Markus Zusak on stories that mean everything


ANDREW LEIGH, HOST:  Marcus Zusak is one of Australia's great storytellers, aged 45. He's the author of six novels, The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, When Dogs Cry, The Messenger, The Book Thief, and Bridge Of Clay. Marcus has a flair for phrases and talent for tales. He also really loves other people's books, and regards reading as an essential part of a good life. Marcus, it's a delight to have you on the podcast today.

MARCUS ZUSAK, AUTHOR THE BOOK THIEF: Thanks for joining me. There's absolute pleasure. And yeah, I'm really looking forward to it. We'll see how we go. Hopefully I can, you know, do your program justice.


LEIGH: So tell me which authors you read as a kid who, who shaped you?

ZUSAK: Yeah, well, it's funny, my mom talks about me walking around our household, basically, before I could read just carrying books around and eating the corners often and, and they were probably I, I know them to be poor. We had every Dr. Seuss book known to man or woman and, and so that was probably what I started off on. And, and yeah, so I read pretty, I wouldn't say voraciously, but I read a lot. And because I was the youngest of four kids, I know everyone else's books as well.

And I haven't had it's really funny, I even got I've got pictures of my own son now, who just always falls asleep writing, you know, and he always had easy that on top of the book or the books on him. And he'll he'll read anything. You know, ranging from I haven't got this old picture book version of you know, it's like this children's Bible, actually, you know, and just because and the story is in that I used to raise a kid as well.

And I can't so I would kind of read across all sorts of different things. And and then when I was a teenager, the books that really made me want to be a writer, I guess we're, you know, I can pare it down to sa Hinton where, you know, so many kids I know have had this experience growing up in this country and other countries to where we were issued the outsiders that was then this is now an Rumble Fish as books to be read in year nine. And I think the outside is has changed a lot of people's lives having read them exactly that right age, and I think it was one of her latest books called taming the star Anna, when I was 16 years old, I read that book, and the 15 year old character in that book, was getting a book published. And I thought, I want to be that guy.

 And and I think that was the moment, I decided I wanted to be a writer and without me just going on and on and on about it. I just finished by saying, I think what you know, underneath just that very direct thought from seeing a character in a book doing it. I think what I also realised what I loved so much about reading novels was that it was this magic act that you're, you're reading something that isn't true that someone's made up, but you believe it when you're in it. And I thought, Ah, that's what I want to do with my life.

LEIGH: How did it shape you being the youngest of four?

ZUSAK: It made me really ambitious. I think I grew up with an older brother though. So in order I have two sisters, a brother and my ambu sort of in groups of two. There's my sister's was a seven and six years older than me my brother's two is older than me. So there's this sort of, you know, there's a little bit of an ocean between, you know, the girls and the boys. And so I grew up a lot with my brother. But you know, I remember and I laugh of that, at least now.

And there are remember very distinctly things like my brother and sisters playing cards with my parents will play or they'll be playing a board game. And as always be You're too small or you're too You're too young, you won't get it in just given away. You can't play this, you too young, but the seminal was, I still remember my dad going horse riding with my two sisters and my brother. And I had to sit in the car with my mom. And I'm sure I was sitting there, just stewing going, one day, I'm gonna show all you bastards.

And, and, and so I think it's sort of made me like, you know, the, the youngest one often just wants to do what the older kids can do. And, and so I think it did make me pretty ambitious for, you know, for my whole life, I mean, but only in the things that I really loved. And so as a, as a kid, I, I loved playing rugby league, and I love to English at school, I didn't love math, so I didn't care that much about it. But English, I wanted to do well in you know, and I wanted to do well, when I played football, and I want to, you know, so I was able to sort of one of the things that I've realised,you know, in my lifetime of writing, and everything that I've done is that one of the gifts I've had is that I've never been naturally good at anything. I've always had to sort of, or there was someone who was already better at it than me in my brother or my two sisters. And so I always had to sort of fought for it a little bit. And I think, you know, without casting that as anything miserable, you know, to me, that's just been a real gift. And so I'm really happy to have been the youngest of four kids, and whether I've showed them or not, you know, that's another story.

LEIGH: We'll come back to some of the themes of fighting for things. But I'm curious about the role that world war two plays in how you think about stories. In some sense, it's, it's the big story of our age. But for us, it's the tales of our grandparents or our parents as as children. Mine, I think like yours were born just in the tail end of of World War Two.

To what extent do you think World War Two still still shapes us? It's obviously at the heart of your best known book, the book safe there? Is it still the big story for our for us?

ZUSAK: Oh, I think the first thing I should say that that is, you know, at the time, were talking to each other. Now we're talking about Victoria being under curfew. And as soon as I hear the word curfew, I think of World War Two. And, you know, and, and it's just got this dark, that word just has this dark cloud of a, you know, just it's this dark cloud that sort of ust has an ominous, you know, feel to it. And I you know, I wouldn't say necessarily, you know, that I think it's the story of, of, you know, an age or I think, you know, so much of that can depend on you know, who you are, where you come from, and I know that so, but I know that in my case, you know, most things I should sort of, you know, talk about is that, for me, World War Two as a topic or a theme, or even an ID or thought was always secondary to just actual stories themselves.

And I've often said to people that if my mum and dad grew up in, you know, two different countries in South America, or one of them grew up in South America, America, one grew up in Australia or New Zealand or whatever, you know, my stories would be completely different. My gift wasn't necessarily that my mum and dad grew up in Germany and Austria, mostly after World War Two, most of their stories were actually about after the war, and, and because of their age, and was also one of those things where it was easier for me to write The Book Thief, because of how old they were during that time, because they were really young children. You know, they told stories about just being kids and there wasn't necessarily any feeling of responsibility, you know, for what happened in that time, as well.

And so for me, I'm lucky that, you know, both of my parents did have these amazing

You know, in time, you know, tough, interesting, funny childhoods and was still able to say to me, but you know, whatever hardships we had, that was nothing, you know, compared to what other people went through in that time. And people, obviously, who died, people who were sent to their deaths, you know, and they were able still sort of, to put that into some kind of perspective for me, even when they talked about bombs coming down through the night. And like my mom saying, she came up out of the ground, and the whole ground was covered in snow, but the sky was on fire, I was always drawn to these sort of opposites.

And, and, you know, my dad who grew up in Austria, and he was saying, as, you know, good school students, he was good at sport. And so they were going to send him to a special school to make this, you know, great, even so called better class of Nazi citizens. And, and his parents refused to let him go. He still talked about these two men in these big coats who came to his house, and he listened in, while his mom said, No, you're not taking my son. And literally, a week later, his dad was sent to World War Two to do one of the worst jobs that you could possibly be given. You know, which was, you know, he basically was putting fires out, you know, from crumbling buildings, while someone someone would be putting out, you know, we'd be spraying the guy who was putting the fire out with water, you know, so he wouldn't catch on fire. And he'd already been in World War One, he was an older man. Yeah, you know, my, my dad was still able to save it.

Geez, I was lucky. So to sort of sum up, I would just say, the most fortunate thing for me was that my parents had these ridiculously interesting stories. And, you know, jaw dropping stories, really, but they'll both really good storytellers. I'm gonna say we're, I mean, they're both still alive. And but though able to tell me these stories in a way that was really meaningful to me, and, and again, because I was the youngest, and this is, the advantage of being the youngest, I think, is that I got to spend the most amount of time with my mom and dad at a time, that was actually really useful to me.

 So I didn't get their attention when I was, you know, a baby up to 4567 years old, because of all the other kids but when I was a teenager, my sisters, you know, sort of moved out one after another, my father was off doing other things. And I go into these long bush walks with my dad, or I'd go to work with my mom, or the work with my dad. And I'd say, Can you tell me that story again, about this or that, you know, that happened. And that's why I tell people if I'm speaking at a, you know, bookshop, or a festival somewhere, don't be afraid to repeat the same stories, because that's how us younger people, get to you know, get to remember them, and to memorise them so that we can tell them to our children.

LEIGH: There's a number of signature qualities that I think of you as having as a writer. One of them is your the extraordinary starts to your book evokes the the way in which the messenger begins with the the bungled bank robber. And the other is the importance of narrators in your book, what made you choose to have death be the narrator of The Book Thief? Did that take a long time in coming? Or was that there From the very genesis of the book?

ZUSAK: this is a really close is one of my favourite stories, and it just shows a couple of things about writing. And one is that I'm not necessarily a hugely creative person, and but I'm willing to spend time with something I'm willing to let an idea Wait, you know, for me, and or I'm willing to wait for the next idea that will help it what I had when I was writing a book fake originally when I was writing the messenger, I, I just my computer, basically got a virus I couldn't use it anymore. And so I wrote started writing on these pages. You know, there's really been foolscap pages that you can buy the really cheap ones, and in the papers almost as thin as cigarette paper. And I was writing on one of those and then I just told him Vera Graham's. Yeah. And I tore off the page.

And, and I just wrote this story was, I just wrote the first page of an ID called the book faith. I don't know where it came from, but it was about a girl in modern day Sydney and she climbed into an apartment When she stole a book off the shelf, and I just left it, I just let it sit there. And I don't know, I wish I still have that page, it may be somewhere. And I let that sit.

And I'd also have this idea about that on my right, my mom's story about, you know, her childhood, and which it only struck me quite recently, actually, that she's to talk about how America the American soldiers occupied Munich, and they had their own radio station. And all the locals would listen to it, because they loved it, because I loved all the American music. And the problem was, they couldn't say Munich in the German way, which was moonkin. Okay, that was they called me, instead of saying that they called it mansion. And the lunch hour radio show was was, was called luncheon in mansion. And, and so, which is, like, just a really, I love that little story.

And originally, I was thinking, that's what I'm going to call this, call that book, you know, it's the worst title for a book in the history of the world. But um, and said that I have this idea that I might write a sort of biography of, of my mom's childhood. And, and then I started to think, maybe I'll just, maybe I'll write a novel, because I'm not really good at just sticking to the facts. I'm not really good. I'm always asking, What if it happened this way? Or what if that happened that way instead, and I'm making things up. And then something happened, something else happened. 

And I was working at a school and I was, I was working with these kids, or these three kids who were really sort of came on riving. And at lunch, I worked with them. And I gave them the beginning of a story, I gave them the sentence, I still remember the exact sentence. And this is pretty overwrought, slightly embarrassing thing, but it was, I've seen the colour of time, on three occasions, I said, Now write something.

And so I wrote with them. And I wrote, about three deaths happen in three deaths. And I realised that they were all narrated from the point of view of death. And then I went on might just maybe throw that into that book that I'm setting in Nazi Germany, about the girl who steals books. And what I then had with these three things was the stories of my mom and dad, I had death as in the writer, I had a girl stealing books. And if you took any either of those things out, it wouldn't be the same thing. But those three things working in combination.

 And honestly, I didn't leave it at the time, I didn't even think of book burnings. I didn't even think our death is the perfect narrator. Because, you know, people say war and death are like best friends. It was just one of those things that this happened over a period of about a year, you know, to sort of just collate the right ideas, to amalgamate and come together. And then I was sort of ready to start again, because I've written, I'd already written bits and pieces for the book, and I just went, that's not a, that's not it. That's not it, either. I spend most that's pretty much my job description, is writing something and going, Well, that's not it. I sort of just continually, continually on this search for something that feels right.  

And suddenly, what happened was, then with the Book Thief, I wrote, I just came and just, it just sort of came very, you know, just sort of, from not from nowhere, but just from being with it. And I can still remember those first sentences of first the colours, then the humans, that's usually how I see things now. Then it said, I just, I had all of this written. And then one night, I was sitting with it again. And then I saw this, I heard this other voice in my head that said, here's a small fact, you're going to die. And I saw that in the very beginning, I saw that in the middle of the page. And when you're seeing things like that, and having ideas coming at you like that, it's sort of you just you don't ask questions, you just do it. And, and that was how I kind of arrived at the voice of death. And I wrote really hard for a month, and it was one of the best months of my life. And then I read then I made the mistake of reading over it. And I just went oh my god, this is terrible.

And, and but I had about 200 pages there. And so at least had something to work with. And I think it's just you're looking for the voice you need. You're just waiting, you know, you just and I had that voice of death, but it wasn't entirely right. And I just needed you know, another year and a half went by, until I found out that death needed to have this kind of vulnerability to him, as well. And, and then it all sort of final once I had that, because I thought of the last line of the book, I thought, Ah, that's how that's how to write this book, death is proving to himself that humans can be beautiful and selfless and worthwhile. That's how you write the book. And, and it became the book did and I'm still a bit staggered, honestly, by you know that we're talking about it even now. And it was 15 years ago that I came out.

 LEIGH: I mentioned on Twitter that I was interviewing you this week. And Suzanne chambers said she, she wanted me to ask you, what's the central human value of the Book Thief?

ZUSAK: Oh, it's funny, sometimes I just have to, I often just say, I don't know. to, to to question that I'm not quite sure of the answer to. And I think, for me, it's that what we're all actually made of, is our stories. And The Book Thief is, you know, about this girl, and wants to, if I was, if someone said to me, what is that book about, and you spend years trying to figure out what your book is about, or at least how to articulate it. And I finally arrived at this idea that what the book is about, it's about the idea that in Nazi Germany, you know, you had Hitler, basically, if you, if you distil it all down, Hitler is destroying people with words. And it's about a girl who is stealing the words back, and she's writing her own story, through that ugly world that he's created. And it's a beautiful story.

 And so I think, to me, The Book Thief is about personal stories, and that no matter what's happening around you, is that you can carve out the story, you know, you're still in control of the story that you can carve out through this world. And so I think that's what is actually at the heart of it. And so, by starting out by saying, I don't really know, I said, I think it just gives me I'm not a quick thinker. Um, that's why like, if someone ever asks me to be on, like, on a sports, television thing, or something, often I'll say no, because I know, I can't think quickly enough. But um, you know, but I know by just winding my way back to the right. So I think that's what The Book Theif means to me anyway.

LEIGH: So at the age of 30, you'd written five novels. And at the age of 40, you'd also written five novels. Because Bridge of Clay took you 13 years from age 30, to age 43. It's, it's a big work, tightly structured, but not that big. You know, I was kind of doing the math and thinking well, 13 years, 130,000 words or so? You're looking at a few words a day, basically. Which really speaks to the, the the power of the craftsmanship. How was that experience of spending your entire 30s writing a book after having churned out a book every year or two for the previous decade?

ZUSAK: Yeah, it's, it's kind of interesting, looking back on that now, because it was a really great time. It was a really joyful time that decade, I mean, so it's really interesting that it took 13 years to for that book to come out. And my daughter was 13. When I found out

I could put all the blame on her really, if I wanted to. I was quite funny. You know, when she did basically say, you know, one morning I was sitting across from her, she ate breakfast for she went to school and, and I said to her, you know, I don't know about other people's kids, but for a long time, even now, my children eat like barbarians. And I said to her, could you just keep it down over here? I'm trying to get some work down here. And she's looked over at me and she's gone. You work.

And I did. She's been gone off to school. And I've thought about that all day until I did work out exactly what you just proposed, which was that, I figured out that at that stage, I basically written 1.9 words per day and not even two if you if you did it, if you did the mathematics on it, and and it was so it was a great time, I mean that for all that decade, The Book Thief was just sort of rolling on and on and on.

So came out in 2005 in Australia, 2006, America, 2007, England, and then all through Europe and Asia and South America. And so I got to go to, you know, one of the most amazing things was going to so many of those countries where the book came out, and, you know, places I never thought I would go, you know, as far as disparate, as you know, from Taiwan, China, to Norway, Brazil. And so it was like this gateway to the world.

And yet at the same time, I, you know, I wasn't just sitting there going well, this is fantastic. You know, I'm, I'm on holiday, I was trying to write Bridge of Clay. And, and, of course, it was originally slated, you know, to be delivered in January 2008, you know, which turned out to being delivered in 2010. And I was just kidding. More, it became ridiculous. 

And at around the 10 year mark, it was, it was my wife who really saved that book, because she just said, Look, I'm giving you one way, I'm giving you one way to wasn't a way to finish it was a week, to just get to be happy again. And, and, you know, I've looked at some of the I know, you did some sort of quickfire questions later on, and just talking about what makes someone happy. And for me, when the writing is going well, it, it's, you know, that's when I'm at my best and at my happiest, and I don't, you know, people say, Oh, geez, you must procrastinate a lot and clean and, you know, mow the lawn, or whatever, I say no, I do all that stuff way better when I'm writing well, and it's probably my biggest, it's not a criticism of Bridge of clay, it's a it's to me a hard truth with it.

And, and that is that the Book Thief was an incredibly difficult book to write. And it was a, it was a huge effort to write that book. But it appears as though it was effortless. And, and I think that's what you're hoping and sort of, you know, wanting yourself to do to do as a rider. And whereas breach of clay was a huge effort as well. But that effort shows and, and that's what makes it harder to come at first, you know, for some readers, you know, some people really love it, and, and understand where it's coming from and what it's doing. And for some people, it's just like arduous and Well, that was disappointing. And, you know, and this is all these are all tough things to hear when you've been spoiled for the last decade, by a book that just keeps going on and that people seem to sort of fall in love with. And, but, but in that sense, I'm much more proud of bridge of clay, it suits the character of clay, and Matthew, than the writer of that book. And that whole family, that it's not easy, it doesn't give itself away that book, it doesn't ever say to the reader, I wanted it to, you know, I promise you, I want you I was always trying to find a quirky, easier way for the reader to come at that book. But it just wouldn't allow it.

And, and so you have to write true to the voice and feel of the book. And clay is the sort of character who was carrying his family on, you know, on his back. And, and so and he's carrying also, you know, the burden of memory and what he feels, you know, he's carrying, you know, a pretty big wound as well, and so really suited that book for it to be a bit tougher. And so you always want to remain true to the feel. And the central feeling of the book, LLC can't finish it. And, of course, after my wife, you know, said you've got one week that week came and went, like all the others.

 And I did have to quit the book for about three months. And, and when I came back to it, it was right, let's just get the smile back on on your face. And let's make this really simple. If I would have one criteria when I was, you know, reading or editing the book, there was like, if it's alive, keep it if it's dead, cut it off. And or get it to feel alive in a real hurry. And, you know, and within and that's the thing is often and I will shut up in a minute, I promise is Is that you, you do all this work and you feel like you fail and you feel like wow, I just can't get this to work.

And then what happens is you once you've taken a step back from it, and you see it sort of fresh again, what I realised is that I'd actually done 97% of the work. And I've written 80% 85 to 90% of the book, it was, it was just finishing it that was just going to take that last bit of courage and, and without her stopping me, you know, I may still be doing that now. So I'm incredibly grateful to her for that.

LEIGH: There's so much in there that just glistens on the page. I love that line about the coastline of dirty dishes stretching towards the sink. Where's the line like that come from? Do you do you sweat over it? And you know, is that the product of a couple of hours of staring at the screen? Or does it suddenly pop into your mind.

ZUSAK: I love that you picked up that line, Andrew, because that was one of the very first lines in the whole book that I that I knew I was going to keep. And to me, it's when I can, it's when I feel like I'm there. And that's what those sort of lines do for me. And it's that I remember, I can't remember who said it now, which I'm a bit dirty on myself for is that someone you know, a Roger or some somebody else said that. That's what novels kind of are and should be is the, you're the writer will ask the reader to see the world in a totally different way. Yet, they completely understand. And, and so when I'm, if I'm writing something, and that sentence will pop into my head, a coastline of dirty dishes stretching towards the scene. To me, I just got up. That's why I was writing today. And it reminds me a little bit of I like I described writing as kind of like climbing a mountain. That's really difficult.

But there's the promise of a sandpit at the top, where you just get to play. And, and so my favourite line from a book is from Michael Chabon’s, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay. And he describes an ocean liner called the Rotterdam coming into New York harbour. And he says, The Rotterdam came into New York harbour, like a mountain wearing a dinner jacket. And that's a rider. Yes, cool, isn't it, that's, that's a rider who's done all the hard work and is just sitting in the sandpit playing. And so that's where those terms of phrase come from. And that's when you just sort of relax a little bit.

And I'm always, I think, just on the lookout for that unusual, you know, piece of language that, so I don't have time, I think this is really important. I don't have a really big intellect. I don't have you know, I'm, I'm actually not that intelligent. And I don't have a huge vocabulary, either. I used to think that to write serious books, you know, or to say, write books for, you know, adult readers or whatever, that you had to have, you know, start putting in, you know, really sophisticated language in words, but what I actually learned is that it's never what you expect is your is your greatest strength.

And for me, it was, it's, it was having a pool of words, but understanding the limitless, the limitless combinations that you can use those words, you know, so close a coastline with dirty dishes stretching towards the same to me is, you know, you're always trying to write a book that only you could have written. And when you write a sentence like that, that's one more little part of the book that makes it yours

LEIGH: another moment in which you seem to be really playing in the sandpit is when you go to name the pets in the household, and they're all named after Greek characters, Achilles and Agamemnon. And then you get to the dog, who's called Rosie, and you think, oh, that's, that's interesting. But then it turns out that Rosie is named that way, because one of the children has misunderstood the line about the rosy fingered dawn. And it is just priceless.

ZUSAK: My remark is, I love that, that way in which you, you bring it and bring it back.

Oh, it's, it's one of those. It's one of those things that I was always. I mean, even going back to the book, though, I sort of one of the things that I was kind of proud of, I mean, you really worry about a book, especially when you've just published it, you just worry about all the problems with it. And when people are gonna see all the things that are wrong with it, that you know what they're even though you've given it, everything you've got, but you've got to let go of it at some point. But I've always sort of at least been that little bit happy with fact that I didn't just have ideas for a book, and then, you know, spit out proceed, you know, just throw the ID down, and then it's done. Because then you wouldn't have those little moments.

And it's funny with I mean, that at one point, like all those, all those animals, they all those names changed. At some point, there was actually another cat called Cyclops. And there was, and then the goldfish was Apollo for a while, because I just thought, yeah, and because Agamemnon was just feeling too ridiculous, he just always, always wanting the reader to believer, you know, I gotta believe these do I believe it, and, and so even when they just dropped in there at the beginning, here, from me, there's no mention, apart from the fact that this is all happening when we first made the pact. So it's happening in combination with clay doing this sort of outrageous training for the 400 metre sprint, where 100 100 metre mark and the 200 and the 300, there is someone there to stop him from, from running the next 100 metres. And he's got to get past them just to make it hard, so hard to run 400 metres that when there's no one in front of him, it'll just feel like, you know, a piece of cake.

And so there was this sort of, there was that element of the great games, you know, and, and that, but it's sort of for me, came together, then, when the character of Penelope the Dunbar boys mom comes into the book. And then it said that, you know, she grew up with her dad reading the Iliad and the Odyssey to her, and then from male sort of going on, then that's when you're starting to make those connections between this family has a history, you know, with the Greeks and Matthew was in the writer talks about it, it's one of the first things he says is that most people don't think I've a string couple of words together.

But, you know, I know about the Greeks and the epics and, and the Rosie story was just, I don't know how that happens. It just came out of, I guess, climbing the mountain, you know, doing the hard work. And then I thought, there's a little anecdote that one of the kids was getting it for all and I think Matthew at that point in the book says to Tommy, the youngest, you know, he's, it's the sky he is, and and it's just one of those nice things, and I think it's part of a family history. And that's what that book always felt like to me is that, again, that stories are what when made off and and it's always it's always coming back on itself that Balkan as always referring to itself, the way all families are, I think all families have their own secret language. And, and that book is is, you know, giving readers the secret language of the Dunbar family.

LEIGH: There is a sort of Australian magic realist feel about it, particularly when clay is doing that crazy training or when the boys beating one another to a to a pope. But somehow you bring us far enough in that, that it doesn't it doesn't seem ridiculous. I remember you, you said at one point that your early books were books that meant something to you. And your last two have been books that meant everything to you. What's that distinction about?

ZUSAK: I think you're always trying to do your best. And you're always trying to think you're usually thinking that you're writing. Well, maybe I'm, I'm I can't speak for any other writers. But I think early on you, when you start writing a book, you're just trying to finish one, because it's not. It's not the easiest thing to start with alone finish. And my first attempts at books, you know, when I was 16 years old, you know, all eight pages of my first attempt that a book could be entered into a competition for the worst book ever written. And but I think you did.

 You tried to emulate your heroes as well. And you basically plagiarise, your heroes at the beginning, too. And so as a teenager, trying to write my first books, you know, and how lucky I was led to that I figured out what I wanted to do so early, and, but, you know, so it just put my first attempts failed really badly. And then I thought, I really want to do a QA, I want to really want to finish one. And by the end of my first year of university, I've kind of figured out how to do it. You know, I thought if I've got 130 pages, I've written a novel, and that seemed like kind of the right length and or at least the minimum length that you needed, and you are so I think he spent a lot of time figuring it all out.

 And but it to me, there was a difference. Between writing the link from those first four books, which often I've also described as being my first book, and The Book Thief being my second book, and, and so funny um, a lot of people say to me are you think bridge of close my second book. And whereas it's my my sixth book and but then it felt like those first four books were the training ground for the book theif. And then those first five books were the training ground for Bridge of Clay that there was a lot to learn in between.

 But yeah, so I remember often saying that, after the book, thief, meaning everything, to me, it's just it. I remember finishing that book. And there was something different. And it's actually I'm not sure if it's something I can totally describe, but I'll do my best. And that is that when I'd finished all those other books, I was kind of emotional.

But when I, when I finished, and when I finished writing The Book Thief, I was kind of just empty. After that. There was there was just, there was no real thought of it. There was nothing else that I wanted to do actually, first, even though I knew that Bridget Clay was waiting for me, it was no, Bridge has always been, you know, that sort of prizefighter? While it was always the book that I couldn't write. And that I was always putting off, because I always thought it was my best idea.

And then the books, they've just sort of blew that out of the water that idea and, and so when I've had that feeling of just feeling totally hollowed out, I think I realised that and I think I have to say with The Book Thief to the very first time I've read from that book in public, and it was a little chapter called confessions.

And it's when Liesl confesses to really in the woods, he she shows him the book that Max has been drawing in the basement, when she when she's saying max been taken to Dachau, and Rudy sees her reaction to that. And she shows in the book, and there's a picture of Rudy in there with his medals from the, from the sports Carnival, and he looks at her and he says, I told him, You told maps about me. And she says to him, now moving, getting a bit choked up talking about it now. And she says to him, of course, I told him about you. And she's actually telling him that she loves him, you know, and, and to me, and the fact that I'm even getting a bit teary talking about that.

 Now, these are fictional characters, you know, and, but they're real as I talk about them. And so I think, I think I just believe those books more and, and then when I had that feeling with The Book Thief, I thought, well, that's it, I have to, I have to hit that mark, every time I write a book, and I have to do that with bridge of clay. But I think what gets lost in that thought process within myself is that you can't go in it can't mean everything to you at all times. And right at the very beginning, because then you won't write anything. And I think that was the mistake would breach of client at the start was that I was probably trying too hard.

And I remember even as a kid, I used to practice throwing the discus, and my dad would throw it back to me. And there was one that he would always call out a couple of things. When I was trying too hard. He'd say that one was cramped. And let's say you're trying too hard. You know, it's that thing of where you're trying really hard, but you're relaxed, as well.

And, but I've always joked now that how I said, you know, now every book I write has to mean everything to me. And after 13 years working on Bridge of Clay , I should probably, you know, I thought maybe it's time to go back and just write a book, that means something to me, might get written a little bit quicker. But I think I think you should start out with it, meaning something to you. And then the book or the book itself is what becomes everything, you can't force it. And, and I think that's what I've learned.

 That's probably the biggest lesson I learned from Bridge of clay is that, you know, just relax as well. And you don't have to make it. It only has to be as perfect as you can make it once and that's when it's on its way to the printer. You know, it doesn't have to be perfect every day. And that's what I sort of tell people who ask for writing advice is I just say, you know, just take it easy on yourself sometimes too. Because, you know, it's, it's, you can't, you can't always be you can't always be totally dedicated. You're gonna feel lazy. Some days you're gonna feel intimidated some days.

So take it easy. In yourself, the the measure of it is that you will come back. That's how you know that you really are Roger, you know that if you're willing to come back. And, and, you know, I know I have been and that's probably the only thing that makes me a writer, it's not the books, it's not great writing by any stretch of the imagination is the fact that I'm always willing to come back to my desk after I've been beaten up a little bit. 

LEIGH: But it is a particular style of writing, too. And there's a Chicago economist called David gallons and who splits creators into young conceptualists and old experimentalists, thinking of people like f Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso who do their best work, driven by a single idea, and perform best in their 20s. Alternatively, you've got people like Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock, who do their best work later in their career, and spend their time tinkering. And in a novel sense, you know, you think of the plot driven people doing their best work in their 20s and their character driven people doing their best work and their, their 50s and 60s, you seem to spend a lot of time particularly changing things around I understand you even changed the writer in in bridge, a bridge of clay, how do you know when to when to stop tinkering as an experimental illustrator?

ZUSAK: Yeah, I think it's when you start to forget the previous incarnation. It's so and I changed in the rider in the Book Thief to and it was originally it was his death isn't the rider then it was Liesl herself, was the rider. And then I thought then that she just sounded even though I have this German Austrian background, she just sounded to Australian, he said, we're always there's always this new problem, you know.

 And that's like, the other thing I say to people is, don't think that to be a writer, you've got to have a great imagination that conjures up this idea of this whimsical character who just sort of floats around. And, you know, so called genius is, you know, landed upon them. And now it's, it's that you have these problems. And it holds true, the old cliche, that Necessity is the mother of all invention. And so when I have a problem, I have to get around it, or I have to find a way to solve it. And that is where my imagination is.

 And so yeah, I did have in both The Book Thief and bridge of clay, but I had this narrator named Maggie, who was narrating bridge of clay, sitting up on the on the roof of the Dunbar household and I had her for six years, seven years. And it took me a while to finally let go of her. But then it's when you stop not thinking about that narrator anymore, or that idea anymore. When you when you when it starts leaving you alone, you know that the new idea is the right idea. And, and it may turn out that that's not the right idea, either. It's the one after it, or the one after that.

 And so, I think what, what has happened is, you know, I've, I think writing gets harder, but depending, I mean, it could just, it could well be that I haven't sat down and just go I'm just gonna write this one thing for fun, or whatever it is. But what I found is I'm not that interested in having fun. I know there is fun in bridge of clay and there's this fun in the Book Thief, which is, you know, almost silly to conceive of given a setting and, and so on. But, uh, but to me, there's got to be that element of, of play in it.

 And, and so I think for me, that's when I know it's working. It's when I'm when I'm starting to play more than I'm really really having to work hard on it, but it takes a little while or a long while to get there. But you've just got to be I think you've just got to be willing for it to not work many times before it actually does.

And in changing I mean everyone had a shot at narrating bridge of clay after May between Maggie and Matthew Henry Rory penny from the grave, you know, so even though when I thought I can't have a dead character, no right bridge of client after I had death narrate The Book Thief, I'll just become the death guy. So, so you, I mean, but you're prepared to try it because he gets so desperate, you know, and, and so having all of these parts of these things too.

And, you know, that makes it difficult is actually a bit of a blessing because it's the sort of job that's always testing you, you know, and it's, it's the sort of job it's always testing how much you want it. You can't get it to work for a day, a week, a month, year, years or you get rejected publisher, this is all there to test how much you really want to do it. And, and I think that's probably what I love most about. And it probably comes back to what else were what we were talking about at the very beginning here, which was just that, I kind of like that I had to that I wasn't good at things to start out with. And there were always people who were better at it than me. And that made me work for it, and enjoy working for it as well. And I'm glad Bridget Clyde took 13 years now because if nothing else, the story behind the story is a good one as well.

LEIGH: Well, you you very much live the life of clay there. I'm curious about your characters. In some sense, your ideal character seems to be a working class person who loves books. You see this a bit in the in the writing of Richard Flanagan, you know, Richard is a middle class, middle class guy who works with his mind, but he writes much more about people who work with their hands. People who work with their hands just more interesting to write as characters.

ZUSAK: I think it comes down to sort of what Stephen King talks about in his book on writing, which is, in some, there's some there's a lot you can control as a as a rider, and there's a lot that you can't. He talks, Stephen King talks about how you can't control the sort of the drain that's at the edge of the roof of what you catch. And he's like, well, I just catch horror, and, and suspense where someone else, you know, might be catching, you know, character driven, you know, realism.

And, and so for me, it's what I seem to be drawn to those sort of characters and, and I think it's because I grew up with those sort of characters. And, you know, my mom's, you know, being a house cleaner, and my dad being a house painter, you know, and they're the people who also made me want to be writers because of their storytelling. And, and I loved going to work with my dad and my mom. And so it's always felt natural to me, and that they were the people who were interesting to me. And I was drawn to that, as a reader to even talking about, you know, those se Hinton novels were always about kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and, and then you read a book, like, you know, Roddy Doyle's the commitments, which taught me a lot about dialogue.

But there again, there was, there was a real work on me as a staunch working classes, and to that book as well. And so I think, for me, it ties back in again to that idea of not necessarily being that talented or not being that good at things, and really having to work for it, to appreciate it. And so I think all of those things are kind of wrapped up together. And I think that's why I tend to write about those sort of people on there there. It was sort of close to my heart, I guess. 

LEIGH: He seemed to have an enduring interest in luck. There's the cards and the messenger. There's the horses in bridge of clay, as so many serendipitous encounters in your books. Do you think that we sometimes under play underwrite the role of chance in our lives?

ZUSAK: I think it's probably more to do with just backing yourself, betting on yourself. It probably. And I mean, I guess, especially with the cards in the messenger and what I was doing to it all the time I was with Ed Kennedy, the main character, I was always putting obstacles in front of him any had to sort of back himself to to, to get past them. And but I think it's, I mean, law, talk about luck.

I mean, my first book and my whole career hinges on the fact that I sent the underdog manuscript to one publisher that I've sent books to before and had been rejected, about the only ones who'd shown any real sort of interest the publishing house called Omnibus books, who were part of scholastic and and that manuscript was read by one of the editors and put on the boss's table, and on boss's desk, and then a whole lot of other manuscripts were dropped on top of it, and it's sad.

Fill in the bottom and sat there and it could easily have just been, you know, had a little sticker on it saying, read this one. And, and that's become my poster that may have come off, you know. And so I think I'm, I'm a huge one of my childhood heroes, and I still really, I still really enjoy his work now was loving rugby league. I always loved Sterling, Peter Sterling. And he always said, as a commentator, well, he said two things, actually. And one was you make your own luck, and the other was luck support. And, and so I think you're, I think you're treading the fine line between the two.

And, and so again, I think it comes back to the idea of doing the work climbing the mountain and playing in the sand pit. It's a bit like do the work. And a little bit of luck is sort of not owed to you. And I think that's the other mistake we often make is that we feel like we've done all this work. So we got damn deserves that. That is, you may not get it when you deserve it. But you're going out and at some point, so. So I think lack of clothes definitely plays a part in all of our lives both good and bad.

And my dad has always sort of believed that too. And he's always said, Have the sort of platitudes like, I remember failing my first driving test, because I drove the car up on the Regatta, because I was so concerned about losing points for not getting it snugly in there. And he said, Well, you never know what's good for that was another big one for him. He said, you might have got your licence now and gone out and had an accident.

So I think I just believe in the idea of, you know, not being totally fatalistic, but, or sort of just saying things like, well, everything happens for a reason. I think I'll stop short of that. But I think there's a there is a sort of create creativity in the air. And, and sometimes it's there to test us and sometimes it's, it's there to help us. And I think my characters go through a little bit of that as well.

 LEIGH: are you willing to share with us what you're working on now.

 ZUSAK:  Yeah, well, it's funny, the, and I apologise because I realised just now how many times I've started with arts funny, you should be doing better than that. So I'm always sort of marking myself as well. And I think that the character I talked about, I've never been secretive about books, or what I'm working on, or have never, you know, that sort of artist idea of No, you will not see it until I'm finished.  

For me. I've always liked being an open book about my work, and anyone who wants to know, I'll just tell them everything and, or as much as they willing to listen to. Because again, I don't feel like an artist, I feel like a tradesman in pursuit of something, you know, of an artwork

Snd so out of the ashes of bridge of clay, that character that first and the writer of Maggie, this failed attempt sort of gave me this idea. And, and I wasn't exactly sure what it was gonna be. But then something happened. And that was because I did become interested in, in horse racing. And, you know, it's, you know, its glamour, and its, its workmanship, and its toughness of the people involved in the animals involved. And its dark side, you know, as an incredibly dark side as well.

And when I saw that, I just saw the story about Chautauqua, the racehorse that suddenly stopped jumping out of the barriers. And that gave me the idea for the story. And I thought, is it a novella? Is it a bigger book? Is that a companion to bridge a play? Which I think it is, and it makes, I've always said, I've never write a sequel or a companion book to The Book Thief. But the bridge of playfields, right, because of the way the Iliad and the Odyssey run through that novel, but it has a companion book. And so I do have, I've got my sort of girl and horse book, I think, and, and yet, earlier this year, I started writing it and I went well, that's not it. And I think what happens is I because I thought I was just going to write it as a novella. And when I say just, I that's not to say that such a thing is easy.

But what I found was I was writing at most kind of finding myself disinterested, and that's how I know that it's not working yet. And so you're just waiting for enough sparks to start the fire and So I'm ready to sort of get back into it. And it's, it's either going to at the moment, it's had a couple of different titles. One was the second Spaniard, and one is the jig source.

And I'm sort of swaying between the two of those, I often think the first things I often think about for book is the beginning, the end and the title. And I'm always riding towards that title. Which is why, you know, in a book like The Book Thief, it's always often referring to resort as The Book Thief and error is often referred to as the messenger and in the messenger, and so on. So, so yeah, so that's where I'm on kind of with that, but I've got my, I've got my ending, and my titles, I haven't quite got the beginning yet. So but I think I wrote a little bit this morning.

 And, and I've got a really good friend who says, you know, and he's a he would, he would love me saying this, actually, he said, he sort of said, solo, if you can write 10 lines a day, I think he deserves a jack daniels and CAC. And so every net every like this morning, you know, at eight o'clock, but you know, I was just arguing with my son about his maths homework. And then, as I was doing that, I wrote a new beginning for for this new book.

 And so I texted my mate, who, perfectly enough was named Claire said, I just read 10 lines, I think it's time for that j doing. And, and so that's, that's always a bit of a laugh. So but that's kind of where I'm up to. And I'm, I'm not at the point yet where I'm really ready to dive in, in there. But, but it's getting closer.

LEIGH: So Chautauqua is home ground was rosehill Racecourse, when you're researching a book like this, do you do you spend a bit of time at places like that just soaking in the atmosphere? Or how do you get yourself into the into the space to write about someone like horse racing?

ZUSAK: It's, there's so many answers to that question. I'll go with the fun one first, which is, when I realised there was going to be some, some horse racing in in bridge of clay, I went to I went to randwick that was running that day. And this is back in early 2007, I think. And I went there, and I put a few bets on them, whatever, and then go and because I knew I was going to write about a female jockey. I put I found in one of the races calf era was the jockey and I went, Okay, I still remember the horse's name was Downwind Lodge. And that was it for 33 to one or something, I thought I'm just gonna put $10 on that. And I thought probably not much chance, I went down just to he, what it's like, on the turn, when the horn when when the whole field comes together on the term.

And is quite amazing, even though it was a bit far off at random. And, and, and downwind Lodge is about six lengths in front of everybody else. And and it's one of those things to at this point, one of my friends brings, you know, I didn't answer the phone, I'm just standing there watching as that the rest of the field, you know, basically just churns everything out and kind of looked like over to genuine lunch, but, but they held on to win. And so, but the odds have gone out to something like 55 to one. So it was $550.

And I made the biggest mistake, I went home to my wife, she said I had a cat. And I just pulled the $550 out of my pocket and showed it to her. And she just looked at me didn't say a word smiled, reached out and took the $550 and she said, We need a new washing machine.

And that to me, I said, I stood there for an hour. That's research. I in a lot, there are some things that I'm quite conscious about researching about researching too much and getting too close. And often it's sort of like, in things like The Book Thief, I don't list, you know, what kind of playing drops what kind of bomb, you know, it's in the, you know, on the village of mocking I, I kind of really want the characters and the, you know, I want it to be driven by that.

But in the in this case, yeah, I would definitely, um, really kind of talk to different people, but I also don't want to betray people I talk to in a way where you say if something terrible was to happen in the book or something, you know, to a character or to sup or you know, and then I wouldn't want someone that I've spoken to, to feel responsible or to feel like you know, they've done an injustice to their occupation, let's say some, I'm also really careful. And because I want to research, you know, with absolute integrity as well, so, so it's always that fine line between fact and fiction, because you're always, you're always sort of merging the two, when you're writing a novel as well.

LEIGH: I guess what advice would you give to your teenage self?

ZUSAK: Oh, I think it would just be to, to my teenage self, I just say it's okay, that achievements don't necessarily come easy to you, that's gonna be your greatest strength.

LEIGH: And despite all these achievements, you've I understand, never seen someone reading one of your books in public, because that's still true?

 ZUSAK: No, and even better than that, even better than that is that we were on a plane once. And my wife just nudged me. And she said, Oh, there's someone reading the Book Thief over there. And of course, when I looked over, she wasn't reading anything. She put it down. So not even that counts, just doesn't count. And, and then later on, I looked over, and she was asleep. So what is that say?

LEIGH: So it keeps you hungry for the next success?

ZUSAK: Exactly.

LEIGH: What something you used to believe, but no longer do? 

ZUSAK: I used to believe that I was in some way better than my brother. Because when we play rugby league, I would go out there and just bust my backside and try my very best no matter what, every week, week, in week out. And I know, for some reason, you know, thought that that was kind of better and stronger than what my brother was doing, which was my brother was this great talent. And, but if he didn't feel like playing that day, he just didn't, he just didn't do anything. Yeah. And I, and now I had the time, I was just like, you're wasting everything. And you're, you're throwing it, you know, and Tony, is just tell you care. And, and I realised that so many of my efforts were not for myself or for other people. And, you know, though, and they were for that idea of what other people would think of me.

 And so now I've at least learned to look at it a different way, which is to sort of admire my brother for making that kind of stand and saying, Yeah, now, today is just not the day. And you know, what you can all say, whatever you want. And dad, when I get home, and you say something like, you know, next week, I'll give you a yo yo, it will give you something to do out there. That's even better. So I think I've, I've learned to look at courage, and, you know, effort differently as well. And to try to see it from a few different angles. But yeah, And that, to me is a big one in terms of, you know, no longer believing something that I believed in. And it's given it's shed new light on how to sort of understand my brother and, and, and the way he goes about things, which I love.

LEIGH: when you're most happy?

ZUSAK: When I'm writing well, and sticking to my writing routines, routines, just kind of everything I want to, I want to I'm happiest when I'm writing well, and writing as I should be and not, you know, worrying too much about it, you know, these days, I think to myself, you can worry or you can work. And I'm happiest when I feel like I could roll out of bed in the morning and land in the world of the book on writing. Because as a writer you that's what you do you live in the two worlds so the world we're all living in the world that you're making, in, in

LEIGH: Are you happy during the editing process. I understand you spent a lot of time reading your words out loud?

 ZUSAK: Yeah, I, I it's confronting and editing is difficult, but it's it's the sort of it's, it's really rewarding work. It's an end, you can spend, you know, months on on an edit. And depending when and how you edit. I think often I'm guilty of editing a bit too early, and wanting everything to be right today. You know, let's get this right now. And so I remind myself that editing is is there to test you. And they were asked what makes the book any good at all. And I remember in breeds of clay, there's a description at one point of Penny Dunbar's underwear, and then I must have tried 40 between 40 and 50 words, you know ranging from it started as broken. And I'd rather use that word already. And I must have gone through 40 or 50 words. Until finally, I, I arrived at the correct word.

And you know what? This is probably showing that there has been some healing. Since the beating that bridge of clay at this particular moment, I can't remember what that word is says definitely time to move on because I know it's I know it's not scrappy, but I know that I could find the exact right page and, and, and tell you now but maybe it's better not knowing just for this moment.

LEIGH: I try. I'm trying to try to remember as well. It's old and scruffy?

ZUSAK: and csruffy these because you know the word that was coming to me, and I applaud you. That is amazing that you've got that. And I wasn't even. And trust me, I wasn't trying to I wasn't trying to test you later. But it is it's scruffy. And because scrappy was coming to me now. No, it's not scrappy, wasn't scrappy. It wasn't scrappy, scrappy was one of the words. But then when I arrived at scruffy, what it did was it was that word that took what did what I was talking about earlier, where you're trying to deliver an image of the world in a totally unique way that no one's ever read before. And yet they recognise it.

Because when I came up with that when I woke up in the morning, and that word was in my head, and I'm like, that seems scruffy. And what it did then was it took me back to my childhood, and seeing a clothesline. And it was one of those great, it's one of my favourites sort of images is, you know, there's a shirt and there's a jacket, but then there's all this crappy underwear that is basically hanging on for life. And, and when I saw that image from using the word scruffy, I knew it was the right word, but well done after you've caught me on that one.

 LEIGH: Well it’s a word, we use so much more for animals than things, which is, which is why it's sort of it feels like such a jewel when you use it in that context.

ZUSAK: Yeah, and it's Yeah, and it's that unusual quality to it. Again, from earlier world sign me that, like scruffy is not a great a hugely in intellectual work not in, you know, far from it. But in that combination of all of the other words in the sentence, and the environment that you're putting it in, it comes to life, and, and so suddenly, you know, that that small vocabulary of life becomes useful.

LEIGH: What's the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy Marcus?

ZUSAK: Well used to refer to the we have these wild dogs and went down to one now, and, and I used to a couple of things, I used to say that one when people say off the beautiful dogs and say, yeah, I've ruined my life, but I'm in the best possible way. And so for me, you know, a decade of walking to wild dogs and running with them, I would always that was the second thing I said, that are great personal trainers. And that, to me, is best summed up when someone said, when you walk your dogs, you should listen to podcasts, and you should listen to things you know, to pass the time, I'd say, I don't need to pass the time. Like, that's my, that's my draining time, you know, where I get to, you know, just work subconsciously on on my work and, and at the same time on getting exercise. So I'll often say that people can't get adopt the best personal trainer in the world.

LEIGH: Finally, Marcus, which person, which experiences most shaped your view of living an ethical life

ZUSAK: Is definitely my wife in in so many ways. And, you know, she's, she's done that thing that I think is very difficult for people to achieve, in that she's got me to think about things that I didn't want to think about and, and sort of persisted and got me there on you know, on all sorts of things, but particularly, you know, when it comes to to animals and how we think about animals and how we treat them and and all of those kinds of things and and of course I'm I'm open to everybody's thoughts on that but she's been particularly important for me on that one and as well as many other things and she got me to finish bridge of clay and that was no small task either. We are a great debt for that as well as much else.

LEIGH: Marcus Zusak, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on the good life podcast today.

 ZUSAK:  Nothing but a pleasure, Andrew Having listened to previous ones I know I'm in great company with both your guests and especially with you. So it's been an honour. Thank you.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.