“I really didn’t think anyone would read this book,” Markus Zusak said, “so I just wrote want I wanted. I told the story I wanted to tell.” Zusak, who rocketed to international recognition after the publication of his 2005 best seller, The Book Thief, gave generously of his time and energy Sunday night (October 24) to converse via Skype with readers and fans in York, PA, at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). He spoke for about 90 minutes on the art and craft of writing, his own creative processes, the surprising success he has experienced since completing The Book Thief, a story that focuses on the life and struggles of Leisel Meminger and the atrocities occurring in Germany during WWII, and to answer questions from the audience about the text.
The Book Thief was chosen by the library system and a special committee for the One Book, One Community program, a six-year-old endeavor that links readers across counties for a shared experience in reading and discussion about the selected work. To chose The Book Thief for such an honor seems natural, for it’s an incredible piece of literature, but to add a real-time conversation with the author, a man regarded in such high esteem by today’s literary critics, was an added treat for those who participated this year.
For being a such highly successful, award-winning novelist, Zusak is refreshingly personable, funny, humble and charming. He’s a very likeable fellow. From his home in Sydney, Australia, he warmly interacted with persons gathered at the JCC to speak about the book. “I mean when you talk about it,” Zusak said with a smile, “who really wants to read a book set in Nazi Germany that deals with issues of the Holocaust and is narrated by Death?” But obviously Zusak didn’t realize the power of his own narrative voice, his poetic and creative way with story-telling and his rich, deeply portrayed characters, the kind that linger in a reader’s consciousness. Anyone who has picked up The Book Thief and begun to read knows she is holding something special. Moreover, it is testament to Zusak’s literary gift that he can create such a fresh and appealing book dealing with a topic that has been written about so profusely.
Through carefully constructed chapters, vivid prose and an array of colorful characters who inhabit his text, Zusak is able to make fascinating a tale of bleak life, outrageous events, a place gone mad from hunger, despair and fear, and, most importantly, one where love and compassion and truth are still able to be felt despite all else. This is the power of the text, his characters who make the reader feel and compel her to turn the page to see what happens next. It’s the kind of book one misses when it is done.
Zusak confided that writing this story exhausted him and he was spent by the end of the two plus year process. It is based loosely on his mother’s young life and the tales she told to him as he grew up. Some part of Liesel’s development was founded upon his mother’s experiences, but Zusak took many creative liberties to embellish the story as it is a work of fiction grounded loosely in historical fact. In this story, where so many powerful voices reside, Zusak forges a deeply moving and unforgettable cast. From the sympathetic and oddly funny narrator, Death, to our heroine, Liesel, and her best friend, Rudy, there is no shortage of persons with whom a reader can fall in love. But for me, it is the uniqueness of authorial voice, the almost poetic quality of Zusak’s prose, that make the book so special.
The structure of the book is strong, the pacing perfection, but the individual sentences that read like small haikus or open before your eyes like blossoming flowers are what empower this text and have made it such an international sensation. Zusak’s story is one of war and genocide, but it is also one to which everyone can find connection because it is about childhood, family, education, love and, most exquisitely, hope.
The conversation with Markus Zusak was a gift, a way for readers to learn more about him as an artist and a human being who is following his passion and honing his talent for words and novel writing. He mentioned several times in our chat about the challenges of writing, the tasks of “problem-solving” that compel him to work through a novel’s construction and to perfect it to the point where it is ready to share. He is a careful craftsman and thinker, researching his work and going through countless drafts to get the story right…not perfect, he adds, but right. He shared with us that writing is a bit like climbing a mountain. Some days it is hard to sit down and begin. Some days the wall in front of him seems immense, the task of writing a struggle. But the reward is that once he begins to climb that mountain, to let the ideas and words flow onto a page, it is like playing in a big sandbox, one where all things are possible through the power and complexities of language.
Currently, Zusak is hard at work trying to complete his next novel. It will focus on the life of a boy attempting to build a bridge. He was gracious enough to show us a few of his journals where he has mapped out the story and brainstormed ideas. The pages were packed with his neat and copious handwritten words. Sometimes writing is a series of “happy accidents” and everything just seems to fall in to place. Let us hope Zusak’s next work is as clear in voice and creative in vision as The Book Thief. If so, readers all over the world are in for another literary treat from one of the best writers out there today. In the last lines to The Book Thief, Death tells the reader that “he is haunted by humans.” I, for one, am haunted by the creative genius of Markus Zusak and cannot wait to see what stories will be born from his vast imagination.