What inspired you to write The Book Thief?
I grew up in Sydney and had a pretty normal childhood with my brother and two sisters. We lived most of our lives in the backyard, doing typical Australian things, but once in a while, it wasn’t Sydney anymore – because our parents told us their stories. That was when a piece of Europe entered our household, and our lives.
It was never an organized thing. My mum and dad never sat us down and said, ‘Now we’re going to tell you where we came from.’ It was spontaneous. Something would happen, usually in the kitchen, and then came a story. We would hear about cities of fire, bombs shaking the ground, and what it was like to emerge from underground to discover that everything had changed.
One evening, I remember my mother telling us about something else she witnessed as a child, which has stayed with me a long time.
She told us of the time she saw Jewish people and other so-called criminals marched through her small town, on their way to Dachau. At the back of the line, an old man, totally emaciated, couldn’t keep up. When a teenage boy saw this, he brought the man a piece of bread and the man fell to his knees and held the boy’s ankles, thanking him…That was when a soldier marched over, tore the bread from the man’s hands and whipped him for taking it. Then, he chased down the boy and whipped him for giving him the bread in the first place. It was a story of great cruelty and kindness, simultaneously.
I didn’t know it at the time, but almost all of the stories my parents told were full of opposites: right and wrong, fear and relief, destruction and humanity. The other point I didn’t realize was that these stories became like a second language to me, and when I became a writer, that language was already there – just waiting. It was waiting for me to scratch the surface, reach in and pull it out as the beginnings of a book.
At first, The Book Thief was supposed to be a small novel – only a hundred pages or so – but the more time I spent with it, the more it grew, in every way. As three years of work went by, it changed from a book that meant something to me to a book that meant everything, and I’m very grateful for it. I’m also grateful to every reader who has picked it up and given it a chance. They’ve been more generous to The Book Thief than I could ever have imagined.
God I love Zusak.
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