Madeleine and I recently had the opportunity to interview Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, when he was in Portland to speak at Powell’s bookstore. Madeleine was thrilled to meet one of her favorite authors, and Markus was generous with his time. I’ve praised Zusak’s writing in other posts, and I can’t say enough about how thought-provoking and original his books are. They would be great to read and discuss with reading groups of high school girls and their moms.
Here’s a picture of Madeleine and Markus the night of the event, followed by an excerpt from the interview. To read the entire interview, click here. You may also want to visit Zusak’s Web site, which has great information.
The Book Thief was written from an angle that you rarely see, that of ordinary German people living under the Nazi regime. Why did you choose to write that story?
MZ: There are a few reasons, but the main one is that those are the stories I knew. My mom is German my father is Austrian. I grew up hearing those stories. One of my mum’s stories was about something that happened when she was six. She heard a noise that sounded like cattle being herded down the street. It was people being herded to a concentration camp. There was an old man who couldn’t keep up, and a boy gave him a piece of bread. They were both whipped, one for giving the bread, one for taking it. When you see a soldier chase a boy down and beat him to the ground for being kind to somebody, when you see that when you’re six, what could you possibly make of that?
You don’t really think of humor when you think of that time, but there were a lot of funny stories as well. I knew about my dad “jigging” as we say in Australia the Hitler Youth meetings, because he had a friend who suffered at the hands of the leaders. So they just said, “We’re not going. We’re going to go to the river instead and get dirty enough to fool our parents.” Another story I knew was about Hitler’s birthday, and my mother’s foster father refused to fly the Nazi flag. His wife said to him, “You’re going to fly the flag or else they’re going to come for us.” These are the stories I knew, and I thought, “I haven’t seen that on all the documentaries. I’m going to use these because this hasn’t necessarily been done a lot.”
Did you think of this as a book about the Holocaust?
MZ: I never thought of this as a Holocaust book, ever. When you think of World War II and what happened in Germany, you immediately think Holocaust and concentration camps. Once I started researching I kept uncovering more and more things like the beautiful acts that some Germans did such as hiding their Jewish friends in their basements. And the more I’d see of this the bigger the book got and instead of a 100 page novella that I was thinking about, I ended up with a 580 page book. All my books are important to me, but this is the one that is everything to me because of where it came from.
How did you decide to use Death as the narrator?
MZ: The decision to use Death as a narrator only came off the second time around; if I had stuck to publishing deadlines Liesel would probably be the narrator. I went from Death as narrator to Liesel telling the story herself to even trying third person. The real breakthrough was when I thought of the last line of the book. I was in down in Tasmania and there was water everywhere around me. I was reminded of the last line of a book called “A River Runs Through It,” which is, “I am haunted by waters.” I thought, “Aaaahhh, Death is afraid of us and haunted by us, because he is on hand to see all the terrible things we do to each other. It makes sense that he is telling the story to prove to himself that humans can be beautiful and selfless as well.”