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Master storyteller Cornelia Funke's real world of fantasy

Created date

September 21st, 2010

When Cornelia Funke goes to work, she steps into another world one filled with unicorns, elves, fairies, and enchanted forests. Often called the J.K. Rowling of Germany, the bestselling author of such titles as The Thief Lord (2002) and Inkheart (2003) rattles away at the keyboard in her writing house for several hours a day, dreaming up tales that center on fantasy and escapism. [caption id="attachment_14601" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Dwarf City from Cornelia Funke s new novel Reckless. (Illustration by Cornelia Funke)"][/caption] With a vivid though sometimes understated style, she crafts her stories around emotionally complex characters that have led many to bill her as a master storyteller. It s an apt moniker for an author who s sold more than ten million books in 50 different languages. Funke is obviously doing something right, and it starts with her deep appreciation both for adventure stories and the people who read them. As a child growing up in a post-World War II Germany, she immersed herself in a world of books to escape what she remembers as a drab, boring place where much of its history had been lost to air raids. Books had a very big meaning to me as a child, mainly as a means of escape, Funke says. I grew up in a nice but rather gray, boring German town. My grandmother told me about the old buildings that had once been there, but I never saw them, and I always thought to myself, The world can t be this small. [caption id="attachment_14602" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Author Cornelia Funke (Photo courtesy of Little, Brown, and Company)"][/caption] Stories of adventure and fantasy were Funke s windows to the rest of the world and beyond to much bigger places built from the infinitely imaginative minds of other writers. She recalls as her influences William Goldman s The Princess Bride and J.R.R. Tolkien s Lord of the Rings. At 51, she s as true a believer as she ever was in the wonders of reading and the magic that a fertile imagination can produce with a bit of ink and paper. Over the last 20 years, she s produced dozens of children s books as an illustrator and author, hitting it big in the U.S. with The Thief Lord, a story of orphaned brothers who run off to Venice, Italy, in search of adventure. Ever since, booksellers have had a hard time keeping Funke s novels on the shelves. She had earned a devout following of book eaters like herself, who devoured her subsequent works Dragon Rider (2004) and the Inkworld trilogy, the first installment of which has already been made into a big-budget action film (Inkheart, 2009). [caption id="attachment_14603" align="alignright" width="169" caption="Reckless (Little, Brown, and Company, 2010)"][/caption] Still, Funke is hardly the formulaic novelist pumping out page after page of boilerplate for huge paychecks. Instead, she approaches her own stories in much the same way that her readers experience them. When I write a book, I let the story carry me along as the writer, she explains. In fact, I rarely know how a story is going to end as I m writing it. It plays itself out, and I like to be as surprised by the ending as I hope my readers are. Even adults have joined the legions of fans reading Funke s books, based largely on her mature writing style and her insistence that the fantasy come with a little reality. Her latest novel Reckless is a perfect example. The book tells the story of a boy named Jacob who enters a magical world of fairy tales through a mirror he discovers in his father s study. While Jacob finds escape in his fantastic parallel existence, he also meets with danger and the very real prospect of death. We all need those escapes in our heads, and as human beings, that s a privilege that our imaginations grant us, remarks Funke. For us to see ourselves in this fantasy, it needs to include a bit of our reality.

Far-reaching influence

Indeed, she s actually received letters from soldiers in Iraq who said her stories have helped them face the day-to-day perils in their own lives. It s the ultimate compliment for Funke who, as a writer, never stops thinking about her readers. In telling stories, my job is to be the voice for those who can t write, she says. This is especially the case when you write for children. You love to see how the story hits them, and how they crawl into that alternate world with you. Of course, there s a little child in all of us, including Funke. The master storyteller would probably agree.