The general consensus is that it shouldn’t matter: stories should be judged on their merits alone. However, it’s fair to say that when it comes to our favourite authors, we often harbour a secret hope their personalities somehow do their stories justice.
Regular readers of this blog know Markus Zusak is among my favourite writers (not just for The Book Thief – which still tops my list – but for his other four books as well). Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend time with him at a literary breakfast, and then writers’ workshop (hosted by the very author-friendly Logan Libraries in Queensland). And the news is all good.
One of the things I love most about Markus’ books is the honesty, warmth and poetic use of language that infuse his narrative. It turns out those qualities don’t just exist on the page.
It's not often fans get to know an author beyond their publicity blurb, but those who gathered for the sessions on the weekend – fans and writers alike – were given that rare opportunity.
Here’s a writer who openly talks about his self doubt, how he doesn’t have all the answers about writing and style, and that the secret to success is to have a deep passion for telling stories and a willingness to put in the time necessary to craft something above the ordinary.
In a truly remarkable moment, Markus read the opening chapter to his new novel. The reading was remarkable because the story is still a work in progress, and the final version may have little resemblance with what he shared (particularly given his penchant for continuous editing).
The reading didn’t disappoint. Fans lapped it up, hopefully realising how rare it is for a writer to share something not yet completely polished - particularly from a writer of Markus’ international reputation.
Gutsy move. (Hey, even the Ink-stained Toepoker was impressed...)
Of course Markus also spoke about The Book Thief, and the endless drafts he worked through (re-writing the first 90 pages between 150 and 200 times) before he finally found the narrative voice that would elevate the novel to realm of a classic: by having Death as the narrator.
People either love or hate that book. Here’s what I wrote when I finished reading it back in 2006:
It is one of the most beautifully and uniquely written stories I’ve read. So many writers have crafted stories in an attempt to capture the power of words, but this story did that better (and more profoundly) for me, than anything else I've read. It also clarified for me the unique role literature has in storytelling, and how it differs (or at least should differ) from other forms, like film and theatre. I laughed, I cried, and thought about life, suffering, and hope.
Ultimately, Markus Zusak is a great storyteller who loves the power of words. He's prepared to spend as much time as it takes to craft his story, making sure every sentence, every word -every piece of the puzzle - does what he needs it to.
I certainly walked away inspired, and motivated to be a better writer. I'm also now a little more patient in my wait for his next work ... I'm willing to bide my time until Markus Zusak to be happy enough with his new project to hand it to his publisher and share the story with the rest of us.
(And yes, I’m actually including a proper photo of myself for the first time on this blog. That’s me on the right with Markus and my favourite librarian – and breakfast/workshop organiser – Janet Poole.)