I recently had the privilege of attending The Cabin’s Readings and Conversations with Markus Zusak. The Book Thief is one of my favorite novels. One of those rare books that’s brilliant AND tells a compelling story (versus the kind of novel so caught up in its own brilliance, it completely forgets to tell an actual story). Including Max’s illustrations in the book was a stroke of pure genius.
Of course, Markus Zusak would not define it that way.
But it was. Genius.
As you may imagine, I had high hopes for the evening before it even began. Zusak did not disappoint. He’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, but he radiated an aura of wisdom in spite of himself. Of course, I was there both as a reader and as a writer. He didn’t spout any of the pretentious BS you sometimes hear from top writers. In spite of his success, I felt he understood the struggles of writing–of being a writer–along with the joys and quiet fulfillment.
He told a hilarious story of revenge on his older brother. It was such a fantastic, vivid story, I wanted to go home and share it with my boys. But I don’t want to give my youngest any devious ideas. Maybe when they’re older.
Zusak spoke about writing and answered questions. I jotted down all my favorite bits and will share them with you shortly.
Afterward the huge crowd filed out of the ballroom and lined up to get their books signed. I wasn’t at the end of the line, but I wasn’t far from it. The beginning of the line, however, was up and around the corner, out of sight. I’m not good at estimating distances, but the front of the line must have been over a hundred feet in front of me.
After 45 minutes, I moved about six feet.
At this point, it’s around 10 o’clock at night and I’m doing the math. Waiting in line for hours + the alarm going off at 6 am + total exhaustion = zero probability of successfully editing any client work the next day.
I headed to the front of the line to see what was up. Maybe he took a 30 minute break for dinner before he started signing? I spoke to the attendants and learned that, no, he’d been signing this whole time. His contracts specifically state that he will not be rushed with his fans.
“Good guy,” I thought. “Dang it.” Why couldn’t he be quick with everyone else then take his time with me? 😉
As much as I wanted to talk to him, there was no way I could stay.
At a nearby table, our fabulous local bookseller, Rediscovered Books, had a display of Zusak books for sale. This table had been busy prior to the event but everyone who was going to buy a book had done so by now. I spotted the owner, Bruce DeLaney, and decided to say hello before I left. He was the first brick and mortar to carry my book and has been a staunch supporter of my book and my career. I’m always up for a chat with Bruce.
We talked about what a wonderful evening it had been, then when I told him I had to head on home, he offered to get my books signed for me. I did hesitate for a moment. But just for a moment. It was completely awesome. One more reason Bruce rocks.
When I picked up my books the next week, Bruce said they were there until TWO in the MORNING. And Zusak had a 6 am flight.
He sets a good example for all of us.
Finally, as promised, my five favorite quotes from the evening.
1. The Thing That Matters Most
Given that The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany, is narrated by death, and nearly everyone dies at the end, Markus Zusak thought this book would “sink and disappear without a trace.”
But that’s not the quote. This is:
“I didn’t write a book that meant something to me. I wrote a book that meant everything to me. If you can do that once in your career, you’re doing okay.”
2. On That Monster We Call “Failure”
“Don’t be afraid to fail. I fail every single day when I write. It’s never good in the beginning.”
3. On What to Write
When he was younger, Markus Zusak enjoyed athletics. He ran a race and came in 6th place. Afterwards, he went to his father and said, “I thought I won.”
His father said, “I thought you did too, but you didn’t win it by enough. You have to win by so much they can’t take it away from you.”
According to Zusak, “winning” at writing is the same. Speaking of The Book Thief, he said he tried to “write a book that only I could write. It’s so much my book, I know no one else could have written it.”
4. Problem or Opportunity?
He talked about some of the problems he encountered writing The Book Thief. It was fun listening to his process, because it rang a lot of bells for me, as I’m sure it did for other writers in the room.
Then he threw out this little nugget:
“All the best ideas come from problems.”
I don’t know about “all,” but that’s been my experience too. Problems force us to get creative. Don’t shy away from them. Solve them, and see what comes of them.
5. What He’d Say to His 19-Year-Old Self
“Don’t worry so much. It’s going to be okay.”
Good advice for us all…