I steal from the book thief

book-thiefSilk’s Post #79 — Okay, I not only steal, I lie about it. I’m not actually stealing from The Book Thief, the wildly successful New York Times bestseller and (as they say) now a major motion picture. I’m re-purposing the words of its author, Markus Zusak, in an interview found on the website of his publisher, Random House.

First, let me take one step back. I started a book club a couple of years ago. It was an odd thing for me to do, as I’d never belonged to one, nor thought of myself as a book-club type of person. But I had some women friends I wanted to get to know better and I knew they liked to read, so I rolled the dice. I thought: If it turns out not to be fun, I’ll just sneak away quietly.

It turned out to be fun. My bookie friends turned out to be some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. And the book club turned out to be more of a book and food and wine club. So – home run all around.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the book club is its contribution to my writing life. When eight of us met last week to talk about The Book Thief and watch the movie – over home made chili, home baked breads, local artisanal goat cheese, good chocolate, and (of course) wine – our host opened the discussion by playing the online author interview.

I loved what I heard Zusak say about writing as much as I loved what he had written. First, I was a little shocked that he has been “classified” as a writer of Young Adult fiction, including The Book Thief, which is anything but lightweight. In his charming Aussie accent, this under-40 phenom (five books published to date, all acclaimed) cut through all the over-thought, sometimes patronizing, “expert advice” we’ve all heard and read about writing. And he did it in the most humble, polite and sunny manner imaginable, with a gentle knife.

Zuzak’s family suffered the experience of Nazi Germany, he explains, as Germans who  were reluctantly swept along in the mass insanity of Hitler’s dream. They were victims too, and the family narrative he grew up with inspired him to tell a story of war and death, loss and betrayal, from a different perspective.

The interview also gave me a different perspective on some things every writer needs to understand: Is writing all about getting published, or is it really about something else? What does it mean to “write what you know”? What importance should be given to “genre”? Why write at all?

Here are some of Markus Zusak’s answers to these deeply personal questions. My answers may be different, and so may yours. But I think Zusak’s perspective is a wonderful reminder that rules are there to be broken, and that the truths about what it means to be a writer, and how writing should be pursued, must come from your own heart.

markus-zusak“I wanted to write a 100 page novella, and I got carried away and it turned into a book.

“There’s that saying that War and Death are best friends, so who better than Death to narrate this story set in Nazi Germany, because Death was everywhere at that time and place. Then I thought: What’s the opposite of this all-powerful Death? Ah! A vulnerable Death. What if Death was afraid of us? What if Death was haunted by humans? It makes sense, because Death is on hand to see all the terrible things humans do to each other. And I realized then what the book was about – trying to find beautiful moments in ugly times.

“Probably the most asked question about the book is: Where should it sit on the book shelf? Is this a Young Adult book or is it an Adult book? I didn’t sit down to try to write a good Young Adult book or a good Adult book. I just tried to write someone’s favourite book.

“The other thing to remember is I thought nobody would read the book. You know, a 500 page book, set in Nazi Germany? And the narrator is Death? How do you recommend that to your friends? And I thought: No one’s going to read this. So I may as well do this exactly how I want to do it. Follow my own vision for the book.

“I think half of writing a book is just forgetting that there’s a world that exists beyond the book. To be a writer, I think, has nothing to do with being published in some ways. If a ray of light came out of the sky and told me: Your next book will never see the light of day. It won’t be published, you won’t be paid a cent, and nobody will ever read it … and the question is: Would I still write the book? The answer is: Definitely yes. And that’s what makes me write my next book, knowing that is true.

“To me, writing should be fun.”

I say: Amen.