Last Saturday my sister and I and a couple of her book club friends met up at the Provo City Library to see Markus Zusak speak. Is there anyone out there who hasn't read The Book Thief yet? Because if so, there is probably a jagged, Book Thief-sized hole in your soul. Please fill it. No pressure.
We were so excited to hear him, and he did a great job. He was funny, self-deprecating, and a good storyteller. Plus he seemed really excited and touched to see such a big, appreciative group (500 people) who wanted to hear what he had to say. I took some notes, of course, because I am a big nerd.
And did I mention that he is young? And Australian? And kind of cute? Not that I'm saying that here, just, you know. Some might.
Here are his words on writing:
Bad things happen in life, but it's okay because you get your best stories out of it.
1. Mind your own life. Writing what you know is important. He said that for The Book Thief, the seeds of the story were planted by hearing his parents' stories of their own World War II experiences in Austria. Those stories were important to him and he wanted to write and expand them.
2. Do the simple things well. You don't have to be a genius to be a good writer. The small details are what make your story believable, so get them right.
3. It's the unusual or the unexpected that gets the biggest reaction. He said, "I don't have a great imagination, I just have a lot of problems." It's while trying to solve these problems in your writing that you hit on the good, unusual, unexpected things. That's how he came up with the idea of Death as the narrator.
4. Rewriting makes good writing. He did about 150-200 edits on the beginning chapters of The Book Thief. (Note: Just hearing that made my eye twitch.)
Then he opened it up for questions.
Q: In The Book Thief, why were there so many spoilers, like all the premonitions about which characters were going to die?
A: There were lots of reasons.
1. Because Death is a different sort of narrator, he wanted Death to tell the story a little bit to the left or right of the way we would tell it.
2. He wanted to see if he could get people to keep reading once he's already blown the mystery.
3. He wanted to prepare the reader (and himself) for the bad stuff. It didn't work. We were all a mess at the end.
4. One sentence (the premonition about ---------'s death) just came to him as a voice in his head, so he just went with it. You listen to that voice or instinct.
He thought The Book Thief would definitely be his least successful book, so he wrote it exactly the way he wanted to do it.
Q: How do you deal with writer's block while trying to create something that's engaging?
A: He says that he feels a lot of people get stuck when life happens and writing (understandably) moves down on the priority list. But writing has to be #1 or #2 on your priority list. You have to spend time with it. You have to be patient. You will fail over and over again and have problems, but getting around those problems is what gives you your content. If you knew your book would never get published, would you still want to work on it?
Q: As aspiring writers, we are told we will have to be able to "kill our babies." How do you know when it's time and you need to just chuck something that isn't working?
A: He thinks he may not be the best person to ask about this. For him, if a story isn't working, he looks to see if he can take what is good and move it into something new or different. The answer might just be to cobble your best ideas together, or to move it a little to the left or the right. Don't kill anything off completely if there's something good there.
When he finished speaking, he went into the other room to get ready for the book signing. We'd all been assigned to groups of 25 and we were to be called up in order. They gave very strict instructions about not bringing more than 2 books to be signed & not holding up the line by asking him to pose for pictures. They had this down to a science.
What they did not count on, however, was Mr. Zusak. He is not a rush-through kind of guy, and was taking time to speak with people as they came through and personalize each inscription. While I'm sure this was mind-blowing for the people in the first group, after an hour or so we realized that this meant we were in for a long, long, loooong wait. So we settled in and waited.
Disaster struck when GH called me.
GH: Where are you?
Me: Waiting to get my book signed, it's taking a lot longer.
GH: The baby has been crying for the last hour.
Me: He WHAT???????
Here's the thing, and I will try to say this in code lest my beyond-superstitious spouse accuse me of tempting fate. The Tiny Dark Lord doesn't actually ***. I mean, yeah, if he's hungry or he's had a bad dream or there are sadistic nurses poking him with needles he'll let us know of his displeasure, but once we get the immediate need met he's okay. Heavens be praised, he wasn't c***cky, he hasn't been si*k yet, and he most definitely has n*v** just cr**d for no apparent reason.
Me: But---but--but--did you feed him?
GH: YES. I fed him.
Me: Is he tired?
GH: I'm sure, but he won't go to sleep.
Me: And you've changed his diaper.
GH: What do YOU think??
That's all I had. The only other option was that he was dying. I could hear his angry, angry cries through the phone.
Me: Well, I can't just leave yet. I'm the driver and we're all waiting to get our books signed. But I'm hoping it should be much longer and I'll come home just as soon as I can. Try taking him outside, or taking him for a drive!
GH hung up, hating me mightily.
So then we waited. And waited, and waited, and waited some more. And the longer we waited the more convinced I was that something dreadful was happening.
Me: Oh my gosh, what if GH shakes him? We never watched that video the hospital gave us about not shaking your baby! He could be shaking him!!
Jenny and the other seasoned moms tried gently to tell me that some babies just get overtired and cry. It's just what happens. There's really nothing to be done for it. And then they got to sit and listen to me fret until they probably wanted to knock me out with their books. I called GH--the baby was still crying. I hung up, feeling more and more anxious. We waited some more. I texted GH to see if he'd taken him on that car ride and if it had worked. No answer. They finally called our group number and we sprinted to the line, only to learn that there were still 80 people in front of us and it would likely take another hour before we got our books signed. It was after 9pm at that point, and it was here that I began my ever-so-attractive meltdown.
Jenny handed me her iPod. "Here, play Angry Birds." Because that's what you do with a child who is embarrassing you in public and saying things about wanting to hit Markus Suzak in the head with a chair.
Me: What if there's a hair wrapped around his toe? I just read about that. A baby had a hair wrapped around her toe and it turned black and they almost had to cut it off and if they'd waited one more hour she would have lost her toe!
Jenny: He doesn't have a hair wrapped around his toe. Your hair is 3 inches long, it can't wrap that many times.
Me: But what if he DOES??? What if his toe is already black? What if it has already fallen off and is just bobbing around in the foot of his sleeper???????
Jenny: Yeah, I'm done with this.
She went off to find someone to fix the situation. She explained to one of the People in Charge that she was stuck with an insane person who had a crying newborn at home and that we really, really, really needed to leave and could not wait anymore. The Person in Charge, who shall hereafter be known as Angel of Mercy, came over and said she could just take our books with our names, have Mr. Zusak sign them at the end, and then leave them at the reference desk for us. I almost collapsed in tears right there in the hallway, just before I recognized the Angel of Mercy as a librarian I actually know and have had Thai food with before. So I'm hoping she remembers that I am not always a foaming-at-the-mouth insane person.
We raced out of the building and into the car. I called GH to see what the situation was.
Me: We just left, I'm taking these girls home and then I'll be there. How is he?
GH: Oh, he's fine. I took him for a drive about 30 minutes ago. Fell asleep as soon as the car started moving.
On the one hand, that was very good to hear. On the other, a heads-up would have been nice. Then we could have skipped all the "blackened-toes-bobbing-around" discussion that is probably making it onto other people's blogs with the heading of "The Insane Freak at the Markus Zusak Signing."
But hey, all's well that ends well, right?