There are many books I have been recommended as must reads by many readers and friends. Some are recommended very vociferously and repeatedly too. One such book was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Many friends wanted to know why a bibliophile like me hadn’t read it yet, and they kept suggesting me to purchase and read that during every sale that came. Eventually, I did. And I think that was one of the good decisions I made when it comes to book purchases. It made a mark that has yet to be forgotten. A book that lived up to its billing. A book whose cover remains one of my favorite cover art till date.
When I heard that MZ was going to be a part of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, it added more interest to the event than there already was. His session became a must-attend immediately, to the extent that the bookish twin DDS and me started planning on going early just to ensure we got good seats to listen to him. Thankfully, we got first row seats. When one thinks of well known authors, there is a misconception that they would be a bit unreachable. Kind of like a movie buff meeting Amitabh Bacchan or SRK or whoever they idolize. From the moment Markus Zusak walked in to his session, there was no doubt he was a down-to-earth, humble man. He conducted himself with that attitude. Admirers asked him for selfies and he obliged. He was honest in his answers and not convoluted either. He held the audience captive with his words, and the way he spoke those words. He was gracious. He was happy. He was charming. And he made the audience feel right at home.
It’s a day later when the bookish twin and I get the opportunity of a lifetime. To interview an author we’ve both admired. We went to the venue with butterflies in our stomachs, but once again, Markus Zusak diffused any nervousness we had had with the way he greeted us, with his calmness. There was no rush to finish the interview. It was like he was at a coffee klatch with two of his friends and discussing his writing journey. For us though, he’s a superstar of the literary world.
He’s at the literary event to launch his latest book, Bridge of Clay. A book that had come after many years. Going through the book earlier, we had noticed that the book had a constantly shifting chronology. To add to the difficulty, the book has a lot of characters through its length and yet is narrated from the POV of a single character. We ask him if he felt it difficult to shape the novel because of this.
“I wanted the book to feel tidal”, he says without any hesitation, “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.”
Our next query relates to death. Death is always a tough concept to write about and The Book Thief took it up in a significant way. Even in the new book, death plays a significant part, even if not as a narrator or as a character. We ask him if that plays a part in how the audience receives his novel.
“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,” he says, “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 a writer and as a passionate reader, I can relate to that last part for sure. Often the characters become such a big part of our life that we feel they really are, of course.
The movie based on The Book Thief is also wonderful. But reading a script is different from reading a book. Reading other books influences the writing style of an author at times. We were wondering if working on a movie script can have that effect too. So we asked Markus Zusak about that.
“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.”
I think many authors consider The Book Thief as Zusak’s magnum opus. Having heard him talk the previous day, we felt that he felt Bridge of Clay was actually his magnum opus. When we asked him about his thoughts on this, he replied promptly,
“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.”
When asked a question in an earlier interview, Markus Zusak had replied that all he had wanted to do was write someone’s favorite book. No doubt many readers across the world would agree that he succeeded in doing so when he wrote The Book Thief. Did he feel that that was still true when he wrote Bridge of Clay, and when he writes further now?
“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.”
Writing a novel changes the author in some way or the other, we feel. We asked Markus Zusak if he felt writing his books had changed him in some way, and he accepted that it had.
“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.”
As we wind up, a question suddenly pops into my mind. The last question of a very important session with a favorite author. “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 with a smile, “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.”
We get some autographs that we’ll treasure for a long time, thank him for his time and take his leave. And of course, we owe a big thank you to JLF and Teamwork Arts (the organizers) for making the dream happen too.