In the small town of Dorsten in Germany’s industrial Westphalia, where Cornelia Funke grew up in the 1960s, the local library served as a bridge to the big wide world outside. Besides the usual Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, there was a wide range of books for children – from fairy tales by the Danish Hans Christian Anderson to CS Lewis’ Narnia books to Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s and those by German writer Michael Ende. Young Funke had inherited a love for stories from her father and her grandmother, and she would greatly look forward to her visits to the library.
“My father and I always walked to the local library to bring back piles of printed treasure. Those walks are amongst my favourite childhood memories, and at the moment, especially vivid in my mind as my father died on New Year’s,” says the German author, who is in India to attend the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival.
Funke, 57, is a heavyweight among children’s authors, known as much for her picture books for toddlers as for her fantasy novels for the young adult, in particular, for her stupendously popular ‘Inkheart’ trilogy and the ‘Mirrorworld’ series. The ‘Inkheart’ trilogy (Inkheart was also made into a movie in 2008, featuring Brendan Fraser in the lead) follows the adventures of Meggie and her father Mo, both of whom can call characters out of stories or fall into stories themselves, while the ‘Mirrorworld’, with its roots deep in fairy and folk tales — “all those lost stories preserving memories of forgotten times, people, places, gods” — is a darker, more dangerous universe.
Even though she writes for children, Funke does not believe in sugarcoating the world for her young readers. “I think once we dare to look at our world, we know that it is even darker. And I learned from my readers that they love to find the truth about the world and the hardship of human existence in a book,” she says.
Often called the German JK Rowling (the two even shared the same British publisher, Barry Cunningham), Funke was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005 for her originality and her ingenuous use of the fantasy genre. “I think fantasy can grasp the mystery and terror of this existence far better than so called realistic writing.
Writers and storytellers always used elements of fantasy to address the big questions we all ask about the world. And what is reality? That we all live on a planet that spins around a ball of fire surrounded by billions of similar systems. The world is fantasy. Another interesting aspect is that only imagining different worlds and realities makes us question this one,” she says.
It’s one of the reasons why she is a fan of Rowling’s writings too. “There is a deep humanity in these books and a mistrust of power and privilege. She boldly addresses themes like torture and racism and she believes as much in friendship as I do…though I still am very upset that she killed Sirius Black,” she says with a laugh.
In Funke’s fictional universe, the family is the cornerstone of her protagonist’s lives. In real life too, her universe has always centred on the home — afternoons and evenings were spent next door, where her grandmother lived, listening to the stories she made up; Funke herself would be called upon to come up with a new Star Trek episode for her brothers every night. She was good at painting, and her family encouraged her to study art, but Funke “wanted to save the world and became a social worker.” When she did begin work as one, she realised two things – that children were resilient little things and that “while I was working with children from often very challenging family backgrounds, I was always painting with them or telling stories.”
After a few years, she went on to study book illustration, though “I felt, for a long time, like a traitor leaving the social work behind. As an illustrator, I often didn’t like the stories I was asked to illustrate. One night, I began to write a story about everything I wished to draw. And suddenly everything came together. I became a storyteller who illustrated her own books and I started supporting charities for children with what I earned. Life had found a way to make me use my talents and do what I originally set out to do,” says Funke, who has just finished writing a sequel to her popular title, Dragon Rider.
Up next is Mirrorworld 4 as well as another surprising addition to the ‘Inkheart’ series called The Colour of Revenge. Also in the pipeline is a sequel to one of her early series – the ‘Ghosthunters’, featuring the adventures of Tom and Hetty. “I wrote them especially for boys who don’t like to read. I plan to write another one this summer, set on the Hollywood Forever graveyard in LA,” she says.