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Interview with Author of The Book Thief

Thank you to the Chicago Public Library for partnering on the content of this article. For more information about Markus Zusak or events happening in conjunction with the Chicago Public Library’s The Book Thief One Book, One Chicago programming, please visit Markus Zusak was born in 1975 in Sydney, Australia, the youngest of four children of immigrant German and Austrian parents. Zusak chose the subject matter of The Book Thief in part to share the stories his parents told him about growing up in Austria and Germany during World War II. Zusak and adaptor, Heidi Stillman, discuss Zusak’s inspiration for The Book Thief and why the book leaves such a lasting impression on young and old audiences alike. Heidi Stillman: I would love to hear about the genesis for this story. Can you tell us a bit about when the concept came to you? Which idea came first and how did you build upon it? Markus Zusak: Like most ideas, I stumbled across bits and pieces over time and started using them for no apparent reason. I wrote a page about a girl stealing a book in modern day Sydney. I didn't do anything with it at the time, but a few years later, when I started thinking seriously of writing about my parents and their childhoods in Germany and Austria during World War II, I thought, "Maybe I should put that book thief in." I guess that's how things start. You put two unrelated things together and at some point, you understand: they're actually not unrelated at all, they’re perfect for each other. HS: Can you talk about how your family, whose stories helped inspire the novel, received the book? I owe my parents everything. They gave me the world of this book like a language I didn't know I had. Sure, there's a ratio of probably 90 percent fiction in the finished work, but it's the world and backdrop of the story that they brought to life. It was like waking up one day and being able to speak Russian or Spanish when previously you couldn't. I started writing and it was like scratching something open, reaching in and pulling a whole world out. They're mostly just proud. They met in Australia and couldn't speak English, and now, the stories they brought with them are the foundation not only for The Book Thief, but most likely my career as a writer. They taught me a love of story, whether they know it or not. In that sense, it's really great when they talk about the book as if it's theirs—because it is. HS: The power of words and language are so wonderfully emphasized in this novel. Liesel writes, "I've hated the words and I've loved them," and the narrator points out that "without words the Fuhrer was nothing." Is this a theme that you felt you could explore in telling this story? MZ: I felt it by the time I'd finished, but I never set out to do that. Like most writers, I start to understand what a book is about as I'm writing it, and sometimes even afterwards. It wasn't until the book was published when I saw that it was also about people doing beautiful things even in the ugliest times. The more time you spend with [your writing], the clearer (and sometimes murkier) it all becomes. HS: Liesel is such a strong, unique and interesting girl. What was your inspiration for her character? MZ: The luckiest part about my childhood was to have two parents with amazing stories who both happened to be great storytellers on top of it. With no disrespect to my dad, it was my mum's world at the outskirts of Munich that had the greatest influence on me. That's why I chose Liesel. Of course, the instant I fictionalized something, it wasn't her anymore. Liesel ceased being my mother on page eight or nine and became herself, even when I borrowed from my mother's life story. HS: I would love to hear about the choice of Death as a narrator. MZ: It was a bit of a nightmare, really. For quite a while, I moved away from Death narrating, but I was constantly called back. It just made sense to me. People often say that war and death are best friends, so who better to be hanging around Nazi Germany to tell this story? What really clinched it after all the mistakes, all the doubts and other possibilities, was when I realized that Death should have just that slightest edge of vulnerability. It was when I understood that he was actually tired, and afraid, and haunted by all the cleaning up, especially during wartime. I saw that he should be telling this story to prove to himself that humans can be worthwhile, and beautiful, even in the ugliest times. HS: Do you picture Death in your head? What does he look like? MZ: When I think of Death, I hear the voice, and then I see the sky, the earth, the trees and all of us. It's why I wanted Death to talk about those things in terms of 'who.' I wanted Death to talk about all of those things as if they were colleagues—all part of the same thing. Maybe I see Death as the part of us that knows all the time that we’re going to die, reminding us to live properly. Then again, sometimes I do like to see the old Grim Reaper, just for a bit of a laugh! HS: Why do you think the book has struck such a chord with readers of so many ages? MZ: I never think of this book's audience in terms of age. I honestly thought it wouldn't have any audience at all, and that's how it became the book it did. I thought, "No one's going to read this, I might as well do exactly what I want." I stopped worrying about the audience and that has to happen with every book I think. There’s a moment where you realize you've cared for the audience all this way, and you get a bit fed up, and finally say, "All right, I've helped you out this far, but now you have to come with me." Ironically enough, I think that's when your true audience starts to love a book the most—when you trust them enough to come with you anyway. HS: Thank you so much. MZ: I can’t wait to come to Chicago to see the production!