March 08, 2016

Markus Zusak

10 years of ‘The Book Thief’

Markus Zusak's international bestseller The Book Thief marks its 10th anniversary this year. The milestone is celebrated with a new special edition, containing 32 pages of bonus content including manuscript pages, original sketches, pages from Zusak’s writing notebook and a letter from the author. We interviewed Zusak in 2006 for the original publication of The Book Thief (read it here), and it's a pleasure to look back with him on the novel's tremendous success.

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Markus Zusak's international bestseller The Book Thief marks its 10th anniversary this year. The milestone is celebrated with a new special edition, containing 32 pages of bonus content including manuscript pages, original sketches, pages from Zusak’s writing notebook and a letter from the author.

Originally published in March 2006, The Book Thief is narrated by the voice of Death, who introduces Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich in 1939. With the help of her foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

This remarkable book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has received numerous awards, including a Michael L. Printz Honor and the Sydney Taylor Book Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries, which recognizes the best in Jewish children’s literature. It was also released as a major motion picture in 2013 starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.

We interviewed Zusak in 2006 for the original publication of The Book Thief (read it here), and it's a pleasure to look back with him on the novel's tremendous success.

What has surprised you most about the reaction to The Book Thief?
It’s never changed—it’s that The Book Thief was ever successful at all. I remember when I finished writing it, I thought no one would read it. I then imagined that if someone did read it, and tried to recommend it to someone else, and was asked what it’s about, they’d have to say: “Well, it’s set in Nazi Germany, it’s narrated by Death, nearly everyone dies—oh, and it’s 560 pages long. You’ll love it.” To think that 10 years later it’s still alive is quite amazing to me. I knew it was the best I could write at that time, but I thought it would be my least successful book.

How did having a huge bestseller change the course of your career as a writer?
I think it’s just given me more time, and that’s a great thing in some ways but detrimental in others. I still haven’t finished the next book after The Book Thief, but that might have been the case even if it wasn’t as successful. Honestly? I don’t know. Maybe having a bestselling book changes everything around the writing, but not so much the writing itself. It’s still just you and the open page.

One big difference is that people do know the book a little more—and that’s usually really nice. That said, the better known a book is, the more people you find who don’t like it. One of my favorite Book Thief memories is being baled up at a wedding by a woman who’d had a few drinks. She kept congratulating me on the book’s success but then confessed (several times) that she’d tried to read it and just couldn’t get into it. “And it wasn’t like I didn’t try,” she confided. “I tried several times!” I can’t help laughing even as I tell that story now.

Ten years later, is a character like Liesel still fresh to you? Do you still think about her?
I’m not really a believer in the whimsy of fictional characters talking to writers and that kind of thing. When I finished writing the book I was a complete mess—I loved Liesel and the characters around her so much, but I was relieved that the job was done. I still think about Liesel and Rudy, but I don’t miss them or anything. They’re just these beautiful happy memories of feeling really alive while I was writing them. And they’ll be in those pages always.

Ruta Sepetys often says that she doesn’t know what her books are about until her readers tell her. Are you still getting feedback from readers that changes or challenges your own perception of the book, even after so much time?
For me it’s more the case that you learn about the book as you write it. You learn what needs to stay, what needs to go, and you learn what it’s about thematically. In the case of The Book Thief, it was by chance that Liesel would steal books; I’d started writing a book about a girl stealing books in modern-day Sydney and thought, what if I just put that idea into that book I’m setting in Nazi Germany? The same went for the idea of using Death as narrator. The significance of those things grew in the writing—and more meaning does come through the more you talk about it. These days I’ve realized that The Book Thief is about the stories we read and write, but especially the stories we make.

Often writers (and artists of all types) share the opinion of Paul Valéry that “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” Even J.K. Rowling has looked back and shared regrets about plot points in the Harry Potter series. In your mind, was The Book Thief finished when you completed it?
I feel like writers regret almost everything. If I read an image or a line from that book, I only see what’s wrong with it. It’s like a photo of yourself. At the same time, we start to understand that if we keep working on a book beyond a certain threshold, we’ll begin to damage it. We might make it more perfect, but never more right. I also like the idea of a book ending, and then imagining the characters beyond the pages we’ve just read. That, and it’s the imperfections that drive us toward the next book. Maybe we can right the wrongs of all our past projects in this next one.

Along with the new anniversary edition, how else are you celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Book Thief?
On one hand it’s important to stop and enjoy these moments, because they might never come again. On the other, I won’t be celebrating anything until I’ve finished the book I’ve been working on since The Book Thief came out. Then I can celebrate, which will probably be a lot more family time, and surfing. And starting another book.

 

Author photo credit Michael Lionstar.

Get the Book

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak
Knopf
ISBN 9780375831003

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