Markus Zusak, the wildly popular author of the young-adult novel, The Book Thief, doesn’t do anything by the book. He doesn’t believe that mystery is important to keep his readers engaged, nor does he follow the cardinal rule of creative writing — show, not tell. But, his characters are as real as the people in your life. They breathe through the pages, full of emotions, intricate personal details, well-carved personalities and life. And, they always manage to touch your hearts.
It helps that Zusak’s sentences are precise, as though they have been cut after being sized by measuring tape, never an inch longer than required. His words are perfectly chiselled and sharp, his writing style original and devoid of overused metaphors, and worn-out similes.
In an interview to News18.com Zusak spoke about what his primary aim is, as a writer. “I just try to write somebody’s favourite book. That is a harder ambition than trying to write a young-adult book or a book for adults. You are just trying to write a book that someone might love because a loved book transcends the category it comes from.”
Thumb through any of Zusak’s books — I Am The Messenger, The Book Thief or Bridge of Clay — and you will discover that his books steer in and out of various literary genres effortlessly. In the UK, USA and India for example, there is an adult version and a young-adult version of The Book Thief. The only difference between the two versions is their covers.
But, unlike many YA authors, Zusak isn’t afraid of being slotted by a particular genre. In fact, he wears his YA author tag in style, without any qualms. “You can just be grateful for whatever success you get and you don’t get to choose what that success is. So, if people want to think of me as a young-adult writer, fine! If they don’t, they can think of me as a writer of books for adults. But, I don’t think the readers make such distinctions when they love a book.” said the author.
Zusak’s latest book, Bridge of Clay, is his first novel to release under the general fiction genre. The book took more than ten years to finish and was an exercise in patience for the writer, who struggled to complete it and once even abandoned it altogether. But, almost 600-pages long, this book is also a testament of how far Zusak will go to get the tonality, structure and his storytelling right.
“You try another word. You try another colour on the wall. You try all sorts of things to make it feel whole. I just put things in, take them out, put them in a different order, switch it, and continue to try until I read it and it reads right. I need not know that it is right, I just need to feel that it is right. If you have the overall voices of each character, that too helps you put things in the right places.” said Zusak.
“I just love the idea that you are building a world or making up a sentence that just lets the readers say, ‘I never looked at the world quite from that exact same angle before,” he added.
For most of his novels, Zusak had written hundreds of drafts, but the writer confessed that re-writing usually depends on which part of the book he is working on. For him, the first part of any book requires more work, and then he begins to find a rhythm. Zusak took about a year and a half to write the first half of The Book Thief and the second half was written within one month.
Bridge of Clay, however, was a difficult book to write.“I worked very hard for part one and two of Bridge of Clay, and then I loosened up a little bit. I really think that part one and two were still very introductory, even though you are a hundred pages in, you are still getting to know this world. But certainly, by the end, it loosens up and I think by then you are doing a bit less of re-reading. Part one of the Bridge of Clay I re-read about 500 times, but the last part may be 50 times. So, by the end, you are bringing down the numbers. 50 times of re-reading doesn’t even sound like work.” said Zusak with a laugh.
Bridge of Clay was well received by critics and fans alike and has also been nominated for Indie Book Awards, 2019. However, The Book Thief, which released in 2005 is by far Zusak’s most loved and recognised work. The book was also made into a play and a Hollywood movie by the same name.
Talking about the movie the author said, “When you watch the film (based on The Book Thief), you really get to see the characters. You get to understand them. But, when you read the book you get to be the characters. They (the makers) wanted to make the film for little kids, and that really isn’t the audience of the book.”
However, the author added that he is very grateful for the film because it brought a whole new audience to the book. “Some things I really liked in the film, and somethings hurt a little bit. They also brought their own material to it, and that’s what a film should do,” he added.
The most unusual thing about The Book Thief is its narrator — the Death. The entire story has been narrated by a melancholic, philosophizing, sympathizing personification of death, who offers a very unique perspective into the lives of the main characters — Liesel Meminger and Rudy Steiner. Zusak’s novel narrator, Death, at the beginning of the story, also gives away the fact that Rudy will die in the end.
It’s an unusual move for an author to give away such an important piece of information about one of the main characters so early on in a story, but Zusak said, he chose to do so because, in his gut, it felt right.
“Rudy was my favourite character. I loved him from the moment I had a vision of him pretending to be Jesse Owens. But, it just felt right to give away the fact that he will die, and I often do what feels right. I often give things away.” said the writer.
“I threw a challenge to myself and it’s also like throwing a challenge to the readers. ‘How much do you really want to read this now that you know what is going to happen?’. And now, I realise that a lot of readers hoped that when it gets there it is not going to happen.” he added.
The author then confessed that it was a creative trope to give the ending away, and be done with any surprise or mystery building endeavors. It served several purposes — for starters, at that point in the book the readers were not expecting it, so it came as a big slap on their faces. And then when they get over that, everything that Rudy does means more. Every time Rudy gets a little mark on the board, of what a great friend he is to Liesel, and how courageous he is, and how rebellious he is, it means more to the audiences because they know he is going to die.
“I wanted death to tell the story not quite how humans would do it. Death was like a missing piece that fits into us. I thought Death as a narrator would just give away the ending. And, the last reason is that when the time does come, and Rudy does die, I feel like I have at least prepared the reader for it.” said Zusak.