On the evening of 4th October 2010, Bath was bathed in golden light. Enticing vistas – distant trees, columns, roofs – glowed like reachable other worlds. We followed the dusk into the park, searching for conkers under ancient horse chestnuts, whilst birdsong mingled with the Sunday bells of the Abbey…
…We were on our way back from an hour long sojourn in Mirror World, still a little unsure as to which layer of reality we were actually moving through. For my daughter and me, Cornelia Funke’s presentation of her latest book, Reckless at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, had served up more than a small dose of enchantment…
An hour before, under the Christmas tree dazzle of the Guildhall’s beautiful chandeliers, all eyes had turned to the ballroom doors, as Cornelia entered – like a high priestess of fairytale – resplendent in a the most amazing dress I’ve ever had the privilege to share a room with.
I wish I could describe Cornelia’s Reckless tour dress in a way that would give you a truly accurate picture of how dazzling it was. Even these photos on her fan website don’t do it justice. Cornelia introduced it to us (immediately, I find myself referring to it as a living thing…) as a ‘crazy’ dress, ‘made by witches,’ every detail of it hand made to create a work of fairy tale art. Designed by Oscar winning costume designer, Jenny Beavan, it was a dress straight out of an Arthur Rackham illustration. Made from luminous layers of fabric in shades of moss and woody green, it was like an organic thing grown from ancient oaks in hidden groves, festooned with cobwebs.
An upright semi circle of green and gold feathers adorned the collar and, as Cornelia moved, the feathers and fabric glittered with random pulses of multi-coloured sparkle – making the prosaic electric spotlights of our, familiar, world reflect back at us like tiny points of magic made visible. It was as if the world from the other side of the mirror was glimpsing back at us from the shine of our own world. And this, as Cornelia explained to us, is very much what Reckless is about.
Mirror world, she explained, is the fairytale world – a world that ‘wants to grow up’ and which uses our world, the world we perceive to be real, to do so – capturing people and technology from this world in order to progress. It is the land which protrudes through to our world in the faces of stone gargoyles and the grisly tales of folklore – a world populated by a shape shifter fox woman, a Dark Fairy, children stolen from our world and turned into stone, a sleeping beauty crumbling into the passing of time, her skin turning to ‘parchment’ like the dried rose petals falling from the thorns surrounding her castle.
Cornelia explained that the book is the result of a three-way collaboration between herself, Lionel Wigram (producer of Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes films) and her cousin Oliver Latsch. Lionel came up with the initial idea of the fairytale world that wants to grow up; together he and Cornelia wove from that a whole world of ideas and narrative turns and surprises; she did the writing – and her cousin Oliver translated her drafts, and numerous rewrites, from German into English.
In answer to one child’s question from the audience expressing surprise that, with such excellent spoken English, Cornelia doesn’t write in/ translate her work into English herself, Cornelia explained that she has to write in her native tongue because it is in German that she feels most able and free to play with language and grammar, to ‘break the rules’ to create the effects she is chasing. She told us that a native English speaker is better able to translate these effects into ways that sound natural to an English speaking ear. She told us too, with real relish, of her ‘passion for words’ and that she could happily play with one sentence, altering, polishing, chasing that exact desired effect for eight hours or more, and love every minute of it. Whereas, with her original role as book illustrator, before she took up writing as a career, drawing didn’t engender the same love of time spent perfecting.
During the event, Cornelia was in conversation with Damian Kelleher. He began the journey into the world of Reckless by asking Cornelia to read us the opening of the novel. This is a threshold moment – both within the book; and within the room. Cornelia reads, unfolding the moment when Jacob Reckless discovers, and passes through, the mirror. The pin-drop silence of the audience, the many absorbed minds concentrated on her words, suspends the whole room on a threshold – a hovering between this world and the world of the book; each one of us drawn in to our own personal reflection of the narrative.
Afterwards, Cornelia told us how, when she reads aloud, she loves the thought of so many interpretations of her book existing in the room simultaneously. Once a book is made into a film, this tends to reduce to one shared version, and that is a loss. She prefers the thought of her books remaining books, rather than being turned into films. She also talked about the importance of attaching fiction to reality for depth and meaning; of the importance of research and real detail to inspire, anchor and enrich the story and its world.
She spoke too about how important it is, as a writer, not isolate yourself too much in this very solitary profession – but to remain in the flow of everyday life – because life and its very ebb and flow is what fiction is all about – and what it needs to feed from for any sense of Truth.
She told us about her ‘writing house’ in the garden of her home in Los Angeles. How she plasters the walls with pictures of things relevant to her current work, in order to immerse herself in the atmosphere those things conjure up. Hence, during writing Reckless, she covered her writing house walls with pictures of the nineteenth century; Romantic landscape paintings, the art of the pre-Raphaelites, pictures of nineteenth century industry and machinery, architecture etc.
She also talked about women’s roles in the nineteenth century, how her perceptions of those roles had been challenged by finding out more about individual women of the period who defied the passive ideal served up by those times. She linked this to the Victorian versions of fairytales – how girls in these versions are generally timid and passive; not at all like the feisty, independent characters to be found in the pagan world of older, scarier versions – and in her fairytale world in Reckless.
Cornelia talked about modern and old worlds meeting and overlapping through her characters, Jake and Will (their names being part of the book’s general nod towards the Brothers Grimm) – brothers from the ‘younger’ ultra modern society of America, placed in the old world of Europe. She talked about how, as a frequent traveller herself, she is acutely aware of the existence and overlapping of different realities – the contrasts of place and shifts of thought as she might move from the snow, forests and lakes of Europe, to the heat of her garden in L.A. where hummingbirds feed outside the window of her writing house.
At the end of the event, Cornelia again read to us from the novel – this time from the scene where Sleeping Beauty still sleeps in a version of the tale where the Prince never turns up, and Will Reckless’s skin is slowly turning to jade. Again, the magic of the many mind-pictures at work within the room seemed to layer the moment with many realities and fictions; separate worlds of imagination, experience and vision all woven together and spellbound by the power of the edged, spare, tightly written prose of the novel. At one point, Damian Kelleher remarked on the tightness of the prose – and Cornelia said, in response, that very spare writing had been her aim, as she felt the fairytale nature of the story demanded that effect. She also spoke of the pleasure of this style, as a change from the very ‘Baroque’ nature of the language of the Ink World novels.
I made no notes whilst at the event, so this account is entirely from memory, and so may be full of blips and trips for which I apologise – and I’ve left out some details, simply for the sake of aiming for brevity (which I still don’t seem to have achieved!) For certain, this version will be a product of my own individual perception and interpretation. Another person’s version would offer an alternative reality; the other side of the mirror. What stays with me though, is a sense of ‘this world’ and ‘other-world’, hung on the balance of the language – the precision of words creating a suspension in a place of deep-seated familiarity; the familiarity of both the ‘real’ and the fairytale – a vital, formative mixture that enriches our lives as we, like Mirror World, continue to grow up.
And what stays with me also is that amazing dress – and I’m sure it will be a memory that will stay with my daughter too. Thank you, Cornelia for creating this living memory bound up with the world of books and story; the fictional made real – the book stepping into the room.