IN THE RING WITH MARKUS ZUSAK
The author of “The Book Thief” talks facing down failure and finding courage to remain curious – in conversation with Scott Monk
A tortured punching bag swings to a nervous stop in a suburban Sydney garage – sad, bruised and defiant. It’s been wailed into many-a-time. Sometimes the blows have been technical, hesitant… even soft. At other times – like when the world won’t let you fall to your knees to take a break – they have been brutal, focused and obstinate.
The man in the gloves is Markus Zusak.
The slender 45-year-old in a muscle t-shirt is an international bestselling author, but you can’t help but wonder if he’s got the heart of a boxer.
Long before he wrote the international phenomenon The Book Thief, Zusak wrote the three-book Wolfe Brothers series about two brothers who hide their love of the ring from their mother. The odds are stacked against them and any victory only comes after plenty of suffering.
How true of Zusak himself.
When he was hawking an early manuscript to every Australian publisher he could find in the phonebook (without success), one editor was particularly scathing. The normal convention of a polite “Thanks, but no thanks” rejection letter gave way to a critical diatribe bordering on soul-destroying. On that occasion, Zusak had become the punching bag.
Years later, before he appeared on Good Morning America which launched The Book Thief to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, the book’s first newspaper review was also caustic and demeaning. It felt like a knock-out blow because the novel, about a young girl living in Nazi Germany, was deeply personal – growing up, Markus had heard the real-life horror stories around the family table from his German mother, Lisa, and Austrian father, Helmut.
After years of blood, sweat and fears, and with no clear sign of the success that was to come, Zusak turned to his wife, Mika, and confessed he felt their dreams of him becoming a successful author were over.
But like all good boxers, Zusak knows how to take the licks. How to learn from them. To get better, not bitter.
Like its muse, The Book Thief fought and fought and fought… until it became an international bestseller, and then a major Hollywood movie. It’s been a heavyweight champion of contemporary literature for 15 years straight and was recently followed up by Zusak’s critically acclaimed sixth novel, Bridge of Clay.
That early newspaper review? Forgotten. Written by a journalist whose by-line is now overlooked like an undercard fighter on a promotional poster. They subsequently rang Zusak to profusely apologise for taking on a rising champ, but rather than trash talk and parade his success, the author received the call calmly, spoke politely, then hung up.
It speaks volumes about a man who knows that every great boxer has to rise above the rest… and to heal as he goes.
Markus, walk into any Australian bookstore and The Book Thief (2005) sits in the number one or two spot of readers’ Top 100 books year after year, ahead of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and even To Kill a Mockingbird. Indeed, The Book Thief is a guaranteed classic that’ll outlive you. What do you put its longevity down to?
There’s just something lucky about that book – and I’m not just saying that. There really is some sort of magic dust sprinkled over it that seems to have given The Book Thief the kind of longevity you only dream about when you start writing. If I were to give a more useful reason than that, though, it would be a lot more complicated. While I was writing it, I actually thought it would be my least successful book… A book set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death? I didn’t imagine anyone wanting to read that, but that’s what set me free in the writing. Given I thought no one would read it, every time there was a risk, I took it. Looking back, I think I went too far sometimes with its style and other-worldly language, but that’s what makes the book what it is. I think it was better to go too far than not far enough…
All authors have to start somewhere. Can you share with us a story you wrote at primary school or high school?
It’s not so much a story I remember, it’s the fact that I never really went that well in creative writing at school – I did better at essays. Actually, that’s an important recollection,
because when you think of it, essay writing is less about flair than it is about structure – and structure and discipline are what you need to write novels. Flair will come through in moments, but discipline sees you through.
You have to be willing to do the groundwork to make the bigger moments in the story shine. It wasn’t until university that I had a small victory in creative writing, in my first year. I’d written a one-page satirical story called How to be a Football Expert, and my tutor convinced me to read it aloud in the last lecture of the course, along with about 20 other people, in front of the 200-300 course group. Every story was a post-modern slugfest, except mine… I remember people laughing in the right places. I even remember struggling to contain my own laughter, because, I was going, “They’re actually liking this!” On the way out, a few people stopped me to say they loved the story… I spent four pretty long, solitary (but not unhappy) years at university, and that was my biggest triumph.
You recently admitted to the Sydney Morning Herald that you need to get out into the world more and hear more stories. In fact, you’d like to be “more courageous to be curious”. Where do literary bower birds such as yourself actually find stories after your first few novels are published?
It’s important to carry a notebook, because your characters, plot points and dialogue often happen in split-second moments. Our first books are often our own lives infused with the books written by the writers we admire. I often describe my life as being split into two worlds – the real world, and the world of the book I’m writing. Having your notebook with you keeps that world close. You want to feel like you can roll out of bed in the morning and land in that world. You collect the ideas for your book by staying close to it, if that makes sense… by thinking about it and working on it both consciously and subconsciously. I hope I’m making sense!
“(Writers) are the most miserable people on the planet and we enjoy every moment of it.” You revealed this at your 2014 TED talk in Sydney. Most people see writers as having a dream job. What are some of the struggles and joys you’ve wrestled with over the years as a writer?
For me it’s always been doubt. What makes me think I, of all people, can do it? What makes me think I’m any good at it all? Every time I write a new book it’s like learning a new language, and I know how many failures there will be along the way. Very few ideas or books work the first time you write them. You have to keep going back. In the end, a novel – or probably any piece of writing – works after hundreds of combinations of ideas, words and structures have been tried. It’s reminding yourself that every failure brings you one step closer to what will eventually work.
Your latest novel, Bridge of Clay (2018), was far more difficult to write than your previous five books. With years of stop-starts and writer’s block, it sounds like you were Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick. What’s the pressure like to write a new novel after such a worldwide phenomenon as The Book Thief? And where does that pressure come from?
It’s both external and internal. People would often say things like, “You don’t have to write a better book than The Book Thief. You just have to write a different book.” I would reply that I’ve always tried to write a better book than the last one, so why should I stop now? As always, my problem with writing Bridge of Clay was more than just one problem. One of the biggest hurdles was that I’d had the idea for that book long before The Book Thief and most of my earlier published books. I’d even written a version of it in my early twenties, which I finished and went, “Well that’s not it.”
I always thought it was my biggest and best idea – so I was always putting pressure on myself for it. And then there was the book’s voice. The voice of The Book Thief was always shamelessly charming the reader, as if to say, “Come on, read a little further – you know you want to…” And Bridge of Clay was never going to have a voice like that. It was a book that was always going to make the reader do a lot more work – and it took me a while to come to terms with that. I knew people would want to love it after reading the previous book, but in the end, you have to write the book not for those people, and not even for yourself.
You write the book for the people in the book. (That might sound kind of whimsical, but it’s true. You have to care for them enough that they’re real to you, and you don’t want to let them down.)
In this case it just took 13 years to figure that out.
Family, grief and sacrifice are a big part of Bridge of Clay. What’s your secret to shaping such realistic and compelling characters?
It’s spending time with them. Even when a character is shaped almost directly from a real person, you still have to add things to their personality, their way of speaking, their quirks. You have to make them themselves. Characters are like a cocktail of so many moments and attributes. I always ask what’s happened to my characters before the story has begun. What has made them the person you’re writing about?
“Here’s the thing with writers. Everyone thinks to be a writer you have to have a great imagination. You don’t. You just have to have a lot of problems. It’s getting around those problems that gives you the power to imagine.” Again, at your 2014 TED talk, you explained how you struggled with getting the right voice for your narrator, Death, and the main character, Liesel, in The Book Thief. How often and big should those problems be, or is it one giant problem that drives the narrative?
When you start out you hope for no problems in the writing. You see it a bit like that morning jog you’re going to go on as you imagine it the night before… All too soon the alarm goes off and it’s still dark, and you go, “What on Earth was I thinking?!” There are going to big problems and small ones. A big one is something like, “Geez, I just can’t find the voice of my narrator… I don’t believe anything she says, and I don’t want to go anywhere with her.” Or, “This book is just like that movie I saw last year – I’m just a plagiarist!” A small one is something like, “Okay, I’ve used the word glorious 18 times in this book! I need to find a few alternatives.”
While I was writing The Book Thief, what I once wrote on the back of a Larson comic strip was this: “EVERY PROBLEM HAS A SIMPLE SOLUTION.” Which I think is true. And by simple, I don’t mean easy. What I mean is that I try to remind myself that there’s usually one big problem with a hundred smaller problems inside it. That’s essentially what a novel is. Solve each small problem one at a time and you’ve gone a long way to solving the big one. And again, spending time with the book is the number one thing. Even if your book is a bit like that movie you saw, spending time with it is what will make it yours. Your originality will soon float to the surface.
Western novels rarely mention religion or faith. Why do you think that?
It’s interesting you mention that, because Bridge of Clay has a fairly consistent thread of biblical imagery than runs through the entire book – but to be fair, it’s much more a comment on human ambition than an exploration of faith… and many readers likely won’t quite notice it’s there.
My feeling is that the continuing absence of religion and faith in novels is due to both the secularisation of Western society and possibly a fear of internal spiritual questions.
As religion has diminished in the lives of bigger percentages of people, it makes sense that it’s diminished in books – as writers are as prone to fashion as everybody else. Books and popular culture are good barometers of the trends their cultures are experiencing.
There might also be the fear of alienating readers, fears of preaching – but I would also say that a lot of books are still underpinned by a history of Christianity, its values, and its questions. I recall my narrator, Death, in The Book Thief, asking God a question, and not getting an answer. From there he addresses the reader, saying, “See? You think you’re the only one He doesn’t answer?” So, for me, there’s often a kind of elemental underpinning of all we’ve learnt, all we’ve wondered and all we’ve feared. Sometimes I’m still the same kid who read an old falling-apart Children’s Bible before going to sleep, and no matter a person’s beliefs, you do sit there and think, “God, what a story!”
What’s the best feedback you’ve ever got from a reader?
There’s nice feedback and useful feedback, which are often two very different things! It’s always great to get beautiful feedback, when you realise something you’ve written has had an impact on someone’s life, whether that was just giving them a great experience inside the pages, or adding something longer-lasting to their lives.
The most useful feedback, though, is often the more critical… Not everyone’s right when they don’t like your book, but often they are. Often they’ve found the one thing you always felt might not be quite right, and you vow to work on that the next time. That said, there’s a time for accepting feedback and a time for moving on.
You also can’t let your readers – or critics – tell you how to write your next book… You sit down and start again and say, “Okay, the goal here is not so much to write a book that’s great or better than anyone else’s. The goal is to write a book that only I could have written.”
And lastly, one of the unsung heroes of your success is your wife. How much input does she have on your stories? And is it a good thing to have friends and family give feedback?
Mika was the unsung hero of Bridge of Clay, that’s for sure, and all because she made me stop. After a decade of working on that book, she sat me down in the kitchen and said, “It’s been 10 years… I’m giving you one week.” How’s that for feedback?! Although it wasn’t one week to finish, it was a week to get it back on track, to be happy writing again – and that week came and went just like all the others. True to my word, I did stop – for three months – and I understood what it would feel like for the rest of my life if I didn’t stop being so precious and just finish the novel…
As far as feedback from family and friends goes, I think a lot depends on your personality and using what works for you. Me, I’m less of a collaborator, I’m better at taking work away with me and working at it till it’s shiny enough to show someone else. But not all writers I know are like that. Many love to hand over a scrambled first draft to someone and see what sense can be made of it. I think I prefer the first method because I always had that mentality to get published – that everything needed to be perfect. You had to give it everything, and I still believe that.
What I’m learning more and more, though, is that sometimes we do all need help. And it doesn’t have to be perfect at every point along the way.
A book needs to be as perfect as you can make it only once – and that’s on its way to the printer.
Markus Zusak is the internationally acclaimed author of The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, When Dogs Cry, The Messenger, The Book Thief and Bridge of Clay.
Scott Monk is a journalist and author of five novels.