TAMPA — Popular author Markus Zusak will speak to high school students and other fans this week during a visit to Tampa Preparatory School.
Tampa Prep's freshmen studied the Australian author's The Book Thief, a novel set in Germany during World War II. Students in the senior honors courses read Zusak's I Am the Messenger, about an underage cabdriver who inadvertently stops a bank robbery.
English teacher Stephanie Cardillo, a fan of Zusak's books herself, said she helped arrange the visit because students rarely find books they really enjoy. They've been counting the days until Zusak's visit.
"The kids really recognize what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this is for them," Cardillo said.
In anticipation of his visit, the St. Petersburg Times caught up with the 36-year-old last week and asked a few questions.
How did the idea for the New York Times bestseller The Book Thief turn into a book?
I knew there was always a book there. I usually describe it by saying that it was like scratching a small hole somewhere in my mind and then reaching in to find this whole world in there that I knew. The first research I did was my childhood — hearing stories of my parents' childhoods.
The point I hit wasn't so much knowing that there was a book, but realizing it was a bigger book than I had intended to write. The Book Thief was originally supposed to be a 100-page novella, but it grew into something much bigger. It changed, too, from being a book that meant something to me to a book that meant everything to me.
Why do you think your books are so appealing to teenagers?
That's where I have to say I don't know. I really don't. The best advice my dad ever gave me as a kid was when I lost a race at athletics, as I often did. I thought I'd won and he said, "I did too, but you made one big mistake. You didn't win by enough. You have to win by so much that no one can take it off you." In writing terms, I don't see that metaphor as a desire to be better than anyone else — not at all. My goal is to write so much like myself that no one else could have written that particular book, and that's all I try to do, to write completely like me and hope that it resonates in some way.
What books have you enjoyed recently that you wished you would have read as a young adult?
I'm grateful for the books I did read as a young adult: The Outsiders and Rumble Fish by S.E Hinton, What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
The interesting thing is that I was given Catch-22 as a 16-year-old and couldn't read it. The point is it was shown to us by our high school teacher of the time. They knew that a lot of us wouldn't get through it, but we might later on; we knew it was there.
I'm grateful to those teachers for that — for having the courage to give us books we might not like at the time but would appreciate later on.
What advice do you have for young people who aspire to become writers?
I think the main thing is to not be afraid to fail. You'll be rejected by publishers. You'll have days of complete lack of faith in your abilities. But you have to keep coming back. That's when you know you're a writer, when you take the failures and appear at the desk again, over and over again.
What are you working on? How have you changed as a writer since your first book was published?
My new book is called Bridge of Clay. It's different again from what I've done before, and I hope it will be better than the last book. I've changed in just about every way since I started writing. I'm both less patient and more patient, more and less confident … The only thing that hasn't changed is that I still end up at the desk somehow. I have a lot of days where I'm plagued by doubt and have trouble with the work, but I always come back. Maybe that's just because I'm not qualified to do anything else, but I'm not so sure.
Ileana Morales can be reached at email@example.com.