Markus Zusak, Sophie Nelisse on The Book Thief film

Sophie Nelisse, teen star of the big screen adaptation of The Book Thief. Picture: 20th Century Fox/Contributed
Sophie Nelisse, teen star of the big screen adaptation of The Book Thief. Picture: 20th Century Fox/Contributed
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AS the beloved international bestseller The Book Thief is brought to the big screen, star Sophie Nelisse and author Markus Zusak, talk about the impact of sharing stories

The first book that Liesel Meminger takes is from the graveside of her brother. It’s to remind her of him. She can’t read, but even without being able to decipher the marks printed on each page, Liesel knows that the book is special. This first theft marks the beginning of her lifelong obsession. Books are Liesel’s addiction, her escape, they are her adventure and her salvation.

Liesel is one of the most popular characters in fiction of recent years. The protagonist of Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel The Book Thief, she is the orphaned daughter of German communist activists who is taken in by a middle aged couple, the Hubermanns, in 1938.

Liesel is a good German girl, with Swastika badges sewn on to her school jacket, she can sing the songs of the Hitler Youth. But her life changes when the Hubermanns agree to hide the son of a Jewish man who saved Hans’s life in the Great War.

The Book Thief is an international bestseller. It has been translated into more than 40 languages and spent 230 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Liesel, the beating heart of the novel, has become a beloved heroine. It’s ironic then that when French-Canadian actress, Sophie Nelisse, got the call to audition for the role in the film adaptation of the novel, there was a complication. Nelisse, 13, was, at that time, training seriously as a gymnast with the intention of competing in the Rio Olympics.

“I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to audition,” she says, “because if I got the part it would mean giving up my dream.” She decided to do it just for fun, assuming that she wouldn’t actually win the role. Such was her nonchalance she went into the audition without having read either the script for the film or the book. Surviving the first audition, she was invited to a second in Los Angeles. On the plane flying from her home in Montreal, Canada, she read the script.

“It was the first time a script made me cry,” she says. “By the time I had my third audition in Berlin, I loved the character and the story so much. I was so, so happy when I got the part.”

If Nelisse, who has both film and television credits to her name in her native Canada, felt a pressure bringing Liesel to the screen, she’s forgotten about it. She was, she says, helped by the atmosphere on set, which was so friendly and upbeat, despite the subject matter of the film, that she felt entirely comfortable. And given the calibre of the acting talent with whom Nelisse shares the screen, Geoffrey Rush in sparkling, charming form and a ferociously bad-tempered Emily Watson as Liesel’s adoptive parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, that’s no mean feat. As a lesson in screen acting it must have been quite the masterclass.

“I could have sat and watched them all day every day,” she says. “Emily is a bit more of a method actor than Geoffrey, she really stayed in character. She’s so smart and so concentrated all the time, but I’m a bit more like Geoffrey, it’s only when they say ‘action’ that I completely go into character. He does it perfectly.”

In fact, Nelisse hadn’t seen any of the work of either Rush or Watson before she got on set. Well almost none of it. “Obviously I’d seen Geoffrey in Pirates of the Caribbean,” she says sheepishly, “but I didn’t know what else he’d done. And when I was told that I was acting with Emily Watson, I thought they meant Emma Watson. I was like ‘Oh my god, mom, I’m playing with Emma Watson’. And she was like ‘no, it’s Emily’.” Nelisse giggles.

For Zusak, Nelisse captures the spirit of his character and translates it directly on to the screen. She is, he says, “amazing”.

The Book Thief was first published in 2005. Zusak was 30 when he wrote it. He’d already written four novels, each for young adults, but none of them showed the same scope or ambition as The Book Thief. He had intended it to be a novella, but it grew into something much more dense and complex. “In hindsight, I should have seen it coming,” he says. “I wanted that book to really mean something to me, as with every book you start, but it ended up meaning everything.”

Zusak’s parents were immigrants from Germany who went to Australia. Neither of them could speak any English when they arrived. They learned. Later, when they were married and had children, it was the stories they told of their childhoods during the Second World War that fired their son Markus’s imagination. When it came to writing his novel, it was those stories he called upon. Two events in particular had grabbed Zusak’s imagination: the bombing of Munich and the whipping of a teenage boy and the emaciated Jew being marched through the streets, to whom he’d offered a piece of bread, by a Nazi soldier.

“Every family contains its own stories, but somehow every family also has one family story so for ours it’s the story of both my parents coming to Australia with nothing really other than their stories. And those are about growing up during and just after World War II.

“I remember sitting in our kitchen in Sydney and the weather outside was beautiful but when my mum and dad would tell us their story it was as though a piece of Europe came into that room. We grew up, my brother and my two sisters, hearing about cities that were on fire and ground that was covered in ice. Going into bomb shelters and emerging out into a different world.”

The characters of The Book Thief are composites of people that Zusak heard about when he was growing up through the stories his parents and their friends, most of whom were immigrants from Germany and Austria. The experience that Zusak documents is that of ordinary Germans caught up in the Nazi onslaught, people who were living under Nazi rule, but far from being party members.

“They were usually thinking about how to do the best thing by their family or the people around them,” he says. “My dad told me his father was called ‘the Jew painter’ because he still painted for the Jewish people who lived in their community. He didn’t join the Nazi Party and he didn’t get work as a result of it.

“Those were the stories I knew, stories of daily life. One of the most vivid I remember was from my mum who said that her parents were always arguing on Hitler’s birthday because her dad didn’t want to put the Nazi flag in the window whereas his wife was worried that he’d be taken away if it didn’t appear. But what it meant to me was that people didn’t want to hang the flag.”

The characters Zusak created are fictional, but the influence of his family exists on every page. He says that the book wouldn’t be what it is if his father wasn’t a house painter as his father was before him and as Zusak’s brother is too. “If I hadn’t gone painting with my dad when I was a kid, I don’t think I would have had the idea of Max painting over the pages of Mein Kampf so that he and Liesel can write the story of their friendship on top of it.”

Zusak read books voraciously as a child. He was 16 when he made his own first attempt at writing one.

“It’s eight pages and it could be entered into any worst book award,” he says, over a phone line from Los Angeles where the circus that is promotion for the film is taking place around him. “But that’s the perfect way to start because you’re only going to improve.”

Zusak’s charm is that he’s completely down to earth. Humble. And funny. Sitting in his fancy hotel suite in sunny Los Angeles it’s clear that he’s peering through the window at the film world with a kind of wry bemusement. “I’m not from LA,” he says with a laugh. “I remember I used to get calls from a movie executive, it would always be his secretary who’d ring and then she’d say, ‘I’ve got such and such on the line for Markus Zusak’. There was this one time that I was to call him and I couldn’t get through. I was trying and trying and eventually my wife said let me, just in case she was going to have the magic touch on the phone even though she was dialling the same number. Of course it got picked up and my wife just said, ‘I’ve got Markus Zusak here for…’” He laughs. “It’s the only time I ever had a secretary.”

Zusak didn’t adapt his novel into a screenplay, so as the writer of the source material, he’s separate, not quite a hanger on, but of a different world to the movie machine mobilising around the film. The contrasts are fun, of course, from dialling his own phone much to the consternation of the woman who had been sent to his room to dial it for him, to being astonished at the need for a fleet of five cars to transport five people. Zusak is an observer so there’s plenty for him to enjoy. But, for a writer, the process of witnessing his novel being transformed into a movie isn’t necessarily straightforward.

“It’s so many things all at once,” he says. “I think if someone asked me to explain what it’s really been like in five years’ time, I think by then I’d have the answer, but now it’s difficult to say. There are times when it’s exciting but there are times when it’s daunting too. It’s a bit like when your first book gets published – that’s a foreign thing as well.”

Zusak has a keen sense of being an outsider. When he started writing he knew nothing about publishing. He’d never been to a book fair or a festival before he had a book published.

“I had no idea that that’s how you can get published – you meet people. I couldn’t even understand such a thing. Sometimes knowing nothing is the best thing because when you turn up you can only be yourself so if nothing else you’re a breath of fresh air and you don’t have any big expectations. For me it’s been a rollercoaster. The hardest part is when you’re not doing any work, or talking to anyone, then it’s the click click click of making the first ascent, but once it’s actually going you don’t even have time to think and that’s the fun part.”

Zusak is a fascinating proposition – an award-winning, bestselling author, he’s also unfailingly modest, almost shy. He’s most at ease when he’s talking about his family, telling amusing stories about his mum and dad, who he says are both “so funny”.

“When the book was published in Germany, we got a copy of the edition and my dad read both the English and the German versions practically side by side,” he says. “When he finished he said, ‘It’s not exactly that the book is s**t in English, it’s just so much better in German.’” He laughs. “He spent the next hour trying to make up for it, but it only got worse.”

The book was received warmly in Germany which means a great deal to Zusak, not least because it means the stories that his mum and dad brought from Germany to Australia have been in a way, returned. “It felt really special,” he says. “I was bringing those stories back. Something about that felt really right.”

It’s clear that Zusak has learned the gift of storytelling from his mum and dad. His chat flows and he’s funny. But there’s another side to the telling of stories in his family and in his work that’s equally important to him.

“I realise now that when my mum and dad were telling us these things, they were not only telling us about their childhood, they were also in so many ways teaching me how to write. We’re made of stories as much as we’re made of anything.”

• The Book Thief (12A) is on general release from Wednesday