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Fantasy Author Cornelia Funke On Writing For Kids & How It Feels To Kill A Major Character

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By Lipi Mehta for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

Cornelia Funke’s ‘Inkheart’ series finds a coveted place in millions of bookshelves across the world. Often called the ‘German J. K. Rowling’, she is one of the most beloved children’s authors today and started her journey as a book illustrator who then decided to tell stories of her own. With her gripping fantasy and adventure narratives, and strong protagonists, Funke is a deserving giant of the literary world. Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with her (over email) to find out more about her audience, the causes she believes in and more. Read on.

Source: Bambi 2009/Flickr
Source: Bambi 2009/Flickr

Lipi Mehta (LM): How do you think writers of children’s literature perceive their audience? Do they think children are capable of making informed choices about what to read and what to infer from the stories they read?

Cornelia Funke (CF): A British publisher once said to me, “The difference between writers for children and writers for adults is that the children’s books writers love their audience.” Children are often far more aware and far more critical when it comes to questioning the status quo of the world. They don’t hide from the big questions yet: Where do we come from? Where do we go? Why is the world so beautiful and so terrible at the same time? At every event, I do – yes, at every single event! – a so-called grown up comes to me and says, “Those children! They asked such good questions!” and each time I answer, “Well, they always do. Whereas grown-ups mostly try to ask questions that make them sound clever.” In my opinion, we often know who we are much better when we are young. We still haven’t built a fortress around our hearts. We haven’t made ourselves into a firmly defined persona. Children are still aware that they are part of everything – which is both a magical and a frightening feeling. They are shapeshifters still – which makes them the most enchanting audience for a story teller. So in short, yes, children are capable of almost everything. They can be manipulated, they can have bad taste, they sometimes like bad books… but all that is true of their grown-up versions as well.

cornelia funk seriesLM: Do you think some themes that can largely shape a child’s upbringing are missing in children’s literature? Which themes do you think more children’s books need to be written about, and why?

CF: I don’t think that anything is missing. In our time, children’s literature is more diverse and rich than ever before. There are so many enchanting voices, from so many countries and cultures, both from storytellers and illustrators. In many ways, it is a golden age. Of course, there are also many bad books! As always. There is a ridiculous tendency to put an age label on every story, although we know how vastly different we all are and that age is relative. But still – and despite the fact that publishing is more and more just about money (which is probably true about the world as well) – children’s literature is vibrant, inspiring and offers many different dishes to feed children’s minds and souls

LM: You wrote your first story when you were 35 years old. A lot of writers find it difficult to ‘start late’ and are scared of making the switch to writing from whichever careers they are pursuing. What would you like to say to them?

I was actually 29, which is still quite old from a child’s perspective. And as for the fear: I believe that fear is something to be overcome. We are all scared to change, to grow, to challenge ourselves. Chances are golden keys, but they are always sticky with fear. They don’t come without it. One should pick up the key nevertheless. And walk through the fear.

LM: You strongly lend your voice to the cause of survivors of abuse, minority exclusion and marginalised women and children. How do you think this passion reveals itself in your writing, and why do you think it is important for creative people to contribute to society through their art?

CF: It’s a strange thing that we separate art from life – that’s as if we believe a flower can grow without the soil its seeds come from. Our creativity is a unique gift distinctly human – maybe nothing defines us more. Art enriches life, but it also questions, reveals, interprets, gives meaning… there is an artist in all of us, the strong urge to give shape and form to our life experiences. There is no greater gift than waking that talent and gift in someone, who faces darkness and pain. So yes, I think being an artist comes with the obligation to pass that gift on. To give sound to what we all feel, fear, hate and love. An artist shouldn’t express just him or herself. An artist should find expression for all the others who can’t. Music, visual art, literature… all these express the human experience in unforgettable ways.

As for how this opinion reveals itself in my writing – I don’t believe in messages or sermons. I deeply mistrust any form of missionisation, in art as much as in life. But of course, my writing is a mirror of my beliefs and passions. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that we don’t love writers for their plots, but for their spirit and for what they make us feel about the world. I agree. We all love a writer for the feeling a book gives us, for the glasses it hands us to see the world in a slightly different way.

LM: You are inspired by J. K. Rowling and your website mentions you could make the decision of ‘killing’ after how Rowling wrote the death of her character Sirius Black. Why do you think it is important, or rather necessary for writers to be inspired by other writers, and does this impact originality in any way?

CF: That’s funny, I don’t think I ever said I was influenced. I hated the way J.K. killed Sirius. I was quite upset about it, as I felt she got rid of him as casually as wiping a fly off the wall (which isn’t quite just a statement I admit) I had a discussion about it with her former editor and swore, that IF I ever have to kill a favorite character of one, there will be blood and tears on the page. Shortly after that, the story I was writing (‘Inkspell’ at that time) revealed a dead Dustfinger to me. To this day, I don’t know whether that had been decided long before my discussion (stories have their own minds after all) or was triggered by it. My first reaction was NOOO! I will never do that! But the images kept coming. I saw him dead. No doubt there. So for two days I tried to find out why the story wants me to go there. And when I did, I kept my promise to make it a memorable death (at least I hope I did). As for your question whether one should be inspired: of course. All artists inspire each other. Even bad books teach us something. But inspire doesn’t mean copy.

The interview was conducted as a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival.

Cornelia Funke will be speaking at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival this year. Catch her between the 21st and 25th of January, at Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

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