The write stuff: Author Markus Zusak. Photo: Tim Bauer

Scene 1: Liesel, a young girl in a small town on the outskirts of Munich in the Second World War, looks at the deep February snow and begs her foster parents to let her go outside to play on her sleigh. Suddenly, bombs rain around her: on either side of the house and across the road. Windows burst from their frames, tiles erupt from the roof. Upstairs her foster mother is at her desk, halfway through writing a letter, now sitting under the open sky, the ceiling blown away by the blast. Across the road, another girl was at the lunch table with her grandmother when a bomb hit their house.

"It was dreadful," remembers Liesel, now a grandmother herself. "The little girl was actually still alive. They brought her over to our house but then she died."

Scene 2: A moderately successful 30-year-old author of "young adult" books is crying uncontrollably as he finishes a new novel. It is 2005. He has stayed up all night working; it's five in the morning by the time he hits the last full stop. "I was pretty devastated," remembers Markus Zusak. He has killed his creations, become the voice and action of Death, the book's narrator, hurled Allied bombs down around Liesel, on those he loves: the characters he knitted from true family stories, the lives of ordinary people in Nazi Germany. Now he feels empty, and he fears hardly anyone will want to read what has taken all his talent and experience to create.

In the beginning … family storyteller Elisabeth Zusak, Markus's mother.In the beginning: Family storyteller Elisabeth Zusak, Markus's mother. Photo: PageThirteen

Scene 3: On a film set near Berlin an Australian actor sits in a recreated World War II German air-raid shelter, accordion in hand. He is teaching old clowning tricks to two young actors - a girl and a boy - between takes, lessons he learnt in Paris in the 1970s. As the crew go about the laborious process of setting up, this trio is "singing" The Blue Danube Waltz - but they are doing it as laughing and sniffing and coughing. "Cough-cough-cough-cough-cough. Cough-cough. Cough-cough. It was fantastic," says Geoffrey Rush afterwards. Then the director calls for attention, and puffs of dust and the muffled sound of falling bombs fill the room. And ... action.
Scenes from the story of The Book Thief span continents and generations, within its pages and beyond. And now one of the most successful Australian novels of the past decade (more than 8 million copies sold worldwide) is a Hollywood movie (released this month in the US and in cinemas in Australia on January 9), complete with a John Williams soundtrack and Academy Awards buzz. Meanwhile, the author, Markus Zusak, is torn between his joy at where his troublesome book has brought him, and the consequences for his next book: still not finished after eight years' work as he labours under heightened expectations and distractions.