SOMETIMES, in an unexpected place, a writer will have a feeling, a tingle down the spine of the imagination. It happened to Cornelia Funke in Venice, which became the setting for her breakthrough novel The Thief Lord. And it happened some years later in a place still more surprising: Salisbury Cathedral.
“It was one of those moments when a place tells you a story,” says Funke, speaking in English with a soft German accent. In particular, she was “enchanted” by the story of Sir William Longespee, the half-brother of Richard the Lionheart, who is buried there. His is a proper knightly tale of courage, adventure, romance and (possibly) murder.
A picture of Longespee’s effigy hung in her study in Los Angeles, where she has lived since 2005, while she worked out how best to tell the story for children aged nine and up. Although she regards the UK as her “European home”, setting a novel on these islands was daunting. “I thought, as a German writer, I can’t write a ghost story set in Salisbury, that’s ridiculous. And then I talked to booksellers at a party, and I said ‘Would you mind if I tried?’”
Mind? They would more likely bite her hand off. Since The Thief Lord was published in English by Barry Cunningham, who discovered JK Rowling, Funke has sold 15 million books worldwide. Stories such as Dragon Rider and Inkheart have been made into movies. Most recently, Reckless, a collaboration with film producer Lionel Wigram, seized the imaginations of older readers with its vision of a fantasy world behind a mirror.
Ghost Knight, the Salisbury Cathedral novel, introduces Jon, aged 11, who is packed off to boarding school in Salisbury due to his resentment of his widowed mother’s new boyfriend, a dentist whom he calls “The Beard”. No sooner has he arrived than he meets a murderous ghost and his henchmen who have carried a grudge against Jon’s ancestors for hundreds of years.
For help, he turns to William Longespee, bound by oath to help anyone who calls on him. But fighting a ghost with a ghost has its complications. Jon will need all his wits, plus the help of his new friend Ella and her wonderfully eccentric toad-loving grandmother, if he’s to come out of the adventure alive.
Funke relishes the chance to tell the story of Longspee and his wife Ela of Salisbury, who went on to become the first female Sherriff of Wiltshire and the founder of Lacock Abbey. Did she worry that the book’s edge-of-the-seat moments – an attack by hellish hounds, a confrontation with ghosts in a churchyard – would scare younger readers? “The children of our time are so used to darkness and to horror, you know they won’t take you seriously if you don’t go pretty dark.
“Sometimes it got darker than I planned, but it felt like the only way to do it, because knights were very frightening warriors. I wanted to show the violence, because children nowadays see so much violence in games and movies, but it is a fake version, someone is killed 500 times and they always get up again. We owe it them to tell the truth about it, and about evil in the world.”
And she does love a good ghost story. “Every writer does. It’s not by chance that every writer has done one, from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde. You can deal with death, guilt, the question of what happens after, you can deal with human existence. You have so many layers you can work with.”
Does she believe in ghosts? “I think I almost do, because there are so many reports. A friend of mine in LA was at a party and she kept wondering why there was an old man walking between all the guests in an old-fashioned suit. She asked the hostess and she said: ‘Oh, just ignore him, he’s a ghost. He’s a former owner, he shows up all the time.’ In LA there are many, many ghost stories – all the dead movie stars haunting their houses!
“When I did research on ghosts, I was surprised to hear that there are many people dealing professionally with ghosts, getting rid of hauntings, clearing houses. There is a theory that 95 per cent of all hauntings are like magnetic recordings of an emotional moment. Strong emotions like pain, sorrow, distress, leave a trace, which I thought was very interesting.”
At the same time as dealing quite matter-of-factly with ghosts, the children in the story ask searching questions about what happens after death. Funke doesn’t answer them conclusively, but she does treat them with respect. “Children are very serious about the big questions. We tend to avoid them, but I think the worst thing is not to give them any answers. The answer can be, ‘I don’t know’, but they always want a discussion. It’s quite a task to be mortal and to be conscious of it.”
She knows all this only too well. In 2006, she lost her husband of 27 years to cancer, with a daughter in high school and a son not yet in his teens. She looks into the far distance. “I was never afraid of death. I always believed I would take another shape, and my son was the same, he was always saying things like, ‘Maybe I’ll be reborn as a frog, mum’. I always believed in that, and that was not even shaken by the death of my husband. I was with him when he died, and in a way that confirmed what I think about death. To feel the presence of the other, very clear, and then suddenly feel that it becomes more distant. I didn’t see a ghost, which is a good sign, because if he had stayed around it would have felt like there was unfinished business!”
She says she feels fortunate to live in “a golden age” of writing for young people, driven forward by writers such as Rowling, Philip Pullman and others. “There are so many glorious writers and storytellers. People say to me, ‘Why do you write fantasy?’ I say, because the world is fantasy. We all live in many layers and many realities.”
This summer, she experienced another tingle down the spine of the imagination, when she visited the Highlands of Scotland for the first time. She pauses, as if looking ahead at future adventures. “There are thousands of stories exploding in my head.”
• Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke is published by Orion, priced £9.99