A word of advice to authors who are going to speak at high schools: if you possibly can, bring the wooden spoon your mother used to spank you; teenagers love that! Okay, don't do that -- that would be copying Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief. He spoke yesterday at Madison High School, only a few minutes from my house, and I'd never have heard about it but, lucky for me, Alexandra works part time there so I met her and went to school. High school! Man. Those kids look young! I am really glad I got to hear Markus speak because he really knows how to hold teenagers' attention!
For one thing, he didn't talk about his books much at all. He told stories -- stories about himself. He started with one about getting robbed, catching a guy trying to climb in his window in the middle of the night. He talked about the weirdness of dealing with the police after the robbery, and then at the end of the story he admitted he'd told two lies and he said what they were, and related storytelling to writing, showing -- with examples -- the three most important rule of writing for him:
1) steal stories from your own life.
2) use details; it's the little details that will make the story ring true.
3) do the unexpected; set up reader expectations and then have the opposite happen.
He illustrated these with numerous stories about youthful crime and punishment and revenge in his own family, which included brandishing the very wooden spoon that left the worst marks on bare legs -- oyy! -- and I am sure there wasn't anyone in that library who wasn't paying attention! It was really great. Next time I speak to teenagers, I am going to remember all of this and try to keep things concrete, immediate, personal, relatable. Sure, it would help if I had an Australian accent too! Accents make everything sound more interesting!
After, during the Q & A, the students did ask a lot of questions about writing -- they were an extremely good, responsive group of teens (esp compared to other students Markus told about having talked to; he masterfully set up the first question, tricking someone into asking him What was the worst question you were ever asked? and that really got the Q & A rolling) -- and I really related to a lot that he said about writing. One thing was that he never doubted he would be a writer. Through all the years of rejection letters, he never swayed in what he wanted to do. He said that there were students in his creative writing classes at University who were "better" than him, but he doubts any of them are still writing. Jim and I had that same experience at art school -- we sometimes google some of the amazingly talented kids who were there with us and we can't find any clue that they are still working, while we are. That motivation, that vocation is everything. Way more important that talent.
And this, I was happy/relieved to hear: Markus said he reread and rewrote the first 90 pages of The Book Thief somewhere between 150 and 200 times. And, that when he was about 250 pages into the book (which he had initially conceived as a small, 100-page book), he realized it wasn't working and he made a major change to the personality of the narrator, who happens to be Death (as in, the Grim Reaper), and then rewrote it. This is something I really appreciate hearing, especially now, having done so much major reconceiving and rewriting all along the way with Silksinger. Sometimes, a book is lying ahead of you like a more or less straight road. It might present itself the first time in its proper form. But it might take many tries to get to that; I feel like when I read a mediocre book, maybe the author did not do everything in their power to find that true and best form; maybe they stopped halfway. I want to read books that the author gave everything to. I confess, I have not yet read The Book Thief (I have been saving it as a treat for when I am done with Silksinger) but I can tell that Markus Zusak gave everything he had to this book.
If you're not familiar with it, it's a story about Nazi Germany, told by Death. It was inspired by stories his parents used to tell about growing up in Nazi Germany and Austria. His mother, as a six-year-old, seeing Jews marched through the village on their way to Dachau. His father, ditching the Hitler Youth meetings he was supposed to attend. The idea of all that is good and and all that is terrible in humans living side by side. In most of the places it has been published, it is marketed as an "adult" book, but in the US, as a young adult novel. This is partly because Markus's other books are teen books, but I suspect it's also a little because the main character is a child, and there's some belief among publishers that adults won't read about child characters -- is this true? In any case, it's out in paperback. I can't personally recommend it yet (though I can tell I will), but Alexandra says it is one of her two favorite books -- the other one, of course, being mine!
Here are Alexandra and I with the author: