A little blonde girl in a Munich suburb has been stealing hearts for the past decade. Her name is Liesel Meminger, and she wields the power to make grown men weep. Adopted by a gentle painter named Hans and his resilient wife, Rosa, Liesel weathers the horrors of war through words. The first words she reads are snatched from an instruction book on grave digging. Later words spill from a singed Nazi bonfire, the mayor’s library and pages altered by a deathly-sick Jew hidden in her foster family’s basement. Many of the words are stolen. And as Liesel becomes emboldened with every syllable, she transforms into an icon of resilience. She steals stories from those who burn them. Or as former Paste editor Charles McNair observed, Liesel is “a trumpet blast for the power of books and words—the power of words to do good, to do bad; to raze low and raise high; to create a Hitler, to allow a Hans Hubermann to exist. Words, in short, rule the world.”
As conceived and articulated by Markus Zusak, channeling his parent’s anecdotes of the Holocaust, The Book Thief celebrates the legacy of words changing worlds. Zusak, now on tour to celebrate his novel’s 10th Anniversary and its expanded edition with a new afterward and author’s notes, has born witness to the work’s impact. “People say things to me like, ‘I feel a lot better now about dying because of the voice of Death.’ I’m just shocked that it’s gone into so many different pockets of communities—young and old people have read it,” the Australian writer says. As Holocaust literature, The Book Thief both joins and stands apart from company like Anne Frank’s seminal The Diary of a Young Girl, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Elie Wiesel’s Day/Night. It offers an achingly beautiful portrait of hope nurtured when the world’s foes were far more oppressive than anything the most surreal fiction could conjure. The Book Thief also offers an existentially-altering new scope for the genre; Death itself narrates Liesel’s journey, offering the perspective of a universal handyman exasperated by humanity’s cruelty, yet enlightened in the wake of a remarkable heroine and the lives she touches.
A Printz Honor Book and one Paste’s favorite books of the aughties, The Book Thief has carried its message of hope and empowerment without any sign of wavering. We talked on the phone with Zusak as he reflected on the sleepless writing sessions that produced the novel, its impact on his own parenting and the progress of his next and equally-ambitious book, Bridge of Clay.
Paste: In the afterward of the The Book Thief’s 10th Anniversary Edition, you say that you were exhausted by writing the book and would never be able to write it again now. What made those three years so intense?
Markus Zusak: I think it was because I’d become more of a full-time writer then, even though I was still spending a lot of time doing other jobs. I was speaking in schools and doing other things at home to make a living, but I was still writing consistently every day, rather than working at another job and not writing at all for weeks on end. I think it just came from a different place than my other books did, although you don’t realize that at the time. You just think, “here’s this book,” and all you see are the problems with it. And I had a lot of problems writing the book, too. And that makes it, in the end, even more special when it’s finally done.
Even then, I think you’re always wracked with doubt. You’re always doubting your abilities, and that’s what makes you better, as well. In this case, I probably hadn’t written characters that I loved as much as the characters in that book. And so when, finally, it was done—and I finished it over two long nights where I just stayed up all night. And I think we all get a bit more emotional when we’re tired and hungry. It was a real relief when I finished, because it was a much bigger book than I’d attempted before.
Ultimately, if I were to sum it up, I’d probably say, more than any of my other books, it was a book I wasn’t sure I could write. I’ve heard some writers say things like, “Well, I’m a professional writer. I only start books I know I can finish.” I look at it maybe the other way: I only want to write books I’m not sure I can write. And The Book Thief was probably the first book like that for me.
Markus Zusak, Credit Michael Lionstar
Paste: What made it so daunting compared to your other works?
Zusak: I think just the scope was bigger. And there’s more on the line because of the period in which it’s based in. That grew on me as I was writing it as well. At first, I started thinking it was going to be a 100-page novella. I obviously got carried away, and it turned into this 500-plus page book. I started writing it, and I had bombs coming down at the wrong time and things like that. You do that in your first draft. I wrote, and when I was hitting a wall, I researched. Then I’d write some more.
The first research I had, really, were the stories my Mom and Dad told me growing up. And I loved hearing those stories. I asked them to tell me the same stories over and over again. So, when I started the book, it was like scratching something out of my mind and reaching in and pulling that world out. That’s what I began with. That was my first research in a way. The other analogy I use is imagine waking up one day and you can speak another language. That’s what it was like to start writing that book. So it seemed to come from somewhere a little deeper inside of me than the other books, which were more about me and my own time growing up. This just felt like it came from somewhere a bit deeper than that.
Paste: Your narrator, Death, is initially exhausted by humanity and its perpetual need for conflict. As you say, “Death finds us at our weakest, at our worst.” When you began writing this in the Winter of 2001, how much were you projecting into that character? Were there any specific events or climates during that caused you to hold a similar attitude?
Zusak: To be totally honest, probably not. The reason Death was the narrator, and the reason Liesel came into the book, were just by chance. I was writing with some kids at a school where I was teaching at the time, and I got them to write about color. I wrote with them, and I realize I’d written three short passages about three deaths. And they were written from the point of view of Death. And I thought, “Maybe I should just put that in that book I’m thinking of setting in Germany.” I had also written a page of a book about a girl stealing books in modern-day Sydney. And then I thought, “Why don’t I just put that in there as well?” They were almost like off-hand thoughts. I didn’t even do anything. I just walked around with that for a while. Then I started writing and just the idea of Death narrating…I just thought war and death; people say they’re like best friends. Who better to be hanging around during a time of war?
That was where it started. I had written 200-250 pages with Death as the narrator, and he was just too sadistic and macabre. It didn’t feel exactly right. So I scrapped that and thought, I’ll just get Liesel to tell the story, which immediately shrunk the book down, but then gave me a new problem. It’s that idea that people think writers are whimsical people who are imagining things all the time, and that we’ve got great imaginations. In my case, it’s more that I have a lot of problems, and I have a lot of problems when I write, in particular. The problem is, in this case, is that even though I have a German and Austrian background, Liesel is now the most Australian-sounding German girl in the history of books. So I scrapped that, and then I went to a straight third-person narration. And in a way, this was everything that I was wanting to avoid in the first place. And it was only when I reimagined Death as he was, but just brought it back a notch and thought, “What if he’s actually scared of us, and for us?” And he’s seeing us at our worst, and what if he wants to tell one story out of a multitude of stories, because we all have good and bad in us? So what if he’s telling this story, to show himself in a way, that humans can be beautiful and worthwhile and selfless? Once I started with that idea as the voice of Death, I went back to the beginning and started again, and I wrote all the way to the end. That was still a good year and a half of work ahead of me.
Paste: This novel was built on the storytelling foundation of your parents’ experiences in Austria and Germany throughout the war. Did readers approach you with their own wartime legacies after reading The Book Thief?
Zusak: Every now and again some people say, ‘I’ve got a story I could tell you.’ It’s not as common as you might think. I’m usually reticent to take those things on, because it came from my own family, I’d hate to use somebody’s story for some kind of personal gain. I think the point, as well, is that a lot of those stories could be biographies, and I don’t think I have biographies in me. As soon as I hear a story, I think, “What if that actually happened like this?” A really good case in point is in The Book Thief.
My Dad always told me this story about his own father, and he was sent to the First World War. Then he was sent to the Second World War, because he wouldn’t let my Dad be sent to a special school to make better Nazis, basically. And he was punished for that by sending him to the warzones, and while people went underground, he’d stay up in his units to put all the fires out and dismantle landmines. He was on this truck once, and this guy says to him, ‘That’s my seat,’ and my Dad’s father says, ‘Well, not anymore it’s not.’ He was a tough, hard-nosed guy.
This [scenario] happens to Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster father, in the story, and it’s not in his nature to say, “No, I’m not giving my seat up.” So in the book, of course, he says, ‘Sure, I’ll give you my seat.’ What actually happened that day, in real life, is the truck blew a tire and turned over, and because my Grandfather didn’t give up his seat, he survived. The other guy actually died in the car accident. Initially, I didn’t have Hans Hubermann giving up his seat, and it’s funny how hard-nosed you are about these things, and then finally it hits you in the face after however many drafts, and you go, “Ah, he would never do that. It’s not in character.”
After a while, the fiction and nonfiction lines start to blur a little bit, and you start to wonder what’s what. I think with other people’s stories, I have to be a lot more careful. People have told me their life story, but at the moment, I’m too caught up with the stuff I’m trying to write. We’ll see. I have a few ideas for maybe some sort of biography, but I’m not sure I’m there yet.
Paste: Going back to Death, you’re also god and death in these stories you create, which you reiterate by saying that many of the characters broke your heart, even though you held their fates in your hands. What characters were hardest for you to let go of?
Zusak: [Spoilers Ahead] It was definitely Rudy. I always had this kid next door, and he’d play soccer on the street. When I was a kid, we’d play rugby in the backyard and imagine we were the great players. We’d pretend and call their names. I wanted these kids [in The Book Thief] to do that on the street when they played soccer, and so I went to my local library to look at soccer players of that era in Germany and Europe. I walked into the library thinking, “I’m never going to find this. There’s not going to be anything on that at all.” So I went in, and there was a book on The Olympics facing out. It had all of these great Olympians on the cover, and one of them was Jesse Owens. I stopped in my tracks and said, ‘I don’t need any soccer players; I have one of the great icons of the 20th century.’
I immediately imagined Rudy turning himself into Jesse Owens and running 100 meters at the local track. I loved him the most from that moment on. He was definitely the hardest character to let go of, if you wanted to look at it like that. People come up to me sometimes and say, ‘ How could you kill Hans?” Or, “How could you kill Rudy? How could you do that?’ And I say, ‘You have no idea. I was a total mess when I was writing those last 50 pages.’ But not for one second did I consider saving either of them. You have to do what’s right for the book, not what’s right for one character in the book. I also say to them that maybe we wouldn’t love those characters as much if they’d survived.
In a lot of ways, it’s just more poetic that they died the way they did. And that sort of thing happened. There are all sorts of cruel fates involved in that as well. The only reason Rudy’s there is that his Dad tried to save him, like what happened with my own Dad. His Dad tried to save him from going to this special Nazi school. Had he let him go, he would have survived, and the father was actually the only survivor because they sent him to the war as well. All those deaths at the end of the book [represented] the idea of these terrible twists of fate that a war, more than any other time, would deal out. You get caught up in that in the writing and start to realize that this is what war does to people.
Paste: The Book Thief remains one of the most colorful books I’ve ever read, despite the fact it’s published in black and white. Death’s descriptions, and the pacified tone he uses, offer a sense of wonder in a time period that was so bleak. How did you decide which colors to use? What was the thought process behind the descriptions?
Zusak: I plan things meticulously. If you look at that book mathematically, in the prologue and the epilogue there are four chapters in each one. And then there are ten parts, and each of those ten parts has eight chapters in it. So I plan everything meticulously and have that sort of structure. In a way, that’s one of the best things for us, to be confined in some way. It brings the best out. When it comes to the actual writing, the more times I hear that voice that says “do this” or “here’s this image,” even if it sounds ridiculous, I’ll write it. For a long time I regretted it, but I just remember Death as he describes the sky as white-horse grey. That’s just one of those images that came to me, and I thought “just do it.” So I wrote it with that thought, that whenever you go up to a white horse, you usually see a lot of grey in it, so it’s not completely white. A lot of the colors in the book there, you do all this hard work just so you get to play for a little bit. It’s like climbing a mountain, but at the top of a mountain there’s a sandbox, and you get to play with the words for a while. That’s what those descriptions of the color are.
I do want to see visions when I read. It stands to reason that I would write like that. I know there are writers who say, “You’ve got to be disciplined, and it’s black and white, and if it’s a red pot call it a red pot.” I think we all have different styles and thoughts on that aesthetic part of writing, but mine is to see that sort of color. You’ve got to write what you love, and that’s how I love to write.
Additional Material from The Book Thief’s 10th Anniversary Edition
Paste: Hans and Rosa both display tremendous courage in their parenting over the course of the book. Your daughter is around the same age as Liesel—did their creation help inform your own outlook on parenting?
Zusak: She’s pretty much exactly the age now that Liesel was when she arrived on Himmel Street. I often tell myself to be less like Rosa and more like Hans. [Laughs] When I look at my Mum and Dad, my Dad was pretty hard. I think someone’s got to be the tough parent, and the other parent has to back that up. At the end of the day, my wife and I feel like the world is pretty soft on kids; you have the idea that kids are running the show. In some ways, we’re pretty tough parents. Sometimes you don’t make the popular decisions, but if it’s the right decision, that’s what you have to do.
It’s interesting, because my daughter plays the piano and I often sit with her and help her. I think it’s the Hans in me that says, “Be really patient, be really patient—you’re not going to get anywhere by getting frustrated.” You’ve got to let kids be what they’re going to be as well. I’m definitely reminded, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.
Paste: I feel like you probably went through the mental process of parenting before you had your first child.
Zusak: It’s funny. The other thing is that I used to be a high school substitute teacher, and you can probably imagine from how you treated high school substitute teachers. So I think a lot of parenting ideas can come form that sort of experience, too. You just think, “Right: I can lose a few battles along the way, but I can’t lose the war.” When it comes to dealing with 30 kids in one spot, sometimes you think you have to be pretty tough and not lose, But my daughter’s a really good soul. She might have more Hans Hubermann in her than I do, actually. Also, when you sit down and start writing, things come out of you that you don’t necessarily know where they came from. So the soul-ness of someone like Hans is someone I always aspire to be, and it’s good to be reminded of that.
Paste: Looking back after a decade of writing this novel, what are things that surprise you the most about The Book Thief’s influence?
Zusak: It’s crazy that I’m up here 10 years to the day it came out. I’m always really surprised that the book did this well. I thought it would sink without a trace—I thought it would be my least successful book. From the point of view of critics, I thought they could say any bad things about it that they wanted, but they couldn’t accuse it of being unambitious and they couldn’t accuse it of not having any ideas in it. I always stuck to that idea. Even though I saw flaws in it and see flaws in it now, I’m just surprised when people know the book and it’s just really unusual. I’d written four books before The Book Thief, and you’re used to having those conversations where someone asks you why you’re a writer. I still have those conversations now. People have no idea who you are, and why should they?
But people say things to me like, ‘I feel a lot better now about dying because of the voice of Death.’ And I say to them, ‘I’m really happy for you, because I’m still not that crazy about dying.’ [Laughs] I’m just shocked that it’s gone into so many different pockets of communities—young and old people have read it. For a book that I thought nobody was going to read, that’s always still the most surprising thing. I’m hugely grateful to those readers who read it and then try to get someone else to read it. One person asks what’s it about, and the other person has to say, ‘Well, it’s set in Nazi Germany, it’s narrated by Death, nearly everybody dies and it’s 560-pages long. You’ll love it.’ It’s still always a surprise to me that it’s done as well as it has.
Paste: How does that adoration affect your work going forward on your next novel, Bridge of Clay?
Zusak: I’ve wondered about this—I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I’m really struggling, still, with this new book, and I’ve written 90% of it, but I still can’t quite get over the line. It’s a very different book. It’s almost like a marriage of all the books I’ve written, to become one book. Sometimes I think if The Book Thief hadn’t been so successful, I would’ve written it by now, because I maybe would have had more time. The Book Thief has taken time over the years, just with going away and doing things like this.
But part of me thinks it would have taken me this long, anyway. I remember early on when I started writing, I wrote two manuscripts. The first one was rejected by five publishers. This was when I was 18. I wrote the second one, also when I was 18, and I didn’t send that one off because I thought it was too much like the first one. I thought if the first one didn’t get published, that one’s not going to get published. After that, for about three years, I couldn’t get anything written. I couldn’t finish anything, and I was admonishing myself saying, “You’re lazy; you’ve got no drive, no hunger. What’s wrong with you?” And I realized that in those three years, I was still learning a lot. I hadn’t found the voice that I was after. I hadn’t found my own voice. You go through these growth periods, and I think that’s what’s happened in the last 10 years. I’m a completely different person than the person who wrote The Book Thief. And this is also the scary thing—I’m a different person to the one who started Bridge of Clay eight, nine years ago.
You go back to the beginning, which is part of the process of how I write all the time, and you’re not the same person who wrote that beginning. In this case, I think there’s definitely an apprehension because of what’s happened on The Book Thief. At the end of the day, when you sit down to write, you forget about all that. I think it’s just been a really problematic book. Now I just really want to finish it so I can also start something new, and have that feeling again of writing something fresh. I’ve got to get it done this year, or else I’ll probably finally have to set it aside.
Paste: Do you already have an idea of the book you’d write after Bridge of Clay?
Zusak: I’ve got a few different ideas of certain things I want to do. I’m starting to get the first ideas for another novel, but it’s just those first few sparks. I’m interested in where that could take me. I’ve often said that I’m really lucky in that I’ve written four books that really mean something to me, and one book means everything to me, which is The Book Thief. Going back to the previous question, I think sometimes you write a book that means everything to you and you want to do that again. This book really does mean everything to me—this new one—but I think I’ll be happy to go back and write a book that means something to me after this one. But you can’t be sure.
The novel I have in mind is, possibly, more ambitious than anything I’ve ever done. We’ll just have to see what happens when I’m done. People say, “Geez, you’re going to take a big break after writing this book.” I say, “No, I’m going to start writing the next one straight away.” That will be how I celebrate; just to write something new again.