Call Me Death: Odd Narrator of a Girl's Story

NPR's John Ydstie interviews Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, a novel set in World War II Germany with Death himself as the narrator. The book tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who lives with a foster family in a tough, working-class neighborhood of Molching, Germany.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In a new novel called The Book Thief, the young heroine steals books in order to rebuild her life, one from a Nazi bonfire, another a gravedigger's manual, another from the town mayor's personal library. The work by Australian author Markus Zusak is aimed at a teenage audience, but it addresses themes like death, memory and language.

The main character, Liesel Meminger, a young, illiterate German girl, moves in with a foster family in Nazi Germany. As war comes closer, she struggles to learn to read and to write down the stories of those around her.

Mr. MARKUS ZUSAK (Author, The Book Thief): She steals books at a time when people were captivated by Adolph Hitler, and in a way she's stealing words back. He was destroying people with words, and she steals books from book burnings and all types of other places, and she shares these stories with the young Jewish man hiding in her basement, and she reads them in the bomb shelters to calm people down.

So in a way, she's stealing the words back, and she's rewriting her own beautiful story through this ugly world that surrounds her.

YDSTIE: What made you decide to have Death himself, or Death itself, narrate this story?

Mr. ZUSAK: Well, I thought I'm writing a book about war, and there's that old adage that war and death are best friends, but once you start with that idea, then I thought, well, what if it's not quite like that? Then I thought what if death is more like thinking, well, war is like the boss at your shoulder, constantly wanting more, wanting more, wanting more, and then that gave me the idea that Death is weary, he's fatigued, and he's haunted by what he sees humans do to each other because he's on hand for all of our great miseries.

YDSTIE: As Death introduces himself at the beginning of the book, it's some of the most wonderful and evocative writing, I think, in the book, and I wonder if you would read something from page four for us.

Mr. ZUSAK: (Reading) I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You'll know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time I'll be standing over you. As genially as possible your soul will be in my arms (unintelligible) will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.

At that moment, you'll be lying there. I rarely find people standing up. You'll be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery, a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I'll hear after that will be my own breathing and a sound of the smell of my footsteps.

The question is what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying? Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky, dark, dark chocolate.

YDSTIE: One of the things that makes Death so fascinated with Liesel Meminger, the book thief, is that she manages to escape over and over.

Mr. ZUSAK: Yeah, she's always around this kind of action in the book, but what saves her is a love of story and a love of books and really a love of people as well, and it comes back to that idea of her rewriting her own role through this world.

YDSTIE: And it saves her as the bombs begin to fall on her, on her small town.

Mr. ZUSAK: Yes, she's in the basement writing her own story about living in this time and the people she has loved and the things she's done that have been beautiful, the things she's done that are awful, and that's really what saves her in the end, the fact that she's started writing and she has a love of that, and the idea that she has the power to rewrite her own story through all of this.

YDSTIE: Now as I understand it, you've written this book for young adults. It's become popular among adults as well. But what audience were you shooting for?

Mr. ZUSAK: I wasn't shooting exactly for an audience. I'm having bigger problems when I'm writing. Do the images work? Does the story work? Does the dialogue work? Are these characters real to me? As far as this categorization of books, the way I see it is there are really a hundred-odd categories of books plus one, and on the top shelf at home, I've got the books I love, my favorite books, and that's the type of book that I want to write.

And for me, I've found that it's a great risk to underestimate teenagers as well. There are teenagers out there who have been given this book, and it's not just a book that says here is a book about you, here is book about your problems. It's more like here is a book for you, but you've gotta step up to read this, and teenagers will surprise us every time, I find.

YDSTIE: Markus Zusak is the author of The Book Thief. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. ZUSAK: Thank you very much for having me.

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Books Featured In This Story

The Book Thief
The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

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