Cornelia Funke on creativity vs ticking boxes

With just four days to go before the second Barnes Children’s Literature Festival I have had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning children’s and YA writer and illustrator Cornelia Funke. Cornelia is travelling to the UK for the event where she will be talking about her books from 3-4 pm this Saturday 14th May.

For anyone not familiar with Cornelia’s work I start with a little background context for what turned out to be a truly fascinating interview about writing and creativity  – which in Cornelia’s case appears to know no bounds!

Headshot of Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke

About Cornelia

Cornelia is from Germany and has lived in LA since 2005. She enjoys a worldwide fan base for her bestselling fantasy and adventure titles that include, but are by no means limited to: The Thief Lord, Dragon Rider, the Inkheart trilogy (Inkheart, Inkspell, Inkdeath – adapted for film in 2008) and, most recently, her MirrorWorld series. She also writes and illustrates picture books and collaborates extensively with creative teams on a range of multi-media projects connected with her story worlds. MirrorWorld’s breathtaking Reckless App is a stunning early example.

Cornelia set up her own publishing company Breathing Books in 2015 after an editorial disagreement with her US and UK publishers over the upcoming third book in her MirrorWorlds series (Reckless and Fearless being the first two with Heartless the intended third). She took back the UK and US rights to all three and Breathing Books published the third book under its European name The Golden Yarn in December 2015 as a limited edition hardback and on audio. Funke has recently signed with Pushkin Press (UK and Commonwealth rights) who will republish the full MirrorWorld trilogy in paperback later this year under their European subtitles The Petrified Flesh, The Living Shadows and The Golden Yarn.

Breathing Books, in the meantime, certainly isn’t taking any breathers and has more of its own creative publishing projects underway.


You hit the headlines late last year when you announced that you would publish the third book in your MirrorWorld series The Golden Yarn yourself rather than make changes to it for the UK and American markets. Retaining creative control is something that indie authors feel passionate about. For the benefit of readers not familiar with your story, can you briefly explain the background to what happened and why it was so important for you to stand your ground?

With MirrorWorld there was from the beginning one problem for some of my publishers: the series appealed to an older age group than my other books. So there were attempts, especially in the US, to make the series somehow younger or at least market it for a younger audience – which of course can be a vast problem for a story.

I tried to correct this several times, but when the edit suggestions for Book 3 arrived I felt that the intention was once again to try to tailor the book for a certain market – sadly something considered quite normal by now. In my case it was especially worrying as the book had been edited and published already in Germany, with great success and a passionate reader reaction. This is another problem I’ve encountered quite often over the years: UK and US publishers are so used to working with English texts that they find it very hard to accept that a book has already been edited in another language. German editors take far longer and do very elaborate and detailed edits so I am usually very happy with the result – and for sure no author wants to go through two editing processes? 🙂

I find it also very bewildering that in the English language world of writing, agents do some of the editing. For me an editor and an agent are two every different professions with very different skill sets.

I still love to collaborate with publishers. I cherish many of them very very much. But I won’t allow a book to be changed just to tick certain boxes.

Front cover of The Golden Yarn


Your new imprint is Breathing Books. This is an enchanting and evocative imprint name. Was it your idea – and what was the inspiration behind it? 

Originally Breathing Books was intended to be a brand under which we could do projects like the MirrorWorld Reckless App.

I always believed that books only begin to breathe when they are read – and even better read aloud – and that music, art and other forms of creative work can further help them to come alive.

As I am an illustrator myself I want to find ways to tell stories with both words and illustrations, through collaboration with other artists. In short: I am a writer who loves to explore every book as an adventure…something that doesn’t really work well in our very commercialised publishing world. Luckily I have found wonderful collaborators here in LA who have made it possible to go on this adventure.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 09.56.30

Can you tell us a little bit more about your partner in Breathing Books, Mathew Cullen? How did you come to work with him?

I met Mathew Cullen through a film director friend, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Mathew has won two Grammies for his music videos so we come from quite different worlds, which I think is part of the creative magic 🙂

When I came to visit Matt at his studio Mirada (which he owns with three other brilliant minds) I felt as if I were walking into my own head. All the art I saw – the way worlds were explored with a combination of sculpture, sketch and digital techniques – felt as if they could offer an interesting way to interpret my stories visually without my needing to sell rights to a movie company, something I have done far too often and mostly with quite sobering results. Matt was the creative director for the Reckless App – still the most inspiring creative project I have worked on so far – and we decided to continue the collaboration. [Note from Karen – visit Mirada’s website above for a taste of this amazing project.]

We had been discussing creating Breathing Books for quite a while when the situation with The Golden Yarn occurred. This forced us to create the company faster than anticipated – and, as I had promised my readers that the third book of the Reckless series would be published in English in 2015,  I suddenly had to be a traditional publisher on paper too.

We first considered just publishing electronically but both Matt and I are too much in love with paper and print and books you can hold and touch. So we faced the challenge to get a book into the US bookstores within half a year.


How involved were you in the day-to-day production side of things for the hardback copy of The Golden Yarn? Did you act as ‘project manager’ or did you hand over that aspect to someone else? 

Most of the production was overseen by Andy Merkin, whom we call the ‘Tamer of Magical Beasts’ at Breathing Books 🙂 It was Andy’s idea to do the text layout based on 19th century texts. Matt was of course also very involved, especially in the cover design, as was JIng Zeng, our brilliant Chinese American illustrator who works on most of our designs.

How did it feel to have full creative control of your project for the first time? 

So so so so good! The illustrator in me was especially thrilled.

Was it a challenge to balance the time this new project took with your other writing goals or commitments?

No – actually I feel this adventure has made me even more creative. Suddenly I know that I can make every book idea a reality without discussing how commercial it is, or for what age group. Both Matt and I also agreed from the beginning, that Breathing Books will enrich our creative lives instead of making them more stressful. We both work on so many projects that this is a very important rule to keep our sanity.

What about marketing? Did you find that more challenging for this title without the support of a publisher?

We will only start marketing seriously once the whole [hardback] series is out with the new design, so in autumn this year. We have just hired someone to communicate with booksellers, librarians, festivals etc.

I never was a touring author. I prefer to write and illustrate. That’s my profession. And as I am published in so many countries all my publishers know that I can only make myself available for a few days. This year I have book launches in France, Spain, the UK, Sweden, the US and in Germany (and I am sure in a few more countries that I’ve forgotten!). All of these countries are of equal importance to me, whether they sell 500 or 50,000 books and I try my best to support them all.


I read a wonderful quote where you described large publishers as “…like ocean liners that can only go to certain places,” and that through Breathing Books you want to “be a sailboat so I can fit into other places.” You’ve already produced The Golden Yarn as a limited edition hardback and as an audio book. What else can we expect to see in the future from the imprint? 

Breathing Books home page

Breathing Books website

I have just finished my first picture book – the first I have written in English and the first I have illustrated myself. It will be called The Book That No One Ever Read and it will be a lovesong to many writers and books I love. One could call it my Inkheart for kindergarten kids 🙂 Matt is working on the design and layout currently and we hope to publish in summer 2017.

We are also working on a Book of Treasure as we call it, containing short stories, maps, illustrations and whatever else we come up with from MirrorWorld. We want it to be a lush storybook, similar to the old fairy tale books that so many of us treasured as children.

We will also publish hardcover versions of the first two Reckless books this year, with Matt’s new design and a revised text for Book 1. I know so much more about this world by now, that I loved going back to the beginning and adding everything I have learned along the way – about characters and places.

We are also working on a graphic novel adventure from my Dragonrider world, both on paper and in digital. The story is ready and JIng has made beautiful visual recreations of all of my characters.

O yes- one more thing:) we are currently creating passports for Mirrorworld. They look quite stunning!

[Ed: I’m not sure if this is a Breathing Books project but will check when Cornelia’s back online!]

Image of book text and illustrations laid out on a long table

Cornelia at work on layouts – I’ve been there and done that!


As with all great stories, this one has a twist and you have now signed a new deal for UK and Commonwealth Rights for the MirrorWorld series with Pushkin Press. How did that come about? Was it an easy decision having just embarked on your own project?

I never intended to self publish in Europe. It would have been impossible to do it in the UK at the same time [as in the US]. Which luckily gave Pushkin Press the chance to approach us.

My experiences with most European publishers are very good, as they are mostly not as ‘corporate’ as US publishers. Even in the US I have had very good experiences – for example with Random House (quite an ‘ocean liner’) and Pegasus Press (a smaller and very beautiful boat). So I still very much appreciate working with inspired publishers.

I admire the work of Pushkin Press, the sublime list of authors and titles, the international approach, the design…. When Pushkin Press approached us I was therefore thrilled as it wouldn’t have been easy to print and distribute in the UK and Commonwealth as well.

I feel my books will have the freedom to be what they are without having to fit into tailored categories.

As Matt likes to say: Breathing Books should be a laboratory, where books are perceived and created. How they get into the world is the next step. We will continue to publish ourselves but we also welcome deals with publishers, if they allow us to work in the way we set out to do.


Finally, as if you don’t have enough to do already,  you have set up your own German audio book company Atmende Buecher to publish your future novels. Where you are in the production process just now?

As everyone knows since Inkheart I am in love with the spoken word. So I was always tempted to do my own audio productions. I recorded several books in the US myself and luckily people like the recordings despite my German accent.

In Germany I have worked for the last few years with Eduardo Garcia and German Wahnsinn on all my stage events and they wrote truly enchanting music for Reckless. I have regularly attended their sound studios and one day Eduardo and I made the decision to start a company that publishes classical readings, adding sound design and music.

We started off by playing with a few short stories that I wrote about Inkworld and loved the result. The first publication will be A Griffin’s Feather, my sequel to Dragonrider and I can’t wait to hear what Eduardo will do with it.I have been working for almost twenty years with a German actor, Rainer Strecker, as my audio silver tongue and partner in crime on stage, so he’ll for sure be one of the readers.

My huge thanks to Cornelia for taking the time out to answer my questions so thoroughly and eloquently in between her projects and travels. If you’re within reach of London don’t miss her at the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival this Saturday 14 May at 3pm – it will be £5 extremely well spent. I’ve booked my ticket and am certainly looking forward to hearing her speak 🙂 

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 10.39.32


About kareninglis

Writer of children's fiction. Copywriter and web content strategist.
This entry was posted in Children's Books, Self-publishing. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Cornelia Funke on creativity vs ticking boxes

  1. mybookchain says:

    Brilliant interview. Really perceptive comments. I note that it took a difference of opinion to prompt Cornelia to start up her own company. How many others of us would like to do the same? I’d love to know what are the final things that push the idea of a company into a reality?

    Dennis Harding at mybookchain

  2. Pingback: Second to none – the 2016 Barnes Children’s Literature Festival | Karen Inglis ~ Children's Books

  3. Ana Salote says:

    Agree with Julia. I went with an indie publisher because she allowed my books to be what they are. It is difficult to market 9-90 books so thanks to Cornelia for blazing a trail.

  4. Julia Lund says:

    Great interview. It’s a while since I read the Inkheart trilogy, but this interview has piqued my interest to seek out other Cornelia Funke books. I empathise with the ‘target age’ issue. I am self published, and one of the things I like about the freedom that brings is that you are free to write the story you want to tell, without the constraints of having to target a particular age group in a particular way. I don’t make a living from my books, far from it, but the readers who have loved my stories so far range in age from 14-78. That, I love.

    • kareninglis says:

      Many thanks for your comment, Julia – and apologies for such a late reply! She also gave a great talk to the young audience at the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival and I hope to write that up soon. All the best with your stories! Karen

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