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Interview: January 4, 2008

January 4, 2008

Recently released in paperback, Markus Zusak's latest novel, THE BOOK THIEF, has garnered much critical acclaim, several awards and has earned spots on many international bestseller lists.'s Mary Dubbs recently sat down with the author to discuss the motivations behind many of the book's unique and innovative elements, as well as some of the real-life experiences that fueled its plot and characters. In this interview, Zusak also describes the reception that THE BOOK THIEF received from readers of all ages and backgrounds, reveals his disbelief over its unexpected success, and shares details about an upcoming project due to be published later this year. THE BOOK THIEF has struck a real chord with readers. Can you share any particularly interesting stories you’ve heard from readers about the book and what it meant to them? Or, can you pass along anything special that happened while you were on the road?

Markus Zusak: Well, there was an earthquake in San Francisco. That was pretty special. Everyone didn’t go running out of the store, so that was nice. Things weren’t falling off the shelves, but it did go on for about 10 seconds. There was a bit of commotion. It was kind of fun in a way. It was a bit like, you know, a good Californian experience.

In terms of readers’ responses and things like that, I still shy away from stories like, And then I got this letter from San Diego and someone said your book is this and that and it’s the only… you know. Readers have been really kind to the book. I think I’ve just found the right readers --- people who like the book are people who love books, and they’re a good group to have. They're the readers who don’t want THE DA VINCI CODE. They want something that’s a little bit different, maybe --- hopefully a good story that has beautiful characters, and hopefully some interesting style and imagery as well.

BRC: Have you heard from any Holocaust survivors?

MZ: Yes, even family members of Holocaust survivors, and it’s always been really nice. No one has written, “You didn’t get this right,” or “You didn’t get that right.” Some have said, “I didn’t know that there was that other side of things and that there were German people who hid Jewish people in their basements.” I’m not saying that’s never been done before, but for some people, this is the first experience they’ve had reading a book that dealt with that.

BRC: What about any Germans?

MZ: Yes, they’ve usually read the book in English and want to know when it’s coming out in German.

BRC: You’ve mentioned in a past interview with that your parents’ experiences during the war had a big impact on the book. Can you elaborate on which of their stories made it into the book?

MZ: I can start with my dad. He grew up in Austria and was picked to go to a special school, which they called the Napola School. There’s a moment in the book when two really big men show up at the end of Part 7, and I think Death describes them as “columns wearing coats.” That’s exactly what happened to my dad. He was sitting in a room, listening in on a conversation between these two heavy-voiced men who wanted to recruit him to go to this special school. They’d seen kids around town who’d been to that school and acted like they’d been totally brainwashed. They’d heard all these stories of them running barefoot through the snow, jumping from ten-meter platforms into shallow water and all that sort of stuff, so his parents didn’t let him go. His mum did say, “You’re not taking my son,” and his dad didn’t let them take him. So, they sent him to the war for that. And he’d already been in the First World War.

BRC: That’s your grandpa, then?

MZ: Yes, whom I’ve never met.

That whole part of the story was based on my dad. And so, my grandfather was punished --- it was like, “Well, if we can’t have your son, we’ll take you, and we’ll get you to do the worst possible job.” They sent him off to prop up all the buildings that were falling down after the bombs dropped, and stuff like that. So that was true. Even the part in the First World War, where my grandfather was saved by having neat handwriting --- it’s usually the little things that are true --- because he had to write letters for the captain, who had arthritis in his hands. He wrote notes that day while the rest of them went over the hill and didn’t come back. All these little coincidences that he survived…I wouldn’t be here if all these coincidences hadn’t come together. But anyone can say that about their existence --- if their parents didn’t meet or whatever.

The other big one is that my mum did see Jewish people walking to the concentration camp. She was about six and saw teenagers giving bread to them. They’d all get whipped: the people for taking the bread and the people for giving the bread. That’s when you realize the madness of it --- that you would go and whip a child for being kind to somebody.

A lot of the treatment of the foster parents of Liesel’s is pretty accurate to how it was for my mum growing up. She had it tougher, actually, than Liesel had it in the book, but I couldn’t have characters that had it that bad. That sounds really bad. God will strike me down in a second for saying things like that. But yeah, I think she had a tougher upbringing than the book suggests. But as soon as I fictionalized one thing in the book, they weren’t my parents anymore. It wasn’t my mum. It was Liesel, the character in the book.

BRC: Some writers will revisit a text long after its completion and think about what they would do differently if they could write it again. Is there anything you would change in THE BOOK THIEF if given a chance?

MZ: No. Only…I mean I’d change everything if I read it again. There have been times when I’ve had to just read through it for another edition that comes out in another country, and that’s torture because I’d change something on every page. For me, it’s just certain images where I’ll think, Oh, I could have done that a bit better, but that’s just hindsight. You would always change those things. 

The other thing is, you’re reading it in isolation now. I’ll usually just look at a certain moment in the book, or I'll come across something while I’m reading at a book signing, and then think, Oh, I’d change that. But the funny thing about THE BOOK THIEF in particular is that when isolated and read just on their own, you can think that some of the images, usage of words and things like that are just not quite right; they go too far. But I think when you read them in the context of the whole book, they fit. So, I’m wary of wanting to change too many things. A book should feel like it was at the time.

So no, I wouldn’t change anything or any of the risks I feel that I took, like Death as narrator and the style of saying, “Here is a small fact.” I’m well aware that it might turn some people off at the beginning. In a way, that’s a nice test. The book is either for them or it’s not. So, you kind of get rid of the people who shouldn’t read it, right at the start. I don’t want to say, “Get rid of them.” I don’t mean, “Scoundrels!”

I’m going to say one more thing. Sometimes people ask why I, halfway through the book, tell readers that Rudy --- one of the characters --- is going to die. I don’t regret that. I wouldn’t change that for anything because I felt like that suited death as the narrator, an almost all-knowing one, even though he’s telling the story in hindsight anyway, so he knows everything. And I had specific reasons for that: there was that idea of Death being all-knowing and just playing with, “Well, this will happen later, but for now we’ve got to do this.” I also saw it as a challenge. I thought,Can I possibly tell readers what is going to happen at the end and still have them read? And want to keep reading? The other thing was, I thought it would hit the reader harder at that moment because they wouldn’t see it coming.

BRC: It’s like a sucker punch.

MZ: Yeah, it’s almost a cheap shot. But in a way, it’s not; it’s responsible in that I wanted to prepare readers for the fact that the character I loved the most was going to die. And from that point on, everything he does that’s really good --- and he does so many good things in the book --- with the shadow of death looming over him like that, every single thing he does takes on something extra. It’s almost like he gets extra points for doing those things, or they take on extra meaning because we know he doesn’t have long left.

BRC: We get a lot of comments on from adults about how much they enjoyed the book, but in the States, it was marketed as a YA novel. In hindsight, how do you see the audiences blending into each other and the plusses and minuses of categorizing it that way? Also, did you have a person in mind when you were writing about who was going to be your reader? Was that person younger or older?

MZ: The truth is, I thought no one would read it, a 550-page book set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death, in which nearly everyone dies. It’s not the easiest book to recommend to your friends. So then I thought, No one’s going to read it --- I might as well do it exactly as I want it. I think people can see that my heart is really in this book, that I really did give it everything and that it means everything to me. So in terms of an audience, I just forgot about the audience.

This whole young adult and adult idea needs to be talked about, but for me, I wasn’t trying to write a great young adult book; I wasn’t trying to write a great adult book --- I was trying to write someone’s favorite book, while simultaneously thinking no one would read it at all.

Loved books transcend the categories they come from. That’s what I was trying to do. Having said that, I think I should tackle this. I think the book is mainly for adults, but I had a great young adult publisher here and a great editor, so I’m really glad it has come out as a YA book here. And adults are reading it. In some countries, it has been an adult release. Here, I think it was fine being a young adult book because it has generated some discussion and some questions about it. And as soon as people are discussing that, there’s an idea that they care about it, and where it is, and who’s reading it. That’s a really nice thing.

The last thing I’ll say about that is that it’s not for every teenager. From reading it, you can tell that. It’s for the teenage reader who is finished with the books that are written in their voice, about their concerns, and so on. It’s for the reader who you can go up to with something like this and say, “This book is also for you, but you have to come up here to read it.” And I kind of like the idea that it’s for that percentage of teenagers who are ready for a challenge. It’s not easy, especially to get into. You have to do a little bit of work.

Some people say they’re confused by the beginning. Honestly, I don’t think I’d change it. If you read the prologue, you know where the book is set, what is going to happen, and who is in it, because they all come together with the Nazi flag coming together. You know what the reader should do, because they see the symbols falling one on the other. So you see the Nazi flag, and you know this story. You know what’s going to be involved. So I stand behind that prologue, even when people have said, “Geez, you could have just started with that harrowing scene of them burying Liesel’s brother.” But I think, No, that’s the right beginning. I think the readers who can do the prologue can do the book, and there are enough of them.

BRC: Did you do the illustrations in the book within a book?

MZ: The illustrator is Trudy White. I knew I had the right person to do the illustrations. She’s a friend of mine, and this is the sort of stuff she does. She does other things as well, but I knew that the simplicity of her drawings, which are not easy to do, is so believable --- that this guy sitting in the basement could have done those. And the idea of having MEIN KAMPF bleed through was something we both had. I didn’t tell her to do that. When I had originally thought of the idea, that’s what I wanted to happen, but I didn’t mention it to her. Then she suggested it to me, and I said, “Yeah, that’s exactly the idea I had.” That’s just perfect in a way. You’ve got this story of friendship that’s smothering this manifesto of hate. Those illustrations and that picture book within the book were things that I really had to fight for in Australia because it came out in the really literary, high end of the publishing house, and they said, “Pictures? Can we really have pictures in a literary book?” and I said, “You need to have these pictures in there and we need to get this sorted out so that we can pay the illustrator.” Then they saw the illustrations and said, “You were right.”

BRC: Do you have any stories about acquiring a copy of MEIN KAMPF?

MZ: It’s impossible to get in Germany --- it’s banned. We had some problems in Germany with it, because we thought that if we didn’t get a German edition of MEIN KAMPF, it would be a German text translated into English, and then translated back into German --- and that would have been ridiculous. So, to get a copy of it was very, very hard. They had to check with their lawyers to see if we could use it.

BRC: Did you do sketches of the paintings while you were doing the first draft?

MZ: Yes. It’s funny --- I had to teach myself to write a picture book, I guess. Originally, it was 25 pages long, and now it’s 13, culled right down. I have a few favorite moments in that picture book. The bird character was Trudy’s idea, and it’s just a master stroke. The funny thing is, she says she just prefers drawing animals to people. But she’d also picked up on the idea that I’d described Max as having feathers of hair, and I wanted him to be like a caged bird, who doesn’t have any freedom. I love that picture of him standing at the door --- all you see is the door, there’s no picture of the house. I love that. I also like the one of Leisel that just says she tells Max about her bad dreams, about her brother dying, but Trudy shows the brother climbing into bed with her at night. So there are some really nice moments in that little picture book. I’m really glad that we made the decision to keep the pictures because even if it doesn’t work, there’s no one who can say that the book isn’t different or ambitious, and that it didn’t try to be something that really stands on its own as having some original ideas. 

BRC: Tell me about the section openers.

MZ: It was all the idea of Death narrating the story in a slightly different way to what a human would. It’s like human, but just to the left or right. I enjoy doing that stuff. I wish I could just write a book that was chapter headings. That’s how I map out a book now. In this case, it was “Part Two: The Shoulder Shrug” and then I had eight headings, and I knew what was going to happen in each one. Rather than just saying “Chapter Two. This, this, and this is going to happen,” it would be “The Shoulder Shrug, featuring” …let’s see if I can remember… “the girl made of darkness, the town walker, and so on.” So it’s just, in a way, lending to the style and the structure that I like to use.

BRC: Do you do this process for all your books now? Do you think your next books will include these “previews”?

MZ: I will in the next book. There will be chapter headings. That’s one of the fun things about writing. I’m not sure after that. My first three books didn’t have any chapter headings, but the fourth and fifth did, and the sixth will, hopefully. I just like the idea of Death really, as if he were hovering over everything, in command of the story, as if he could just reach into his pocket and there it was, so he could say “Chapter One: This, this and this is going to happen.”

BRC: I thought Rudy’s connection with Jesse Owens was really unexpected. How did that come about?

MZ: To me, that’s one of the most important moments in the book, from the standpoint of emotional impact, because as soon as Rudy did that, he became my favorite character. I was at the library researching footballers and soccer players from that time because they’re playing soccer in the street. I just thought it would be nice if they were playing in the street and pretending, because that’s what we used to do as kids, pretending to be such-and-such. Then I saw this book on the Olympics and thought, I don’t need a footballer from that time --- I’ve got Jesse Owens! And then I thought, Okay, but now I’ve got that work because that’s a pretty big leap. Or is it? Because if I said to you now that there was a group of kids in Cologne who called themselves the Edelweiss Pirates, refused to go to Hitler Youth meetings, rejected Nazism altogether, and I think they actually killed somebody...if I told you a group of kids did THAT, would people believe it? It did actually happen. So I thought that if it’s conceivable for that to happen, then it’s conceivable that a kid who --- through the cracks and everything else --- went, “Oh my god! This guy just won four medals at the Olympic Games. That’s amazing!” 

There’s always a kid like that. Imagine growing up in Boston, and everybody in your family is a Red Sox supporter, but there’s one who goes for the Yankees. That was my brother in our family, with sports teams at home. So there’s always someone who’s willing to accept the other figure. In this case, it was Rudy. That made him a really lovable character to me. I also had to make sure the research on that was really tight. I couldn’t leave even an inch for someone to say, “That never would have happened.” And my research told me it was possible.

BRC: Tell us a little about your strong use of color in the novel.

MZ: It came sort of by accident. I was working at a school doing a writing program, and I gave these kids a first sentence, something like, “I’ve seen the color of time on three occasions.” Just an offbeat beginning to a story. I wrote it with them, and I realized that I had written about three deaths and that Death was the narrator. I originally had white, red and blue. Originally for the book, that’s what I had as well. This is getting off the question a little, but for ages I had red, white and blue. And then all of a sudden it struck me and I thought, What if I used black? And then that would actually be the Nazi flag. The idea then was that Death had seen all of the horrible things humans do to each other, so why not have Death use color as his escape, as “I let the colors distract me.” And that’s where he says, “I vacation in colors.” So the idea was that he would look to colors to find beauty in these disastrous moments. That’s really what the book is: trying to find beautiful moments in a really ugly time. That’s how the colors contribute to the book.

BRC: What are your future projects? Are you still working on BRIDGE OF CLAY?

MZ: Yes, I am. I’m further along. I’m still in that time of struggling where, like in THE BOOK THIEF, Max is just showing up. And originally he just shows up with a copy of MEIN KAMPF, and coincidentally there’s a girl, there in the house, who is just learning about books and so on. And I thought that was just too contrived. So, I had to find a way to make it work. I had to work out how Hans sees her steal a different book, and that gives him an idea, Oh, I’ll send a copy of MEIN KAMPF to him. So I’m at that point of just trying to make everything come together. That only comes from just sitting down and writing. When I get home, I’ll be working pretty intensely on that one.

It’s due at the end of next year, but if it’s not ready, it’s not ready. I can see that going a couple of ways. I can deliver it and we can all tear our hair out for six months, or I can hold on to it for six months on my own and tear my own hair out, not bother everybody else, actually get it right and say we can publish this tomorrow, hopefully. That’s always my goal when I deliver a book, that it can be published the next day. There shouldn’t be a single mistake; there shouldn’t be a single comma in the wrong spot; there shouldn’t be a single spelling error. Those are the little things. Hopefully the characters are right, the ending is right, and everything else. So that’s what I’ll be trying to do by the end of next year.