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Star children's author Cornelia Funke at 60

Stefan Dege kbm
December 10, 2018

She launched to fame with "Dragon Rider" in 1997 and has since become one of Germany's most successful authors. In an interview with DW, star kids' author Cornelia Funke spoke about why words can be challenging.

Cornelia Funke
Image: Dressler Verlag/Jörg Schwalfenberg

Cornelia Funke cheerfully answers the phone at 9:30 a.m. California time. She had already been to the ocean, written a bit, made a few calls, and drunk her coffee. Every workday begins with a good cup of coffee, she says.

Funke laughs sincerely and frequently, then speaks thoughtfully about her life, her work with words and pictures, and her relationship to fantasy and reality. Her children's fantasy novels, which she illustrated herself, have sold 20 million copies and been translated into 37 languages.

DW: Ms. Funke, you have said that the world is full of stories. Which do you find particularly worthy of telling?

Cornelia Funke: I am always interested in stories about people. Although I increasingly think that our species is a problematic one on this planet, I am still fascinated by it.

I'm also fascinated by stories that stem from a particular place. That started with "The Thief Lord," which wouldn't have come into being if it weren't for Venice. In the stories I choose to tell, places always play the role of a hero.

I have also always been interested in the non-human and our relationship to that – whether plants or animals or imaginary creatures. I'm interested in everything that scratches at and questions the so-called reality that we perceive.

Read more:  Cornelia Funke: 'Inkheart'

What scratches at your reality?

When I'm standing on the street in Hamburg and there is one of those stepping stones under my feet, which is there to remind me of the Jews that were deported from the house I'm standing in front of, then that hugely scratches at the reality I find myself in at that moment. I might just have come back from a peaceful walk across the "Isemarkt" market square, for example.

It scratches at my reality when a bird flies by me and I imagine how it views reality.

"The Griffin's Feather" by Cornelia Funke in German
'The Griffin's Feather' will be available in English next yearImage: Dressler Verlag

It scratches at my reality when someone passes me by who has a different color of skin. How does that change the experience with world? We all know it does.

It constantly scratches at my reality that we can perceive this world so differently. I find it absurd I'm asked so often why I write fantasy, because I think that reality is fantastic. And the only way to get closer to it is to write fantasy.

Is that how you create your fantasy worlds?

The world is fantastic. I don't have to create anything. Everyone who tries to get closer to the reality of this world will realize that it is, in its essence, fantastic. You just need to stand in a big city and look around. You'll notice that all of it has been created by humans. And humans really like to believe in the illusion that they have control over everything. That we decide how our lives work and how this world works. That we are the ones who can destroy this planet. But it's the other way around: This planet will destroy us.

In this regard, humans are surprisingly immature and think their own reality to be so important. But this way of seeing the world is in the end always challenged, by illness, loss, love, death…our own mortality.

You are also a skilled illustrator. Does thinking in images help you to write?

What came first – the chicken or the egg? Am I an illustrator because I think visually? Or has my visual thinking grown stronger because I've always liked to draw? I would say that the visual thinking comes first. If you can draw well – which I thankfully have always been able to – it's sometimes easier to first capture an idea in images. So yes, my writing is deeply impacted by the fact that I am a visual person and distrust words.

You distrust words? Can you give us an example?

We constantly use words to try to get closer to what has no words. Music is in that superior to words, because it can easily express the wordless things – words always have something abstract about them that is controlled by our minds. Poetry gets often closer to what music can do.

But when you write prose like I do, then the aim is to weave that which has no words in between the words. You can do that for example through the sound of language. The sound still contains more than the word itself.

Read more: 10 German children's books classics you can read in English 

Are you being self-critical?

hmmmm, I wouldn't call it self-criticism. Instead I would call it criticism of the material I work with. I see myself as a craftsperson, as a sculptor of words. The word – my raw material – has its limitations, which I constantly struggle with. And sometimes I am more successful and sometimes I'm less successful. It's as if I were painting a picture – sometimes it looks better and sometimes it looks worse, depending on how I use the brush and the paint.

In the sequel to "Dragon Rider," The Griffon's Feather," the main protagonist Ben embarks on a dangerous mission. He wants to rescue the Pegasus from extinction. Do you want to convey a message to your young readers with this story?

Illustration by Cornelia Funke
Funke illustrates her books herselfImage: Dressler Verlag/Cornelia Funke

I'm always very careful with messages, but with this book I have actually gone the furthest in this direction. I believe that the alienation of our children from the natural world is far more dangerous than getting upset about children not reading anymore.

Children spend too much time at school. Time to experience the world directly is taken away from them. The world is conveyed to them through adults' filters and what we consider to be important knowledge. Children no longer have time to play outside. They're not left unsupervised anymore.

I'm currently in the process of buying 10 hectares (nearly 35 acres) of land in the Santa Monica Mountains to create a wilderness sanctuary – I’ll call it the Rim of Heaven– and I intend to offer workshops up there and bring city children into nature. I'm very concerned that children will be afraid of the natural world one day and will loose their feeling for this world.

Then "The Griffin's Feather" is an encouraging book?

Yes! I would be very happy if children do something after reading it – if they rescue frogs or want to see an orangutan in its natural habitat.

You've said that children should take their dreams very, very seriously and shouldn't believe anyone who tells them that they can't reach them. What is it that you dream of, Ms. Funke?

At the moment, I'm dreaming of this piece of land. And of the tree houses and teepees that will be on it, and that I'll have city children there that lose their fear of picking up a lizard. That's my big dream at the moment.


Read more: Star kids' author Cornelia Funke releases 'Dragon Rider' sequel after 19 years


The interview was conducted by DW's Stefan Dege in 2016.