Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Interview with Author Markus Zusak

I was first turned on to Markus Zusak when I watched an interview he gave about THE BOOK THIEF. The book sounded fascinating. Of course, when I went to get it at Borders, they didn’t have it. They had I AM THE MESSENGER. I bought it. Read it. LOVED IT. So… in typical Suz style, I hunted Markus down for an interview. I tracked him all the way to Australia! I’m nothing if not persistent.

Well, he’s a great guy and agreed to the interview. What? Did you want to read it or something? Okay. And if you want to know more about Markus and his fantastically amazing career, you can check out his website HERE.

Thank you, Markus! You are most definitely dope. And also thanks to Trish, Mandy, Courtney and Rae for helping with the questions.


INTERVIEW- Markus Zusak

Your dialogue in I AM THE MESSENGER is so fun and real. How much of yourself is in Ed’s voice?
I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. I was never exactly like Ed, although all of his fears and doubts about himself must come from somewhere in me. I guess I had more prospects than him when I was nineteen, but I didn’t really feel like it. I at least knew what I wanted, and that was to be a writer…That was when I was in my very valuable (in hindsight) failure stage, where I couldn’t finish anything, where I was aiming too far out of reach. What I didn’t realize is that I was struggling to find my own style.

As for the dialogue, it’s very Australian more than it’s mine. Ed’s interactions, especially with Marv, are typical of the way my brother and I talk to each other, or the way my friends are. Marv’s stinginess is actually based on a friend of mine. If you drop a two dollar coin (yes, we have those in Australia), his foot will go on it and won’t move, even when you think he’s about to stop kidding around. I guess the overall point is that Australians like to argue with each other, usually in a friendly sort of way.

One of my favorite characters in I AM THE MESSENGER is Doorman. (Mostly because he reminds me of my own smelly dog.) Is he based on one of your own animals?
The Doorman’s a perfect example of failure being a writer’s best friend. I started a book that just didn’t work (I only wrote about five pages). The Doorman was part of that book and when I started writing I am the Messenger, I knew he actually belonged in this project.

I have a lot of doubts about that book, but sometimes you just find one thing and think, ‘That’s what makes this one worth it’. In this case, it’s the Doorman. He just kept growing as a character, from the moment he wanted coffee and would only drink it with milk and sugar.

I did know and love a Rottweiler\German Shepherd. She didn’t get as old as the Doorman though, and she only stank about a quarter as much. That’s why I could never write biographies. It’s great to exaggerate.

How did you decide on Death being a character in THE BOOK THIEF? It’s so brilliant. Did the idea start with that?
It just made sense, given that people say war and death are best friends, and death is everywhere during war time. I just thought, ‘If death is everywhere, who better to be the spectator who informs the reader.’ The idea was actually an accident. I was working in a school with a small writing group and when we all wrote a small piece, I realized that I had written three small stories, all with Death as the narrator. Then I thought, ‘Maybe that would work for this book set in Nazi Germany.’ It only made perfect sense to me as I started working more on the project.

The endings of your books are so unexpected and perfect. Do you know how they’ll end when you start?
It’s usually one of the first things I think of, but it’s never fixed. I see a book like a race, and you have to run through certain check points (the best or most memorable moments). It sounds so simple but it’s so ridiculously hard…All I try to do is get to the next checkpoint, then get over it and onto the next. Sometimes you get to the end and it’s not quite right, so you move the point over to the right or left, or bring it forward or push it back. I hope that makes sense.

A good example is The Book Thief. All the way through I was leading to an end where Liesel is arrested for stealing, and for doing something awful at the mayor’s wife’s library. Himmel Street was going to be bombed while she was at the police station.

Then I got there and realized it wasn’t actually right. I needed Liesel to survive for her love of books and for her strength of love for all those around her…so I changed it so that Ilsa gives her a book to write in, and she is saved by writing her own story, in the basement, where Max used to live. That made better sense. As a result, the end is still the same – Liesel is saved, but the checkpoint is moved so that she does it in a different way. It sounds (as I read this over now) quite mathematical, and maybe it is, but I prefer to think of it more as simply taking a different route to the same effect.

Your books are marketed to both adults and teens. Have you noticed different reactions from the two groups?
Not really. To be honest, probably 95% of people who have read The Book Thief are adults, and vice-versa for I am the Messenger. They’re also very different books, but what I’ve noticed is that people usually want to talk about the characters.

You gained success at a young age (which inspires a lot of the YAYA members.) What were some of the challenges in that?
I think it’s quite similar no matter what age you are. I didn’t have an agent (I didn’t really know anything about the business of writing), and so I think there’s probably a greater naivety when you first start. You think your life will change very quickly, but it doesn’t. You soon realize you believed too many movies about what it’s like to be a writer. A good reality check is to go into any bookshop and see how many books there are in this small patch, let alone the rest of the world. In the end, it’s always exciting, especially at the start, but I guess we soon realize what it takes to improve, and always struggling with the question of why we’re doing this. There’s a strong argument that there are already enough books in the world. I usually test myself against this question:

If a ray of light came out of the sky and said, ‘Your next book will never be published. It will never see the light of day...’ Would you still write it?

And for me, if the answer is yes, then I know the book is worth writing. To actually answer the question, though, the challenge of being published quite young is probably the same as being published at all. It becomes easy to look at the business of writing, at who’s getting what, at agents, at publishers, at promotion and all the rest of it. It’s always nice to forget all that and just write.

In the beginning, many authors stress about getting an agent. After that, there’s stress about getting a publisher. Now that you’re super famous and award winning, is there anything that you still stress about?
I’m more stressed than ever! I’m getting worse! Maybe that’s a good sign because it means the challengers are getting bigger. That, and I never feel as though I’m super famous or an award winner. I’m not satisfied. I’m a typically ungrateful idiot! I’m focused on my next book and it’s going poorly, and no thoughts of previous success makes that feel any better. It’s only comfort is that I finished books before, and that means I can do it again, if I want it badly enough.

What was your day job before becoming a literary rock star?
Literary rock star?
Next time I fill out an application form or a flight landing card, I’ll try that one and see how it goes. They’ll probably arrest me for being a smartarse, especially in Sydney Airport.

Being serious now, I was a substitute high school teacher (I was terrible at it), an after school tutor (slightly better at that) and a cleaner at a doctor’s surgery (pretty bloody good at that, so you can see where my true talents lie).

I know you probably get asked a lot, but what does your writing schedule look like?
At the moment I work from 10 till 4, and I don’t work at home anymore, mainly due to my two year-old daughter. It will fluctuate as well. Sometimes I won’t write for days because I’m too riddled with doubt. That’s when I do my taxes, and soon I end up needing to write again.

Towards the end of a book, the hours increase. I might even start earlier. For the last month of writing The Book Thief I was usually working from before seven. It’s nice hitting ten-thirty and you’ve already done so much work with the day still so young.

Your website hasn’t been updated in a while. Are you heading back to the US anytime soon? (Because YAYA wants a signed copy of your book! Well, mostly Suz.)
I’ve stopped travelling for a long time now. I’m just working on the new book. Here’s hoping it’s good enough and I get to come back to America, but thoughts like that are a long way off at the moment. Now it’s the right time to forget that any of that exists. I seem to have travelled a lot in the last few years, which is odd, because I’m one of those people who prefer to stay home. After all, Sydney’s a pretty hard to place to leave.


Suzanne Young said...

Um... can I just comment on my own post and say OMG! How cool is he? haha

hannah moskowitz said...

Marcus, you rock.

I just facebooked my sister and told her the interview is up. She is probably going to combust.

Trish said...

Fantastic interview, Suz! Well done!

Haphazard said...

This is amazing.

I have to admit that I didn't read all of it (I haven't read THE BOOK THIEF yet for fear of spoilers, but now I'm goign to have to) but what I did read was amazing. Yay for getting Zusak!

sharpierae said...

Yay! Great interview. I can't wait to read whatever this man comes up with next.

Amanda Morgan said...

GREAT interview! Thanks, Suz and Marcus!

Natalie said...

Great interview! I met Markus at an SCBWI event in Munich awhile back, and he's just as nice in person as he seems in your interview.

Jacquline Carrera said...

OMG! I have the same writing process as Marcus... the whole check point thing. I feel validated and special right now.

(I'm such a dork.)

Great interview! <3

Jordan said...

Wow what a great guy! The Book Thief has been on my to-read list for so long, but this interview is enough to get it off the list and into my hands!

Thanks Markus!

Anonymous said...

Funny thing about the dog...my dog has made it into two of my novels...now if I can only get them published and make my dog a literary rock star. In case you want to track her trajectory...she is named Sarah in one book and Koufax in another.

Sophie W. said...

Thanks for the awesome interview, Markus, and thanks Suz for setting it up.

I will now confess that I haven't read any of his books, although I do have The Book Thief hanging around somewhere... in my bottomless to-read bin of doom.

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome interview, although when I was reading it, I read this, "I know you probably get asked a lot," as, "I know you probably get asked out a lot."

Suzanne Young said...

haha, Anonymous. You know I WANTED to say that. But alas, I am a professional. :)

Jacqui said...

I want to be a literary rock star. But if I can't, can I just be a literary groupie for MZ?

Megan said...

Ah, I must own up as anonymous. Ha ha.