Markus Zusak is featured in the (sydney) magazine (a monthly supplement to The Sydney Morning Herald that appeared with yesterday's edition):
To come up with "preposterous ideas", the author of The Book Thief recommends stealing stories from everyday life.
When Markus Zusak visits a school to talk to the students about writing, the first thing he teaches them is how to be thieves. "I'll spend the first 15 minutes of a school visit talking about stealing," he says. "They ask about getting caught and I'll say, 'Everyone steals. Think of the nicest person you know' — they'll think of their mum — and I'll say, 'I'm telling you, she steals. Every time I go to the supermarket, I see someone's mum eating the grapes and the nuts.'" That's when the kids "start buzzing", says Zusak. "The teachers will try to calm them down but I say, 'Leave them. They're doing exactly what I want them to do — they're telling stories.'"
The stories don't have to be about stealing, he adds, but the point is that everyone can draw from their own experiences in order to create a compelling piece of writing. "You can steal stories from your own life." It seems apt for an author who has written a novel called The Book Thief, a bestseller about Liesel, a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany who becomes a literary kleptomaniac — and who has a Jewish fistfighter hiding in the basement of her house. "I gave it everything," he says. "It's like every piece of me, that book."
Zusak's fifth novel, The Book Thief was inspired by stories told to him by his mother, Lisa, who was born in Munich and witnessed the bombing of that city at the age of six, and by his father, Helmut, who grew up in Vienna. Zusak was particularly affected by his mother's recollections of an old Jewish man who couldn't keep up when he was being marched to Dachau by the Nazis. "A teenage boy ran inside and grabbed a piece of bread and this man fell to his knees thanking him. Then a soldier threw the bread away, whipped the old man for taking it and chased the boy down and whipped him as well. That story has everything in it — pure beauty and destruction. I was fascinated by that small percentage of people who helped during the war — not just the people who survived but the people who hid them."
Intriguingly, the book's narrator is a personification of Death. He's not so much a grim reaper as a vaguely endearing character who tells bad jokes and is more afraid of his victims than they are of him.
That may seem improbable but Zusak, now 31, is already a veteran of what he calls "preposterous ideas". His fourth book, The Messenger, a young adult's title being re-released this month by Picador, features "a dog who will only drink coffee with milk and sugar in it. But even in works like that there has to be an element of truth as well."
His quirky formula seems to be working. In the last decade he has been shortlisted for the Commomnwealth Writer's Prize and has won the NSW Premier's Literary Award, the Queensland Premier's Literary Award and the Children's Book Council Award of the Year. In March, USA Today said The Book Thief was "poised to become a classic".
But he hasn't grown accustomed to the accolades. "I grew up in the Shire," he laughs. "My dad's a house painter; my mum's a house cleaner. I didn't know anyone in publishing. I didn't even know a writer's festival existed."
Still, at age 16 he decided he was going to be a writer "and nothing was going to stop me". A bit of knocking about from his three older siblings helped fuel his ambition. "It comes from all those times when I was 'too small'. I thought, 'One day I'm going to show all of you bastards.'"
Zusak, whose wife, Dominika, is due to give birth in September, has amply fulfilled that brief. Now working on his sixth book, he was named one of The Sydney Morning Herald's best young Australian novelists in May.
On St Patrick's Day, he was in New York when Fox bought the rights to make The Book Thief into a film. Just hours earlier, he had appeared on Good Morning America — the upshot of which was that his book hit the number one spot on Amazon, albeit briefly. "I was outselling The Da Vinci Code for about six hours," he laughs. "You don't have many better days than that."