PENPals: A Correspondence with Markus Zusak & Susan Campbell Bartoletti
I’m excited to be having this conversation with you. To be honest, it took me a long time to get around to reading The Book Thief. I was up to my ears in Nazis, and I knew I was going to be spending more time in the Third Reich for my next book, this one a novel, called The Boy Who Dared. So…my first reaction to reading The Book Thief. Oh, my God. I am so jealous. That voice. I love the voice of Death. It’s a voice that pulls me into a book, and Death’s voice is so cunning. Do you know/do you remember what led you to that voice? To the idea of Death as narrator? If you think this is a good place to start, I’ll talk about nonfiction voice. But if you’re struck with a better starting place, take it away.
Sorry for the late reply. The Sydney summer has taken a while to kick in and I was away for the last few days of last week. We finally had some good weather to go on holidays…I’m really excited about this correspondence as well, and now I have the moment of truth. When other writers say to me, “Sorry, I haven’t read your book, but I’ve heard a lot about it…Sorry, sorry, um, sorry…” I always say that it’s ridiculous to worry about such things. We can’t read every book ever written…So now I confess that I haven’t read Hitler Youth. I know it came out in 2005, right after I’d delivered The Book Thief manuscript for the last time to be published later that year here in Australia. Apart from wishing that I had read it before this conversation, I realise that I haven’t been able to read or watch or even listen to anything concerning Germany in World War II and the Holocaust since finishing The Book Thief. Having spoken to other writers who’ve written novels set during that time, no-one comes away unscathed, uninspired or unchanged, and I’ve found that most writers don’t want to go back in a hurry. I know that writing The Book Thief exhausted me for many reasons, but I realised when I embarrassingly broke down crying at a reading here in Australia just how much the book meant to me. I’ve never been so emotional about the other books I’ve written—not even close. I had never felt like I missed the characters from a book before, but this time I did. It was partly because of the stories coming from my family kitchen as I was growing up, but it’s more than that, I think. This period of history just comes with a power that keeps hitting you, even when you think it has finally stopped… On this line of thought, I have a few questions for you. Firstly, you mentioned a reluctance to visit the Third Reich in your reading choices after writing Hitler Youth. I know part of the reason was due to immersing yourself in it again for your next project, but did you feel like you needed a break from that era in general? What impact did writing Hitler Youth have on you at the time of writing? I hope these are okay questions. Feel free to go on any tangents as well!
All my best,
Here in Pennsylvania—the Scranton area—it’s pouring. Our snow has melted and turned to ice. My two little dogs—Shih Tzus—slipped and slid across the back deck this morning, and now they’d rather cross their legs than attempt going out again. We’re supposed to have thunderstorms, and there’s little I love more than a good thunderstorm. A good thunderstorm is as good as chocolate.
I felt many of the same things that you describe. I wasn’t dealing with my own family stories, but the people I interviewed felt like family to me. When readers ask me what my favorite book is, I tell them—as many writers do—that I don’t have a favorite book, but I do have favorite characters, some fiction, some nonfiction. And if they met the people I interviewed for Hitler Youth, they would understand. For me, a book doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to the readers. In the case of Hitler Youth, the book belongs to those people who allowed me into their lives to tell their stories.
The book impacted me greatly. To begin, it wasn’t supposed to be a book about Hitler Youth. My editor asked me to write a book about World War II—the American homefront, to be precise. But in order to write that book, I needed to learn all that I could about World War II, and so I began with Germany. I have long been interested in the role that young people play in history—young people are political beings—and when I stumbled across the claim that the Nazis rode to power on the shoulders of politically active youth, well, as I say in my Author’s Note, my heart turned over, and I asked myself: Is this true? I ran to the library to find out, and what I discovered resulted in the book Hitler Youth. For me, a book doesn’t begin with a fact, but with the feeling I get about a fact. And it’s that feeling that compels me to learn more.
For another thing: it made me think a great deal about silence. I tracked down former Hitler Youth members—now women and men in their 80s—and although some agreed to talk to me, others refused. Why did they refuse? Guilt? Shame? Fear? Or, as one man I interviewed suggested, a lack of repentance?
As I was writing the book, I had plenty of nightmares. Dark, dark dreams about death. The kind that leave you with a nightmare hangover the next day. You know the feeling? I didn’t feel as though I could take a break from the material, because the writing of Hitler Youth left me with a question that haunted me day and night: what about the courage of those young people like Helmuth Hübener and Hans and Sophie Scholl? Where does that courage come from? It was a question that I needed to explore, to spend more time with so that I could better understand it. So The Boy Who Dared didn’t seem to be a separate book; it seemed to be a continuation of Hitler Youth. And fiction was the only way I could explore my subject deeper, to get inside in order to make the connections that needed to be made.
Hmm. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I approached the reading of The Book Thief as a writer—and hence my interest in the voice of Death. Perhaps I couldn’t enter it as a reader at that time. Perhaps it was easier to be become a scientist, turning over your words, thinking, Ah, how did Markus accomplish this feat? Does that make sense?
I like your image of the stories told in the family kitchen. (I always think of the kitchen as the pulse of the family, the house.) Was it difficult to recast your stories in order to tell them as fiction?
Please accept my apologies for such lateness in replying. I used to get a tick in the Very Conscientious column when it came to answering emails, but I’m slipping into the mire of real life! No, I’ve never been computer savvy or technologically sound in the slightest, but I used to answer emails before they got out of control. Now I chase my daughter and try not to let the amount of porridge landing in her lap get out of control as she stubbornly eats all by herself (she’s 19 months).
To answer your question about the recasting of my parents’ lives as fiction, it was actually the most natural thing in the world to do for me. It sounds terrible, almost delinquent-like, but the reason I love writing fiction is that as we read it and write it, we believe something that isn’t true. We know it’s not true, but we believe it anyway, and that’s the magic act. That was what made me want to be a writer in the first place…It was those moments when I was so immersed in a book, crying or on the edge of my seat even though I knew it wasn’t real. That was when I looked up from the pages and thought, ‘THAT’S what I want to do with my life.’
Of course, the stories of my parents shaped this book, but from the very moment I imagined something happening to Liesel (Liesel, or Lisa, is also my mother’s name, shortened from Elisabeth), it wasn’t my mother anymore, it was Liesel Meminger. In many ways, Rudy Steiner was based on my father, but I never once thought of him as such, even when there was absolute truth in a part of the story I was writing (the moment when he is stripped naked for a physical examination to join an elite Nazi school is a good example). The same thing happened to my father, but Rudy was real to me, and it was Rudy who was going through that cold, awkward, all-stalling ordeal.
On this topic, all I hoped for when I was done was that my parents would approve of the book. For three years they had been pestering me with ‘When’s the book going to be finished, when’s the book going to be finished?’ until it was banned from discussion. Finally, when it was, I gave the manuscript to them for Christmas ’04 and ten days later, when I rang to see how they were, my dad confessed that he was up to page eleven! THREE YEARS they’d been asking for it…
What I realised was that my mother was hogging it (not sure if the word ‘hogging’ is used much in America, but here it’s commonly used in sport for someone who never passes the ball). Eventually he did get to it, and I guess the nicest thing they said was that they felt like they were there again…So I guess, ultimately, recasting it was an attempt to find another truth.
As a last note on the involvement of my parents in the process, I had my father check through the German used in the book, to make sure it was spot on. He did a great job—so great that he then saw fit to start trying to edit the English. The nerve!
What I wanted to ask you was about the incredible tangent you took to end up writing Hitler Youth. It sounds like you were called, in a way, to write this book. I thought I took a tangent when a 100 page book turned into 550 pages. Can you go into a bit more detail about your publisher’s reaction? Also, can you compare how you feel about this book as opposed to your other books? I know they are very different (and I admire that a lot).
All my very best and sorry this is all rushed and late,
I understand about the email slowness. I used to be faster at everything! More often than not, technology is making me feel less capable . . . and dumber.
How nice! A toddler! My children are grown . . . my daughter is 29 and teaches fifth grade. My son is 25 . . . oops, 26 next month . . . and heading back to the UK—either Scotland or England—to study for a degree in archival/library studies. He earned a master’s from St. Andrews two years ago, but there’s not much you can do with a degree in medieval Scottish history, you know?
I laughed out loud at the idea that writing about your parents’ lives could possibly be delinquent-like. All sorts of lovely images popped up. And I love the feeling of falling into a book so completely that the edges of the world disappear, whether it’s a book that I’m writing or a book written by someone else.
I think, too, that whether we are consciously writing about the real lives of our families or not, their lives appear there, in our words and in the gaps between our words. They give us our themes—if not our direct material. I loved to read and to draw as a child, but I wasn’t one of those kids who knew she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. I write to explore, to figure things out. I think that’s why we’re drawn to stories, both to tell and be told: to make meaning.
Oh, I love the story about your mom hogging the book. My husband Joe always reads my work in progress. He’s a high school history teacher, and so it’s like living with a wonderful encyclopedia. And your dad trying to edit the English! That’s so charming.
I do think I was called somehow to write Hitler Youth. I felt so nervous admitting to my editor, Mary Jones that I had written 100 pages of the World War II book and hadn’t gotten out of Germany. And then I wanted to change the contract! I have an agent, and I could have had her make this possibly unpleasant call, but that seemed cowardly to me. So I made the call.
My editor’s response was terrific—but I think they learn all that niceness and good manners in editorial school. Mary is, was, and continues to be, amazing. She’s smart and strong and brave—but I had no idea how brave until later, when we talked about how it felt for her to go to the editorial meeting and pitch a book on Hitler Youth. I admire how willing she was to fight for me and the book.
As it turned out, there was, understandably, some strong discussion. It’s the same sort of argument we have with ourselves, I think. What are the possible implications of a subject like Hitler Youth for young readers in this day and age?
Side note: when I was in Germany, visiting Nuremberg, where the Nazis held their party rallies each September, Germans were also debating what to do with Zeppelin Field and the other historical sites of the Third Reich. Zeppelin Field, which once held tens of thousands of uniformed SS, SA, and Hitler Youth is now overgrown with weeds. The massive concrete walls are scrawled with graffiti. These things all seemed fitting as a tribute to Hitler and the Third Reich, but yet . . . what should be done? Should these historical sites be preserved? If so, what does that say? Should they continue to decay naturally into oblivion? And if so, what is the meaning there?
The same sort of questions can be asked—and were asked and are asked—about books on subjects such as Hitler Youth. Should we be writing about these sorts of things for young readers? And at the end of Hitler Youth, I pose a question to the reader: “What are you willing to do to prevent such a shadow from falling over you and others?” In an email, an adult reader questioned my decision to rest such responsibility on the shoulders of young people. She said: “I would want a young reader to feel that there are adults in his/her world who are working against the rise of such evil . . . I want them to feel that there are adults who can provide leadership and support as they mature.” I understand her concern and her desire, but given the text and context of Hitler Youth, given its history and its legacy, can we place so much faith in adults?
But what about that question. Could it happen again? Two years ago, I received an email from a Pennsylvania school librarian. She wanted to let me know about a parent who had requested an alternate reading assignment for his child, who had been assigned to read The Upstairs Room by Joanna Reiss. This parent wanted a book that “is factual,” that “doesn’t depict the Nazis in a bad light,” and “doesn’t show sympathy for the Jews.” And so we ask, Could such a shadow fall again? I am so glad—and honored—that Scholastic trusted me to tell this story.
Ah, Markus, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here. So sorry about the length of this response. Can you tell I’ve had way too much coffee? I hope there’s enough here for you to pull a response from, but let me talk about your work for moment. Your work has this amazing emotional quality—it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me angry. I realize this is the proof of a true story, fiction or nonfiction, yes? It’s what truth does. These are the things we must feel about our subject, our characters. Now I am going to make some porridge with walnuts and a smattering of maple syrup. ~Susan