Some of you might remember my post back in August about the film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Early reviews are starting to pop up as the film premieres across the world, but The Book Thief hits Singapore screens February 6. For those of you eagerly awaiting the film and those skeptical about it, we got our hands on a Q&A session with Zusak (courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox (Singapore)) where he shares with us about how the book was developed and also his thoughts on the film.
How did the story of THE BOOK THIEF come to you?
I didn’t realize I had that book in me. The best way I can start is to say I grew up in Sydney, which as you can imagine is a nice, warm climate, especially in summer. We’d come inside from playing cricket and my mum and dad would tell stories about the War and about cities that were on fire and starving Jewish prisoners. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what made me a writer, I think. Not only did my parents have really good stories, but also they were really good storytellers, and to have two parents who can do that is pretty lucky. I think that’s where the book came from. I’d written four other books before that one, but I realized, by the time I’d finished writing it, that this was the book that meant everything to me. If you can have that with one of your books in your whole career, you’re lucky.
It must feel especially great to see that the book means so much to so many people, too.
It’s funny; I’ve come to realize that the book has a life of its own. I remember writing it convinced it would be my least successful book, but it got bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s liberating when that happens, because you think, “Okay, I’m just going to do this exactly how I want it, because no one’s going to read it.” In a way, I feel really connected to it, but in another way I feel like it’s just floating around out there making its own merry way without me. It’s a bit surreal sometimes that all of these things happened to it.
How does it feel now that it’s becoming a feature film as well?
It’s quite amazing walking onto that set. The first thing that happens is you feel this huge sense of relief that it’s no longer your responsibility. You realize you’re the lucky one and you don’t have to worry about it anymore! It’s suddenly in the hands of hundreds of people, but it’s in the hands of incredibly talented people. Every time I was faced with a decision while writing that book, I followed my own intuition and I was always following my own vision. Brian and Karen and everyone really respected that and brought their own vision to it as well. I couldn’t be any happier in that sense, and I want them to make it their own thing. It was a privilege for me to visit, and a bit awkward as well, because it isn’t mine anymore, it’s theirs. And in a way it’s a totally different thing. You wonder why you’re there, and someone will say, “Well, we’re all here because of you!”
How did you develop the character of Liesel?
It all comes down to complete blind luck in a lot of cases when it comes to ideas. I had an idea for a book about a book thief that would have been set in modern-day Sydney, and I wrote the first page of it when my computer broke. I’d written about a girl – and it had always been a girl – climbing into a window and stealing a book. Separately, I’d always had this idea to write about my parents growing up in Germany and Austria at that time (during the War). And I think that’s what you often do as a writer, really, is realize one idea isn’t enough, so you bring two together. I brought the book thief idea in with the idea of my parents’ stories, and you start to figure out how well they fit together. It wasn’t until 400 pages into the book that I realized that, when she gets a copy of MEIN KAMPF, she’s stealing those words back and writing her own story amongst this devastating world. It all just merges together. And then on top of that, you think about bringing Death in as a narrator and that all makes sense as well. It’s a bit like mixing ingredients in a bowl and seeing how they work together. When it starts working, you don’t ask any questions, you just keep going. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult to write, but there was something true about it all the time.
The characters all eschew stereotypes and cliches for which there’s much precedent in World War II stories. How conscious were you of wanting to do that?
I wasn’t really. It’s the little glimmers of things that you hear or see or are told. Some of the most important stories I heard as a kid might have been quick slices of things, delivered off-hand. My mum might have said, “Oh yeah, my dad didn’t want to hang the Nazi flag in the window on Hitler’s birthday, and my mum would say, ‘Oh they’re going to come for you, and good riddance!’” So a lot of the stories were quite funny. Especially when they talked about how poor they were after the War and that sort of thing. My dad didn’t want to go to Hitler Youth at all. He found it boring, and he just wanted to go to the river and throw rocks in the water with his friends, until the letters started showing up saying, “Your son must come to Hitler Youth.” The first thing that comes into your head is not that this is a different perspective. The first thing you think is, “Oh that’s a really good story.” You’re cobbling these details together and you’re starting to put something much bigger together. And in this case, that bigger thing is that not all Germans acted the way we see in a lot of the documentaries, with straight-arm salutes. There were people who rebelled against that. I wasn’t setting out to be any kind of pioneer voice for those people; they’ve been written about before. I just wanted to write about the interesting lives of these people and I hoped that the rest would take care of itself.
Did you have a reader in mind when you were writing the book?
For the longest time, when you’re writing a book, you’re trying to look after the reader and you’re trying to say, “Come with me, come a little further. I’m looking out for you.” You’re always trying to please the reader so they’ll stick with you. There comes a point where you’ve been working on a book for however many months and years and then you just go, “You know what, I’m bloody sick of it. If you want to be a part of this book, you’ve got to come with me.” The people you get then will love you forever and I think I’ve been really lucky to find readers who trust me. The people who love it really love it, and I’m so grateful for them. I think the point is: you don’t get those sorts of people if you don’t risk at all. If I’ve learned anything now after the book being out for seven years, it’s that if enough people love you, enough people won’t love you. You can’t please everybody, so you might as well do it the way you have to do it. So I think at first the relationship with a reader is a very open thing, but then you have to give up on that.
Geoffrey Rush is deeply passionate about the project. What were your conversations with him?
It was amazing. He’s such an interesting guy and he’s a really giving person. When you’re with him he’s very open. He was pumping me with questions all the time. He mentioned two songs that he plays on the accordion and we talked a lot about that. We talked about all those little intricate things that he wanted to bring to the character. He’s thinking about every second that he’s on screen that he can do absolute justice to the character and make that character alive to the audience. To see that kind of dedication was really quite humbling. That was true of Emily Watson too, and seeing them on the steps of 33 Himmel Street was quite a thrill. It didn’t quite hit me then – nothing ever does at the time – but I look back on it as one of those great moments.
Rosa is an unusual character for Emily Watson to play – what makes her right for the part do you think?
As soon as I saw her name written in places, I could actually perfectly imagine her as Rosa. Having seen her in so many things you just knew she could bring the depth of that character to the forefront. I think we all like to see something unexpected and I think she’s such a generous actor as well. I remember at the end, saying to her, “Thank you for doing this, I’m so thrilled you’re doing this film.” And she was so sweet about it and gave me a big hug and said it was a pleasure. There was a really nice feeling about everyone there. From what everyone said about Brian as well, I got the sense that he has a really good heart. It’s the sort of book that needs someone like that to make it.
Sophie is a real discovery. Is she how you imagined Liesel?
Actually, I’d seen her in MONSIEUR LAZHAR, which was a really excellent French-Canadian film last year. She was great in that, and I remember saying to my wife, “Hey, that’s Liesel.” I think her relationship with Nico Liersch, who’s playing Rudy, is wonderful. You see them running around together just like kids and it’s great. You look at Sophie and you just can’t imagine anyone else playing Liesel; likewise, Ben Schnetzner, who plays Max. We met him and I didn’t see him in any scenes, but just seeing him cross the street at one point, I thought, “That’s Max.” They’ve all gelled really well together.
The book places enormous emphasis on the power of words, but of course film is a visual medium. Does that make a difference do you think?
For all we know the movie might bring that power out even more. I know having seen the basement set, with all the words painted onto it, it comes over beautifully. And when you look at that cast as well, you think Geoffrey Rush could get that across in two seconds just by looking at somebody. Alright, it’s a different medium, but it might bring something else to light that the book didn’t cover at all. At the end of the day, I’m just asking myself what would I really want? I know it’s going to be different. I know there are going to be things missing that I’ll possibly look over. But, I think it’ll have the same heart as the book and I don’t think I can ask any more than that. I think the power of words that’s there in the story will most definitely be there in the film.
Q&A written by Joe Utichi (www.joeutichi.com)
Be sure to catching The Book Thief when it comes out. In the mean time, you can pick up the book at our Public Libraries (click here to check for availability) or get the ebook here. Looking for even more Book Thief goodness? Click here.