10 Sep 2017 16:35 IST

Of beauty and destruction

Markus Zusak on how he attempts to build bridges to stories forgotten by collective memory

Nobody knows that when Markus Zusak isn’t writing a bestselling novel at his home in Sydney, he and his wife end up football-coaching not just their own two kids, but nearly all the children in the neighbourhood. Their parents believe the Zusaks can’t possibly be terribly busy since they don’t have daily jobs. In Sydney, much like anywhere else, writing is seen as pure leisure, and hardly a livelihood. As a result, in between the unwarranted babysitting duties, Zusak, author of The Book Thief, that was on The New York Times bestseller list for 375 weeks, translated into over 40 languages, writes with “mathematical” planning and collects stray thoughts as he walks his dog each day. He calls his connection to India “special” and enjoys interactions with Indian readers each time he visits and through the letters they send him.

At Mountain Echoes, a literary festival at Thimphu, Bhutan, Zusak spoke to BLink about The Book Thief being his magic carpet, his upcoming book — Bridge of Clay and the impact of parenting on his writing

How did The Book Thief come about?

The Book Thief is a combination of a lot of stories that weren’t just my own. My mom was born in 1937, my dad in 1933. I grew up hearing stories about my parents growing up in Germany after World War II. Most stories revolved around being occupied by the Americans in Munich and the Russians outside of Vienna. But I brought the story of The Book Thief back to wartime.

In a way what enabled me to write the book was how young kids grew up during the war. If they had been grown-ups involved in the war that would’ve been a very different story. The closest my dad got to being involved with the Nazi party was being a part of the Hitler youth. He was good at school and a good athlete, so he got chosen to go to a special school that strived to make better Nazi citizens.

But his parents didn’t let him go. His dad was punished for that. His dad was sent to fight in the World War I. One morning the sergeant came into the platoon and said, “Who’s got neat handwriting?” and one of them pointed to my grandad. So my grandad wrote letters for the captain who had rheumatism in his fingers. That day, the rest of the soldiers in the platoon went to war and none of them came back. I wouldn’t be here if he had gone.

I was always interested in the back stories. The intent of the book was to tell the stories we forget and ignore rather than making it about THE story of Nazi Germany.

My mother was a foster child. One day, as she and her friends were playing outside where she lived, in a small town in Munich, they heard a lot of noise. That was hundreds of Jewish people being taken to the Dachau concentration camp. There was an emaciated old man staggering, who couldn’t keep up. It took a teenager who saw that to run inside and come back with a piece of bread for the old man. The man fell to his knees, took the bread and cried in gratitude. Then a police officer came and ripped the bread away. He whipped the old man and the boy as people silently stood and watched.

That story always had a big impact on me because it is pure beauty on one hand and pure destruction on the other. I thought one day I’d write a short novel based on that account of my mother. But the book grew into 584 pages and this part comes in part seven.

The Book Thief is a lucky book. It’s been 12 years since that book came out and I’m sitting in Bhutan because of it. It’s like a magic carpet that’s been a gateway to the world. It’s a story about loving books, loving life and what you choose your story will be.

Tell us about Bridge of Clay, the book you’re working on right now

It’s a story about a boy, one of five brothers, who lives in a ramshackle home in Sydney, behind an old horse racing track. They also have a dog, a cat, a gold fish, a pigeon and a mule, which you can only have if you live in a racing district with many forgotten fields. The place is part of a city but also in its own world. The brothers have lived alone since their mom died and their dad left them. All responsibility falls on one of the sons, Clay. There is this hanging question through the book about why the dad left. Their dad lives way out in the countryside, on the other side of the river at a property that gets flooded when it rains.

One day he returns and asks the family if anyone would like to help him build a bridge so that he can cross over when it floods. None of the brothers accept the offer except Clay. The dad wants to build the bridge to atone for his sins. Clay wants to transcend humanness just for once. “Whatever the bridge is made of, it’ll be made of you,” says Clay’s friend while giving him a lighter. Clay can be moulded into anything but it needs fire to set it. The idea at the end of the book is how do you transcend humanness?

Your main characters are mostly children. What has parenting done to your writing? And do you think this generation is deprived of the fires that mould us?

Mostly, the impact of my children has been to delay my books by several years (laughs). I don’t think this generation has it too easy. Sure, there isn’t war or widespread famine. But today’s struggles have only changed with the times. They are more internal.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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