L.K. Madigan (lkmadigan) wrote,
L.K. Madigan

Markus Zusak in Portland

Ninety minutes is a long time to wait, even when you’re surrounded by books and bookish people.

But I waited for Markus Zusak. He’s one of the few authors – heck, one of the few people – I would wait in line to meet.

After all, when is he ever likely to come to Portland again? And even if he does, I predict that he will have written so many more amazing books that the line of people in front of him will stretch out the door, instead of just across the room. And how often do I get the chance to meet someone whose book has carved a spot inside me and settled down there forever?

I posted my thoughts on THE BOOK THIEF here last year:


So yes, I was happy to wait.

Well, not thrilled. There were two women who were first in line to get their books signed, and they had a stack of about twenty books with them. Markus, bless his kind heart, likes to write more than just his signature on each book. So those women monopolized him stood there for at least twenty minutes, while the rest of us began to mutter and fidget and resent. Even Gentle Readers will rise up in protest, given cause!

Anyway, I was glad I waited, because he wrote such a nice inscription. I’ll include it again, in case you missed the earlier post:

Dear Lisa,

Here's to life, death, love, colours, failing, and being first to ask questions.

Markus Zusak

That won’t make any sense until you hear the rest of the story.

lisa_schroeder and I met at Powell’s Books – we saw lorrainemt, too. I’m so glad Lorraine mentioned that Markus was appearing there – I never would have known!

I can’t reprise his entire speech, but I will share parts of it. He started by telling a story that he called a revenge story for the younger siblings in the audience, and a cautionary tale for older sibs. It was very funny – about how he avenged himself one day on his older brother, who regularly tormented him just for the sake of having something to do. At the end of his story, he pointed out that it’s a pretty simple story, and that most of us could probably see where it was headed, but that he included a number of memorable details to make it vivid in ours minds.

“I’m not the most talented writer in the world,” he said. “But I can do the simple things well. I put in the small details so you’ll believe me. People believe the small details.”

He pointed out that the best part of the story was the unexpected – that that’s when he got the biggest laugh. He said he tries to write the unexpected in his novels, instead of what “should” happen. This segued into the fact that he wrote 250 pages of THE BOOK THIEF with Death as the narrator, but Death was creepy and menacing. It wasn’t working for him. He rewrote the book a second time, making Liesl the narrator, but that didn’t work for him, either. He wrote the book a third time, using the third person perspective. Guess what? Still not working.

Finally (aren’t you glad he didn’t give up?), on his fourth attempt, he went back to Death as the narrator, but this time he wrote Death as a vulnerable, almost kindly character. It’s expected for Death to be creepy … but unexpected for him to be vulnerable.

Zusak thought nobody would read his book – which freed him to write it just the way he wanted. Its success took him by surprise. He’s really happy with the way it turned out: “It’s the one book that I really, really love. It means everything to me. I never expected people to know me, or my book.”

After he spoke for awhile, he asked if we had any questions.

I was the first to raise my hand.

Mini Authorial Intrusion Alert from Markus Zusak!

“I would like to know,” I said, “your advice for writers … in five words or less.”

He answered, "Fail."

Only when he says ‘Fail,’ it sounds like “File.”

He’s aware of that, and added quickly, “Of course, with my accent, people think I’m saying ‘File,’ like they should be careful to file things. What I’m saying is, Don’t be afraid to fail.

I knew what he meant, and I can report that I’m following his advice every day, whether I like it or not. In fact, when he was signing my book, he remembered my question, and asked, “So are you trying to write?”

(I love that phrasing.) (Because that is, in fact, exactly what I’m doing.)

I said yes, and that so far, I was excelling at his advice. He confided that for a period of about three years, he wrote and wrote and couldn’t get anything accepted. What a generous thing to do! To take the time to reassure an aspiring writer.

Here are a few more bits of Zusakian wisdom:

He doesn’t worry about which labels are going to be applied to his books, anymore, YA or Adult: “I’m trying to write someone’s favorite book.”

“I wanted to be a writer who wrote a different book every time. I wanted to grow with every book.”

“I’m particularly worried this time around.” (This was in response to Lisa’s question about how he felt, following up with a new book, after THE BOOK THIEF.) “I’m not sure I can write a better book than this.”

His new book is called Bridge of Clay, about a boy named Clay, who is trying to build a bridge. I can’t wait to read it!

If you ever have the chance to hear Markus speak, do it. You won’t be sorry, even if you have to wait.

P.S. I worked very hard not to use words like adorable, sweet, adorable, swoony, adorable, melting, and adorable while I wrote this … even though they were never far from my thoughts.

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