I believe this interview was written in 2006. It was done for the US Bookseller and Publisher, although the published version underwent a very heavy copyedit and actually bore very little relationship to what I wrote (or what Markus said!). Anyway, water under the bridge, this is the original draft as submitted.
When I first met Markus Zusak, about 6 years ago, he was beginning to get a lot of attention as an important new voice in YA fiction. Still in his early twenties (although he wrote his first—unpublished—novel when he was 16), Markus’s Wolf brothers novels—The Underdog, Fighting Reuben Wolf and Getting the Girl—were being acclaimed for their fresh take on suburban masculinity at a time when anxiety about boys and reading was at its peak. He impressed me then, as he does today, as thoughtful, intelligent and slightly reserved, yet open and generous in talking about himself and his work.
Now, at the age of 30, Markus has won a number of highly prestigious literary awards, including, most recently, an honour book in the Printz award for I Am the Messenger. Learning about this honour was, he says, a ridiculously great moment—it took him a week before he could bring himself to delete the message from the Printz committee off his answering machine. It follows the acclaim the novel achieved in Australia, where it took out the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year award for older readers, as well as several prestigious state literary awards.
Markus, who has worked variously as a cleaner, teacher and tutor of struggling high school students, writes full-time, which is remarkable given his age and relatively small output. It wasn’t one big break that allowed him to do this, more just a steady build-up over four years. I also do school talks and workshops at different times during a year.
The appeal of Markus’s early books, at least in Australia, were in part due to their honest appraisal of working class life in the suburbs—which is the milieu Markus comes from. PW readers may recall that Australia’s sunny reputation took a battering late last year when race riots erupted in Sydney’s southern suburbs—an area known collectively to Sydneysiders as The Shire. The Shire is the closest Australia has to a monoculture: it is predominantly populated by Anglo-Celtic Australians, and the riots were between white locals and “outsiders” from a mostly Middle Eastern background.
Markus grew up in The Shire, and he’s moved back there to live, after spending some years living in a highly multi-cultural area of Sydney. “I figure they need more people with names like Zusak down there”, he observed with a wry grin as we walked to find a quiet coffee shop on a busy shopping strip. Markus is the son of immigrants from Austria and Germany—his mother, like Leisel, the protagonist of his new novel The Book Thief, grew up in Munich in circumstances similarly difficult to Leisel’s.
As young post-WWII immigrants, Markus’s parents arrived in Australia with little English, and he says that his parents weren’t really book people—except in the sense that they encouraged their four children to be. (I’ve got every Dr Seuss book there is!) They are, however, storytellers, and The Book Thief found its initial inspiration in two stories Markus remembers being told as a child. The first was of a story his mother told of Munich being bombed; Everything was red, like the sky was on fire. That was a memory that I could see really clearly as a child, a very visual image. The second story was of a teenage boy who, like the character Hans Hubermann in The Book Thief, took pity on an emaciated Jew being forced through the streets, and offered him some bread. Both the elderly Jewish man and the teenage boy were whipped by a soldier who witnessed this act of compassion.
Markus originally planned The Book Thief to be a novella—about a hundred pages—based on these two memories, but once I started writing—it took three years to write—one thing turned into another. Once the ideas came they wouldn’t stop.
Early in the novel, after she commits her first book theft (she finds a copy of “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” in the snow by her young brother’s grave) Leisel goes to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, in a small town outside Munich after her communist father is taken away to a concentration camp. A few years after Leisel comes to live with them, Hubermann and his wife Rosa (she of the most creative invective), take into hiding a young Jewish man, the son of Hans’ friend, a fellow soldier who was killed in WWI. The relationship between Leisel and Max, the Jew hiding in her basement, forms an emotional and thematic core to the novel. It’s this aspect that ties The Book Thief to Markus’s earlier, contemporary fiction—relationships have always been of great interest in his novels.
A striking feature of The Book Thief is its first person narration by Death. Zusak says this was his first choice for the narration, as he felt a novel set in Nazi Germany—terrain many before have covered—needed something original to set it apart. That original idea was elusive at first, so he put the idea for the book aside and worked on some other pieces. I wrote the sentence, “I have seen the colour of time on three occasions”, he explained. I wrote this about three deaths, and Death himself was the narrator. The idea of Death narrating a story about war immediately made sense to him.
Markus went on to describe the process, then, of pinning down Death’s voice; In the beginning, I had death enjoying his work too much, and he was saying all these macabre things, and it wasn’t working. Then I tried Leisel in first person, then I went to third, because my first person Leisel, she was an Australian teenager sitting in a German prison cell. (The first draft of the novel had Leisel being arrested for her book thievery.) So he took a break from writing—and then the last line of the novel came to him, and at last he had the essence of who his narrator was. When I thought of that last line, I thought to myself, that’s it, that’s what’s been wrong the whole time. What if Death’s scared of us?
Finding Death’s voice was crucial to making the novel work. The language of the book is striking for its oft-times surprising word choices, particularly in the way Death uses language to describe his relationship with the human world: I did want Death to talk in a way that humans don’t speak. One thing I stood by (in the editing process) was when Death says things like “the trees who stood” or “the sky who was this colour”. So he refers to the sky and the trees and the clouds as if they’re colleagues of his. I would also say that those elements of language is also just how I love to write. I love books like The Bell Jar. Every page has a gem on it. And that’s what I love about writing.
The Book Thief is characterised by short, episodic chapters. Life is episodic, and so that’s what I like to write. These little things can mean a lot. Things are revealed in a small moment, and it goes back to this small moment, and this one—hopefully. Markus planned the novel by listing, in a notebook such as he uses for each of his novels, the chapter titles and playing with their order. (He later writes the novel on a computer either in his workroom or sometimes I’ll relocate to the kitchen if I don’t feel like clearing the desk.)
Markus, who grew up speaking German—A rough, working class German, as in the book—is at pains to make it clear that while the novel involves German characters sympathetic to and supportive of Jews, isn’t a pro-German tract, nor an apologia: I’m not trying to get people to re-examine their views on Nazi Germany. All I’m trying to do, like every writer does, is to tell a story that hasn’t been told in this way before. The stories I heard when I was young—my mum’s father didn’t want to fly the flag on Hitler’s birthday. He hated Hitler. Obviously I’m not saying every German was like that. I’m saying here’s an individual story that can be told. It’s the hope to examine one small story in the big story that we already know.
An interesting fact about The Book Thief is that in Australia, it is being promoted by Pan Macmillan (and widely acclaimed since its publication in September 2005) as Zusak’s first adult novel, whereas in the USA, Random House has chosen to publish it on their YA imprint. It’s a situation that Markus is comfortable with: For a teenage audience, it’s clearly for sophisticated readers, and I think there’s a need for that. Adult or young adult, hopefully it’s good. You just hope it gets into the right person’s hands, whatever their age.
As far as what Markus hopes those readers will take from the book, he says I want them to be affected by the characters, and I want them to love the characters, and if I have achieved that, I’ve given them something meaningful. At the same time, Markus hopes that readers will appreciate his attempt at writing a different style of book; Whether it worked or not, you just want people to see the attempt, that you’ve tried, and that you did try to give them something fresh and meaningful, and something that was able to move them.