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“I Wanted Death To Be The Missing Part Of Us”

Author Markus Zusak dishes on The Book Thief and its upcoming film adaptation. Plus, enter to win a copy of the book and a gift card to see the movie!

“I Wanted Death To Be The Missing Part Of Us”

By this point, I think we've made it pretty clear that we are WILDLY excited about the film adaptation of Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief, which will be released on November 8th. I was lucky enough to join a group interview with Marcus a few weeks ago, and now I know for a fact what I've suspected for a while now-- this wonderful book was written by a wonderful person.

Find out for yourself by reading the interview below, then make sure to check out the giveaway details at the bottom. And, if you happen to live near Austin, TX, come hang out with Marcus (and me!) on Sunday, November 3rd at the signing party for The Book Thief happening at Forever Fest from 6-7pm! I will be trying desperately not to swimfan too much.

There's so much visual design in the book with art and the way the words are ranked on the page. And I'm curious about how you feel about turning this book into a movie when the visual part has now changed from book design to images.  Was it difficult?

Mr. Markus Zusak:  Well, it's not for me, which is good because I'm not in charge of the movie or anything.  I'm not the director, which is a relief.
It's really nice actually to hand it over.  And you're right.  Every visual aspect of the book is something that I concerned myself when I was writing it.  And it was always going to have picture books within the book.

It's really nice that you had mentioned just the way even the words are set on the page. And I always wanted gaps between the paragraphs in certain ways because I wanted every little paragraph to almost be a story of its own.  And so, and then it all adds up to one big story and a lot of little pictures that add up to one big picture.

I think, for me, the best thing I can say is I was really comfortable handing the material over to Brian [Percival] the director. And I think 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.  And I don't think, as the writer of the book, you can really ask for any more than that. And you've got to trust these people and because they know what they're doing.

So, that's all I'm really hoping for.

So, I loved the book.  And just the lyrical language, so kind of alongside what Candace was saying, I was thinking about how different it would be.
And I've talked to enough authors who have had their books turned into movies that say the same thing you do.  They're different mediums, and you have to trust.
But, I was wondering if Death was going to have any part in the movie or how that was going to work or if we were just going to focus on the story.

No, I can pretty much say--well, not pretty much.  I can definitely say that Death will narrate the film, just as happens in the book. And 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.

And also, for myself, too, I don't really want someone to read a book of mine until I've made the very, very last correction.

So, I haven't seen it.  I'm kind of looking forward to the surprise of it myself how they do it and get it done. And again, 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 just the way he does in the book. So, we'll see what happens.

I was curious if you were involved in the writing of the screenplay or any of the directions they took with the movie?

No, basically, I read the screenplay.  And again, I sort of don't envy the task of taking a 560-page novel and turning it into a 120-page script.

And so, Michael Petroni, who wrote it--I basically read the script at a certain point.  And then I just sat down with the producers, with Karen Rosenfelt and Ken Blancato and also Brian Percival, the Director. And we just talked about certain things.  And we talked about the book. I mentioned a few things that I wasn't sure about.  And so, we talked about that. They asked me, "What from the book, you know, do you feel like you would mourn not being in the film?"  And we just talked a little bit about that.

There were a few things.  And so, I'm curious to see what happens in the very end.

But, I knew that things that were cut out, there were just certain things for example so I don't want to be coy about some of those things. One of the things we talked about was there's 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. And that was one that we talked about.  And Brian was saying, "Oh, yes, I was trying so many ways to try to get that into the script and into the film." And it was just something that just wasn't going to work for them in the actual film. And so, yes, we just talked about things like that.
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.  And 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.  And that's the luxury of being an author I think.

It's interesting just to hear your perspective of how they work through their process and how it's different from your process as the author of a book.

Yes, it's such a difference in that, as a writer of novels, you're going to have a bit more room to sort of go on tangents and just to move around a little bit more, whereas I feel like it's a lot more constricting in a film, just mainly because of time. But, also, yes, because people watching it are not reading and going through the process of the words going into your mind as you create the pictures. It's just a totally different skill I think.

Like I said, it’s a bit of a relief and amazing to see the sort of work they produced.  It's really great.

So, obviously, I think we all know that, sometimes, when a book is adapted to film, it can be really disappointing. But, I also think that there are great examples of books that have been successfully adapted. I was wondering if you had kind of a model in mind for your own book, like a movie that you imagine doing and what would make it such a great adaptation.

Yes, I can pretty much give you an immediate example.  And one of my favorite books is What's Eating Gilbert Grape?  The film is really great as well.
It's a really good example as well because that's a perfect example of a book and a film that really do have the same heart, there's just something about the film that you can tell the feeling of the book comes through the film as well. And so, that's one example.

There are some things where, in that film, the family, there's a brother and a sister that play much more of a part in the book.  But, in the film, they've just sort of left and haven't come back. And it works in the movie.  And they just sort of say, "Oh, that's such and such, and got out in this house."

Another one that's really interesting as well for me is The English Patient.  And this is one that's pretty divisive because there are some people who love that book.  And I love that book, too.  But, I also love the movie.  A lot of people loved the book and then don't like the movie and for various reasons.

So, there are a couple of examples.  But, we'll probably hang up now, and then I'll think, "Oh, what about that one and that one?" I really like the High Fidelity adaptation as well with John Cusack.  That's one where they moved the whole setting from England to Chicago.  That was really interesting.
Well, there are three that I can think of just off the top of my head that I really loved.

So, I was curious, using Death as the narrator, how that came about.  You have also managed to make Death a sympathetic character.  How did you think about that, or how did that play out?

Yes, I basically started out at the very, very beginning of the book. I just had this idea of stories I've heard as a kid growing up, thinking 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." And then I thought, while I was writing with some kids at a school and we wrote about colors, and I've written about three colors.  And I'd 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, 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.  And the problem was I'd written 200 pages, and I realized that the voice of Death was just too macabre. I sort of feel like I would write a page, and I think I'd need to take a shower or something because he was really sort of evil and kind of even sort of sleazy in a lot of ways.  He was just too dark and too typical of what we would think Death would be like.

And so, then I scrapped and got Liesel to narrate.  And then I have a new problem.  And that's the thing.  People think to be a writer, you've got to have a great imagination. But, you really just have to have a lot of problems.

It's just getting around the problems that give you your idea. And the new problem was that Liesel just sounded really Australian. So, I went to third-person narration.  And then I thought, "Oh, this is everything I was trying to avoid in the first place." And I arrived back at Death when I sorted the last line of the book.  I thought, "That's it."  He's all-powerful and all that, the kind of minus one. He's just got this chink in his armor that he does sort of feel sorry for us.  And he's haunted by the fact that we can be so beautiful and so ugly at the same time in what we do. And just that one little tweaking of his voice that brought everything to life with the book again.

My writing process is pretty much write and then rewrite, like, the beginning. I start a book over and over and over again.  And this time, I went back, started again with that voice in mind.  And this time, I didn't stop.  And I wrote pretty much all the way through to the end.

So, that's kind of the history of using Death, little short history of using Death as the narrator.

I'm curious because I did relate to Death as a character, and we are sort of going to, again, meet the essence of him in the film. Did you in your mind have a rough physical age that you sort of thought of him because I know he's ageless, and you talk about his heart is in a circular pattern, not linear, like humans.

Yes, I don't know.  I think definitely older, just to a certain point.  And there's that whole idea of, he says, "You want to know what I really look like?  Then look in the mirror."

The way I thought of it, honestly, is I felt like more than an age or anything like that, I wanted Death to be the missing part of us. And that's why he just talks a little bit left of the way we would talk.  And that's why he'll say something like, "The trees, who were outer to the left, or the sky, who was wide and blue and magnificent." He spoke like that.  And that's where you get people like my dad saying, "Where did you learn to read and write?  You're mixing those up."

And so, no, I wanted Death to refer to the sky and the trees and the ground, the earth, as an us, as colleagues in a way.  And that's why there's that feeling of he's just the missing part of us, and he's just trying to understand us. That was how I sort of looked at Death as the narrator.  And it's really funny because I thought, using Death as the narrator, that it would really cut out the older audience in a way. And I stopped thinking about any audience reading the book.  I just thought no one would read it and as I was writing it.

It's funny.  Sometimes, especially older people come up to me, and they say, "Oh, you've made me feel a lot better about Death and dying," to which I always say, "Well, I'm really happy for you because I'm still not that keen on Death or dying." So, it's just one of those things.  And yes, and I really like that you enjoyed the character and his voice.  But, that's how I saw him, sort of, just kind of like us but not quite, if that makes sense.

So, The Book Thief is a part of the grand tradition of Holocaust-related books.  And now, The Book Thief the movie is going to be a part of the grand tradition of Holocaust movies. I just wanted to know how you feel like this particular movie is going to contribute to the cannon.

Hmm.  That's a very good question. It's one of these things.  I never thought about this.  And I guess that's a good thing.

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.

Honestly, sometimes, it's best to say, "I don't know."  And rather than try to go through a whole answer that seems to make sense and try to make it sound intelligent, but to tell you the truth, I don't know. And sometimes, I guess, 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. Those were a lot of the stories my mom and dad told me.

Then the idea of the German people who didn't want to fly the Nazi flag, which my mom's foster father didn't want to do or my dad himself, he was just a kid.  And he was forced to go to the Hitler Youth.  And he didn't really want to because he thought it was boring. He said, "This is bloody stupid, this Hitler Youth stuff." And so, he went to the river and threw rocks in the water and stones in the water just for the whole time that he should've been at Hitler Youth.

In a way, maybe it's just a few little pockets of things and those little stories that just show a slightly different side to things as just stories themselves. Maybe that's the best way to think of it contributing. But, in the end, I think the film has to speak for itself.  And the book has to speak for itself.  And hopefully, the book does, and the film will.

We're giving away a copy of the movie tie-in edition of The Book Thief plus a $25 Visa card so you can see the film. To enter, leave a comment with the scene from the book that you're most looking forward to seeing on screen. (U.S. residents only -- sorry, international readers!)

Posh Deluxe's photo About the Author: Sarah lives in Austin, TX, where she programs films at the Alamo Drafthouse. Sarah enjoys fancy cocktails, dance parties and anything that sparkles (except vampires).