Friday, November 02, 2007

Markus Zusak comes to town

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:


Anna M. Lewis said...

Thanks for the great post!
Markus is coming here (Chicago) on Monday and I'm juggling all the kids stuff so I try to make it. (15 YO daughter has symphony rehearsal and she loved his book so I'm debating whether to tell her!)

I loved The Book Thief. My mother grew up in Germany during WWII so I was emotionally drawn to the story!

Kym Brunner said...

Thanks for providing a link via our Kidlitosphere listserv. I love how your blog entry does exactly what he said to do in our books: You gave little details about your experience of seeing this author, and then told us the opposite of what I'd expected––that you'd never read his book!

Interesting post! KYM

Gail Gauthier said...

I wasn't a big fan of The Book Thief, but I like reading about Zusak and what he has to say. This was a well-done report. Thanks.

Disco Mermaids said...

Wow! I absolutely love hearing about how other authors do school visits. It sounds like he is a master at it. Thanks for sharing this!


Sara said...

Thanks, Laini...I felt like I was there! I loved The Book Thief and posted about it not too long ago. But you're right not to read it until after you've finished Silksinger, because it'll suck you in and keep you thinking about it for days.

I'm also trying to plan a school visit for January, so this was both inspiring and intimidating! What can I do that will be that great?? Hmmm.

Sustenance Scout said...

"That motivation, that vocation is everything."

Thanks Laini! I love this simple directive to get to work. It's been a day for such encouraging words from various fronts. Funny how that happens.

Also loved your description of Markus Zusak's presentation. I present to readers of various ages about diversity issues and my book and family. Personal stories definitely engage and get the conversations going. Next time when there's dead air, I'll try pulling out a prop...thankfully I don't have a spoon story to share (ouch!) but I'll think of something. Again, thanks! K.

gomomyourock said...

You'll love The Book Thief! My daughter got it for her 11th bday last year and loved it. She's also patiently waiting for your next book, so please keep writing and don't read The Book Thief until you're finished!

lkmadigan said...

Great post - do you mind if I link to it on my blog? I posted a recap of his Powell's visit:



tiny noises said...

eek! I just caught up on your last three blog entries and I'm overcome with excitement!

First: wicked cool new Laini's Lady!


Third: authors are people too! very fun to hear about how one of your colleagues is getting our youth fired up about writing--and reading--and how to tell the truth but tell it slant :) I will definitely check this book out.

Liz B said...

I've heard Markus speak before, he is awesome. I adored the Book Thief and found myself copying quotes left and right. As for I am the Messenger, I'm in the group that thought it was great yet hated the last chapter.

Joss Whedon's new show. I'm torn, people. On the one hand, Joss Whedon. On the other, I'm not the fangirl of ED that Joss appears to be. On the other hand, I'm also a bit unsure of the setup. On the other hand, I had reservations about Firefly, and I was wrong about that!

Anonymous said...

Hi Laini - that is so cool you got to go to school for a couple of hours. :) And look - you got a picture with him, lucky girl!!! I saw him at Powells and I was very inspired by him.

BTW, I have your book on my night stand now. Can't wait to read it! I try to do a post on books I've read on my blog every month or so. I'll let you know when your book is up. :)

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

inspiring and a little intimidating - but loved hearing about a great school visit by an author to teens- especially at the SCBWI conference, the emphasis on school visits always seems to be for the really young kids , and not much about authors who write YA and their type of school visits.
Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Markus Zusak is so hot, he deserves too Ts on that: HOTT!

Great to know that he totally reworked the start of The Book Thief.

And as for adults reading about child MCs: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime; The Lovely Bones; The Life of Pi. (All teens, but still . . . I'm thinking there are other books that star "children" that are (or were) adult books.)

Rhonda the Stitchingnut said...

Great post. I knew nothing of the book or the author, but after reading your description of both ... well it's going on my "must read" list. Even tho it's listed as a teen book I do like to recommend good books that I read & I like to my daughter (34) and the older granddaughters (18, 17 & 16). Thanks for a great post!

Vivian Mahoney said...

Markus is brilliant. The Book Thief was probably my favorite book of 2006.

Thanks for sharing this amazing experience. I'm jealous.

Anonymous said...

I called a spatula a "spanking stick" until I was in my 20's. I'm working on piece for the weekend about talking to a group of counselors in a grief and loss class who used my family story in their class. I'll have to remember the spanking stick for next time. But I think it would work best for children. They love to hear stories of when we adults were BAD. Sort of takes the pressure off.

I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks.

Amber Lough said...

Hi Laini! I love Marcus Zuzak's books--how in the world does he write so well? Wow.

I'm thrilled you got to see him in person. I just checked his tour, and he's not coming anywhere near Denver, but that's good for me b/c then I'd be distracted and not writing... I have SO MUCH to do, and I don't want my book to be anything less than the best I can do.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for an interesting article. I want to say that the book thief is the best book I have ever read, and I have read MANY. I don`t understand why they say it is a book for youth,adults should also read this incredible book. It left me with a broken heart, and I am not sure wheter that is a good thing or not. I am 24 and I found it difficult to keep on living in this awful world after reading this extremely sad book.We need a change, now... Lisa, Norway