German author Cornelia Funke wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up…or live with a tribe of American Indians. She embraced childhood dreams as an adult, too, becoming first an illustrator of children’s stories and board games, and eventually a best-selling children’s author.
Last year, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and for good reason. Her books have been read and adored by countless young people and adults throughout the world. She has published approximately forty novels in German, and has had ten translated into English (see our interview with translator Anthea Bell to learn about the process). Funke has won at least fourteen awards for her work. She’s been called the German JK Rowling…not only because of her popularity but because the worlds she has created are vivid and redefine the meaning of unique. How else to label Inkheart, a story about characters who fall out of a book and into real life? How else to label Inkspell, a story about trying to change a book by rewriting it from within its pages?
Maybe more than anything, what Cornelia Funke does so well is create fantastic and believable worlds and characters. As Time Magazine’s Clive Barker said,
There’s none of the mawkishness or attendant melodrama that so often mars Hollywood entertainment for children. She trusts her (underrated) prose, her moody, unpredictable characters and the instinctive feel of her plots, which are happily devoid of emotional manipulation.
…and which might be why she’s been embraced by an adult audience as well.
A big thank you goes out to Anthea Bell, who helped make this interview possible.
Interview with Cornelia Funke
Q: What was your journey as a writer? When did you realize you wanted to write, and when were you first published?
CF: I first was an illustrator for some years, till I was so bored by the stories I had to illustrate that one night I decided to write my own story to do the pictures I always wanted to do. I was immediately published, in fact, I could choose between several publishers, but it took me another few years, till I realized that I am much more passionate about writing than about illustrating – so since then I only illustrate my own books (except for the picture books).
CF: About 40. [Note: You can visit the German National Library HERE.]
Q: Some of your books are for very young children (The Wildest Brother, Pirate Girl), others are for children just beginning to read “meaty” action-fantasy stories (Dragon Rider; the Ghosthunter series), and others are for the Young Adult crowd (The Thief Lord; the Inkworld series). What are your unique challenges when writing for these different groups? Is it
all about word choice, or must your plots also be constructed differently for these age groups?
CF: Yes, a picture book has to follow different language rules, but it is not easier – and I love to do different things for different ages and also for children who are not eager to read. For them they are as important as the ones who like me already and discovered what a thrill reading can be. As a writer though, I enjoy most to do stories like INKHEART – but I also love to do stories like DRAGONRIDER, which are more playful and are a quite different art. I think about doing another DRAGONRIDER and I hope I still can do that lightness.
CF: On the big books I do research and preparation for about half a year. Then I write the first draft for about 8-1o months and then I do another three drafts, so in all it takes about 2 years.
Q: Your characters have wonderful depth. What is your process for constructing characters? How long does it take for you to really “know” them? Who are your favorites?
CF: Some are there immediately, some take their time to take shape – and they always surprise me. Twigleg from Dragonrider is one of my favourites and all the characters from Inheart and Inkspell (except for the villains, I admit I am not too passionate about them) – Meggie and Mo, Dustfinger, Farid, Roxane and Resa, Fenoglio and of course Elinor, the Black Prince, Battista, Violante. I learn more about them with every chapter and that is a big adventure.
Q: Many haven’t yet heard about your brand new Ghosthunter series. What would you like people to know about it?
CF: I wrote this series in Germany with boys in mind who think a book is a really boring thing. Many schools and teachers in Germany loved to work with them because those boys suddenly read the books in secret behind a bush in the school yard. But I also hear from kids who love Inkheart that they love to read them, so they are just big fun for me to write and hopefully for children to read. I love to make up new ghost abbreviations and I am very fond of Hetty and Tom and a character who joins them in part 4…so…it is just another side of me, a silly side.
Q: Sounds like fun! What are “ghost abbreviations?”
CF: When I started the series in Germany I did ghosthunter-abbreviations for every ghost, which was not that easy to translate into English, but let me see, whether I remember one – yes, the IRG for example, the incredibly revolting ghost.
Q: What draws you to fantasy? Do you think there’s much difference between YA fantasy and fantasy an adult can enjoy?
CF: No, there is no difference. And the wonderful thing about fantasy is that it is the oldest way of story telling – to clad what we feel and fear into disguises and make them more clear, to pass the borders of our every day life and use our imagination for travels into unknown worlds and unlimited experiences.
Q: Your voice is absolutely lovely. One of the things I enjoy most about reading your stories is the poetic feel in many of the passages. You are clearly a great lover of words and word choices. Who are your influences?
CF: Everything I read I guess, everything I hear. For me writing is also about the sound of words, that’s why I always tell children to also get the audio-books of my story. I love to read poetry therefore, but I admire very different kinds of authors – I love both Michael Ondaatje and Graham Greene, Toni Morrison and Susan Minot, Shel Silverstein and Philip Pullman. I want a different dish of writing every day.
Q: Have you ever written in another style? Adult? Short stories? Poetry?
CF: No. I hope that my stories in some way include all these genres.
Q: What motivates you to write these stories?
CF: They come to me and I test whether they make me passionate enough to spend a year or two of my life on them…and then I go.
Q: Though I love all your books, I must admit to a soft spot for your Inkworld series. The concept, characters that can be called out of stories or fall into those stories themselves, is so unique. Being able to meet our own invented characters is probably something every author dreams about. Is this where your idea for this series came from? How did it evolve?
CF: Every reader knows the feeling that characters in a book are very real or sometimes even more real than the people we know, because books allow us to look into their souls. So the idea comes quite natural to a book lover like me and then the characters showing up added the rest – and a lot of research!
Q: What kind of research did you do?
CF: Reading, looking at paintings, costumes, weapons, castles, flowers. trees, fairies…..
Q: Can you give us any hints about what to expect in the final Inkworld book, Inkdawn? And why did you decide on that particular title?
CF: I wanted the title to express that the dark story I told in Inkspell will see some light and hope in part 3. It will be very much about the Bluejay, and Violante and Orpheus will play a much bigger part, as does Resa. There will be questions answered such as: will Farid and Meggie stay together (in fact there will be another boy), will they stay in the Inkworld? What happens to Elinor? And- of course – will Dustfinger come back?
Q: Once the Inkworld trilogy is wrapped up, will you visit those characters again? What will you work on next?
CF: I won’t say never. I love them too much, so you never know, but my next project will either be another dragon rider or a story set in Salisbury, England…or something completely different. Let’s see…
Q: You mentioned perhaps returning to Dragon Rider and writing a follow-up story to it. Would the story be set in the new world they found? Are there any thoughts you can share at this point?
Q: Do you have many stories waiting for your attention? How do you decide which story to work on at any given time, and how many story ideas do you work on at one time?
CF: I work only at one – and sometimes at some movie projects at the same time. I have some waiting on my shelves and which one is next is really a decision of my heart.
Q: Have you ever worked with a critique group or partner?
CF: I only do this for movie projects – and enjoy it very much. And I work with illustrators on picture books.
Q: I recently saw (and very much enjoyed) the film version of The Thief Lord. I’ve heard that Dragon Rider and Inkheart are also soon to be adapted for the silver screen. How do you feel about your books being converted into film?
CF: I love other artists to tell my story, whether on a screen or on a stage and I think it is thrilling to find other stories within my stories, strengthen motives, I didn’t see or learn more about my characters by looking at them through somebody else’s eyes.
Q: You mentioned movie projects. Are you involved in the making of your own books into film, or do you work on other kinds of projects? (If so, what kind of movies are you making?) Are you writing screenplays, producing, etc…?
CF: Some of my books are turned into movies at the moment, and I am especially involved with INKHEART, as I am also a producer on that project. [Note: click HERE and HERE for some inside information!] But additionally to that I have been working on a movie project with a producer, which is not based on one of my books and hopefully one day will be a big adventure movie. I don’t write the script though. This is just about developing characters and a detailed story line. Much fun.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received about writing and/or about the publishing business?
CF: Never trust your very first idea, look for the ones hiding under it, they are more original – I got this advice for illustration, but it works for all forms of art!
Q: What is one thing you wish you would have known when first starting out in the publishing business? And do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
CF: Well, I would not sell any rights except for my book rights to my publisher. Stage, movie, audio – a writer should keep all this. but otherwise my experiences were all very, very good, and I am friends with my publishers.
Q: Have you ever had writer’s block, and if so, what did you do to overcome it?
CF: I never had it so far.
Q: How do you keep the writing fresh for yourself? Is it important to keep striving for better things, to keep changing your goals? What are your goals right now?
CF: To get better. That is my goal for every book.
Thank you, Cornelia Funke, for a wonderful interview!