FINDING THE GEMS: A Tribute to Markus Zusak
She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Liesel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. He tasted dusty and sweet. He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist’s suit collection.
–Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
If you have read and loved Zusak’s book, you may have come across his description of his writing: “I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it.” When I first read this, I immediately thought, “Yes!” I knew I wanted to try to do that same thing: to make sure there was one sparkling bit of language on each page that would make a reader sigh or smile or cry or remember when. Zusak’s idea of a “gem on [each page]” has never left me.
Zusak further mentions that some of his images show up during initial writing and others get re-written dozens of times or even removed entirely. When I’m feeling lazy or in a hurry, I use these ideas to remind myself to slow down and let the words take as much time as they need. At the very least, Zusak’s words remind me to make a notation to re-visit an image later, when my mind is fresher.
Zusak continues, “It’s probably what I love most about writing—that words can be used in a way that’s like a child playing in a sandpit, re-arranging things, swapping them around.”
I love this image, because at its best, this is what writing is like for me. Playful and full of give-and-take. When too many of my sentences begin with a subject, continue to a verb, and end with a direct object, I know it’s time to play. How can I switch things around? Make them interesting? If I’ve written too many long, comma-filled sentences in a row (yes, Mr. Robinson-from-ninth-grade-English, I was listening!) then I know it’s time to pop in a very short sentence or two. This kind of word-play is, to me, soothing and irresistible.
While the story is what starts me out when I write, the words themselves are what propel me through the dark days when I’m sure what I’ve written is awful dreck. How can I dredge through this muck and find that gem? And in the end, this provides a nice balance: spending some days writing the story down as fast as my fingers can fly and then sinking down into the words on a single page and swapping them around until they shine.
So thank you, Markus Zusak, for giving me that image of a gem that can be placed upon each page. Thank you for the hours of intense and often frustrating labor, and thank you for helping me, in the end, to make my stories a little bit better.
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief, (2005, rpt; New York; Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, 2007), p. 536.
Markus Zusak, Afterword, “In His Own Words—A Conversation with Markus Zusak,” The Book Thief, (2005, rpt; New York; Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, 2007), p. 11.