Cornelia Funke is one of the most internationally successful and best-known German authors of books for children and young people – her books sell in the millions. Besides writing, she is involved in numerous organisations and projects. Issues relating to children's and women's rights as well as environmental and wildlife protection are particularly close to her heart. A conversation about blooming visions, harsh realities and a Mercedes named Rosa.
Ms Funke, you once said "Reality is fantastic". How fantastic is the year 2021?
Downright fantastic, at least if you take the word in its true meaning. So not in the sense of "fantastically good", but in the sense of "everything we can imagine in our wildest imaginations – and much more". After all, who would have thought that a tiny virus would change our behaviour more drastically in a very short time than a huge issue like climate change? I think that surprised us all beyond measure.
To what extent do current issues such as the Corona pandemic or climate change influence your work as an artist and storyteller?
I would be a very bad storyteller if I didn't pick up on things like that. Fairy tales have always been a mirror of society at a certain time. So I really hope that this is also reflected in my work, because basically I am trying to put the world into words for all those who read my stories. But I firmly believe that it is better to let something like that flow in more or less subconsciously. My readers are all far too smart to want to be proselytised by me. But of course, what I think about the world, what I've experienced in the US politically or what climate change is doing in California right now, feeds into my work.
As a Californian by choice, you yourself are directly affected by climate change How do you see the situation on the ground?
I would almost say that California has now become the showcase for climate change. In the 15 years I have lived here, the weather has changed dramatically. We've never had much rain, and fires are something that is taken for granted here - reports from as far back as the 16th Century show this. In the meantime, however, the drought is merciless. In addition, there are now many plant species that do not belong here and become a problem for the ecosystem, for example because they burn longer. This has dramatically worsened the situation overall. The fire season is now no longer in October - it extends throughout the year. What I have seen here in recent years is saddening: a beautiful and actually rather glorious landscape that is being destroyed by increasing development and excessive, water-intensive agriculture.
Do you notice any differences in the understanding of sustainability between the USA and Europe?
There are certainly differences between the US and Europe. But I don't think they are that decisive. Globally, in my view, there is a clear distinction between people who are aware of the problems and willing to make great sacrifices, and the others who have decided for themselves: "What's important to me now is what I'm enjoying at the moment. And if this fun means that future generations will no longer be able to live on this planet, I don't really care". I have the feeling that two polarities have now emerged, and one involuntarily asks oneself: how can one establish a dialogue between the two? And how can this be translated into political action?
Against this background, do you believe that we will achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement?
Naturally I very much hope that we will reach them. But unfortunately, I wouldn't be totally surprised if we don't. However, the fact that we are making a decisive attempt is already an important step. I think it's wrong to simply take refuge in pessimism and cynicism. Because that usually leads to doing nothing at all. We have to take the initiative. If this ends up bringing only small changes, they are still valuable.
After so many years in the US, you decided to leave the country for Italy. How difficult was this decision for you?
Very difficult, and it's still not easy now. Every time I see all the people I'm incredibly attached to here, it's especially hard. But all these people know that I'm primarily doing this just to take a break, to step back. To de-Americanise my mind a bit, and think more European again. I can't imagine cutting America out of my life, but I would also like to have a home in Europe again. At least for a while.
Will the novels Cornelia Funke writes in Italy read differently from those written in Malibu?
I certainly hope so, and I am already very excited to see what this move will do to my writing. The crazy thing is that my characters already live in Italy today – be it in Inkheart or The Thief Lord. That seems to have been an omen. So it's only fitting that I'll finish the next "Inkheart" book in Volterra.
Besides writing and illustrating, you have been involved in numerous organisations and projects all your life. Which ones are particularly dear to your heart?
I believe in making the biggest impact and achieving the biggest changes by throwing a few small pebbles into the pond everywhere. Accordingly, my foundation "The Rim of Heaven" supports small organisations and initiatives in the USA, Germany and other countries where my books are published. For example, the "TreePeople", a non-profit environmental community in Los Angeles that encourages residents to plant trees. Or ArtworxLA, an educational organisation that aims to reduce high school dropout rates through creative projects. I also support #6-Fighting Extinction, a campaign by the Biodiversity Foundation to protect biodiversity.
Speaking of biodiversity: you are an ambassador for the UN Decade of Biological Diversity. Why is that important to you?
The conservation of biodiversity on our planet is an incredibly important task – but one of which people are not yet sufficiently aware. At least that is what we can assume when we look at the political and economic decisions for which we are all either directly or indirectly responsible. It was important to me to raise this awareness, or at least to contribute to it. We have to do everything we can to preserve diversity, or at some point we will only imagine all these wonders in our fantasies... and at some point that won't work either, because our imagination can no longer live on diversity. We must learn to discover the diversity and richness of this world before it is lost. And we need to teach that to our children. Because they will only protect what they know and love.
Do you think this happens too rarely?
Yes. When I was growing up, I had almost half the day to play with friends – especially outside, in nature. Nowadays there is hardly any time left to enjoy nature in everyday life, and schools not only encourage but also increasingly overburden – and also rarely teach anything for the real world. An example: there are studies indicating that more and more terms from nature are disappearing from dictionaries, because they are being displaced by technical terms. If words like "willow tree" or "oak" are removed to make room for terms like "chat", this would – according to the reasoning – correspond to the reality of children's lives. In reality, however, we are shaping children in this way by taking certain words away from them. So that at some point children only know the term "tree" – but no longer know what kind of tree it is, or what it might be able to do.
You took up the idea of species protection in a playful way in one of your novels. In "The Griffin's Feather" there is a dedicated conservation programme for mythical creatures threatened with extinction. Do children manage the "transfer" to reality?
I asked myself this question when I wrote "The Griffin's Feather", and therefore involved many real animal species as well as mythical creatures. I wanted to prevent the children from thinking it was all about dragons and unicorns. I hope they will remember the other animals as well as the fantasy creatures, because basically all creatures are fantastic. My mythical creatures are a kind of translator between the human species and the others. I am currently fine-tuning the third book. This issue will play an even greater role there.
You once said that the most powerful species on this planet is sometimes also the most useless...
If we stopped for a moment and thought about what other species on our planet we are of use to, we wouldn't come up with very many, would we? The earth could do very well without us, whereas without insects it would have enormous problems after just a few weeks. This statement has already led to some heated discussions with my friends, who always refer to our art and culture. But these also benefit only people – and not this planet. So I'm afraid that, all in all, we humans don't have a good environmental balance.
Do you still believe in the good in people?
I am a great humanitarian, and I passionately believe in the good in some people. I just don't believe in the goodness of our species as a whole. I'm afraid we’re still very underdeveloped in this respect. But after all, we're still a very young species.
A look into the future: how many of today's common fantasies will be reality in, say, 2050? Things like flying cars, the widespread use of artificial intelligence, unconditional basic income...
I would say everything except the unconditional basic income. Unfortunately I'm relatively pessimistic about social justice. The fact that I believe in everything else is probably because I started watching Star Trek when I was eight, and was therefore convinced of the technical possibilities early on. When I watch an old episode today, I am struck by how optimistic they still were, and how much they believed that the world would be a better place.
Now we know your favourite series, which of your books is particularly close to your heart?
I don't think I can answer that. I might say "this is the best written" for one book and "this has the best story" for another. But there is none that I would say is more important or significant than the others. Though maybe I have a few secret favourites. For example, I'm very attached to the picture book "The Bridge Behind the Stars", which is about loss and grief and on which I get such incredible feedback from children and parents. But on the other hand, also to a silly little book like "The Pirate Pig". I'm happy to have written so many different books.
You once said that when you start writing, you don't know how the book will actually end. It takes courage to let go like this. Are you a brave person overall?
In some respects yes - in others not at all. I'm afraid of deep water, would never jump off a cliff into the sea, and I'm terrible on a bicycle. On the other hand, I'm courageous when it comes to change. I'm not afraid of that, because it scares me more when something always stays the same. I just don't believe that this is how life is. So you could say that I'm actually following my nature. And it's simply that I like to be surprised, that I like to have something new.
Is that the secret of your success as a writer?
When I was very young, someone once said to me: "You have no frustration tolerance at all". Today I think that's probably one of my secrets. It means that if I planned a book and then already knew clearly where it would end, I would be so bored to death writing it that I simply wouldn't have the discipline. So I have to fool myself by not knowing what's going to happen And so far the books have always told me what happens.
In a way, you have dedicated your life to children. Are there any special moments that you have experienced with one of your little readers?
Oh, there really are an incredible number of them. Letters from parents who wrote to me that their terminally ill child always wanted "Dragon Rider" to be read to them. A female soldier who was in the Iraq war, who I heard used to read "Ink Death" and survived the desert. An Indian teenager who warmly embraced me and said "You are my childhood!". Or a young man who suddenly appeared in front of me at ComicCon in Seattle and asked "Are you Cornelia Funke?" And struggled with his breath when I said yes. And then told me he had asthma as a child, and read my books when he had to stay in bed. These are the moments that take your own breath away. Very precious moments. And one reason why I love writing so much. At the same time, such encounters always remind you of the responsibility you have as a storyteller. Of the need to write stories that offer protection from the world, but nevertheless also reflect the world. That give the reader a sense of security without concealing anything. That's the balancing act - and the driving force.
Let's move on to another emotional, if not quite so emotional topic: the car.
That's a very emotional topic I love my car - a red E-Class convertible called Rosa. It was the first car I bought myself that even my son wasn't allowed to drive. I am very attached to Rosa and I am sad because I cannot take her to Italy. Italy recently only allows Italians to bring in older cars. Now Rosa will probably be a donation to the Go Campaign.
You obtained your driving licence very late in life. Why?
I think I was 47. My father never drove a car - we didn't have one as a family back then. We lived in a small town, and friends generally took us around as passengers. When I moved to Hamburg, there was an underground and I couldn't afford a car anyway. Later on my husband drove, and since we did everything together, I didn't learn to drive even then. When my son was very small, I started taking driving lessons at some point. But since I was getting hardly any sleep during this time, I stopped again. When we went to live in the USA and my husband died, I finally had to learn. In LA of all places! And then, while I was learning to drive, I realised that I had a great passion for it.
Nevertheless, not many cars appear in your books.
True. Because they are mostly set in other times when there are no cars (yet). The "Wild Chickens" once had an old caravan - but they didn't actually have a car yet. Actually there should be a story about Rosa - I'll keep that in mind. [laughs.]
People say you love driving at high speed. Is that true?
Yes, but I'm not "reckless"! [laughs.] And I try to reconcile that with my environmental awareness, which is not easy. I like to drive as fast as the car allows, because I have to admit that I definitely have a fascination for a well-built machine. I'm impressed by what man can do with machines. That's always been the case. So I've also always been fascinated by all the concepts of artificial life, and what that really means – and whether it will happen one day, which I think it will. And it still fascinates me today how naturally a human interacts with a machine when you're in a well-built car. This is something inexplicable to me: the strange harmony that I think we all know when we drive a car. How naturally the machine becomes an extension of ourselves. How much joy we can get out of it. I recently took a drive into the mountains. Of course the scenery here is spectacular. In such situations I don't drive Rosa too fast. You don't have to, because it's so beautiful that you automatically take your time. But the machine can also bring you luck in other ways, simply because it works so flawlessly. I was once in a dicey situation. And I was able to rely absolutely on my car – so there we are, no doubt about it, I have to sing the praises of my Rosa.
How do you think mobility will develop in the future?
I don't think the car will disappear. That's why we can and must simply try to make individual mobility sustainable. In our mass society, the desire to drive alone is becoming stronger and stronger because we've come to regard this private time in the car as almost precious. I see this in my assistant: she has an hour's drive to my place in the morning. And what she hears and experiences during this time, how much she also enjoys this time, is very difficult to replace. But that certainly doesn't apply to all situations. As much as I enjoy driving in the mountains, I don't enjoy city traffic. When I'm on a six-lane freeway here, I don't enjoy it even with Rosa. So I'd like to have alternatives in city traffic, and would rather get on a train. I'd like cars to be something precious, and to be used as such. For something special. And I think it would then also be quite possible to reconcile that with environmental policies. Because I think it's irresponsible that cars are used even in heavy city traffic. This means that we would basically have to work on having a public transport system that at the same time makes this feeling of "privacy" possible. Although it may of course be that after COVID, we have a longing for company and suddenly think to ourselves: "Actually, it's nice to be on a train with a lot of people and not completely isolated." Maybe the pandemic has changed something in this respect?
What would you like to see from the inventor of the automobile in this respect?
If I were still the innocent young girl who wanted to be an astronaut when I was twelve, of course I'd say: a flying car. That's always been my dream. As a 62-year-old woman who is infatuated with nature and all that could be lost to us in the future, I would say: cars like my Rosa, which I can continue to drive with pleasure and also with a clear conscience, because they have no negative impact on the environment.