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Friday at the Writers' Festival started with Markus Zusak and Sonya Hartnett, two precocious Australian writers who also have a considerable international following. Jill Eddington began by asking them how they came to writing, at which point it transpired that Hartnett wrote her first novel aged thirteen, and got it published. When asked how, she basically thanked the arrogance of youth; she "didn't know she couldn't".

Zusak also began writing young (age sixteen), but it wasn't until his fourth novel that he achieved publication. He said he felt lucky not to have been published earlier, and that he rather pitied some writers who achieve instant success at a young age, because some of them then feel no need to keep growing and improving, whereas he had to constantly push himself to get better.

When asked about why his books are so successful, Zusak said that it was important for him to write a book that only he could write - as in, it has his personal stamp. Although examining the darker side of human nature (as he does in The Book Thief) might seem brave, he didn't feel brave while writing it. He simply writes the things that come out of him, and wants to make them work; he wants to do what's right for the book.

The Book Thief arose from the stories his parents told him; he simply scratched the surface of those stories, reached inside and pulled out the world of The Book Thief. Then he had to realise it.

Sonya Hartnett agreed that you need to write about what's inside you, about what appeals to you. She also said that she rather enjoys writing about the classic grand themes - she just finds subjects like death more interesting than other ones. She also sees it as something of a challenge: writing on war and death in a children's book is more challenging than writing on those subjects for adults. Her latest book, The Midnight Zoo, is set in what was then Czechoslovakia during the Second World War.

Zusak talked about the motif of books in The Book Thief as a way to allow us to think beyond the tragedy of the situation. That said, he didn't plan that from the outset; it was something that grew as the book developed. He described it as a kind of 3D dot puzzle, one that you stare at for ages until suddenly, there's the Acropolis. And once you've seen the Acropolis, you can't unsee it.

(A side note here; Zusak also said that [name redacted for spoiler purposes]* was his favourite character right from the beginning, but he never considered not letting him die. You have to do what you think is right for the book, not for the character or even the author.)

The two writers talked about their different processes of writing. Hartnett's is extremely organised; she starts off with what she described as "clouds", which I guess are the basic tenets of the story, e.g. "What do I want to write about?" "A zoo." "Who are the characters?" "Animals." "What's distinctive about these animals?" "They've been abandoned." "Why?" - and so on until she's figured out that there are enough clouds to make a book. If there aren't enough clouds, she doesn't write the story.

She then uses colour-coded pieces of cardboard to lay out the various plot threads visually (kind of like a screenwriting storyboard) and ensure that the book is balanced.

Zusak's process is less organised but perhaps more mathematical - he uses chapter headings to break the story down (he described this as creating "a framework to hang the story on"). For example, he spent a long time (and many pages) on the chapter headings for The Book Thief, and this was very much part of the process of getting the book "right".

It's hard not to wonder just how intimidated Zusak is by writing a follow-up to The Book Thief. Jill Eddington asked him twice when his new book was coming out, and he said he's missed several deadlines already and has stopped agreeing to them. He also said that he felt his three unpublished novels plus his first four published ones represented his "first" book, and The Book Thief was his second - that's how big the book seems to be to him. That said, he seemed in no doubt that the third book (working title: Bridge of Clay) will be out at some point.

Personally I can't wait to read Zusak's "third" book (and several of Sonya Hartnett's books are also on my to-read list) - but I'm happy to give him all the time he feels he needs to get it right.

*If you want to know which character this was, comment and I'll tell you. I just didn't want to spoil anyone.


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