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Markus Zusak
THE BOOK THIEF was originally published as a children’s book and is now marketed as a ‘cross-over’ novel. Bearing in mind that, in a recent survey, British school children thought Auschwitz was a beer, do you think young adults have enough prior knowledge to really understand the book?
Believe it or not, pretty much the only country that has released it as a young adult title has been America. Here in Australia it was an adult release, and it was published here first. In America, it was only young adult because I was already with a publisher of young adult books, and there’s less sense of teamwork up there, maybe – the publishers are so much bigger. Down here, the adult department of a publishing house is up the corridor. In America it’s in another building...
As for teenagers needing prior knowledge, I guess the question is, ‘How are they going to get it?’ I think novels have always served that purpose beautifully – to tell a story and educate almost as second nature.
I’ve often been asked if this book is appropriate for teenagers, and I really think there’s a great risk in underestimating that age group. Some might think that Auschwitz is a type of beer, but that can’t be the end of it. Surely we need books for teenagers that say, ‘This is also for you, but you have to come up here to read it.’
Lastly, I remember being given CATCH 22 when I was in high school (not that I would ever compare THE BOOK THIEF to the greatness of that book). My teacher knew we couldn’t handle it then, but I came back and read it when I was in my early twenties, and loved it...So I think part of getting teenagers to read books that might be difficult for them is the fact that they might not be ready for them now, but they need to know it’s there for later. They can’t read it later on and have that fulfilling experience if they’re not at least shown that it exists.
Death is the narrator of THE BOOK THIEF. I took the liberty of imagining it narrated by Liesel and it just would not have had the same impact (understatement). Did you decide from the outset who the narrator should be?
I guess it just made sense to me. There’s the old saying that war and death are best friends, so I thought, ‘Who better to narrate a book set in Nazi Germany?’ After all, Death was everywhere during that time. The true breakthrough, though, was when I realised that death should be slightly vulnerable rather than macabre and all-powerful. I thought, ‘What if Death was afraid of humans?’ It felt unexpected, but I also thought it made sense. After all, Death is on hand to see all of our greatest disasters and all the terrible things humans are capable of. My thought was that Death would tell this story in an attempt to prove to himself (or herself) that humans can be beautiful and selfless.
The book has been criticised for its plot teasers. Is there any purpose to the constant foreshadowing other than to keep us reading?
There’s a reason for the foreshadowing, and that’s simply that I wanted Death to tell the story just left or right of the way a human would (similar also to Death referring to the sky ‘who’ was wide and blue and magnificent, or the trees ‘who’ were standing over to the left).
I liked the idea that Death would give things away – because he’s Death and he does it the way he wants. I guess it’s part of the balance of his power and vulnerability. There are times when he tells the story and asserts authority, and others when he’s fearful and haunted by the acts of humans. And it’s true what he says: ‘Mystery bores me. It chores me. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that are most interesting’.
Another reason I gave things away was to prepare readers (and myself) for what was going to happen. I also felt a gut instinct to inform readers in Part Five that Rudy was going to die. It’s a bigger smack in the face at that moment. But it also prepares the reader for the fact that it will happen later. And finally, it was a risk I was willing to take. I kind of knew that it might be criticised, but better to take the risk. Better to say, ‘Well this is what happens. Can I still get people to want to read on?’
I hope that answers in some way why I used foreshadowing or plot spoilers the way I did. I regret many things now as I look back, but that isn’t one of them
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The illustrations are very moving and make the story seem extraordinarily real. Was it always your intention to have actual pictures in the book (rather than just descriptions of pictures)?
Yes. This was something I really fought for upon the book’s original publication. My publisher wasn’t sure until I wrote them an essay as to why the pictures needed to be there. When they saw them, they were also convinced. I think the idea of Mein Kampf bleeding through The Stand-Over Man was the main reason I fought so hard for it. The illustrator, Trudy White, really got it right.
THE BOOK THIEF is the 2009 Brighton City Reads choice. How do you feel about your novel being liberated around Brighton?
It’s brilliant. This book has given me so much more than I could have ever dreamed, and then some. I honestly thought that THE BOOK THIEF would be my least read book, so this is one of those things that is a real honour. I’m really looking forward to coming up in May.
What books would you like to see on the book store shelf next to THE BOOK THIEF?
I’ve never been asked that before...and I think it’s hard, because I don’t want to be next to books that I revere – I’d be embarrassed to be in their company. So the books I wouldn’t want to be next to would be WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE by Peter Hedges, THE HALF BROTHER by Lars Saabye Christensen and THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath. Books like that stand alone.
Who are your writing inspirations?
All of those books I just mentioned, plus the countless others that gave me the feeling of turning pages and not even realising it. I just remember being immersed in the world of each book, believing something that I know isn’t real. That was when I looked up from the pages and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’ I decided that I was going to be a writer and that nothing was going to stop me.
Markus Zusak

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