Interview with Markus Zusak
Actress, writer and director Heidi Stillman wrote the stage adaptation of The Book Thief, playing at Steppenwolf Theatre this fall. Heidi and Markus Zusak took part in the below conversation via email in spring 2012.
H.S.: This novel is so finely plotted and the characters so fully formed, that people love to hear about the genesis for this story. Can you tell us a bit about when the concept for a novel about WWII, narrated by Death and about a girl book thief, came to you? Which idea came first and how did you build upon it?
M.Z.: Like most ideas, I stumbled across bits and pieces over time and started using them for no apparent reason. Once, when my computer was broken, I was writing the book I was working on at the time on foolscap paper. In the middle of it, 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.
The next realization was also a bit of a fluke. I was working with some kids at a high school and got them to write about color. I did the exercise with them and realized I had written about red, white and blue—but more importantly, about three different deaths, from Death’s point of view. Again, I thought, “How about just throwing that in to that book set in Nazi Germany as well?” I didn’t wonder if it made sense at first, I just wrote, and very slowly, the ideas formed a little more clearly. As an example, it wasn’t until many months working on the book that I saw that the colors in the prologue should actually be red, white and black, in the colors of the Nazi flag…
At the end of the day, there’s a whole range of answers to this question. You could say the concept of the book was always there. It was waiting while I was growing up in Sydney, listening to my parents’ stories in the kitchen with my brother and two sisters. In so many ways, that’s where the book truly began.
The power of words and language is 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 more in telling this story than in anything else you have worked on?
It felt like 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. In The Book Thief I started to make those connections as I considered using Mein Kampf in the story and having characters paint over it and write their own story over the top. From another point of view, it wasn’t until the book was published when I saw that it was also about people doing beautiful things in even the ugliest times. I guess you do know it as you’re writing, but not in such a definable way. The more time you spend with it, the clearer (and sometimes murkier) it all becomes.