Cornelia Funke pulls readers into fantasy world

October 29, 2008 8:25:43 AM PDT
Her address these days is Beverly Hills 90210, but author Cornelia Funke really lives in a magical world of dragons and unicorns, witches and fairies, powerful fire-eaters and white-clad women of death.

With such characters, Funke pulls readers into her fantasy world by the millions.

Her latest book, "Inkdeath," is already a best seller and wraps up a three-book fantasy-adventure that began in 2004 with "Inkheart." The trilogy chronicles the adventures of bookbinder Mo Folchart and his family after he accidentally conjures characters from a fantasy novel into the real world and havoc ensues.

Funke's own incredible journey has taken her from the small German town of Dorsten, where she was born 49 years ago, to Beverly Hills, where she now lives at the foot of a winding canyon in a magical-looking cottage right out of one of her popular books, which include "The Thief Lord" and "Dragon Ride."

Funke and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, with whom she is often compared, have all but transcended the fantasy genre - once almost exclusively the domain of kids and a few geeky grown-ups.

Funke (pronounced Foon-ka) has captivated readers of all ages and backgrounds with the 10 million books she has sold, says Barry Cunningham, the British publisher and book editor who discovered both Funke and Rowling; both have created epic novels grounded in fantasy but written in ways that go beyond the genre.

"They're timeless classics in a way ... about good and evil," Cunningham says.

Their work has also brought greater attention to other fantasy writers such as Christopher Paolini, author of the breakout novel "Eragon," about a boy and a dragon, and the 'Twilight" novels by Stephenie Meyer about a teenage girl and vampire who fall in love.

Funke has broadened her own audience with picture books for preschoolers, shorter novels for young children and the sprawling "Ink" trilogy and "Thief Lord" tales for the older crowd.

"In that sense, she's pretty much unique because she covers all age ranges," Cunningham says. Funke might disagree.

"I still say I write for children. And if the grown-ups want to read it, they are allowed to," she says mischievously, as she sits at a small patio table just off her front porch.

A pretty, animated woman who looks much younger than her 49 years, Funke wears a bright, blue summer dress on a warm fall day. Her blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Sitting nearby is Luna, a large, friendly mixed-breed mutt with a penchant for barking loudly at every passer-by until Funke silences him with the admonition, "Shut up, Looney!" and he lumbers off to the back yard to doze by the pool.

Behind the pool is Funke's favorite part of the house - a small guest home filled with books that serves as her writing room. "Inkdeath" was born there after she moved with her husband, Rolf, and their two teenage children to the United States three years ago in search of new adventures.

The walls are covered with drawings by Funke, an illustrator-turned-writer who still envisions her books on story boards before committing them to paper.

The loss of her husband to cancer two years ago was a heartbreaking chapter for the writer. The book printer knew the business as well as the author and was the only one who could get her illustrations to the publisher without bending them, she recalls with a sad smile.

Funke was nearly 30 when she first thought about becoming a writer. She had worked as a social worker and then a book illustrator until growing exasperated with the mediocre children's stories she was asked to illustrate.

"One night I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I will just write myself a story I can illustrate so that I can finally do all the illustrations that I want to do, dragons and sea serpents, and not just children on a school yard,"' she recalls.

Her books were an immediate hit in Germany, but she was little known elsewhere until Cunningham received a letter in English from a precocious, bilingual 11-year-old girl. Why, she asked, were the "Harry Potter" books available in English but not Funke's "The Thief Lord," which she considered to be so much better.

"What publishers always say they do is look out for what children really like. But to be honest, it rarely happens that you get someone like this who is able to read a book in a foreign language and then write you such a great letter," Cunningham says.

He felt he had no choice but to track down Funke and offer to publish her in English.

She quickly agreed, in part according to both parties, because Cunningham bears a striking resemblance to actor Bob Hoskins, who was Funke's inspiration for Victor the detective in "The Thief Lord."

The author likes to draw characters from real people. Mo in the "Ink" series was modeled after Brendan Frasier. The actor was so flattered that he and Funke became friends, and when it came time to make "Inkheart," the movie based on the first book, she insisted he play the role. The film is scheduled to reach U.S. theaters in January.

Writing several hours a day, every day, Funke has published 45 books, with a dozen translated into English since 2002 and more on the way. Her "Wild Chicks" series, about the adventures of school girls, is popular in Germany, with two of the five books being made into movies; it's not available in English.

Funke herself speaks flawless English, with only the slightest hint of an accent. Still, she feels more comfortable writing in her native language and having her English-speaking cousin, Oliver Latsch, do the translation.

She's currently writing two books simultaneously, one to be called "The Boy and the Knight" and featuring the adventures of an 11-year-old sent to a boarding school. The other, "Reckless," will feature Funke's first adult hero in an adventure set in a 19th-century, "Grimm's Fairy Tales" sort of world.

"You will have dwarfs and unicorns and fairies but in a way that you maybe haven't seen them before," she laughs. "And you will have gingerbread houses, which are quite scary things."


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