Australian author Markus Zusak grew up hearing stories about Nazi Germany, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother’s small, German town. He always knew it was a story he wanted to tell.
At the age of 30, Zusak has already asserted himself as one of today’s most innovative and poetic novelists. With the publication of The Book Thief, he is now being dubbed a ‘literary phenomenon’ by Australian and U.S. critics. Zusak is the award-winning author of four previous books for young adults: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger, recipient of a 2006 Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature. He lives in Sydney.
HF: For those poor, unfortunate people who may not have heard of it, could you briefly describe The Book Thief?
MZ: I always feel sorry for people when they tell me they tried to get their friends to read it...I picture them being asked, 'What's the book about?' and they have to say, 'Well, it's set in Nazi Germany, it's narrated by Death, nearly everyone dies...oh, and it's 500 pages long - you'll love it.' That being said, it's really about a German girl who steals books and reads them with the young Jewish man hiding in her basement.
HF: Death is such an unusual narrator. How did he come to be the narrator of The Book Thief and how do you think his presence affected the novel? How did his character come to have the voice that he did?
MZ: The breakthrough came when I asked, 'What if Death was afraid of humans?' That was the right voice. It was unexpected but it also made perfect sense to me. Our personification of Death should be afraid, because he sees all the destruction humans create. It made sense to have Death tell this story as way of proving to himself that humans can actually be beautiful and selfless.
HF: How much of yourself do you put into your characters? What characteristics do Liesel, Max and Death share with you?
MZ: I guess there's a part of yourself in anything you write, but in this case, I removed myself more than for any other book. It's probably because I did a lot of research for this book, and a lot of the characters came out of that.
HF: Tell me about Max's book, "The Standover Man." What did you hope to convey with Max painting over Hitler's Mein Kampf to write Liesel a story?
MZ: With Mein Kampf bleeding through, I wanted it to be a story of friendship that was
smothering the story of hatred. It was like Liesel and Max were writing their own story of friendship through the ugly world that surrounded them.
HF: I read that The Book Thief was optioned for a movie. When will we get to see Liesel's story on the big screen?
MZ: I'm not too sure yet. Nothing has really progressed so far so I'm still in the position of saying, 'If it happens, great. if not, no worries.'
HF: In both The Book Thief and I Am The Messenger I thought I felt an undercurrent of…spirituality? Do you consider yourself to be religious? What impact does that have on your writing?
MZ: I'm not really spiritual - I think it somehow comes out when I start writing. you can plan your work to the minute details, but you still can't control every word or even some of the feeling that comes out once you get going. Maybe it's hiding in there somewhere and only comes out when I write.
HF: To quote you from another interview *"…I have hundreds of books on my shelf. There are many categories, plus one. At the top of that shelf, are my favourite books – the books that I've loved, and that's the type of book I'm trying to write when I sit down and work."* What books are on that top shelf?
MZ: Some of my favourites are, in no particular order:
- What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Peter Hedges)
- The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
- My Brother Jack (George Johnston)
- The Half Brother (Lars Saabye Chrstensen)
- Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
HF: Where do you get your inspiration for your stories? Is storytelling a natural thing for you or is it something you have to work at?
MZ: Nothing comes naturally to me...I have to work and rework and that's where
the ideas come from - from sixteen years of working on it and thinking about it.
HF: How much re-writing do you do? Which is more difficult, writing or re-writing?
MZ: I guess if editing doesn't hurt, you're probably not doing it properly. I find it all quite difficult. The hardest part is believing that it's actually working and getting rid of the doubt that always creeps in.
HF: Who is your favorite writer that most people probably haven't heard of?
MZ: George Johnston. My Brother Jack is an Australian classic and it's one of the most honest books I've ever read.
HF: So far I have read two of your books; The Book Thief and I Am The Messenger and in both I was amazed by your gift with words. You can turn a pretty phrase! Do you think creative writing is something that can be taught or is it something you are born with?
MZ: I certainly wasn't born with it. Maybe there's a certain amount of learning and then it's up to the person. I think in the end it's your favourite books that are the best teachers. That's the way I've learned the most, by far.
HF: What can your fans look forward to next?
MZ: It's funny to see the word 'fans'. I'd still never look at myself as having fans...My next book is about a bridge builder and that's about as much as I can say at the moment. I'm still in the starting phase and we'll see where it goes from there.
Visit Markus Zusak's website here: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/markuszusak/
Heather wishes to thank Mr. Zusak for taking the time to answer questions for Estella's Revenge.