Set against the backdrop of World War II Germany, The Book Thief is a compelling and moving story about a young girl (Sophie Nélisse) who is taken in by foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Liesel Meminger cannot read when she arrives at her new home, but finds herself drawn to books, which she proceeds to “borrow.” Learning to read, she strikes up a friendship with a Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) who the family is hiding in their basement.
The inspiring drama was directed by Brian Percival and is based on the bestselling book by Australian novelist Markus Zusak. The novelist sat down in Los Angeles to discuss his book ahead of The Book Thief’s film release on DVD and Blu-ray.
What inspired you to write the book?
As a child in Sydney, my German Mum and my Austrian Dad would spontaneously tell us stories about what they saw and what they did as children. It was like a piece of Europe coming into our house. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those stories led me to my writing. My parents were teaching me how to write, just by the way they related their stories. They never said, “You could be a writer one day.” But they brought the stories to life for me. I was inspired by the acts of kindness I heard about that took place during those very dark times in Europe, when people were finding beauty in the ugliest of circumstances.
What is THE BOOK THIEF all about?
It centres on Liesel and is kind of a love story with Liesel in the middle and everything else revolving around her. She has a real love for her foster father, who teaches her to read, and her foster mother. Liesel and Rosa have one of those tough love relationships! Then there is the relationship with Rudy, the boy next door, who really loves her. They tease each other in the way that kids do and they always have a good time together. And Liesel has a different kind of love with Max, the young Jewish man who is hiding from the Nazis in the basement. Everything comes through the prism of a child’s view. Liesel has lost her brother, she has lost her mother and she does not know who her father was. That is the starting point. Throughout the story, we go into different worlds: the family’s basement and the outside world where bombs are coming down and lives are being threatened.
What would you say is the theme of the book and the film?
That is always the hardest question. It is the story of a girl growing up in Nazi Germany. In the world she lives in, Hitler has destroyed people with words. That is how he was able to make people behave and do the things that they did. The story starts with Liesel stealing a book and really she’s stealing the words back and writing her own story. She reads with her friend Max. I think stories and words make us who we are. They are what we carry around with us.
Was there a specific inspiration for the story and for the character of Liesel?
It is interesting because my mother was a foster child. So I’m often asked, “Is Liesel your mother?” And I say, “Well no,” because the moment I fictionalized her she was not my Mum anymore. My Mum was separated from her brother but he didn’t die. I had heard a story of a little girl who died on a train and her mother had to bury her at the side of the tracks. That inspired my story. My parents didn’t endure suffering. Sure, they were hungry and they had some hard times, but when you think of the tragedies and the awful things that happened to so many people, they were lucky. Most of their stories are from after the war. One interesting thing though is that my father was a house painter and his father was too. He painted a lot of houses of Jewish people as Hans does. That’s how the book starts to come together. When you’re melding all of these stories together for a novel, you begin to live in that world and start to believe everything in that world. That’s how I felt when I was writing the book.
How much did you know about the subject when you set out on this journey and what research did you do?
Imagine waking up one day and you can suddenly speak Russian. That was the sensation I had when I started writing the book. I just felt I knew the world I was writing about. It was like opening somewhere in your mind and reaching in and pulling out a world or the language of a story. That’s what I did. My first research came from my parents’ stories. Later, I also did a lot of research in libraries, to get the bombing dates right and specific facts like that. I went to Germany after I had finished writing the manuscript to check my facts. To tell you the truth though, there wasn’t much that changed from the manuscript to the final book.
Why did you decide to have Death as the narrator?
It seemed to make sense that war and death are best friends. Who better to tell stories during wartime than Death, because he’s everywhere at that time? It just struck me that Death could be the missing piece of us, who is trying to understand us. That’s why he talks the way we talk, but slightly different. He will say, “The sky, who was wide and blue and magnificent.” I wanted Death to speak as if those things were his colleagues.
Did you expect that the book would be a huge best seller?
I thought this would be my least successful book (laughs). I thought it would sink like a stone because it was a 580-page book set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death. Try to imagine recommending that to your friends. The best thing that happened was that I thought, “Well, no one is ever going to read this, so just do it how you really want to do it.” I think people pick up on the fact that I wanted this book to mean something to me. It came to mean everything to me.
What was your response when you knew your story was going to be turned into a film?
It has been ridiculous really. It’s quite amazing and sometimes I still have trouble understanding how it has all happened. It’s also a testament to story telling and it shows that there is a real love of stories. As well as feeling lucky, it is nice to see a story you’ve written get a new life in a film. I think Brian Percival was the right guy for the job as the director. He’s such a genuine person who knows how to create great moments. It is all a bit surreal, but I think this book has had a life of its own. It’s the best way I can put it. It sort of drags me along with it.
How happy were you with the choice of Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse as Liesel?
She is wonderful and I’m going to tell you an interesting story. I saw Sophie in another movie, MONSIEUR LAZHAR, and I thought, “She’d be great as Liesel.” My wife said, “You must tell Brian and the producers.” So we asked my agent to send them an email about Sophie, which she did. Then when I met Brian, he showed me her audition video and she was great. I thought, “I hope she gets the part.” And she did. From the moment I walked on set and saw her, she was Liesel. I believed everything she said and everything she did. I think you fall in love with her straight away.
How involved were you in the film?
I looked at the script. But I wasn’t too involved and that has been a relief because the book has already involved ten years of my life. I think it was important for me to be able to hand it over and give it to Brian and say, “Now it’s your turn. I want you to make this your own and make it beautiful and make it into something you really want it to be.”
What discussions did you have with Brian about the movie?
I can tell you about one really good conversation in Chicago, when we were coming down a lift at The Steppenwolf Theatre Company. They produced a play of The Book Thief last year. Brian and I watched it together and then we had a chat afterwards. Brian said, “I’m not going to let you down.” That was a beautiful moment for me because he could have just said, “It was great meeting you, see you later,” but he showed me the sort of person he is. That gave me a huge amount of confidence in him. Not that I needed it, I kind of already felt it, but it was a really good affirmation.
Were you on the set of the film in Berlin?
I was in Berlin for four or five days. It was fantastic. They did everything right. It was great that they didn’t make the movie in a back lot in Hollywood somewhere. They took the story to Germany, where that piece of history lives and breathes. That was a testament to the filmmakers’ respect of the material and the time period in which it is set.
Were there any memorable moments?
I was there with my wife Dominika and my two kids, Kitty who’s seven and Noah who is three. We sat on the steps of 33 Himmel Street together. It makes me a bit emotional thinking about that day because it was really special. There was fake snow on the ground and the kids were throwing it at each other. That made it real for me. That’s when I thought, “This is all happening.” It was great meeting all the actors. Sophie is so sweet. Geoffrey asked me loads of questions about the book and the songs that Hans plays on the accordion. He was talking about a lot of details, to the point at which I was thinking, “Geoffrey knows the book better than I do!” Geoffrey is so revered in Australia of course and it was a privilege meeting him, because we are both Australian. It was great meeting Emily too. She has kids of a similar age to mine so we had a lot in common. When we left the set I said to her, “I really want to thank you for taking this on” and she gave me a big hug and said, “This is the sort of story that makes me want to do what I do for a job.”
Was Himmel Street how you imagined it in your head?
I don’t think it is exactly how I imagined it because that’s impossible. But it was in the spirit of what I wrote. I feel the film has the same heart as the book.
How much do you enjoy your work as a writer?
There’s nothing else that I have ever wanted to do. When I was a teenager I decided I was going to be a writer and that nothing was going to stop me. It sounds almost villainous. But I knew that was what I wanted. When I read a great novel, there’s that magic act of believing something even though you know it’s not real. I’ve been a writer since I was 16. I didn’t get published until I was 24. I know that sounds crazy. The Book Thief came out the year I turned 30. It took three years to write it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a book called Bridge of Clay. It’s about a boy building a bridge with his dad. It’s probably a more ambitious book than The Book Thief. It is set in a city and a country that is never specified. But to me the city is Sydney.
What books have inspired you?
I love all of S. E. Hinton’s books like The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. I love a lot of American authors to tell you the truth. I really like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges. I love the movie as well. My Brother Jack is a great book, by Australian writer George Johnston. There’s also a book called The Half Brother which I love, by the Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen. There are so many books I like. I’ll kick myself when I leave and remember lots more I should have told you about!
Finally, what would you say audiences can look forward to in THE BOOK THIEF?
I think people will fall in love with the characters from the moment they see them on the screen: from Liesel and the foul-mouthed Rosa, to Max, to Rudy, and Hans. The film is about people making courageous decisions in the face of great danger and having the will to survive. It is a story about loving books and what books really mean to people. If the movie brings more people to books, and not just to my book, but to all books, that would be great.