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Little Willow
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Interview: Markus Zusak

"It's just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery . . . . "

As soon as I finished reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I knew two things:

1) I had a new addition to my list of favorite books.
2) I wanted to re-read the book from cover to cover right then and there.

It takes a mighty fine book to make my list of favorites. The last time I added a book to it was over two years ago.

Needless to say, when I was given the opportunity to interview Markus Zusak, I jumped at the chance. Here now is the interview in full, which was made possible by Flamingnet and Random House. Thank you to everyone involved. This interview has slight spoilers for the book.

What inspired The Book Thief?

It was a lot like finding a tap that's never been switched on before and turning it on... When I was growing up, my mum and dad told me stories about growing up in Nazi Germany - about a teenage boy who gave a starving Jewish man a piece of bread, of fiery skies and of people who didn't want to fly the Nazi flag. That world came rushing out of the tap. It was all at my feet, but then I had to organize it and turn it all into an imaginative piece of work. Fragments needed to be joined and I searched for the originality that would create not only a story but a style that was compelling for me to write.

What did you plan first: Liesel's story or Death's role as narrator? Do you think that Death is more or less a reliable narrator?

Liesel's story was always first. I used Death on the first draft, then switched to first, then third person. Liesel was the constant. Trusting myself with Death as narrator was more of a struggle. Only when I realised that he should be afraid of humans and haunted by all that we do to each other did I know that I had the right voice for the story.

As far as Death being a reliable narrator, I never doubted that he was telling the truth. I think he was always earnest, about himself and about the story he was telling to see if humans are worth their existence.

Throughout the book, both Death's comments and the section titles give away hints about what is to come. Death even notes this and somewhat apologizes for it, but admits his impatience. Do you think knowing some of the story in advance lends to the experience and the anticipation?

People have commented that despite Death giving things away, the moments they knew about still came to them with the same impact. I deliberately made Death let the plot out of the bag. It lends to the idea of his knowingness, and that he is not human. He does not function exactly how a human would in his story-telling. I wanted him to subvert the rules a little. That's also why he refers to the clouds, the trees and the sky as if they are colleagues (for example, '...the trees who stood over to the left...'

There was also the idea that knowing what would happen in advance might soften the blow, and it's also a challenge to myself. Will people read on even if they what is going to happen? Also, I think some things can have more impact if they are delivered early. Rudy, for example. It was a gut feeling to divulge what would happen to him at the end in Part Five. As a writer (and hopefully for readers), it hit me in the stomach more at that point. A shock before the real shock.

While asking the previous question, I realized that the first-person narrative of Death exempted him - her - it from ever labelling itself with a gender, and that it was me who automatically typed "him." Is Death genderless in this story? If so, was that a conscious choice?

I hope I'm not being sexist, but I ended up going with Death being male, I think. That was how I imagined it. Still, I think it's different for everyone. If people want to refer to Death as she or it instead throughout the story, that's fine with me.

Within THE BOOK THIEF, there are many authors, one of which is a young Jewish man named Max. Who illustrated Max's stories?

Trudy White did the illustrations. She is a superb illustrator here in Australia and I was lucky to become friends with her very early on when my first book came out. I knew when I was writing The Book Thief that her work was perfect for what Max would create.

Many of your books involve fisticuffs. FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE and its sequel, GETTING THE GIRL, revolve around boxing. I AM THE MESSENGER starts with a bank robbery - and the first of many brushes with violence and heroism. THE BOOK THIEF has the brutality of war and religious persecution, Max's fistfights, and Liesel's schoolyard fights and football (soccer, in the American edition) games. Are you a boxer? An athlete? Were you a schoolyard fistfighter?

I'm actually a pacifist! I had many boxing matches with my brother in the backyard when we were younger, and I guess while other people abhor boxing for its brutality, I also have to admire anyone who climbs into the ring to face up to what could be the ultimate defeat. A defeat in any sport is difficult, but when you measure it against a crushing defeat in boxing, it is nowhere near as devastating.

As far as being an athlete goes, I grew up playing Rugby here in Australia, and I find sport a good release as well as a good source for writing. These days I surf - but only when the waves aren't too big...

What do you want to say about THE BOOK THIEF? What do you hope to say by writing THE BOOK THIEF?

I can really only say this: No matter what anyone says - whether they love the book or hate it - I know it's the best I could do. I don't know if I'll ever be able to write a better book than that. It's everything I've got, that book. All my other books are like a small piece of me, but this book is every piece.

What is The Book Thief attempting to say? I set out to write a personal story and I found myself discovering the power of words, the ugly and beauty in humans, and just simply the idea that we all have the ability to create a story amongst the chaos that surrounds us. I didn't set out to discover those things - it just happened because of the story itself.

What are you working on now?

At the moment I'm working on relaxing! My wife and I are expecting a baby girl in mid-June and we're excited, nervous and everything in between.

In terms of writing, the book I plan to write next is called Bridge of Clay. It's an idea I've had for the last ten years, and I hope that I'm finally ready to write it.

Finally: What are your ten favorite books?

I've been inspired by so many, but if it's okay, I will mention only three, because they're the ones I really can't split as my ultimate favourites:

1. What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Peter Hedges)

2. My Brother Jack (an Australian classic by George Johnston)

3. The Half Brother (Lars Saabye Christensen - a Norwegian writer)

4. Okay, one more - Slaughterhouse-5 (so famous that it feels ridiculous to say that Kurt Vonnegut is the author)

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