Australian author Markus Zusak received multiple offers from Hollywood to turn his novel The Messenger into a film or TV series in the US.
“I think there were about three or four, maybe five opportunities along the way, and some just didn’t work out. Some I rejected,” he says.
Another of his novels, international bestseller The Book Thief, was made into a Hollywood blockbuster.
But Zusak decided any screen adaptation of The Messenger should take place in Australia.
“I recall one in particular around the time The Book Thief was doing really well, and on the back of that these offers were coming through â€¦ and I think it was pretty good money that was being put up,” he says.
“But I just started to feel like, especially that first chapter of the book – these four friends on the floor in the bank, one of them yells out to the bank robber to hurry up – to me there was a real Australian sensibility in that.
“And I thought, I feel like this adaptation, if there is to be one, I would love it to be made here, because the characters feel Australian, the dialogue feels really Australian, the whole environment does as well.”
More than two decades after he wrote it, The Messenger has now been turned into an Australian TV series on the ABC.
“In the end Lingo [Pictures] came along, they’re a great Australian company, and then the ABC- you don’t get any more Australian than that. So it was worth holding out, that’s for sure,” he says.
Zusak says he thinks the TV series turned out better than the book.
“I wasn’t lying either,” he says.
“I’m incapable of not telling the truth, I think because people find me out too easily.
“I just really fell in love with it, and what more can you ask for than that when your book gets translated to screen?”
Guardian of the story
The Messenger was first published 21 years ago when Zusak was in his 20s, a few years before the huge success of The Book Thief.
It tells the story of directionless 19-year-old Ed Kennedy (played in the TV series by William McKenna) who, after stopping a robbery, starts receiving playing cards with cryptic messages written on them from an anonymous sender, each one leading him on a quest to assist someone in need.
"[Ed] was chosen to be a superhero but he has no superhero powers," Zusak says. "The irony is his actual superpower is his ordinariness and his humanness."
Zusak was an executive producer on the TV series but says: "I really didn't do that much apart from writing the book that was the source material.
"I think, again, honesty is always best," he laughs. "The worst is when you start fumbling around on an answer because you don't know the answer, or you're trying to make it sound better than you actually are.
"In the end it was more just basically consulting on the scripts. That was really all, and that became a really easy job because the scripts were always really strong.
"My role as an executive producer was to sort of be a guardian of how that story feels, and were the writers of the scripts maintaining that, or if they're changing it are they changing it in a way that improves it? And I think there was a bit of both.
One of the big changes in the series is that it expands the roles of Ed's three best friends, Audrey (Alexandra Jensen), Marv (Chris Alosio) and Ritchie (Kartanya Maynard) - the latter character being changed from male in the book to female for TV.
"Across the eight episodes we get to know more of the characters more deeply. They're all more complex than they are in the book," Zusak says.
He says the series also makes the world the story is set in feel bigger.
"That was why I thought, yeah, this is a better achievement than the book is. And I think it's easier for me to say that with 20 years of distance between myself and the book coming out."
'I was braver back then'
Zusak says looking back at his book The Messenger gets easier with time.
"What I think I've come to understand about the novels of the past and all your previous work is that you write your next book to atone for the sins of the last one. After quite a long time after that, those sins don't seem so great anymore," he says.
"You're most guarded and worried and just cautious about the last thing you've written, I think. As soon as your book comes out you go, 'Oh, there's that hole in it'. Or, 'I should have worked better on that sentence'.
"And I think after a while you allow yourself to be nostalgic about it because you're not guarding it anymore."
He says he was a "much looser" writer when he worked on The Messenger, compared to his style today.
"I think what happens as you get older as a writer, is you get better at certain things but you also lose something by knowing more. And because you know more, you worry more. And there's something to be said for naivety.
"There's something to be said for being a bit more clueless, because you're more willing to just go bounding into something and going, 'Yeah, that's really good. I'm going to leave that,' as opposed to then picking it to pieces and maybe ruining it.
"I think I was I was braver back then.
"I think it'd be really hard for me to write that book now."
Next book on the way
Zusak reveals the book he's currently writing is a "memoir type thing" â€“ and he says he gets why some authors don't want to discuss projects part way through them.
"There's nothing worse than the writer or the artist saying, 'No, you may not look at what I'm working on'. I mean I understand why that's the case, because you're kind of vulnerable at that time," he says.
"I'm trying to finish something this year and for the first time it's not fiction. I'm basically writing a sort of - I guess you'd call it a memoir type thing. And it's not about writing, necessarily. And so that's what I'm working on at the moment mainly."
Zusak says his parents will feature in the book, as will the Sutherland Shire in southern Sydney, where he grew up.
"I think we can't escape our childhoods, and sometimes that's not a great thing. But I think a lot of the time it's a good thing. It's an honest part of where you're from. So I'm looking forward to finishing. We'll see how we go.
"It's taken me back to that first time [writing]. I think the more you can be reminded about why you started writing in the first place the better, and trying something new, trying something that isn't fiction has made me feel like that again.
"I'm definitely writing with a looser feeling than I have in the last decade or so, that's for sure.
"Hopefully I'll be done by the end of the year and there will be a book out next year, if it's any good."
Watch all episodes of The Messenger on ABC iview, or on ABC TV on Sundays at 8.20pm.