Tuesday, November 12, 2013

'The Book Thief' Author Markus Zusak Says His Parents' Stories Taught Him 'How to Write'

"The Book Thief" stars Sophie Nelisse, Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush
The Book Thief, a film about a young girl (Sophie Nelisse) living in Nazi Germany, began as a book written by Australian author and father Markus Zusak.

The young adult novel, which follows young Liesel as she moves in with a foster family and develops meaningful friendships as the country is falling apart around her, was inspired by stories Zusak heard from his own parents, who are from Germany and Austria.

I had the chance to talk with Zusak and the film's director, Brian Percival, at a press round table recently, and they touched on what it was like to film in Berlin and the importance of the stories our parents tell us. (For my interview with Geoffrey Rush, click here.)

"To me, it all started with my childhood, growing up in Sydney, beautiful sunshine," Zusak said. "And then you come in, and it's as if a piece of Europe came into our house, and my parents told their stories and they're amazing stories about cities that were burning, kids who were giving bread to prisoners on their way to camps and getting whipped for it and so on. I grew up hearing these stories over and over again."

And as much as we sometimes chuckle at our own parents, whose stories seem to be on repeat, Zusak said that it was these stories from his mom, a house cleaner, and his dad, a house painter, that informed his future.

"There they were telling me their stories of growing up, and I realized they weren't only telling me about their lives. They were teaching me how to write. Talk about, you would never imagine that people in those professions would give you a career in literature, but that's exactly how I grew up," he said.

Filming in Germany, and Berlin in particular, was also a testament to how generations have changed since World War II.

"One of the most powerful moments during the film, I think, is when we did the [Deutschland ueber Alles scene] -- we had about 450 extras," Percival said of the Nazi-era song. "We had to teach them two versions to the song because it's banned. It's been banned since 1946, and none of that crowd knew what those words were...."

And as we move further away from that time, how do writers and directors create these stories that can also appeal to today's kids? After all, The Book Thief is a young adult novel.

"I thought, you know, there's a whole generation now that knows so little about what went on in those times," Percival said. "What I thought was that if a younger audience gets to watch this film, and maybe they think Liesel's cool or maybe they think [Liesel's friend] Rudy's cute or whatever or Max [a young Jewish man in hiding], and in the meantime they'll go, 'Well, what was that all about?'"

Zusak ultimately had to trust his readers—and himself.

"You're imagining these people [aka, readers], and you're trying to hold their hands through it," Zusak said. "That's when the book comes to life -- it is when you go, 'All right, now if you want to be in this, you've got to come with me.'"

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