‘I’ve written four books that mean something to me and two that mean everything to me,’ Markus Zusak says. The two books that mean everything to him are The Book Thief and Bridge of Clay – the latter took him thirteen years to complete. ‘It might be time again to write one that just means something,’ he adds.
It seems unlikely, however, as Zusak doesn’t seem able to do anything without doing it well, giving it absolutely everything he has and getting a kick out of the challenge. Even the talk he gives to the crowded auditorium of The Collection Museum in Lincoln is expertly constructed. At first, he tells a funny story from his own childhood, then he explains to the audience why he told it in that order, why he drew our attention to his brother’s red Esky cooler, the upside-down paint cans they sat on to eat their lunch. Why do these details matter?
‘You want people to believe you,’ Zusak says. ‘If you can give them the detail, it convinces people you were there.’
Every story is two stories, he explains. You tell the top layer, while dipping into the bottom layer – the backstory – to add emotional weight. We cared in the moment when young Markus had to confess what he’d done to his dad because we knew his dad yelled at him sometimes when he messed up at work. How did we know this? We knew because Zusak, the grown-up writer, paused the story to relay the time when he painted himself into a corner of a cupboard and had to wait an hour and a half before coming out, so he wouldn’t mess up the paint. We know because Zusak, bestselling author, dipped into the bottom layer.
He’s this good because he’s had a lot of practise. Before going onstage, I interviewed Zusak in the office below the museum, asked how he started out. The first story he ever wrote was about a boy with a cyst in his head that could explode at any time.
‘I stopped at eight pages and thought it could be entered into a competition for the worst book ever written,’ he tells me, laughing. ‘The first thing I finished was when I was eighteen. I wrote my first book and that got rejected by five publishers, which was good – I was lucky that it did. If it hadn’t, I would look back with even more embarrassment at my earlier books. Now, though, I look back at my first published books kind of happily because I think enough time goes by and you can forgive yourself for whatever you didn’t quite get right, all the things you overdid.’
Zusak’s first ever reading was in the year 2000, in a library in Margaret River, Western Australia. Not only did no one come but the librarian made him do the reading anyway, just for her. It’s the unexpected that makes a story work, Zusak explains. When he tells people this story now, the zero-attendance fact gets their sympathy but it’s the sadism of the librarian that really makes them laugh.
As a young writer, Zusak gave talks in schools across Australia in order to make money – telling a good story was essential for his survival.
‘Those boys,’ he says. ‘They really want to kill you.’
It was their sports hour or their lunch break Zusak’s lecture consumed and he knew he had to make it worth their while. It was during a school workshop that he first came up with one of the core features of The Book Thief. In a writing exercise with a class, he described the sky in three colours, used each colour to represent a death.
‘I just knew it was Death talking,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t this profound, deep thing – it was quite simple.’
At the same time, Zusak was writing a short story set in contemporary Australia, about a girl stealing books. He pulled the two ideas together and, inspired by the stories told by his parents about their childhoods in Austria and Germany during the second world war, set the book in Nazi Germany.
Published in 2005, The Book Thief was an international bestseller, translated into more than thirty languages. It was adapted into a film in 2013, starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Zusak suggested the filmmakers cast Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, the main character, which they did, but apart from that, Zusak says he had very little to do with the film. There are elements about it he likes, some he doesn’t.
‘Film people are different,’ he says, darkly.
Released in 2013, the film went into production exactly halfway through the thirteen-year break between The Book Thief’s publication and the release of Zusak’s latest, Bridge of Clay.
‘It nearly killed me writing it,’ he says, ‘but it’s also why I’m alive.’
Zusak never imagined anyone would read The Book Thief and, liberated by this belief, was able to write it exactly the way he wanted, in only one year. After its immense success he knew that, whatever he did next, he would have a lot of readers. He revisited Bridge of Clay’s beginning ‘thousands of times’, rewriting it over and over again with different narrators. He likes to write in the morning, at the kitchen table, and when he once asked his daughter if she could eat her cereal quieter because he was trying to work, she snorted.
‘You?’ she said. ‘Work?
This was still ringing in his ears when he finished the book and so he worked out his daily word average for the last thirteen years: 1.9 words a day.
‘Not even two,’ he laughs.
It was a frustrating, painful process but Zusak believes that these long years with the same book, the same characters, made it better.
‘The more time you spend with a book, the more you can make good decisions about it,’ he says. ‘I normally say you want to spend enough time with the book, working on it, making notes for it, writing it, that you feel like you can wake up every day and just roll out of bed into the world of the book.’
But what is it like to roll out of bed the morning after you finish the book? What does it feel like when that world, the world you’ve been in for thirteen years, is sealed off, no longer there?
‘Everyone thinks you should feel really happy but you don’t,’ Zusak says. ‘You feel a bit flat. You’ve just been kind of working for the World Championship of Yourself and then it’s over. You’re relieved, don’t get me wrong – you wouldn’t go back in – but you’re still wondering how you’re going to live without it. That’s how you write the next book.’
It’s clearly a joy, though – anyone can see that. The whole time he’s talking, Zusak is smiling.
‘I say it’s like climbing a mountain but there’s a sandpit at the top,’ he says. ‘You don’t get to play without doing the work.’
‘Playing’ is writing parts that are fun or inserting lines from real life into the story. On a hot day while writing Bridge of Clay, Zusak was cleaning his car with his shirt off. His son, then four, rode up on his trike and stopped.
‘Pop!’ he said. ‘What’re you doing out here in just your nipples?’
That’s in the book. But now the world of Bridge of Clay is over, sealed off, and Zusak is breaking his way into the next one.
‘I’ve got ideas, a few little things,’ he said. ‘I don’t guard my ideas. I was talking somewhere else last night and I told the audience the idea. I just said ‘Don’t write it because you’ll probably write it faster than I can.’ That’s the thing, though – I could give everyone the exact same idea and none of us would do it the same way. We’ll see.’ He smiles. ‘At the moment I’m still writing the first sentence.’
About the interviewer
Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.