Zusak was sure that Book Thief would be his “least successful book”. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Reliving the Holocaust from an alternative perspective, his 2004 novel has sold over ten million copies worldwide, and has been translated into 40 different languages.
“To be a writer you have to have a lot of problems”, said Zusak. The Australian author told Stephanie Merritt that, after months of “scrapping” plots and narratives, he began to play with the idea of writing an account of the Nazi regime, narrated by Death itself. “What if death was actually scared of us?” he asked.
In Nazi Germany, Hitler destroyed words. Book Thief tells the story of a young girl named Liesel, “who tries to get her words back”. The novel, Zusak explained, is seen through a prism of childhood, and feels no responsibility to be completely accurate of its time. “I had bombs coming down in the wrong year”, he laughed.
However, this did not hinder the novel’s worldwide success. “In a world where we want things straight away, books make us wait”, and that’s just what Book Thief did.
“It’s the little things that make you happy as a writer” said Zusak, and “readers do pick up on how much this book means to me”. “Writing is like climbing a mountain. And there’s a sandpit at the top”.
If you’re interested in history please also see Event 387 at 5.30pm on Sunday 02 June. If you like watching Hay Festival events digitally, please sign up to the Hay Player for more from the world’s greatest thinkers. Picture by: Morgan Williams