Monday, March 21, 2016

Markus Zusak - A Person With A Lot of Problems

On March 10th I was extremely fortunate to be able to meet Markus Zusak as a part of the U.S. 10th anniversary tour for The Book Thief. I knew before meeting this talented author, that he's an extremely gifted writer. But his presentation in Parma, Ohio at the Cuyahoga County Library proved he's simply an all around spectacular story teller. What follows is my recap of his presentation to a full house.

"Hi everyone. Thanks for coming. I hope you can understand me," the Australian father and Michael L. Printz Honor Award recipient opened his presentation with to chuckles and giggles from the audience at the Parma-Snow Library auditorium.  The full-house was a sharp contrast to his first book event where no one showed, but "the librarian made me read from my book anyway... just to her." This humorous opening was Zusak's way of acknowledging that "you might have published a book, but that doesn't mean anyone's going to care. That's why it's such a privilege to come half way across the world and people turn up when they could be at home watching TV--or telly as we would call it at home."

In his captivatingly creative opening of a discussion about his writing style, Zusak informed the Cleveland audience that he would be telling his favorite story, which cast his brother as the villain. "Someone's always got to be the villain, all right? And I can tell you it's not going to be me," he joked. Zusak explained that he was the youngest of four children and was tormented by his brother--two years older--pretty much his whole life. But he found his chance to exact revenge when he was 15-years-old and painting houses on the weekends with his brother and father:

"We would get out of bed on Saturday mornings at 6:30, be out of the house by 7 and be at somebody else's house by 7:30 painting. And we'd work through to midday and that's when we'd have lunch. We'd sit on paint tins and eat our lunch. Now my brother--and I'm going to teach you an Australian word here--my brother had a red esky, and esky is our name for cooler. So in his red esky, or cooler, he had two sandwiches, a drink and two hard-boiled eggs that he boiled up the night before and he put 'em in the fridge and in the morning he'd put 'em in his esky--some of you can already see where the story's going, or at least you think you do--and at work he'd crack the egg against the wall or on top of his esky and he'd peal it and eat it until one week my dad said to him, 'You know when I was an apprentice painter back in Vienna (my dad's from Austria) I worked with this guy who could crack a hard boiled egg on his head.' And so my brother said, 'I'll give it a try.' Now it's like hitting a rock on your head. I know this because I'm dumb enough, I tried it myself. My brother he's done it, he cracked it, he ate it. He was so proud of the achievement that he did the second egg as well, then he did it the week after and the week after until it just became part of his lunch routine. And then one week, something happened at school. I can't even remember what it was anymore, but I know I had just been pushed around or whatever and I was sitting on the ground and then it was like a ray of light came out of the sky and I saw what I had to do."

Zusak finished the story with the ending you're probably expecting. He swapped out the hard-boiled eggs for raw eggs, and his brother smashed one on his head. A little twist was added when he started to feel guilty and admitted his deed to his dad before lunch who reacted with, "son, that's brilliant! I'm mad I didn't think of it myself." The story is Zusak's favorite not only because it was his revenge on his brother, but also, he says, because it illustrates the way he writes:

1. It's a true story that came from his life.  Zusak says that's the easiest way to tell a story. He feels that your own life is "a much richer mine" of ideas than imitating someone else's work. In the case of The Book Thief, he listened to stories about Europe during World War II as told to him by his parents who grew up during that time. Zusak knew he would write a book with these story gems as his foundation. He thought it would be a 100-page novella. "Obviously it got a bit out of hand."

2. The story contains a wealth of small details. Zusak asks, "why did I tell you all those details? People will often give me a real intelligent answer like, 'oh you wanted us to imagine things more vividly.'" Yes, he says, that's true. But even more so, he wanted the audience to believe him. "People always believe you when you know the small details." 

3. The unexpected or the unusual happens. In the case of this story, the audience expected Zusak to swap the eggs. What they didn't expect--and what triggered the biggest response--was his father's reaction to the plan. Zusak says he was naive when he started writing The Book Thief. And he was lucky he didn't have any skepticism about using Death as his narrator--the unexpected and definitely the unusual.

At one point, Zusak had trouble with Death as his narrator. He was about 200 pages in and he thought it wouldn't work. But his Death was dark and sadistic. He admits, "he was even really sleazy. He'd say the most terrible things. I felt like I'd write a page and have to take a shower or something." So he thought he'd abandon Death as the narrator and use Liesel instead, but then he had new problems. "People think writers have great imaginations. We just have a lot of problems, and your imagination lies in getting around those problems." Then he tried a third-person narration but realized that point of view did everything he was trying to avoid to begin with. That's when he circled back around to Death and wondered, "what if Death is afraid of Humans and afraid for Humans?" This whole process meant he edited the Prologue of The Book Thief around a thousand times before all was said and done. That's what it takes for Markus Zusak to write a book.

Zusak thanked the audience, but he made a special point of thanking those who have tried to get someone else to read the book. "Here's this book, it's The Book Thief. You should read it... It's set in Nazi Germany; it's narrated by Death; nearly everybody dies; and by the way it's 580 pages long."

His dazzling half-hour presentation kept the entire audience enthralled and then eager to ask questions. One of the classic questions of the night came from a student who said she read the book in her 8th grade class and her teacher "picked the book apart." She asked, "Do you put the symbolism in there or is that just something teachers come up with?" Zusak's response:

"How do I put this? [pause] Your 8th grade teacher is right [pause] most of the time. Sometimes not.... I feel like if you write a book with enough intent and put enough in it, the things will be there; the symbols will be there. And you maybe didn't even try to put them in or you didn't even think of it that way.... They're not usually trying to torture you with it; it just feels like that.... The other things I'll tell you about your teachers; they'll often give you books you're not ready for. Like I had to read Catch-22 when I was 16 and I wasn't ready for it, and my teachers knew we weren't ready for that book then, but at least we knew it existed. And we'd come back around and read it in our 20s or when the right time was.... Teachers are brave to do that." 

Some other interesting tidbits that arose in the Q&A session: 

Zusak never meant for Liesel's outcome to be ambiguous. "I must have just buggered up the ending."  But in a nutshell, Zusak never saw Liesel and Max ending up together.

As far as the movie goes, Zusak views it as someone else's work. If he had been writing the movie script, he would have done it differently. But he also points out that as a novelist he can do what he wants and make things as long as he wants. A screenwriter doesn't have that same luxury.

Rudy is Zusak's favorite character from The Book Thief.

Zusak thought no one would read The Book Thief, so he decided he was going to write it exactly how he wanted to write it. He is proud that he hasn't written the same book over and over again. He decided that was the kind of writing career he wanted to have.

Zusak says that writing is sometimes like being a parent. You have to give the reader tough love. You should do what's right for the book--and the reader--even if they'll hate you for it.

Zusak ended the presentation by reading the first page of his next book. It was just a fractional snippet, but after this incredible event, I'll definitely be looking forward to it.


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