On Top of His Game: SLJ Interviews Margaret A. Edwards Award Winner Markus Zusak

This month, multiple award-winner Markus Zusak, author of 'The Book Thief,' will receive yet another honor: SLJ's own Margaret A. Edwards Award. The author talks about finding his voice, his responsibility to readers, and his obsession with getting things right.
The photographer asked Zusak to write a sentence on his daughter’s chalkboard. He wrote something he remembered her saying. All photos by James Horan.

The photographer asked Zusak to write a sentence on his daughter’s chalkboard.
He wrote something he remembered her saying.
All photos by James Horan.

While many of us fell in love with Markus Zusak’s work when we first met Cameron and Ruben Wolfe in Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2001) and Getting the Girl (2003, both Push), it is The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006), still a top-ten best seller eight years later, that is his most popular and best-known novel. I Am the Messenger (Knopf, 2005) was the first of Zusak’s books to be awarded the Michael L. Printz Honor for literary excellence. The Book Thief won the same honor a year later. This month, Zusak will receive the 2014 Margaret A. Edwards Award, which recognizes a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” The annual award is sponsored by SLJ and is administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association. Zusak was clearly stunned by winning a lifetime achievement award, particularly since he is not even 40. Being chosen for this honor has special meaning for him since S. E. Hinton, whose books inspired him to be a writer, was the very first recipient of the award in 1988. I spoke with Zusak on the telephone a few days before he was scheduled to get away for a quiet writing retreat, and our conversation took some wonderful turns. The multiple-award winner comes across as a true champion of the written word who wants to be the best writer he can be.   Zusak holding up a book, written and illustrated by his daughter, entitled I Love My Papa Because…

Zusak holding up a book, written and
illustrated by his daughter, entitled
I Love My Papa Because…

How did you feel when you found out you won the Edwards Award?

Winning the award was just bizarre. It’s part of being Australian to take it in stride—say “that’s great” and keep going. I was brought up not to say things about yourself, but this is a huge honor. I started writing young and had the opportunity to grow as a writer. The way I look at it is to always try to improve. That’s what you do as a writer to stay alive.

What is the S. E. Hinton connection? Why is it significant that she was the first writer to win the Edwards Award?

I knew about the award and that Hinton was the first to win it. (Not that I ever thought I would!) I’ve always been aware of Hinton’s career. It meant a huge amount that she had won the award, since she was such a pioneer of YA writing and had such an impact on the reading public. She made me want to be a writer. I was a teen when I read Taming the Star Runner (Delacorte, 1988), and one of the characters was a writer. Reading her books, I was there. It was real! My first attempts at age 16 and 17 were just awful. All eight pages of my first novel could win a competition for worst book ever.

I look at my first books and am glad they weren’t published. They were too like her. You start writing by imitating your heroes, then you keep the heart of that worship in your work. As time goes by, you get other influences and find your own voice. The voices of the writers that you’ve loved can’t help but be there. For example, Cameron was inspired by Hinton’s Ponyboy.

Reading Getting the Girl, I wondered if you write poetry?

No, I don’t. I wrote two novels that were both rejected by publishers. Then I wrote a book of 21 stories and 21 poems based on a football field near where I lived. The stories were terrible, and the poems were terrible. But it comes back to imitating heroes, making discoveries and finding your voice. I realized I wanted to write prose in a poetic way. It’s become a challenge in my new book—I became quite obsessed with the way the words are put together.

I don’t write poetry or short stories. I don’t like to write articles usually. I tend to really only want to be focused on writing novels. It’s one of the real advantages I’ve had over the years. I’ve only been good at one thing. It helps to be limited.

One of the strains that runs through your books is fighting. Where does that come from?

I’ll be honest—I really don’t know. The other thing that’s in all my books is running. I’ve never actually been in a fight, and I don’t like running. I think it comes from two areas—when you’re a writer, you get to do the things you wish you could do in your own life. It’s one of the things that appealed to me.

There’s an undercurrent of things that are in your unconscious when you write. Running and fighting are in the new book, too. My brother and I are similar in a lot of ways—the way our voices sound and our looks—but really different in a couple of clear ways. One is that sporting-wise my brother could do anything. So he never had to fight for anything, whereas I always had to work to get somewhere. Usually that would work for me, and I’d have a better appreciation for what I’d achieved. I wasn’t good at writing at first.

People abhor boxing, and I agree, but I admire men and women who can stand in a ring like that, nowhere to hide. I’ve only been to a couple of boxing matches, and they’re different from any other event. I’m not there to see blood; I’m there for the heart of someone being able to get up and keep going. And for the respect that’s often there in the end. It feels different from any other sport. You feel the gravity—it’s not an attractive feeling, but there’s an ultimate sense there.

People are welcome to disagree with me. I had a teacher write to me, disappointed in I Am the Messenger for the violence in that book. She was saying that I got young people reading this book and I had them solve things through violence. I wrote back to her and said, I’m sorry to disappoint you, and gave her the reasons why I made the choices I made. I think that as a writer your responsibility is to search for and stir up the things that are in this world. There is violence in all of us, and beauty, and strength, and weakness. What’s my job? To only write about the good and the beauty, or is it to write about all of it? That’s my greater responsibility, to write about them as I see them and as they are.

So fighting works on different levels—there’s the physical, but also the element of struggling and fighting to lead decent lives. My characters struggle with themselves and the things around them. I’m fighting as I write as well, to produce the best work I can.

Why do you think teens are willing to tackle such a complex and lengthy novel as The Book Thief?

We underestimate teenagers at our peril. Even the dismissive thing out on the street—look at what they’re wearing. Then we’ll hear stories about how a toddler fell on the tracks, and it’s often a teenager who comes to the rescue and walks away because he or she doesn’t want any credit. I recognize it because I’ve written books for teenagers—it’s basically that they feel things more than adults do. They want things more than you think. They want things with greater depth than you think they do. Teenagers have got a lot of soul that adults have forgotten they have within themselves.

When I was a teenager, I loved the characters, and that’s what makes a great book. You can have the best plot, but if those things don’t happen to great characters...I knew I wanted to love the characters in The Book Thief. And I did.

There’s a bit of magic in the air that makes something work, that draws people to it. I consider myself lucky that there are teenagers out there who have read it.

The Book Thief was published in Australia as an adult novel and in the U.S. for young adults. Do you care which way your novels are published? Do you think about audience as you’re writing?

Coming out as adult in Australia helped it. Coming out in the U.S. as YA helped it. The big difference is the power of the YA market in the U.S., though it’s starting to grow in Australia, too. I think 75 percent of The Book Thief readers in U.S. are adult. In Australia, it’s 90 percent. At the end of the day, you can’t avoid thinking about your audience. You’re always thinking about the reader. Then you get sick of thinking about them and decide you’re going to do what you want—that’s when the audience really loves you. I’m always trying to write someone’s favorite book. Why try otherwise? When you go there, who cares if it’s teen or adult? Categorizing isn’t the writer’s job. I trust that the publishers will make the right decision.

SLJ1406w_FT_Zusak_bounceThere was a time when everything turned out well for the main character in YA books. Not so in The Book Thief. It hits readers hard to come so far with these wonderful characters and then lose them. Did you think twice about doing that in a YA novel?

You’ve got to ask yourself what is the right thing to do for the book, not what is the right thing for the characters. Of course, you are trying to satisfy readers. Even the people who hate you for killing Rudy or Hans—to me that’s a beautiful compliment. As the writer you ask, what’s my responsibility? I would have loved to let Rudy live. I loved him the minute I thought of him as Jesse Owens—but not for one second did I consider letting him survive in the end. I don’t think I would love him as much as I do now if I’d let him live. There’s a poetic sensibility to his death.

The book really is about the mess of war. A telling example is Hans, who makes the mistake of giving the piece of bread to the man on the street, while Max is in his basement. Because of that mistake, Max is forced to leave and is therefore saved because he’s not in the basement during a bombing raid. Through fate, Max survives and Rudy doesn’t. Another big example is Rudy’s father—he tries to save Rudy by being sent to Russia, and he survives, and Rudy dies. That’s the messiness of war and fate. You try to do the best thing, and it’s out of your hands sometimes.

No one comes away from The Book Thief saying that they’re depressed. They’ll tell you that they cried—but were not depressed. Because in the end there was so much good in the characters, there is something beautiful about their deaths. Yes, Liesel loses a lot on that street, but what she receives at that moment…she carries those people for the rest of her life. I still feel I’m an optimist—I think it’s an optimistic ending.

The Book Thief has been that book you pray for that just doesn’t go away, so I do go back and look at the ending on occasion. You have time and room when you write a novel. I knew the Jesse Owens incident was going to run through the whole novel. The final “payoff” for Rudy doing that comes toward the very end. When Liesel says, “Wake up Jesse Owens,” she’s saying “I love you.” By calling him that, she’s saying you can’t be dead—you’re the most alive person I’ve ever known. Because in that Jesse Owens moment, Rudy was a boy as alive as he can possibly be.

As you can see, I really like talking about the characters because they’re all people I know.

What are you working on now? Would you share the inspiration for your next book?

I’ve never worried about keeping things a secret. Writing is a job. My brother’s a house painter. His is a different job in one way. He gets up in the morning and knows he can paint that house. Whereas I often think it just takes a lot of belief in myself to get that book done. The job is the same in that it is a job. I don’t look at myself as some delicate artist who must be secretive. I feel like a tradesman in the same way as my brother. I just go in and ply my trade.

My new book, Bridge of Clay, is about ambition and those moments where we transcend our humanness. It’s about a boy who’s building a bridge—he’s molding his life into this bridge. He wants to make it perfect. His name is Clay. Clay can be molded into anything but must be fired to stay. The river floods, but when it recedes, the sun comes up, and the fire sets it. Clay will be set at that moment. That was the ending I always had in mind. Then I realized—that’s not it. It’s just to the west of there. And that’s the art of it. You just have to look at it long enough. The novel is also about family, and what’s happened to Clay in the past. It’s probably based on the way I want to transcend something when I am writing as well.

As far as the pressure goes for finishing a new book—it’s hard enough to write anyway. Look, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get paid to make things up. I remind myself all the time how much I love what I do, love the challenges of it, love that it’s not easy. It’s a joy to have those moments when you write something you really like and you didn’t know when you got out of bed that it was going to happen that day. If you try really hard, but not too hard, it’ll come because you love what you’re doing. You hope by doing all the little things right, you can make that happen.

Are you looking forward to going to ALA in Las Vegas?

I’m going to try not to swear when accepting the award. There’s a bizarre feeling to getting the award—so where else would be a better place to go? The word “baby” has never shown up in any emails from my editors until now. I get “We’re going to Vegas, baby!” It reminds me of the movie Spellbound and the kids who get to go to DC. They’re popular there. It’s like that to go to ALA. It will be a great feeling to go to ALA in a place like Las Vegas. It’s going to be like a carnival of books and oddity. It’s a testament to the idea that books belong everywhere—so why not take it to Vegas?

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