Literally leaping off the page

Reality and fiction collide spectacularly in Cornelia Funke’s beloved ‘Inkworld’ trilogy, a magical ode to reading

Literally leaping off the page

The English-speaking world’s favourite foreign novelist can hardly wait to have a look at Stephenie Meyer’s vampire novels, and especially the film version of Twilight. Although Cornelia Funke’s two teenage children have seen the movie 18 times between them, the German-born, Los Angeles-based author hasn’t been able to go. She always avoids other writers’ fantasies when she’s immersed, as she is now, in a work-in-progress. It’s not just her kids’ enthusiasm that makes her curious, Funke explains: “Everyone who has seen Twilight and chapters in my new book says my main character is just like Edward,” Meyer’s vampire heartthrob, even if he shares his name—Jacob—with Edward’s rival for heroine Bella’s affections. Most intriguing for Funke, though, is the way Twilight screenings, by leading off with the trailer for Inkheart, have ramped up even further fan buzz about her own potential $100-million blockbuster, set to open on Jan. 23.

It does seem an odd pairing of audiences, at least at first glance: Twilight’s swooning vampire romantics seem a world away from those liable to be drawn to Funke’s magical tale of 12-year-old Meggie and her father, Mo. Also known as Silvertongue for his extraordinary ability, Mo can bring characters to actual living, breathing life when he reads from a book. He discovered this power when Meggie was a baby, reading so eloquently from Inkheart—Funke’s novel-within-the-novel of the same name—that the book’s chief villain, Capricorn, ended up snarling on Mo’s cottage floor. Worse, Silvertongue simultaneously read in to the book—meaning into Capricorn’s terrifying medieval world—Resa, his wife and Meggie’s mother. The story opens with Mo still seeking a way to bring back Resa, on the run from Capricorn, who wants to turn Mo’s talent to his own uses.

But the divide is superficial. The same teen girls screaming at Edward’s every onscreen appearance were the enthralled 10- and 11-year-olds who made Inkheart a bestseller when it was published in 2003. Funke, who calls her book “a love letter to all those as enchanted by books as I am,” crafted one of the richest metaphors ever in children’s fantasy. (In recent years only Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass daemons bear comparison: external human souls in animal form, daemons shapeshift at will, as imagination and mood take them, through his characters’ youth but become fixed in one animal body at adulthood. Has anyone ever better captured the endless possibilities of childhood?)

Funke took what we often call the “magic” of reading, the everyday art of bringing characters and worlds “alive” through words, and made it literally true and powerfully attractive. Her Inkworld trilogy—Inkheart was followed by Inkspell in 2005, and the conclusion, Inkdeath, last October—has sold 400,000 copies in Canada alone. And the novels kept pace with the original readers, moving—in the way of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—from just-scary-enough kidlit to the more complex YA themes foreshadowed by the concluding novel’s title.

Funke thinks those first readers will be pleased with the movie too; she certainly is, and why not? She achieved her bottom-line demand, to have Brendan Fraser play Mo. The author dedicated Inkheart to Fraser long before she met him. She often “steals,” as she puts it, from actors when visualizing a new character—Bob Hoskins was the model for her down-at-the-heels detective searching for two runaway orphans in The Thief Lord (2002), her first big hit in English (although he doesn’t appear in the film version)—because actors, unlike friends and neighbours, “don’t complain when they recognize themselves.” When she began to flesh out Mo, Funke says, she thought: “I need a boyish guy, somebody who plays with his daughter, who has a voice attractive enough to lure characters out of books, and I remembered I loved him in Gods and Monsters.”

After the English translation appeared, Funke sent a copy to Fraser’s agent. Two months later, she received a letter from the Canadian actor with photos of his family. The Frasers and Funkes exchanged visits in Hamburg and Los Angeles, and became fast friends. “I put his casting in the movie rights deal,” she says matter-of-factly. “People told me I’d never get the producers to agree, and it’s true they didn’t like it, but the director [Iain Softley] thought he was a good choice.”

Funke’s massive sales, audience of children (and not a few adults), the element of magic and the eventual Hollywood treatment all made it inevitable that she would be tagged “the German J.K. Rowling.” Less well-known is the Barrie Cunningham connection. The British publisher who discovered Harry Potter’s creator is also the man responsible for bringing Funke’s books out in translation, after a bilingual nine-year-old girl, who had just moved to England from Germany, sent him a letter asking why her favourite author wasn’t available in English. Cunningham decided to investigate, and Funke was ready for him. “My German publishers had always told me English-speakers simply didn’t read translated books, that I’d never be able to sell my stories to England or America. They wouldn’t translate them. So I paid my cousin to do it.” That meant there was a version of The Thief Lord for Cunningham to read when he came knocking.

Funke was ready not just because she’s ambitious and optimistic by nature, but because of her complicated response to her own Germanness. She wanted to be in English because she felt, as she still does, that “in many ways I am more English than German.” Her Inkworld is shot through with echoes of the English-language books she loved as a child, especially The Chronicles of Narnia and Tom Sawyer. (Raised in a Catholic family, Funke was given Heidi as a first communion present, while her younger brother received Mark Twain’s classic: “I made him trade.”) She was reluctant at first to see the Germanic element in her work, however obvious it is to a foreigner faced with a Brothers Grimm-ish tale full of dwarfs and mountains. “I used to think, ‘Why did the gods make me German?’ ” Her generation of her countrymen, the 50-year-old author says, “really broke with the past because our folk traditions were dirtied by the way the fascists used them. But of course I was raised on our old fairy stories, and I guess it shows.”

Funke has recently started to change her mind on her heritage and come to terms with it, in a literary way. Adult English speakers, particularly in North America, pick up translated fiction as reluctantly as they watch subtitled movies. Children, though, care only for the story, and far from being put off, have always found a hint of foreignness enticing, from Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas novels in the 19th century to Funke’s contemporary fantasies. “They come up at signings,” Funke laughs, “and ask me, ‘How do you say this word or that in German,’ and I tell them and they go ‘oooh.’ ” For the kids it’s like asking J.R.R. Tolkien to say something in Elvish.

Her German roots have also infused her writing with a tragic view of history, Funke says, “a sense of how things fall apart, how neighbour can turn on neighbour, how you have to hold on to hope even when it seems nothing can be trusted. That’s very useful for a writer.” And also for her personally three years ago, when her husband went from cancer diagnosis to death in two short months. In the open letter Funke wrote to her fans after Rolf’s death she said that, as someone who had always believed herself lucky in life, she had naturally kept an eye out for the “sad times to come, for they eventually come to us all.” Funke had already finished Inkdeath when Rolf fell ill. “So it’s not like some people think, that the dying and the loss in the novel came from my life. It’s more like the writing prepared me for what was to come. I’m sure it will change my writing in the future; it will be tighter, less sentimental.”

That effect, along with the ongoing push-pull of what she calls her Anglo and German tendencies, seems already evident in the book Funke is writing now, Jacob Reckless. Shortly after Rolf’s death, Lionel Wigram, a friend and the producer of the last two Harry Potter films, asked her if she was interested in co-writing the film script for a fantasy version of The Nutcracker. “Of course I was interested. It was originally based on a German story by E.T.A. Hoffman and it has all kinds of dark motifs for older children that are almost never brought out in the ballet.” But soon after they finished writing, the project had to be shelved when another Nutcracker movie was announced. “For Lionel it was, ‘That’s the movie business!’ But I wasn’t about to shelve my part.” Funke began to turn the script’s themes and characters into a book, and because she had written in English with Wigram, embarked on her ?rst English-language novel.

It wasn’t to last, though. Funke decided she was spending too much time and effort on the language as opposed to the story. “I wanted to bring everything I had to this book.” And that meant returning to her mother tongue. No longer a take on The Nutcracker, Jacob Reckless is a tale that Funke believes “reflects the longings of Europeans in America,” a longing for the world they’ve lost. “The world of the story, which you enter through a door in New York, is a mix of medieval and Victorian fantasy—there are iron bridges and there are gingerbread houses. And some very dark fairies. I see it as taking the Grimms’ fairy tales that scared me to death in childhood and having them meet early industrialism.” It sounds as brilliant a concept as Inkworld’s reading magic, in fact like its mirror opposite. This time it’s not characters coming alive off the page, but the author inserting herself as metaphor: Germanic and Anglo influences clashing in the New World. Just like Cornelia Funke.