Posts Tagged ‘The Book Thief’

Friday at the Festival: Another glorious autumn day in Sydney:

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…

The D!

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It’s that time of year again (yay!).  The Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) is but a few weeks away and the programme has just been released. 

There’s a great selection of local and international writers.  A quick perusal has got me lining up the likes of:

  • Our very own Kim Scott, talking about his recent, highly acclaimed novel, That Deadman Dance, up for Best Book Award in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
  • Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Booker Prize for The Finkler Question;
  • The very imaginative David Mitchell, talking about his most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, (see my review here);
  • Tea Obreht, member of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40”, talking about her acclaimed novel, The Tiger’s Wife; 
  • Michael Cunningham of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours fame;   
  • Markus Zusak of The Book Thief fame, (see my review here); 
  • Interesting indigenous sessions, covering culture, art, fiction, poetry;
  • Poetry and Sydney-centric sessions, including the likes of Cate Kennedy and too many others to mention!;

The Festival also sees theawarding of several high-profile literary awards, including The Commonwealth Writers Prize (will Kim Scott win for That Deadman Dance?), the NSW Premier’s Awards, and the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writers’ Award.  I plan on attending the awarding of the Commonwealth Prize as well as a session the next day in which the judges will talk about their deliberations (and arguments?!) and how they arrived at the winner. 

There’s plenty of non-fiction-focusses things on too.  Politics, culture, environment, food.  Indeed, foodies should not be disappointed with Anthony Bourdain and critic AA Gill featuring.  There’ll also be many sessions for children, and other interests far and wide. 

Looks like a busy few days for me, although Sunday seems strangely clear.  A little imbalance in the programme perhaps?  Whatever the case, there’s plenty of interesting things to listen to and get involved in across the week and I can’t wait to blog about it. 

Anyone esle going along?  What are your festival highlights? 

The D!

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The thing about The Book Thief — and no doubt a reason for its phenomenal sales success — is that it reminds you of how satisfying plain old good story-telling is.  Narrated by Death, it is the tale of little Liesel Meminger who finds herself given to foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann.  On her way to this new home the brother who was supposed to arrive with her dies on a train.  It seems poor Liesel is surrounded by the death and disappearance of those closest to her.

At first, Liesel struggles to settle into this new home, but soon her new Papa, Hans, wins her over.  He is a wonderful character, kind and generous.  He survived WWI and now seeks to help repay a debt of gratitude by hiding a Jew, Max, in their basement.  A wonderful friendship grows between Max and Liesel.  A slow learner, Liesel gradually learns to read with the help of Papa and the encouragement of Max.  In turn, Max paints over his copy of Mein Kampf and creates his own stories for Liesel who has developed quite a penchant for stealing books.

Death is a great choice for a narrator.  It opens up some pretty interesting areas that one could explore.  Zusak allows him some personality without letting it get in the way.  We learn in the opening pages that Death always notes the colour surrounding the souls of the dearly departed.  This gives us some quite poetic descriptions of the skies in the moments he does his work.  Elsewhere, however, including the Prologue, I found the language a little stilted, as if Zusak was struggling to get into the unique voice of his narrator.  But who knows, perhaps this was done on purpose – perhaps Death’s voice is supposed to be stilted.  For example:

(p37): “He came in every night and sat with her.  The first couple of times he simply stayed – a stranger to kill the aloneness.”  [emphasis added].

Or this: (p59):

“… he paced around, gathering concentration under the darkness sky, with the moon and the clouds watching, tightly.”  [emphasis added].

(Death also has quite a devotion for starting new paragraphs!)

Quibbles aside, there are some wonderful scenes.  We have Liesel’s description of Hans playing the accordion.  Max’s nightly dreams of his boxing bouts with Hitler are very humorous and quite poignant – when he finally lands a punch on the Fuhrer he aims for only one thing: the moustache!  We also see Liesel retrieving a book from the book bonfire celebrating Hitler’s birthday – a very touching moment; (having seen the wonderful memorial in Berlin in which a vault of empty book shelves disappears down into the pavement to mark all the lost books, this is quite a scene).  Later, Liesel reads to all her neighbours when they huddle together in a basement during air raids.  Her neighbour, and best friend, Rudy, aids and abets her thievery.  He was captivated by Jesse Owens’ success at the Berlin Olympic Games and uses some charcoal to black himself up and run a race in homage to his hero.  Later in the book, the two of them go off to steal some fruit from nearby farmers – the first year, at the start of the war, there’s loads of apples to take, but the next year, the trees are like skeletons and the take is hardly worth it.  We also have Max declare to Liesel that Mein Kampf is “the best book ever” — not because it is a good read, but because it saved his life.  Liesel gives Max daily weather reports – for it is months since he has seen the sky; he revels in her descriptions, such as the ‘rope of cloud’.

The power of the story lies in the ability for us to see the grave injustices of the Nazis through the eyes of Liesel and the people she loves – Papa, Mama, Max, Rudy.  Along the way, one of the central ideas of the book is espoused: the power of words.  Max’s ‘The Word Shaker’ story, given to Liesel, is especially powerful.  So too is the madness of war, the horror of what people are capable of.  These cartoons and other stories within the story are quite post-modern.  I can see in future e-book editions, the trees which grow Hitler’s words fluttering on the (electronic) page.

I mentioned some of the more frustrating language above, but there are, of course, far more examples of wonderful writing and very lyrical images.  We have “metallic eyes [clashing] like tin cans in the kitchen” (p113); a description of the Great War as “a conversation of bullets” (p189).  There is also nice humour throughout, some of it quite black, such as the Jews being marched to “Dachau, to concentrate” (p415); and one of Hans’s LSE associates who complains, “Just once I want to be there when they [bomb] a pub, for Christ’s sake.  I’m dying for a beer.”  (p462).  Furthermore, Zusak’s use of German, and his translation into English, is pitch-perfect.

The Book Thief deserves its commercial success.  Its language is simple.  It’s such an engaging story that the small motes of strangeness in the narrative and editing are quickly forgotten.  What we are left with is a great read, with great story-telling at its heart.  And great story will win out every time.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review here.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


ISBN: 9780330423304

584 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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