Marcus Zusak: the brain behind ‘The Book Thief’

“Everyone thinks that to be a writer, you must have a great imagination. And I say, ‘no, I just have a lot of problems.’” -Marcus Zusak

Back in September, I interviewed Australian author Marcus Zusak about his bestselling novel “The Book Thief” before an audience at L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance. It tells the story of one German family who clandestinely defies Hitler and Nazism through a series of large and small acts, including hiding a Jew, which test their conscience and their courage. Published in 2005, the book spent more than 230 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Next week, the movie version of “The Book Thief” will hit theatres, starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer, Sophie Nélisse. In this edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, Zusak talks about choosing “Death” as a narrator, the power of stories and why there can never be enough Holocaust literature.

How does it feel to see a work that took years and years to write come to life on screen? Is it surreal?

It’s been surreal right from the beginning, because I never thought [this book] would be successful at all. Not to sound too glib on the whole subject, but I imagined that moment when someone tries to recommend it to their friend to read, and they say ‘Well what’s it about?’ and, well, ‘It’s set in Nazi, Germany, it’s narrated by death, nearly everybody dies, it’s 560 pages long — you’ll love it!’ You just can’t imagine this will do well. And I think that that’s the best thing that can happen because you don’t even think about the audience anymore.

The book uses the backdrop of World War II and the Holocaust, which are these massive, formative events of the 20th century. How do you make subjects of that magnitude, which loom so large in our collective imaginations accessible for readers?

Honestly, I think it’s luck. The first page I ever wrote called ‘The Book Thief’ was about a girl stealing a book in modern day Sydney [Australia]. It was really rough, just on a piece of paper, and then I started writing this, and I thought ‘Oh I’ll just throw that idea of the book thief girl into this’ — not thinking about book burnings or about how Hitler destroyed people with words; not thinking that this girl would be stealing words back and writing her own story of this world. All these things come together as you’re writing. So sometimes it’s best not to think about it.

Throughout reading this book, I kept thinking of the quote by German poet Heinrich Heine who said, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings” – an idea he formed well before the Holocaust. Which I think speaks to your ingenious choice to use “Death” as the book’s narrator. In such awful circumstances, when in fact human beings are being burned, you went and conceived of death as a character – a personality – and an empathetic one, because in ‘The Book Thief’ Death actually resists his mission.

What’s funny with the death idea is  — hopefully when the book is done it looks effortless, but it was a nightmare, writing it. It was awful. I wrote 200 pages really quickly of this book, and it took me until page 200 to realize Death was just too macabre. He was enjoying his work too much. It was almost like I’d write a page and I’d need to take a shower. He’d say the most awful things, like, ‘This is the story about a young girl. Do you like young girls? I do. But then again, I like everybody.’ It was a really sinister slant. And then I thought of the last line of the book: What if Death is afraid of us and for us? Then I re-wrote it from the beginning and couldn’t stop.

In the story, “Jews” serve as this kind of monolithic group character in the background, who, obviously, from what we know of history, suffer through this ill-fated destiny. And yet, your main characters, who are seemingly ordinary German citizens, are also doomed to tragic fate, and experience all kinds of pain and suffering. Was that mirroring conscious — the idea that during war, everybody suffers?

I didn’t set out to do that. Imagine waking up one day and realizing you can speak another language that you didn’t know. The stories were there. It’s like I opened up this little part of my mind and just pulled this world out. That makes it sound easy and it wasn’t, but it was there. So the idea that ‘everybody suffers’, you never start there. It just slowly piece by piece came together, and you’ve got one of the greatest villains of all time in the background doing what he’s doing; and that’s the paradox of the whole thing: for the story, [Hitler] is a great thing, but for history it’s such an awful thing.

It’s possible to make the argument that all books celebrate words and storytelling, but this book overtly, self-consciously does so. I imagine that as a writer this idea is very close to you, so how would you define the power of words and stories?

Where do I start? The hardest question to ever answer is: What is the book about? But at the end of the day I think what this book is about is: that what we’re made of is stories, and what we need are stories. Think of your life without stories. How many stories do you think you’ve been told in your life? How many do you think you’ve told in one day? My Mom and Dad came to Australia [from Germany] with nothing — they didn’t have a toothbrush. But they had stories.

The book addresses the power of words – suggesting they can be used either in the Hitler sense (for destruction) or in the Liesl sense (for creation). Does that awareness suggest you feel a moral responsibility for what you’re writing, or the way that you write it? Do you feel a sense of mission in your work?

Especially in this case I did, and I think I do in general. People could say, ‘Don’t talk about the Holocaust in this sense,’ or they’ll say, ‘Do we really need another book set during the Holocaust? Do we really need another movie?’ Or they could say, ‘Ah, your book spent 375 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list — you’ve done pretty well out of all of that suffering!’ So I ask: Was my motive in the right place? Is the world a better place for the fact that [this] book is out there? I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank on the plane [to Los Angeles] and the flight attendant passed by and said ‘What are you reading? Oh! I haven’t read that in ages…’ And a few hours later came past again, everyone else was asleep and I’m still reading, and he said to me, in this sort of jovially, jokey, flight attendant way, he said, ‘I don’t want to spoil it for you but she dies in the end — you know that don’t ya?’ And that’s why we still need books about the Holocaust.

‘The Book Thief’ has a great deal of tragedy in it but it also is a celebration of life. In fact, it’s full of opposites — acknowledging a world of both beauty and brutality, of human beings who are deeply flawed but also capable of incredible grace, and its characters are able to find passion and purpose in the bleakest of conditions. Was there a religious or spiritual impulse guiding this view?

I think it’s that idea of spirituality without religion. Like where Death says, ‘You think you’re the only one God never answers?’