Ottawa Writers Festival: Fashioning a fantastical world with Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke. Photo: Thorsten Wulff

German fantasy writer Cornelia Funke has carved a major place on the world stage with books such as Inkheart trilogy and Dragon Rider. These days she’s living in Malibu, California and writing away with the Pacific Ocean as a soundscape. One of her recent projects is a collaboration with the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on a literary sequel/backstory to the film Pan’s Labyrinth. Before her appearance at the Ottawa International Writers Festival Monday, she answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Ms. Funke, great to meet you by email. Were you always a writer, keeping diaries and jotting down poems as a young person?

A. No, not at all :). At 11, I wanted to be an astronaut and I first was a social worker working with wild kids and then an illustrator, before I started writing — except for one short story I wrote at 17 (It luckily vanished in time and space). I think I believed that writing is too magical a skill to be performed by mortals and that one either has to be very old or dead. Only when the stories I had to illustrate bored me to death did I decide to try myself. To then realize that I actually love to do it.

Q. Tell me about the influence of the children you worked with as a social worker.

A. The children inspired the way I wrote my stories later on (some, especially The Thief Lord wouldn’t exist without them) both as heroes and as audience. But the strongest inspiration probably was the fact, that I was born to be a storyteller and couldn’t suppress that anymore. I grew up making up StarTrek episodes for my brothers every night in those dark times when only two TV channels existed and one had to wait very long for the next episode.

Q. Your books are considered fantasy. Are you attracted to stories in this genre? 

A. I think our reality is so fantastic that we can only do it full justice with fantastic storytelling. Fantasy describes fears and hopes, the enchantment and the terror of human existence in images and visual concepts. Dragons, ghosts, witches, magical tools … all that can often help us grasp hidden layers of our human experience. So yes, of course, I read mythology when I was young. It talks about all the Big Questions we still take seriously when we are young. (Later on we get very good at forgetting about them) What is death? What is Good and Evil? Does life have a purpose?

Q. What writers or books inspired you?

A. When I was very young Astrid Lindgren, Michael Ende, Mark Twain. Then as a teenager Narnia and — much better — The Once and Future King by T.H. White. But of course, I also read Dickens, Stendhal, Kipling, Stevenson, Steinbeck etc. etc. I was a book eater.

Q. Fantasy is a genre that allows the reader to engage with other worlds and understand truths about this world that we live in? Is that why you write books like Inkheart? 

A. I agree. Imaging other realities makes us see ours so much more clearly — and question it. It also helps us practice to see through the eyes of others — humans, animals. plants. Stories allow us to be shape shifters, which may make us more tolerant and understanding. At least we can hope it does. I wrote Inkheart as a ‘bookophile’ — it is my love song to the printed and to the spoken word.

Q. I love mythology personally. The stories of the gods and goddesses are sort of like the fantasies we see today. Why do you think these stories connect with people?

A. They deal with the Big Questions. We all want to find meaning in our lives, a beginning and an ending (and maybe a new beginning:) and guidance at crossroads, protection in danger, someone who hears and fulfills our wishes … as gods and angels do at times

Q. Tell me more about Inkheart?

A. I always wanted to write about someone coming out of a book. I think every book eater understands that. But I didn’t know how they came out — without being Liliputians on a shelf! Then I remembered my passion for the human voice and how all words start being sound

Q. A movie was made of the book (trilogy) how did you find that experience. Did you have script control?

A. Yes, in parts, but Inkheart taught me that even the most passionate crew and a lot of input from the writer can’t prevent a movie from going wrong. The shoot was nevertheless an unforgettable experience.

Q. What does success mean to you?

A. To come to a country and find that my characters are already there, living in the hearts of countless children and teens. To hear stories how my stories granted shelter, comfort, even happiness… I still can’t quite believe how many have found words and stories in my books that have moved them the way my favourite books moved me. It is and will always be pure magic.

Q. Your current project on a sequel for Pan’s Labyrinth is pretty cool frankly. How did you and Mr. Del Toro get connected? 

A. It was a surprise when he approached me. I would never ever have had the idea to turn my favourite movie into words. I had worked with Guillermo before — also at his request — but this was the greatest creative adventure one can get invited to

Q. How did you work together?

A. We met for a long dinner and conversation about the movie. He answered all my questions and then I wrote. First just the narration but when he asked me to please play with the material I suggested 10 short stories as I didn’t want to change the movie. He loved the idea and so I wrote the stories or interludes as we called them. When I was done, I sent him both narration and stories and he sent me wonderful notes — often small details to weave in or a sentence to add. As I used all his dialogue and didn’t change one beat of the plot, one could say that I tailored word clothes for the story body he had created

Q. The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is truly one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen. Were you inspired by it?

A. It has been my favourite movie for the past 10 years. It achieves everything I believe fantasy should aim for. It is highly realistic and political and  shows all the poetry (and terror ) of the world

Q. From what I have read the book is coming out in July. What can you tell me about it?

A. Let it surprise you! 🙂 The narration follows the movie step by step but of course adds thoughts and reflections of all the characters — and of the narrator. The stories add backstory to 10 key elements of the movie for example the key, the toad, the pale man etc.

Q. You are often mentioned in the same breath as J.K. Rowling. Do you know her? Do you like the comparison?

A. I admit I am a bit tired of being called the German J.K. Rowling, but I do of course take it as a compliment.

Q. This month (April) the final season of Game of Thrones is watched by a global audience. What do you think of this kind of ‘adult’ fantasy?

A. I think George R.R. Martin was very lucky to get such a brilliant adaptation of his brilliant books.

Q. These days you live in California. Why did you move there?

A. My late husband and I always wanted to live in another country and culture for a while as we believed it widens the horizon. That proved to be absolutely true. I didn’t regret the move to L.A. I live now on an old avocado farm in Malibu. I hear the Pacific Ocean in the distance and I am surrounded by countless cultures and artists — more inspiration than one life can process.

In town: Cornelia Funke will be at Christ Church Cathedral on May 6 at noon. For tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.