Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and The Messenger (US title, I Am the Messenger) spoke to me way back in 2007, shortly following the paperback release of The Book Thief.
This interview was specifically for the Belvedere Writers’ Club, a project aimed at helping new writers get their short fiction published, so I was specifically interested in how Markus got started and what his writing process was.
Looking back I’m struck by how open and honest Markus comes across. He was a real delight to correspond with, encouraging of the writers’ club project and very humble when discussing his own talents.
I’m also struck by his final words on the project he was working on next—how he knew eight years ago that it was going to take him some time. Follow Markus on tumblr to read about his current project, Bridge of Clay.
We’re always really interested to find out how author’s got started, how or if they struggled, and what their big-break was. Would you be able to tell us a little about your early work and how you first got published?
I tried to write my first book when I was sixteen but it could easily be entered into a competition for the worst book ever written. It only lasted about nine pages. After that I kept working away and imitating books I admired and I was rejected seven times by publishers, on two different manuscripts. There was a third but I didn’t send it, knowing it wasn’t good enough. In the end, I moved away from trying to write anything important. It was a short novel that started with two brothers trying to rob a dental surgery. It became my first book to be published and I had sent it to a publisher who had written back to me about the earlier attempts. If nothing else, it shows that publishers still (or, I hope they do since the last seven or eight years) read unsolicited manuscripts.
I’ve read that you started The Book Thief with the intention of writing a 100 page novella around two incidents your parents recounted from WWII. At what point did you realise you wanted it to be more than this?
As soon as I brought Death in as the narrator, I knew that 100 pages wasn’t going to happen. The fact that it ended up being much bigger is simply the thought that a book is only as long as it’s ideas, and this one just happened to have more ideas than I expected.
The Book Thief ended up being a pretty hefty book. Could you enlighten us to how you approach something of such scale in terms of research, planning, and then sitting down to write?
With great difficulty! I would write chapter headings over and over again. That’s generally how I plan. Sometimes I wish I could write a book that was only chapter headings.
Having Death as the narrator in The Book Thief works so very well. It’s such an interesting idea – and I’m wondering how it came about—was it something you played around with for a while? Could the story of Liesel have ever been told by anybody else? Could Death have told us someone else’s story?
Originally I was going to have Death go through a list of people and then decide which story to tell, but it was something I decided against very early on. The actual idea came about from a small exercise where I realised Death was narrating. I thought, ‘Maybe that will fit the book set in Nazi Germany’, and in that unexpected way, it made perfect sense. Who better to tell a story about war than Death? After all, death is everywhere during war-time.
Books come to mean everything to Liesel. They empower her, steady her. Was your own relationship with books ever as crucial when you were her age?
I always had a strong relationship with books. My parents couldn’t speak English when they came to Australia and wanted all their kids to have a good grasp of language. Maybe that was the beginning of realising how powerless a person is without words.
The Book Thief and The Messenger have been marketed as novels for young adults – and as our latest project is looking for stories for young adults, it’s an area we’re interested in. Do you write for young adults, or do you simply write? If the latter, do you ever find you need to avoid writing about certain subjects and scenes?
In terms of the whole Adults vs YA dilemma, I try not to even think about those categories anymore, preferring to aim to write a book that goes into a category that transcends Young Adult, General Fiction, Sci-fi, Fantasy etc. … and that’s to write a book that someone will love. I think that’s a much better ambition to have.
I don’t really change anything with a young adult audience in mind. I actually abandoned all thoughts of audience with The Book Thief anyway. I thought it would be my least read book, because of the subject matter and the size, so the fact that anyone is reading it is amazing.
Whilst reading The Book Thief I couldn’t help recalling Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated – obviously there’s the similar subject matter but I also think both books share an episodic structure they both often seem like collections of stories. Do you consider yourself a short-story writer or reader?
No, I’ve never thought of myself as a short story writer, but I do like episodic structure, because I feel like life is episodic. That, and I like writing short chapters… Maybe it’s a lack of patience, but I really like the idea of hopefully doing a lot in a short space of writing. That, and I wanted The Book Thief to be broken up so that paragraphs were in themselves small sections and incidents of their own – like many small pieces making a whole piece of work.
Do you think your success with The Book Thief has made sitting down to write an easier or harder process?
I’m generally a fearful writer. I always find writing hard. I don’t know, to be honest. I only know that I’m trying to write something completely different. As obvious as it sounds, I think it’s just a nice ambition to write a different book than you did last time.
Finally, can I ask how your current work is going and what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m finding it very difficult, and I’m also blaming my 10 month old daughter for distracting me. It’s been pretty slow, but I’m getting that feeling in my stomach, sort of like the moment when you realise an essay is due tomorrow and if you don’t start now, you’re in a lot of trouble and might not make it.
The new book is about a bridge builder, and I think it might take me a while.