Session #86: ‘Bright Sparks’: Markus Zusak & Sonya Hartnett in Conversation:
What a fascinating session with two of our best Aussie talents, very well chaired by Jill Eddington. Jill first asked the authors about how they came to writing. Sonya started early! She was 9 years old when she started and 13 when she had her first novel. She was published when still in high school. She told a delightful story of how she was too young to be intimidated like so many first-time authors are today – all she did was pick up the yellow pages and look under ‘P’ for ‘Publisher’, picked one, sent it in and they published it! She said she never really wanted to be an ‘writer’ and still has trouble with that label. She was just an ordinary suburban kid growing up in a large family. She thought only special people could be writers. (She calls herself a journalist on the forms you have to fill in in airports for her job title!)
She spoke of how she has trouble going back to look at a book, something Markus spoke of too.
Markus turned to writing early on as well: he was 16 when he decided he was going to be a writer, and ‘nothing was going to stop me.’ His first ‘novel’ was only 8 pages – he couldn’t get past there. Writing for him was the thing that makes him happy, and also miserable, but he finds happiness in that misery(!) He spoke of how even though he has been successful fairly young, his early work was rejected. At first he wondered why as he saw others getting published that were about the same level, but he now thinks those rejections were good for him because it made him determined to be better.
As to why their novels have had such large overseas readerships, Sonya said that good books travel. There are publishers overseas who will be interested, though some books naturally settle in some places better than others: she said she has had a lot of success in Scandinavian countries, and books that do well there might not do so well in the USA.
Markus relayed a telling story from his childhood: he said he was in a running race at school and thought he had won it, but he was placed 6th. When he complained to his father, his dad said, ‘one, stop whingeing, two: I thought you won too, but it proves that when you win you have to really win.’ Equating this lesson into his writing, Markus said that ‘you’ve got to write something that only you could write, that nobody else could do.’ That is part of his measure of success. He said he didn’t feel brave in his choices made in The Book Thief (see my review here) – the ‘dark’ things were necessary to write that story.
For him, writing The Book Thief was not a great leap – he just scratched the surface of his parents stories (they are both great storytellers), and reach in and pull out the world. He did some research, but the bulk of it came after he had finished the manuscript.
Sonya said you need to write what interests you. Dark subjects, like death, which feature in her work, interest her, and she thinks interests most of us too. She said she can see other writers who get to a point in their story and need to be brave but cop out – that annoys her. In terms of her own work, she said using animals and children to explore dark themes seems to work really well as those characters have a ‘cleanliness’ about them, they see the truth in dark things.
Markus was asked whether the books in The Book Thief were a deliberate prop he developed, but he said ‘you just stumble upon these things’. He was doing some writing with some school kids when teaching and wrote some stories in that time, one of which had Death as the narrator, and another of which featured a girl in Sydney who goes around stealing books. He gave the analogy of a painter in art class who paints something and then has paint dribbling down the canvas, and the art teacher tells them they must leave the dribble in. Accidents are not really accidents. They might seem so at first, but when he looks back he sees that those things were the only way to tell the story. This also extends to plot: he said his favourite character in the book is Rudi, but although it might have been nice to keep him alive, there was never any consideration to do so: his death was necessary for the book.
Sonya echoed this, saying that a book chooses its own focus. Things like the narrator, their point of view, and so on, choose themselves.
Markus spoke about how he came to have Death as the narrator. He said people often say to him that he must have a great imagination, but he always responds by saying, ‘No, I just have a lot of problems’! Necessity is the mother of invention. He tried Death as narrator but didn’t have the right voice for him. He then tried Leisel as narrator but that didn’t work either – he just ended up with the most Australian sounding German girl! He returned to Death as narrator and eventually found the right balance in his character and from that the right voice. This gave him a route to the end and the impetus to finish.
The two authors then spoke about the process of writing which was very interesting and quite funny. Sonya spoke about her storyboard approach. She studied film after school but the ‘cards’ storyboarding method took her years to develop. She used to start a story and make a lot of mistakes – this is the best way to learn, she says. She calls it the ‘Ride the Wild Pony’ approach. Now she does ‘Dressage’! – starting with what she calls ‘clouds’ – characters, setting, plot issues, ideas, (etc), and organises them visually before she writes a thing. These clouds are colour coded so she can see when there is an imbalance in the structure, and see where she might need to add/subtract a scene.
Markus says he rides the wild pony! He organises by chapter headings. He has a mathematical mind and so sees the structure in the number and order of chapters. He will only start a book if he knows he can finish it. He has plenty of bad days, getting thrown off the pony, but he gets back on always having a sense of where he’s going. You need tenacity as a writer.
When asked by an audience member about ‘contentment’, Markus said he is content with the success in material terms but never content with his writing. He said, ‘you’re never going forward unless you’re unhappy’!
Sonya answered this same question by talking about her Astrid Lindgren Prize win by saying it was nice to win, but it was already in the past – she was already wondering about what was next. Also, to make the next book better, you need to ‘hate’ the last one!
Markus said he thought The Book Thief would be his least-read book. He didn’t try to please the audience. He considered his first four novels his ‘first’ novel, The Book Thief his second, and his next, titled (The) Clay Bridge, the third: due ‘soon’. He said he regrets the end of Messenger, he didn’t get it right, but the risk he took gave him the ability to write The Book Thief.
Sonya says as a writer there are countless decisions you have to make and you need to stand by the ones you made at the time. Her own regret is killing off Adrian in Of a Boy.
A fascinating insight into the minds of two of our best. The similarities in determination, in never settling, in always looking to improve all stood out. And the differing ways they go about the process of writing were very interesting. A great session.
More to come from Friday…