‘Books don’t care how educated you are’
The Book Thief was on the New York Times best-seller list for 375 weeks and has been translated into over 40 languages. But, ‘I feel removed from it’, says Markus Zusak
Though his first three novels — The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and When Dogs Cry — won Australian author Markus Zusak a number of awards, it was The Book Thief (2005) that catapulted him to international fame.
Set in war-torn Germany and narrated by Death, the story of Liesel Meminger and her family hiding a Jew in their basement from the Nazis was masterfully told, unsettling and moving. Zusak, winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association, is a speaker at The Hindu Lit for Life 2017.
Excerpts from an email interview with Markus Zusak by Radhika Santhanam.
While your first few books are more typically young adult fiction or coming-of-age novels, The Book Thief is different: it’s for young adults but also for older adults. What makes it stand apart?
I don’t know, to tell you the truth, sometimes The Book Thief just feels like its own thing, and I feel almost removed from it. I know it was just a book I had different ambitions for in the writing. I honestly thought it would be my least successful book; so at one point, I just went, ‘Well I might as well do it exactly how I want to’. The way I set it apart for myself is simply that I’ve written five novels that have been published, and four of them really mean something to me, and one of them means everything to me, and that’s The Book Thief.
How did you decide to make Death the main character? Death’s voice is unique: he’s understanding, curious, even compassionate, not the morbid way in which we understand him generally.
I just thought that we always say that war and death are like best friends, so who better to be hanging around during wartime? It was a very complicated thing to get right, though. At first Death was too sardonic and sadistic, so I made Liesel the narrator, then a simpler third person narration… It wasn’t until I thought that Death might be scared of humans that the whole book started making sense.
How difficult was it to write a book differently about a subject as well explored as life in Nazi Germany?
I never thought of it as a Holocaust novel or even a book set in Nazi Germany, to be honest. It was simply a kind of language I’d discovered — like scratching something open in my mind, reaching down and pulling out the world of Himmel Street.
What did you think of the film?
I was invited to the set once, and everyone was asking, ‘Is this how you imagined it?’; I didn’t have the heart to say that the set didn’t quite match the image in my mind, which was very spare, very grim, especially in the Hubermann’s household… but you know, that’s the beauty of films — it’s a bit like people saying you look just like your brother, but you know in your heart that you’re both very different.
All your books have characters that love reading. In The Book Thief , words save Liesel’s life and you speak about how the Führer was nothing without words. In I am a Messenger , Ed Kennedy loves reading, and so does Cameron Wolfe in Getting the Girl . Curiously none of them goes to school. Is this a deliberate pattern?
I’ve just always loved books, and I love the idea that we’re all just really made of stories. I do also like the idea that anyone can love books. Books don’t care how educated you are, or what you do for a living.
My parents were both blue collar workers, but encouraged all their kids to love books, and so I think I’ve always liked that idea of combining the images of working class life and intelligence. That’s how I grew up.
What is your process for writing? What’s your schedule?
A good friend of mine and I are always talking about routines, and getting into good ones and then sticking with them. I like to work in the morning, usually from 7-12, and still always hope to do more later. At the end of a book I just work most of the time, but in general, I like to be working nice and early. With kids, though, these routines change, but that’s okay too!
What’s your next book about?
It’s about a boy who’s building a bridge and has a lot of good reasons to do it. I think I’m always somehow interested in characters who want to make one perfect thing, to transcend humanness, even if only for a moment.
In this case, the test is whether the bridge can stand the flood when it comes — but of course, every story never ends where you think it will. It’s always somehow left or right of where you thought it would be…
Excerpted from today’s ‘Sunday Magazine’, The Hindu