'I was just trying to write a book that would really mean something to me,' Markus Zusak tells EW.
It’s been 10 years since Markus Zusak’s 2006 novel, The Book Thief, blazed onto shelves across the world and rocketed up best-seller lists, earning a well-deserved spot in the canon of World War II literature. Now, after it’s been adapted for the big screen and even the stage, the story of our book-pilfering heroine Liesel Meminger and Max, the young Jewish man her foster family is hiding in their basement, is so familiar, we can’t imagine our libraries without it.
Below, EW caught up with Zusak to commemorate the anniversary of the book he never even thought would be published — but ended up changing his life forever.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you believe you’re still giving interviews about The Book Thief 10 years later?
MARKUS ZUSAK: It is sort of surreal. I’ve been lucky that a lot of people have read this book — more than I ever dreamed would. I never thought anyone would read it, and maybe that’s why I wrote it the way I did and how it became successful. I didn’t think of the audience at all.
I want to know more about that! What do you think you wouldn’t have tried if you were writing for an audience?
I definitely wouldn’t have made the book as big as it was. I don’t know whether I would have used Death as the narrator. Every time there was a new idea, I would just say, “Yes. Do it.” Any risk I felt like needed to be taken, I just took, not worrying about the reader at all and whether they would go with me.
How have your feelings about the book changed over the past decade?
While you go through the writing of it, you’re really fresh at the beginning, and then the hardest stages are through the middle. Then you get to the end: I remember when I wrote the last 50 pages of the book, I was just a mess. I didn’t realize at the time how much the book meant to me. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I did a reading from the book at a small writer’s festival in Australia. I just read this chapter toward the end of the book, where Liesel and Rudy are in the forest, and she admits to him that she was hiding Max in the basement. She shows him the book that Max had made, and he says to her, “Oh, you told him about me?” and she says, “Of course I did.” I was reading that, and I just started crying. I was so embarrassed to do that while reading in public. And I think it was then that I realized how much that book meant to me, with a bit of hindsight.
I feel like my relationship to that book now has changed to the point where I’ve gone through the writing of it, and then the success of it, and some of the hard times, or doubts and fears, to be able to look back now and say, “That’s really the best I could do for that time.” I was really alive when I was writing this. And I think, as a writer, that’s what books should do for you, to make you feel like that.
When did you first realize the book wasn’t flopping like you thought it was going to?
There were a couple of moments, but one was when it came out in America, and I was interviewed on Good Morning America. It was three or four minutes that changed my life. The interview was with Charlie Gibson, who seemed to be this really respected guy, and was a real reader. He had read the book, you could tell because he quoted from it. I remember him saying that the book made him cry and all this stuff. I could see my publisher and my editor jumping up and down over in the corner.
I think even then, I didn’t know. But at the end of that day, the book had gone up to the top of Amazon, and I had to ask someone, “Is that how many people are looking at the book?” And they said, “No, that’s how many people are buying the book, right now.” That was the moment where I thought, “Oh god, okay. This is actually happening.” Then a week or so later, that’s when it was in the New York Times.
Suddenly publishers around the world were saying, “We want to publish that book, too.” So it all sort of snowballed from there. It wasn’t really a sign, it was more a bit of a cataclysm, where it all just went to this one moment.
The Book Thief was published for adults in Australia, but for young adults in the U.S. Why did they make that change?
It’s actually not as interesting or tactical as at may sound. It was purely because I was signed to a two-book contract in America, and this was the second book, and that was with a young adult and children’s publisher. Because publishing houses are so big in America, there was no thought, “We’ll give this to the adult imprint,” whereas at home, that’s what happened.
It probably worked in my favor to be in the young adult category in America because the industry is so huge there, maybe it would have been swallowed up in the adult section. But who knows? Things just happen the way they happen. I think it’s a mistake to think, “Am I going to write a young adult book, or do I desperately want to write a book for adults?” I think the better ambition is to try to write someone’s favorite book, because those categorizations of adult, young adult, become kind of superfluous. When someone says, “Oh, I love that book!” they don’t say, “Oh I love that young adult book!” or “I love that book for adults!” or “I love that science fiction book!” they just say “I love that book.” A loved book transcends the category that it’s in anyway.
Do you have any favorite reader encounters from the past decade?
One moment that I really cherish is from when I was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which is such an intense, amazing, beautiful city. I remember being in a bookstore there, and at least 3 or 4 kids came up to me when they were getting the book signed and they whispered to me, “I’m going to steal this book,” because they didn’t have the money to buy it! They were really going to steal it. I’d sign it and give it back to them and go, “Alright. Good luck!” I just really love the spirit of those kids, that they want to read the book so much that they’re going to steal it.
I love that they whispered it to you, too. It’s so conspiratorial.
It’s conspiratorial, but it’s really honest at the same time, which is kind of beautiful.
What did you feel you could contribute to the canon of Holocaust literature — especially as late as 2006?
Nothing, honestly. I just think, again, if you’re thinking that way when you’re writing it, you’re in really deep water. The thing that freed me was the idea that I didn’t think anyone would care. Sometimes you get the cynical person saying, “Do we really need another book set in Nazi Germany?” But I think you just have to ask, “Is this a story worth telling?” Take away Nazi Germany, take away the Holocaust: If you could transpose something else into the story itself, and make it a different time, a different place, would the story still be a good story? And would those characters still be good characters?
I was just trying to write a book that would really mean something to me. And I was lucky: I feel like I’ve written four books that mean something to me, and one book that means everything to me, and that’s The Book Thief. I think if you set out with the ambition to just write a really good book, the rest, hopefully, will take care of itself.