Why 'The Book Thief' author Markus Zusak believes 'a little bit of ignorance can go a long way'

The author of 'The Book Thief' is one of the 150 local and international writers coming to Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

HAY-ON-WYE, WALES - JUNE 1: Markus Zusak, Australian writer, during the 2019 Hay Festival on June 1, 2019 in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)
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If you've tried your hand at creative writing, you're likely to be familiar with that nagging feeling of disparagement in the back of your mind. You know the one, the little whisper insinuating that your words probably shouldn't see the light of day.

Well, Markus Zusak is a big believer in shutting that out. The award-winning author says it's best to simply write like no one's ever going to read your work.

Considering Zusak was only 24 when his first novel, The Underdog, was published, perhaps he's on to something. By the time The Messenger and The Book Thief came out, he was 30 years old. In 2014, he was given the Margaret A Edwards Award from the American Library Association. The accolade is given to an author whose body of work is recognised as having made a significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.

I didn't know any better then, I didn't know to be afraid. I just went for it, writing like the works were never going to get published

But Zusak concedes it's not been a straightforward road to the top, especially as The Underdog was the fourth book he'd written, but the first to win a publishing deal.

"A little bit of ignorance can go a long way," Zusak tells The National. "I didn't know any better then, I didn't know to be afraid. I just went for it, writing like the works were never going to get published."

The Australian writer, who is of German origin, is one of 150 local and international authors coming to Dubai's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which runs from February 4 to 9 at the Intercontinental Hotel at Dubai Festival City. He will be in town to talk about his newest book, Bridge of Clay. Released 13 years after The Book Thief, for which he is perhaps best known, his new novel explores themes of honour, greatness and loss.

'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak (2005)

It tells the tale of five brothers coming of age, and what it takes to put a broken family back together in a house with no rules. At the centre is Clay, a boy who sets out to build a bridge. 

Bridge of Clay was a real labour of love for Zusak, taking him 10 years to write, as he had wanted it to be perfect. By the time it came out in October 2018, it had been 13 years since his last work The Book Thief hit the shelves. 

The novel took significantly longer to complete, partly because Zusak kept going back to it, rewriting bits to fit his changing worldview. "By the time I finished the book, I was a different person than when I started," Zusak says. "In a way, an author changes after every book they write."

But perhaps a more obvious reason for the seismic shift in personality is because Zusak became a father while writing it.

"It was not just about having less time to write. Being a parent makes you see the world in a different way, so it's all about trying to stay authentic to the person you think you are, to stay faithful to the way you see the world. I made a lot of changes to parts I had written 10 years before to match my world view." Zusak's name has spent the better part of the decade on the New York Times bestseller list.

His six novels have been translated into more than 40 languages and have received literary prizes across the world.

In 2013, The Book Thief was made into a film starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.

So how does a bestselling, prize-winning author reflect on his body of work? Is it with pride or with a certain dose of uneasiness?

"Looking back at previous works can be interesting," he says. "The first year or two after a book is released you worry about the mistakes you've made and how people are going to react to the work. But after that period, you kind of look back fondly, with affection and happiness, even nostalgia. You realise it was the best book you could write at that time in your life. At the same time, you realise you can never write the same book again."

Zusak says he took a similar approach with the film version of The Book Thief as with his own writing: by assuming it would never see the light of day.

"A lot of books get signed up for movie adaptations but it rarely pans out. A part of me thought that it was not going to be made, just like I thought the book wouldn't be published."

But comparing the book to the movie adaptation, Zusak says, is like comparing two siblings who look alike. "It felt like a sibling, like someone you recognise, who looks a lot like you but is not quite you."

Bridge of Clay by author Markus Zusak.

So what’s next for the author? Zusak says he’s thinking about a few projects to work on next, as always. “It’s a bit like driving towards a city from a long way away. In the distance you first see all these blurry shapes… but you know at some point you’ll be close enough to start work.”

This is the second time Zusak is coming to Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. He was last here in 2016 and is eager to share his work again with local fans. “The last time I was here, I saw a group of high school students who had printed out T-shirts with quotes from the book. It was really touching. I’m happy to be back.”

For more information and tickets, visit www.emirateslitfest.com