: by Kim (new)

Kim Great to hear more about your experiences writing Bridge of Clay. I picked it up last week on a trip to NYC and cant wait to read it now I am back home from my travels. If it is anywhere near as moving and well written as The Book Thief, it will become one of my all time favourite books too.

message 50: by Huma (new)

Huma Adnan Thank you for sharing this!! I can’t wait for the book ❤️

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