Cornelia Funke – ‘I feel very privileged that I am a translated author’

Cornelia Funke

I’ve come to Newcastle during half term week to speak to Cornelia Funke. She has an event with Garth Nix at Seven Stories, and I’m to catch her before it. From the café I can see her arrive on foot. Her publicist Vicki comes to find me and she introduces me to Cornelia, checking what my German is like. So I mention that I have actually read Cornelia’s advent book, Hinter verzauberten Fenstern, which has not been translated into English. This sets us off chatting about re-reading books on an annual basis, and Cornelia mentions how popular the book is with Spanish language readers.
We are told we’re heading up to GDLS, which means nothing to either of us, but Cornelia and I agree it sounds just the thing. Garth Nix and his publicist arrive, and we say hello before we all squeeze into the lift to the sixth floor (story, I suppose). GDLS is decorated as a birthday party room, with a fairy tale armchair, as well as a resident Tiger [who came to tea], sitting forlornly at a table in the corner. Cornelia gets her phone out to take pictures, exclaiming over the gorgeous armchair.
Tiger who came to tea

Garth and the others make ‘too much noise’ so are carted off somewhere else, as Cornelia and I sit down at one of the many tables. She’s beautiful and vivacious, and if she’s tired from touring, she doesn’t show it. This is Cornelia’s first visit to Newcastle, not counting changing trains in the past.
‘I believed I knew what to talk about with you, but in the middle of the night I suddenly thought “When did Cornelia know that the first Reckless book had to be changed?”‘
‘Yes! It’s a very important question, actually. What caused it was really the reaction, first of all of the readers, and then me re-reading it. The first book had such a strange situation, because I discussed the plot and characters with Lionel Wigram, this friend of mine, which I had never done before…’
’Yes.’
‘It was very inspiring and it taught me a lot of things about creative collaboration. But because he was in England and I was in Germany, I was constantly translating back and forth. And when I finally handed it in, I felt like there’s one edit missing.’
‘Yeah.’
‘Many of my readers did say it and when I re-read it, I felt that actually it’s true, and when I knew I would relaunch the series anyway, I said “Cornelia, now is the time.” The thing was that Pushkin wanted to go with it this year, and I had to do it in English.’
‘Ah.’
‘So that was interesting. The Germans don’t have the change yet, but in a way it does mirror my life situation, because I live so much in English, by now, that it was actually for me a very comfortable situation. I worked directly into the text. I was surprised that I had to almost not change the plot, but lots of subtleties between the characters, and the description of the world. I know it so much better after eight years, and what a privilege that you can do that, just go back and say “OK, this is the chance to do it.” I enjoyed it very much, actually.’
‘So you had written the third book which was out in German, before you made the changes?’
‘Absolutely. And the third book in Germany, it was interesting. It was a serious challenge to me in so many ways, because the readers were so upset with me; that I went into another world. I thought “it’s Inkworld, just five hundred years later.”’ We laugh. ‘Nevertheless they were very upset with me and to make as a writer the decision that you will nevertheless continue, was for me as an artist the most important decision I ever made. It made me realise so much what I want to do, and when after eight years of toiling up the hill, I stood in a theatre in Hamburg and suddenly I had a thousand passionate Mirrorworlders down there. I thought “I am like Edmund Hillary on Mount Everest.” So I just did it, and I got messages on the internet from readers who were saying “I love Inkheart so much, Cornelia, but at times I like Reckless more,” then I knew.’ She claps her hands.

Cornelia Funke

‘So it was just the first book that needed changing?’
‘Yes. With the second I felt already so at home in the world. Also, Lionel and I didn’t do that back and forth, which I think for setting up a world and getting into, it was interesting to have that in a dialogue. Of course, I did all the writing, and that was another misunderstanding. People thought we had co-written it. The second, mostly it was mine. Maybe I had two or three conversations that did in a way influence the story, but it was my vision. The third completely mine, so I knew, “no there doesn’t have to be any changes.” Of course there is always something you could work on, but it didn’t feel like it.’
‘That’s interesting. I sort of assumed that before you set off writing number three you would have done your little bit of tinkering.’
‘No I had to go through number three first because I have to say, many things about Will, especially, did only become complete to me in three. I always let the story tell me where it is going and I’m often surprised by it and I constantly change it. I’m not a writer who knows the ending; I don’t want to know the ending.’
‘So far I’ve read the first book. Are they all finished in their own right?’
’It gets less and less finished, because more and more gets interwoven, and for example the story of who made the mirrors, and who’s behind all this, who is the puppeteer in a way, is revealed only in book three. Though there is a hint in book two but not everybody gets it. The third ends with a cliffhanger, which was one of the reasons why the Americans and the English both said “We don’t want an open ending, we want that as an epilogue.” And I said “no, no, no, it will be an open ending, and I will have the birth scene as the first chapter.” That made me change publishers.’
‘I was surprised when I realised that these books must be what you were thinking of self-publishing last year.’

Cornelia Funke

‘Yes, I came back from quite a triumphant tour round Germany with this incredibly satisfying reaction both in press and in readers of “Oh, now we see the world, number three is showing us everything and where it’s going.” And to come back and have an email from my English language publishers that says “Oh, we love the book but could you please change the following?” I was like, “wait a moment, you are talking about a published book..!”’
‘Yes.’
‘A published book is never, ever edited.’ Cornelia sounds quite formidable here. ‘“Of course I will not change it.” Then there was the response “You have to change it or we will not print it, and then I said, “well then I will print it.” But then I had to found a publishing company within a few months. And suddenly Pushkin Press approached me, and I’d been so impressed by their publishing before, and I felt so honoured. It’s the perfect place for it, and I could almost not believe it.’
‘That’s what I thought. That it’s right.’
‘I had developed the design for the series, and Pushkin loved it. That all came together in such perfect ways. I feel quite blessed.’
‘I thought that was really good because they do so many translated books. Are your books purely written in German?’
‘Yes, absolutely, except for now the changes in here.’
‘In the first book?’
‘Yes, working in the translation was interesting and I revised the translation also in the process.’
‘Do you go over the English translations, and do you have opinions about them?’
‘There are always differences and I have been working both with Anthea Bell and with my cousin, which is very different, and the voices are different. For Reckless I felt that because the hero is a young man and Oliver [Latsch] lives in Los Angeles we could work very closely, so I said to Anthea maybe that is the better process. She has just translated my sequel of Dragon Rider, A Griffin’s Feather. I wish I could hear it in both languages. I wish Anthea would do another translation and I could compare them.’ Cornelia laughs. ‘I would be very tempted by that. Because a translator has their very own voice.’
‘Oliver is your cousin, you say?’
‘Yes he is my cousin, and he’s bilingual. He writes both from English and German, so both languages are his mother tongue, which is a very good situation. A journalist once said that to me “I think your cousin is even better, because he feels the taste of it.”’
‘Yes, it’s easy to miss nuances.’
‘There’s a smoothing in, like some people say Thomas Mann only became so famous in America because he was “Englished,” you know, so the edges were gone. The German is distinctly different and I kind of like it when they can still taste it in the English. When I work in English I keep my Germanisms and my edges, and most of my English language friends like that very much, and say I have a very different voice.’
‘You want to feel that it is a German book.’
‘Im writing currently in English because Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director, asked me to write a novel of Pan’s Labyrinth, which is my favourite movie of all time. I couldn’t say no, and I have to say I have vastly enjoyed writing that in English.’

Cornelia Funke

‘Yes. Just as a matter of interest, to do with bilingualism; what language do you speak with your children?’
‘German. English with all my friends. The emotional language in many ways of my correspondence is English by now, I probably mostly think and feel in English. It’s my home. I feel more at home in America than in Germany.’
‘Do you really?’
‘Absolutely, and of course that is the culture I come from. I feel very much at home in that, and I sometimes miss the language, but I have very good friends in LA who are German, so I go between the languages.’
‘What brought you there in the first place?’
‘BookExpo America, where the independent booksellers of America gave The Thief Lord an award. I still remember cursing my fate that I had to go to Los Angeles. “Who wants to go to Los Angeles?”’ We laugh at this. ‘That’s how the gods work, and I fell in love with it. It was love at first sight. I have a very strange and passionate love affair with Los Angeles, and it has never cooled down in eleven years.’
‘That’s interesting, because I was thinking Los Angeles in not exactly your most German kind of area.’
’It’s what I love! It’s so different from everything I come from. It felt like another planet. I found my Inkworld because it’s so different, and it challenges me Every. Single. Day! Because it puts another image against my culture and my roots and I find that vastly inspiring as an artist. I also always had a strange connection to the Spanish langauge culture, so I work a lot with Mexican artists, with Spanish artists. I have a strange affinity to them, maybe because of the poetic realism that they have, they see the world in the same way I do. But the most enchanting thing for me for Los Angeles is still that I have so much wilderness in the city,’ she almost whispers this, ‘because I need nature.’
‘I can understand that.’
‘And I just moved to Malibu so I live outside of LA. To be able to in the morning see dolphins and pelicans, and have the coyotes in my garden, and the deer, that’s what I need. To have the privilege that yes, you can go to the opera, you can look at art, on a level that is a world city level, but you still drive home and all you have is mountains and a canyon filling up with clouds at night. For me in that Los Angeles is perfect.’
‘That sounds so good! I was wondering, do you feel that Germans read differently, or for that matter anybody who’s not got English as their first language. What we were saying about your Spanish [advent story] translation.’
‘Yes, yes.’
‘I was wondering whether it’s all the rest versus the English…’
‘I think that for example the Spanish language readers are vastly different from the English language [readers] and the Germans. I would say the English and the Germans are closer to each other, than the Spanish are. The passion that the national understanding for poetry and reality, and that it is not one against the other. No Spanish journalist would ask me why I write fantasy, because for them it is an expression of reality, whereas every English or German journalist will ask me this, at some point. So there’s a very distinct difference in the reception of the world, and India funnily in that is closer to Spain, in the experience of understanding magic and reality, and to take it very seriously. In Australia and New Zealand you want to come closer to England, so it goes back and forth. The difference between the different cultures I meet while meeting readers, a very, very different approach to it, and I’m closer to the southern approach. Although I do see our roots in German and English literature, I notice that my thinking and my perception of the world is clearly more Spanish.’ She laughs.
Cornelia Funke

‘I was just thinking about the advent book, and whether other language groups are simply more open to reading translations.’
‘Absolutely, for Germans it’s completely normal to. I have been raised with Astrid Lindgren and with Mark Twain, or C S Lewis. I would never say “oh those are translated.” You really don’t think about it, you only become aware that they are translated much later.’
‘You do, yes.’
‘We are so used to it and I love that. I feel very privileged that I am a translated author, both in the US and in England, and in a slightly different voice.’
‘And well known for it as well, not just as a minor foreign writer.’
‘Yes, the only other one in the US is [Carlos Ruiz] Zafón, you know, who is absolutely integrated in the literary sense. But otherwise, when I do readings in America, the first thing is always that the kids say “say something in German, Cornelia.”’ She laughs out loud. ‘“The curiosity is there and they want to know and they want to feel that different taste. They are very open and interested.’
‘What did you read? You mentioned Lindgren.’
‘Yes, Lindgren, Lindgren, Lindgren, and Mark Twain. I was absolutely obsessed with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I traded that book with my brother for Heidi books that I had received. My brother didn’t care about books at all, so he was fine with that. I did read C S Lewis and I found two or three very sad looking copies in the library. Nobody seemed to read them, because in Germany nobody knows him, at least not before the movies. I remember reading them and then at 17 going to my English teacher and saying “I read this obscure book when I was eight. It had a wardrobe in it, and a lion,” and he said “Oh, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?” And I’m like “yes it was called something else in German,” and he said “yeah, yeah and there are seven,” and I said “what do you mean, there are seven?” So I remember at 17 suddenly reading the others. Yeah,’ she breathes in, ‘that was quite a revelation. The only publishing house that did publish fantasy at that time in Germany was Klett-Cotta. Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, which is my favourite fantasy, and they were all with Klett-Cotta in this obscure corner, because the Germans still believed that you can’t write fantasy. It is my opinion that fascism had the effect in Germany that people don’t trust their fairy tales and their myths, because the fascists used them so eloquently. It will be a long way until we go back to fantastic storytelling; it’s starting, so Günter Grass for example always did, and some others, but the fear of it, and the irrational in it, is still very big and I think that fascism is at the root of that.’
’It’s not a big step between fairy tales and fantasy, and we always think of Germany as the land of fairy tales.’
‘Yes.’
‘Which is interesting…’
‘The Grimms are fine but for example Michael Ende, when he did The Neverending Story, there was such fierce criticism in Germany, you know. It is escapism, and of course there’s the wonderful quote “who’s against escape but the prison guard,” but still for me fantasy isn’t escapism, for me fantasy is much more realistic, because it looks at everything that is under the surface of our so-called created reality, but that is a concept that in Germany only slowly comes back.’

Cornelia Funke

‘A final question; I missed you at the Edinburgh Book Festival this August when you had to cancel. Your dyslexia event.’
‘Yes!!’
‘Why were you doing it?’
‘I have such a wonderful experience of Barrington Stoke. I was talking to Sally Gardner about it – we are good friends – and we are planning to do a project together. She calls it our jazz project, where we are going to tell a story, bouncing back from one to the other, doing it on audio.’
‘Ah.’
‘When they set up the event in Edinburgh, I said “I feel uncomfortable with that, I’m not a specialist, and I never was dyslexic. I was always a manic reader, and why didn’t you invite Sally Gardner? She could talk much more eloquently and much more efficiently about it.” But yeah, then I was sick as a dog and couldn’t get on a plane.’ She laughs.
‘I was wondering whether I’d missed something, like you being severely dyslexic?’
‘Not at all. It was so weird, because I was somebody who read ferociously, I’m a book eater, so I never had that problem. I find it so interesting because it’s also a visual problem, and I’m currently doing a picture book in my own publishing company, and we did look at the fonts and I did listen to what makes it more difficult to decipher for children.’
‘Sally is such a fantastic storyteller.’
‘Absolutely. I’ve done events with her, and we meet when I’m in London, and I so look forward to doing that project with her. It will be so interesting, because in a way we are very similar storytellers.’
‘You are, actually. Yes I think that would be a fantastic combination.’
‘I love the sound of the word as much as she does, we are both intoxicated by that, so I’m very much looking forward to that. I hope we get it done some time next year. I have my own audio book company in Germany, so we could do it just by recording. Yes, she’s such a brilliant storyteller, my god, she has it in her blood!’
‘Yes, she does. Well, I think we’ve covered most of what I wanted to know. Thank you very much, Cornelia.’
‘Thank you, and what a pleasure, Ann.’

Garth Nix and Cornelia Funke

Seven Stories staff are standing by to take Cornelia to get ready for her event, but there’s enough time for Cornelia to mention her recent trip to Sweden. Before going off, she promises to put me in touch with her Swedish publishers, who have some short pieces written specially for them. Cornelia says she likes them [Opal] a lot. There is a new story about Strömkarlen and his violin, so it seems there is no end to what she finds time to write about.
Cornelia appears to think it’s good that I’m a witch, and on that day in late October, I’m not exactly the only witch at Seven Stories.