NYTBR essay outtakes, Volume 2: Markus Zusak Interview

I was thrilled to interview Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, a novel I loved. In this interview he mentions To Kill A Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, two classic novels which were originally published for adults, but are hugely popular among teens. Interestingly, several executives at major publishers told me that without a doubt, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye would be published as YA today.

The Book Thief was published as adult in Australia and as young adult in America—how did this come about? Were you surprised at all by its different designations?

It was a result of Australian publishing being (understandably) so much smaller. I submitted The Book Thief to my editor and young adult publisher, who literally walked across the hall to the adult division. I retained the same editor but it was decided within Pan Macmillan that this book would be on the literary fiction list. It was that simple. By comparison, in America, where publishing groups are so much bigger, the decision is more complicated. The adult and children’s divisions of publishing houses don’t seem to be down the corridor, they’re in different buildings, and the publishers don’t seem to know each other very well. I think that’s the main reason I had a novel categorized for adults in Australia and for young adults in America. It wasn’t so much strategic as following common sense. It didn’t surprise me at all that this had happened. I knew The Book Thief wasn’t typical young adult literature (and therefore might have an adult audience), but I also realized it might be suitable for the older percentage of the young adult audience. Of course, these are all thoughts that have come to me well after publication, and they were decisions made by the publishers at the time. I think it’s usually best to stick with the idea that it’s my job to write the book and the publisher’s job to sell it.

How would you define the difference between adult and YA literature?

I’m actually more interested in the difference between young adult literature and young adult films and music. Adults watch films and listen to music that would be considered YA, but there is a resistance to reading YA books. In Australia, one example that always comes to mind is a film called The Year My Voice Broke (1987). Adults were more than willing to watch this film about an adolescent boy and the travails of his life in a small town. Had it been a book, I’m sure it would have been for young adults, and I’m certain its adult audience wouldn’t have been as widespread.

There is often a stigma that adult readers have against literature for children and young adults. Have you encountered this stigma yourself? If so, are there any examples that you can give?

The amount of times I’ve heard a YA writer call themselves ‘just’ a young adult writer is well into double figures. It’s as if it’s easier to write a YA book, which it isn’t. It’s a tough audience, and a discerning one, and it’s such an important period in a person’s life…I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was a teenager. Like millions of other kids, I had read S.E. Hinton’s novels. I can’t imagine S.E. Hinton being just a young adult writer. The thought of that is laughable. Possibly the best example I can give of the stigma attached to young adult literature comes when someone tells me that his or her favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve often wondered how those books would be published today. There would be strong grounds for them to be YA. When you tell a serious adult reader that their favorite book might be a young adult novel, some of them look a little uncomfortable. That being said, there is still another side. Those books transcend categories now because they are loved books. It would just be interesting to see how they would be published today.

Also, when I was interviewed on Good Morning America for The Book Thief, I was originally told that there would be a discussion as to why this was a young adult book. That never happened. The term ‘young adult’ was never mentioned, and apparently, within the next twelve hours the book’s sales increased considerably. I’d be interested to see what might have happened had we discussed it as a YA novel, but I guess I’ll never know.

Do the responses from teen readers differ at all from adult readers’ responses? If you’ve had any responses that have particularly affected you, can you share what they wrote to you?

The responses have mostly been similar, which actually brings me to the realization that young adult readers are looking for the same things in stories as adults. They ask questions about characters and language. They want to be moved by a book and believe it while they’re inside it. Often, it’s the teenagers who will pour their hearts out and give you a deluge of thoughts and emotions.

Do you think part of The Book Thief’s success was that it appeals to such a broad audience of both teens and adults?

The Book Thief‘s success is still a mystery to me. I actually thought it wouldn’t get an audience at all. I thought, A 580 page book set in Nazi Germany, narrated by death…Who wants to read that? Maybe its success is in the very thing that people warn authors against – to risk being trapped in a kind of wasteland between YA and adult fiction. Maybe it’s actually a good place to be. If people are arguing over the right category for the book, they are at least discussing it. It might even lead to a discussion about whether the book is simply a good book, and that’s a positive thing too. After all, when someone loves a book, they never say that they loved that Young Adult Sci-Fi Comedy or that Adult Crime Thriller. They just say ‘I loved that book,’ and that, really, is my goal as a writer.

Did your American publisher actively try to find adult readers? In the UK, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now was assigned both adult and YA publicists and sales teams—was this done for The Book Thief also? In America, do you think it found as many adult readers as young adult ones?

Knopf has definitely made an effort to attract adult readers, from book club notes to advertising in newspapers. I actually believe that more adults than teenagers have read the book in America, mainly because when its big break came, it was treated as if it were a book for adults. In the UK there is a YA and adult edition. As far as sales go, the adult edition is much more successful, but that was expected.

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