The Book Thief Event Recap

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On Tuesday, September 10, I got to do something completely amazing: I met Markus Zusak. Yes. THE Markus Zusak. The Book Thief. I Am the Messenger. He was in town for Richardson Reads One Book, which is a program where the city of Richardson (a northern suburb of Dallas) reads a book of the year. This time, it was The Book Thief. Here's what you need to know to read this recap: 1. Markus Zusak is incredibly handsome. I'm sorry I forgot my actual camera at home and had to settle for my not-so-good tablet camera. I'm still searching through the pictures to see if there's a usuable one. I doubt it. 2. He's Australian and therefore has the best. accent. ever. Please feel free to read this in your best Aussie. 3. GIVEAWAY. Let us begin.

Note: this is going under a cut because 1. It's long, and 2. there are spoilers for The Book Thief.

"I guess this is what Texans do on a Tuesday night." 

Markus started out with this awesome quote as there were hundreds in attendance. It was pretty overwhelming, and that's even after they changed the venue to this massive Methodist church. He began by telling us the story of his first signing for Underdog, which he had thought would be the "greatest thing ever." The worst part is that no one showed up. The best part is that the librarian still made him read from the book.

Next was the story of his release party for Underdog: "I started going to a local bookstore in April, when Underdog was set for release. I was going in training clothes for football (rugby) because I was coaching a team. I went so many times that the store owner finally asked, 'What do you want?' And I told her I was looking for this book Underdog. She asked, 'Do you know the author's name?' [MZ gave us all a grin and we all laughed because, duh, of course he knew the author's name!] She said it would be released in one week. So I went back a week later. She recognized me, took me back to the back, and opened up a box. She pulled out a copy of Underdog. I said, 'Oh, no, I don't want to buy it.' She gave me the worst look. I told her I wrote it, and she said she wanted to do a launch event/signing. I thought, How can I get people there quickly? And it came to me: the football team. So we had a box of books and a box of beer. They came for the beer, but they all left with a copy of my book. No one else came."

Next, Markus said he wanted to tell us a story about revenge. First he asked everyone who was the oldest sibling in their family to put their hands up. Then he asked all the younger siblings to put up their hands. He remarked that in his experience, the younger siblings timidly put thier hands up, as if they were ashamed, but the older siblings held their hands straight and proud, with a knowing, slightly evil grin as they remembered all the torture to which they subjected their brothers and sisters. Markus, by the way, is the youngest of four. "I have an older brother who was a couple years old than me, and he was really mean to me growing up. I swear, I don't think he knew my name until I was a teenager. I mean, he would punch me, and when I'd ask him why, he would say, 'I was bored.' When I was growing up, we'd come home from school and watch I Dream of Genie, Bewitched, and Get Smart. One day, I made myself toast, took it into our living room, and then....I walked away. [audience groans] Yes. I came back and my brother had taken a bit out of the middle of my toast.

"When I was fifteen and my brother was seventeen, we would work with our dad on the weekends painting houses. My brother had a red Eski, a red cooler, that he would take his lunch in, and his lunch was always two hard-boiled eggs. We'd have lunch, and he'd just crack his eggs open and eat them. My dad once said he knew someone who cracked eggs on his forehead. Of course, my brother started doing that. He did something to me, I don't remember what, but I remember being on the ground, and suddenly, it was like a ray of light came down from the sky. So one Saturday, my brother put his eggs in the cooler, set it in front of the door, and made his fatal error: he went to the bathroom. I took his cooler and replaced the hard-boiled eggs with two raw eggs. I put the cooler back, even making sure the handle was in the same spot, and I thought, This is gonna be the best day of my life.

"But then, I could feel the panic start. All throughout the day, I could feel agony and ecstasy. Finally, I went and confessed to my dad. 'I've done something really bad.' Now, one time when I was ten, we were painting a house with a luggage chute. You shove all your suitcases in there and pull them out when you need them. Well, I was the only one who could fit in there so I painted it, but I painted myself into a corner and had to sit inside for an hour for the paint to dry. So my dad asked me, 'What've you buggered up now?' I told him. He looked at me and said, 'Son....that's brilliant. How did I not think of that?! Should've done that weeks ago!' [At this point, we're all howling with laughter]

"At luch, we watched my brother carefully. We didn't want to miss it! My brother asked us what we were looking at and we told him nothing. Then...he cracked the egg on his face. It slimed its way down his face onto his shoes. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen him speechless. Dad was on the ground laughing. I was not laughing, which was a sure sign of guilt. My brother grabbed me and pushed me up against a wall that had just been painted. I knew it had just been painted because I was the one who had painted it. He punched me once in the stomach and slapped me on the nose, and you know when you get hit on the nose it always makes your eyes water. I realized, it was worth two minutes of pain. 

"My brother now lives five hours away from me. When he comes to visit, I always ask him if he's hungry because I can make him some eggs. He says, 'That was twenty years ago! When are you getting over that?' And I tell him, 'Never. I am never getting over it.'

"There are several reasons why I tell this story. The first is that it's straight from my life. The second is that it's on purpose. There are small details. I could ask you how many eggs my brother makes and you could tell me. I could ask what color his cooler is and you'd all know. My main reason is not to paint a picture, but I want you to believe me. People always believe when you give details. I was in an airport and left my jacket. I went to security and told the man I'd left a brown leather jacket with a paper quartered in the pocket. He even reached inside the pocket to make sure. As soon as he saw the paper, he gave me my jacket back. Three, I took you somewhere unexpected. It gets a better reaction. You thought I was going to talk about my brother smashing the egg, but the best reaction actually came when I told you about my dad. Fourth, that story has saved my life to get me through events. Brand-new stories don't always work. That is my best-edited story so it works the best. It took so long to get The Book Thief right. I probably edited it 150-200 times. Samuel Becket said, 'Fail again, fail better.' Now, I'm Australian so I just said fail, not file. Some people can't tell.

"The same principles apply to writing a novel as telling a story. I tried to find a way to write in Nazi Germany and make it special to me. I added Death as the narrator and used colors and three deaths. Eventually, I added a girl, the book thief. I wrote about 200 pages and realized the book was not working, but I had more to work with. Death at first was too dark and macabre, enjoying his work too much. He was very sinister. It wasn't the right voice. I switched to Liesel as the narrator. New problem: she was the most Australian German character. So I switched to third person.

"I wondered, What is unexpected? What if Death is haunted by us? What could remind Death that people are beautiful and worthwhile? It was meant to be a hundred page novella. Now, it's a 560 page book that means everything. I appreciate everyone who has told someone to read it. I know what a risk it can be to recommend a book. 'Oh, it's a book about Nazi Germany, narrated by Death, 560 pages, everybody dies...You'll love it!'

"My first research was my childhood. I played outside, then would come inside and my parents would tell stories. Pieces of Europe would come inside. They told of ground covered in ice, the sky on fire, coming out of bomb shelters. I learned about opposites. My mom said children would run to the main street in town to watch farmers herd their animals through town. One day, they all ran and realized it was a march of Jews instead, on their way to Dachau. One teenage boy ran inside for bread when he saw an older man who was completely emaciated. Teenagers have no respect, but they are the most remarkable people. This boy was the most foul-mouthed in their neighborhood, but he gave the bread to the man, who grabbed his ankles and cried into his feet, 'Thank you, thank you.' A soldier pulled the man up, whipped him, and sent him back into line before he whipped the boy as well. Beautiful moment, cruel soldier. That's what people are capable of.

"Stories make us what we are. Hitler was destroying the world with words, and Liesel was stealing them back."

Audience questions:
Q1. Are your parents still alive, and have they read the book?
MZ: Parents are funny. They're crazy! All parents are crazy! I'm a parent, and I realize I'm crazy! Don't let your parents get involved. After I interviewed my parents, my dad would call to ask if the book was done. I told him I have to get the details right. He said, "Just make it up!" I wanted to respect the time. I'll get picky letters from readers like, "Dear Mr. Zusak, I noticed you used this word. That's not a word Germans would have used in 1940 (which, yes they did). Biggest fan! From so-and-so in Chicago." I got my dad to correct the German. He got so good at it that he started correcting the English too! I was nervous when The Book Thief was published in German. I apologize for swearing in a church, but I want you to hear the full thing: He read them side by side and then said, "It's not as if it's shit in English; it's just so much better in German." My dad always says exactly the wrong thing.

Q2. How do you pronounce the "terms of "endearment" in The Book Thief?
MZ: *says the words* Basically, she's calling people filthy pigs. Death mentions that the Germans like pigs.

Q3. You used words to paint pictures, but you often used unexpected words. Do you have a comment?
MZ: I wanted Death to be peculiar, like another part of us. I would take risks with Death's voice and word choice. I want to see pictures when I write and read. It's like I'm sitting in a sandbox, playing with words.

Q4. Did you do the drawings?
MZ: No, a friend did them. I knew she was perfect. She didn't even know what I wanted, but she pained over Mein Kampf, which was exactly what I wanted. The only thing she asked to do was to draw Max as a bird. She said it's because she's better at drawing animals. It says in the front of the book that the illustrations are done by Trudy White.

Q5. Could you talk about Jesse Owens in the book?
MZ: No one's ever asked me that. Rudy is my favorite character. People always as, "why kill him?" Because I had to. I'm not very nice sometimes. I went to the library to research soccer players in that time period. I looked up and saw a book on Jesse Owens and went with that instead. I didn't touch a book; I just walked straight back out. That's what I call research! The movie producers asked what the one thing I wanted in the movie and I said Jesse Owens.

Q6. Do you have any writing rituals to get going?
MZ: I'm very specific. I don't sit in a cafe. Not that there's anything wrong with writing in a cafe, but it doesn't work for me. I don't like things clanging around, people... I don't like writing outside because when you come inside, the house looks dark. Everything must be ready, my desk clean. I write from about 8:45-4. I have a notebook full of ideas, chapter headings. That's how I organize.

Q7. Did you have any big part or were you involved with the film?
MZ: I didn't write the screenplay, but the screenwriter did a great job. He made hard decisions. I did read it and give feedback. The best moment was when the director pulled me close after a meeting and said, "I'm not gonna let you down." I can't lose. If the movie is good, it will bring more people to the book. If the movie is bad, people will just say the book is better!

Q8. Reading The Book Thief is my project for summer reading. What is the universal theme of the novel? There are so many ideas!
MZ: Why'd you give the microphone to her?! *laughs* What I consider the main theme... "What is your story going to be?" Or, "what will the sum of your stories be?" People doinhg beautiful things or destructive things.

Q9. [from a teacher] How do you teach this book? How can I introduce this topic to students?
MZ: Tell a story about your brother cracking an egg on his head! I don't know. I don't know. For this book, talk about the unique things like Jesse Owen. I'm sure you already know how to talk to your students.

So there you have it! An evening with Markus Zusak. It was really quite amazing to witness. If you ever have the opportunity to meet him or even just hear him talk, TAKE THAT OPPORTUNITY.

I am giving away a SIGNED copy of The Book Thief. This giveaway is open to the US & Canada and will be open for two weeks, until midnight on October 7th. Please follow all my giveaway policies, which are stated in the site policies tab above. Good luck!
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  1. Oh, Mary. I am so excited about this book. I can't wait to read it. I really, really, really hope I win this one! (:

  2. I feel so bad that I haven't read this yet! I've been wanting to read it for ages and I've heard nothing but amazing, amazing things. I don't have an excuse for not reading but with the movie coming out soon now I have the perfect excuse to read it. And a signed copy would make it even better!
    -Marissa at Beneath the Moon and Stars
    P.S. Now ,thanks to you, I have 'Mary had a Little Lamb' stuck in my head. Thanks.

    1. Oh, please. I have had people sing that song at me my whole life. Being stuck in your head isn't even halfway there! :P This is really, really good. You definitely need to read this one. The Book Thief is one of those books that everybody needs to read at least once in their life.

  3. I've heard so many great things about this book and I still haven't read it. Shame on me!

    1. Yup. A must-read for everybody everywhere. Definitely read it, even if you see the movie first.

  4. I've been waiting so long for a giveaway for this book, I've heard a LOT of things of this book and I'm really really excited! Thank you so much!
    Good luck to everyone

    1. I don't think many people have giveaways for it. Markus is Australian so I don't think he's in the states all the time. That's tough travel! Just ask the characters from Lost!! Good luck!

  5. I'm so excited to read this novel! I've heard so many praises about it, and I want to see it before the movie comes out!

    1. It's fantastic. Have tissues because you WILL cry, guaranteed.