‘Book Thief’ author Markus Zusak remembers humble beginnings

February 23, 2013

Standing before 400 adoring fans, Markus Zusak remembered when his books couldn’t attract any interest at all. In fact, the Australian bestseller said nobody turned up for his first reading in a library near his home. “But the librarian still made me read from my book – just to her.”

That humiliating experience seemed hard to imagine as Zusak, 37, charmed the audience at the 17th annual Highland Park Literary Festival in Dallas on Feb. 21. His latest novels for young adults, “I Am the Messenger” and “The Book Thief,” are international bestsellers.

Along with humorous stories about his life as a boy, his keynote address offered the students four points of advice:

  1. Edit diligently. Zusak said he rewrote the first 80 pages of “The Book Thief” more than 400 times before he was satisfied.
  2. Include the unexpected to delight your readers.
  3. Remember that small details make your story sound more believable.
  4. Steal stories from your own life.

“The Book Thief” was inspired by listening to Zusak’s mother describe Jews in Germany being marched to the death camps. He thought he was writing a 100-page novella, but the story kept growing until it was almost 600 pages long. “It’s not an easy book to recommend to your friends,” he said. “I really thought this would be my least successful book. Seven years later, I can’t believe I’m here in Dallas.”

The two-day festival at the affluent Highland Park public school featured more than 20 guest lecturers, who offered workshops in everything from writing songs to creating three-dimensional characters. (I had the pleasure of teaching three classes in book reviewing.)

charlesr@washpost.com

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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