Author interview: Markus Zusak

The Linn Area Reads selection for 2016 is “The Book Thief” by best-selling author Markus Zusak. Set in Nazi Germany during World War II, “The Book Thief” has been savored by adult and young readers alike for its remarkable writing and unique style. Zusak will read from his novel and take questions at 5 p.m. March 13, at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center.

Prior to his visit to Cedar Rapids, Zusak answered a few questions over email about his novel, his path to writing, and how everyone has a story to tell.

Q: For those few residents of Linn County who haven’t read “The Book Thief,” could you describe the novel for them?

A: It’s almost been a joke over the years, where I’ve said to people who’ve read “The Book Thief” and recommended it to their friends. I ask, “What do you tell them?” (They say,) “It’s set in Nazi Germany, it’s narrated by Death, nearly everyone dies — oh, and it’s 560 pages long — you’ll love it!”

That said, the heart of “The Book Thief” is a girl named Liesel who is learning to read. She’s also hiding a young Jewish man in her basement who sometimes likes to imagine fighting Hitler in a boxing match. It’s about the friendships she makes and the stories she makes in her own life, through the world of Nazi Germany — and they’re beautiful stories, I hope, written through an ugly world. In a sense, she’s stealing a piece of the world back.

Q: How did you decide Death should be the book’s narrator?

A: I realized I was writing a book set during wartime, so I thought it made sense. They say war and death are best friends, so who better to be hanging around Nazi Germany, waiting to tell a story? I also had the idea, in the end, that Death would be afraid of humans, given he’s on hand to see us mostly at our worst. He would tell Liesel Meminger’s story as one of many that prove that humans can be beautiful and selfless and worthwhile.

Q: How did your family history influence “The Book Thief”?

A: My mum and dad are from Germany and Austria, and when they told my brothers and sisters and me about their childhoods, it was like a piece of Europe entered our kitchen. It was a world of ice and fire, sadness and bombing raids, but also ordinary childhood — the friendships, the characters and laughter.

There were also stories of children giving bread to starving prisoners on their way to concentration camps, and parents being punished for not letting their kids be taken to special schools by the Nazi Party ... I never realized what a gift my parents were giving me until I started writing the book; I knew that world like it was part of me — like a language I could immediately speak.

Q: “The Book Thief” is a popular choice for reading groups. What makes this book so great for community discussion?

A: That’s one you’d have to ask the reading groups. One of the things that has always given the book some attention has been the inclusion of Death as narrator, but I couldn’t say what might make it a good book for any purpose. My own thought is that “The Book Thief” could be loved or not loved, and criticized in any way imaginable, but I thought no one could accuse the book for not being ambitious or void of ideas.

Q: Readers across the world have said “The Book Thief” inspired them to write. What was your first inspiration as a writer?

A: It was loving books. It was that feeling when you’re turning pages and you don’t even realize you’re turning them. That’s how immersed you are in the story. When that happened for me as a teenager, I thought, “This is what I want to do with my own life.”

Q: Can anyone be a writer?

A: There are so many variables and definitions as to what a writer is. In my opinion, a writer is anyone who is compelled to go to the desk, no matter how many times they’ve failed, how many versions of the stories they’ve written, and every other challenge in between. I think anyone can be a writer, but you also have to want it. There’s a difference between liking the idea of being a writer and truly wanting it. The person who wants it will always make time for it.