This interview was conducted by writer Tracie Nall from http://www.fromtracie.com on behalf of MySentimentExactLee.com
The Book Thief Markus Zusak Interview!
When everyone started talking about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief a few years ago, I added it to my reading list, but purposely avoided any reviews or blog posts about it. I knew it was a Holocaust book, but other than that, I didn’t have any expectations. A couple of months ago I finally got a chance to read it. I was completely surprised by the story and the intensity.
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that The Book Thief is the story of Liesel, a girl sent to live with a new family in World War II era Germany. She is transformed by the love and relationships she builds in this new place, and also by the words and books she reads. And she, in turn, transforms the lives of everyone around her. I know that sounds like a pat book jacket explanation, but believe me when I tell you it is so much more than that description.
The Book Thief has a narrative form all its own, like nothing else I’ve ever read. It was beautiful and terrible. I probably went through half a box of tissues by the end. It is one of those books that sits with you for days and weeks after you finish it. You want to see it made into a movie, and you are terrified to see it made into a movie because you are so very emotionally attached to every word in every scene.
Little did I know, as I was crying my way through the book, someone was already working on a movie. 20th Century Fox is bringing The Book Thief to theaters on November 15, 2013.
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse
Directed by Brian Percival
Screenplay by Michael Petroni, based upon the novel by Markus Zusak
In anticipation of the movie, several bloggers had the chance to participate in a phone interview with Markus Zusak. Zusak was incredibly nice. He was funny and warm, and spent a considerable amount of time answering all of our questions and talking with us. It was exactly the kind of conversation you want to have with an author.
Transitioning The Book Thief from page to screen:
One of the first questions on everyone’s lips was about the book’s narrator, Death.
Death was such an integral part of the story, yet he didn’t make an appearance in the trailer. Will he have any part in the movie, or will it just focus on the story?
Zusak: I can definitely say that Death will narrate the film, just as happens in the book. I haven’t seen the film yet. I just want to pay the respect to the producers and Brian [Percival, the director] to see it when it’s 100 percent. I don’t really want someone to read a book of mine until I’ve made the very, very last correction.
I’m kind of looking forward to the surprise of it myself – how they do it and get it done. It’s kind of nice that I don’t have the problem of trying to make it work. Rather than being in the current of all of this happening the way I’ve always been for the last 10 years with the book, it’s sort of nice to be standing on the sideline a little bit and watch it all happen. I’m just as curious about how Death is going to make his mark on the story the way he does in the book.
How did you feel about turning this book into a movie?
Zusak: I’m not the director, which is a relief. It’s really nice actually to hand it over. I can say I was really comfortable handing the material over to Brian [Percival]. What I hoped was that the film will be different from the book in a whole lot of ways, but I think it’ll have the same heart. As the writer of the book, you can’t really ask for any more than that. You’ve got to trust these people because they know what they’re doing.
Were you involved in writing the screenplay or the direction they took the story?
Zusak: I sat down with the producers, with Karen Rosenfelt and Ken Blancato and also Brian, and we talked about certain things. They asked me, “What from the book do you feel like you would mourn not being in the film?” There were a few things. But I knew that things were cut out.
One of the things we talked about was a scene in the book where Max, the young Jewish man who’s hiding in the basement, imagines himself fighting and having a boxing match. Brian was saying, “Oh, yes, I was trying so many ways to try to get that into the script and into the film.” It was just something that wasn’t going to work for them in the actual film. There were a few other scenes or chapters in the book that we talked about. I think some will make it in and some won’t. That’s just kind of the way it goes. You’ve only got couple of hours, whereas in a book, you can kind of keep writing forever. That’s the luxury of being an author, I think.
I was very impressed with how easy-going Zusak was about handing his book over to be made into a film. He really made me look at book to movie adaptations in a different way. In the past I’ve been so focused on them making a perfect match, but he inspired me to think about how a movie can convey the heart of a book, while still giving room for the screenwriter, director, and actors to add their own creative stamp on it.
With actors like Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, you can’t help but feel confident that it will be good. Zusak touched on that when asked about the character of Rosa, Liesel’s mama, and if he felt her heart could really come through in the movie. Will viewers be able to see beyond her severity to the love she has for Liesel?
Zusak: It’s almost like you just have to say the name. You just go Emily Watson. I think she’ll be fine. And when I say I think she’ll be fine, I think she’ll be absolutely be perfect. She’ll be brilliant.
In the book, Rosa almost really had to leap off the page. I’m not sure if that’s quite as possible in the film. I just know it’s in such great hands. I think it’ll be different, but it’s going to be really spot on for what film needs.
Zusak also talked about other book to movie adaptations, some of his favorites being What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The English Patient, and High Fidelity. He spoke about reading, and the effect books have had in his own life.
Zusak: I’ll tell you the books that made me want to be a writer were S.E. Hinton’s books. I read The Outsiders when I was 14…I remember just staying up and reading that book. And then there were other books of hers, I think Rumble Fish is actually her best book. That’s a great book.
She was the one where I read those books, and I thought, “I know this isn’t true, but I believe it.”
More about Death, and Zusak’s writing process with The Book Thief:
How did you decide to use Death as the narrator when you were writing The Book Thief?
Zusak: I basically started out at the very, very beginning of the book. I had this idea of stories I’d heard as a kid about my mom and dad’s lives growing up in Germany and Austria. I’d also written one page of a book about a girl stealing a book. And I thought, “Oh, I might just put that into that time with those stories that my mom and dad told me.”
Then I thought, while I was writing with some kids at a school, we wrote about colors, and I’ve written about three colors. I realized I’d written about Death and that Death was the narrator. And then I thought, “I’ll just try that. I should just put that into the book as well.”
And you don’t think about those things. Sometimes, you hear that voice in your head that says, “Do that.” And you have to listen to that voice when you’re writing a book because you don’t hear it very often. Usually, you’re scrambling around trying to find an idea. And when one hits you, you just go, “Just do it.” And then you ask questions like that. So, that was how it started.
You’ve widely spoken about how much of the book was inspired by the stories from your parents. What other sort of research did you do as you were writing The Book Thief?
Zusak: That first research was just hearing those stories. Imagine waking up one day, and you can speak another language. That’s what it was like when I started writing the book. It was like the language of the book as in the town and the environment. And it was all just there.
I never thought that I was writing a WWII book or a book set in the Holocaust times. Afterwards, it was quite funny because after I’d spoken to my parents, they’d be really great with some things and totally unreliable in others.
Sometimes, I’ll jokingly say to people, “If you ever write a book, I can only give you one piece of advice. Don’t let your parents get involved.” I’m just being silly because the whole book, without them, there wouldn’t be The Book Thief.
My dad was really funny because he would say, “Why is it taking you so long to write this book?” We had to ban it from discussion because he would just always prod me. “When’s the book going to be finished? When’s the book going to be finished?”
I’d say, “I’m still doing a whole lot of research. And I’ve got to have things happen, like the bombings. That’s got to come at the right time and in the right place. It all has to work properly.”
He would just look at me and say, “Make it up. What’s wrong with you? Isn’t that your job?” And so, I did.
I went to a lot of libraries, and I did a lot of research and a lot of reading. I went to Germany after I finished the manuscript to double check everything. Even things, like, in the book, they steal apples. I checked that they were stealing the right apples in the right region at the right time of the year because, well, because you just can’t have Bill from the South Australian Apple-Growing Association writing you a letter saying, “No, those apples weren’t right.” Trust me, if you’ve made that sort of mistake, someone will find it. It’s not that you’re trying to cover your tracks, but you want to pay respect to what you’re writing about. I think particularly when you’re writing about that period of time. So, yes, that was pretty much the research. It’s not my strongest point. I kind of research and write, because I’m always dying to start writing. Then I do more research. And then I keep writing and so on and so on. And I fix it all up as I go.
Bringing it back to the movie, Zusak shared his feelings on where his story fits in the cannon of Holocaust books and movies.
Zusak: I never thought about this until well after the book was published or well after it was written that it was part of this sort of tradition or cannon, as you say, of Holocaust films and books.
In a situation like this, you have to let the book speak for itself. And you have to let the film speak for itself. And maybe, if I was to say anything or have a stab at anything, and I try to sort of think of this almost dispassionately, is to say that, in a lot of cases, there weren’t a whole lot of books and documentaries and things like that that really focused on the everyday of certain German people or communities. Those are the stories I grew up on, where, for better or worse, too, that kids still had childhoods. It’s just that idea of just a childhood as well.
I think he really touched on a big part of what makes The Book Thief such an amazing story. It really allows you to see the mundane moments of Liesel’s every day life between the incredible and heroic moments. Even in the midst of World War II, it is a universal story. I think that will translate well on film.
It was a great honor to be a part of this interview. I really enjoyed speaking with Markus Zusak, and I can’t wait to see The Book Thief in the theater. It is going to be amazing.
Fellow bloggers who were involved in this interview:
Stacey at Tree, Root, and Twig
Niri at Mommy Niri
Kit at Book Riot