The story of how Michael Ende came to write his most famous novel was almost neverending in itself. It started in February 1977 with Hansjörg Weitbrecht’s visit to Genzano. Like any good editor, Weitbrecht was intent on persuading his author to write a new book. As soon as the topic was broached, Michael Ende started rummaging through a shoebox and sifting through ideas. One of the sheets of paper bore the following summary: ‘A young boy picks up a book, finds himself literally inside the story and has trouble getting out.’ Once Weitbrecht had expressed his approval, Ende promised to deliver the manuscript by Christmas. He assumed the project would be straightforward, and privately wondered how he could stretch the material to fill a hundred pages.
The subject-matter for the new book grew before Michael Ende’s eyes. Before too long he was on the phone to his publisher, asking for an extension to the deadline. The book would be somewhat longer than expected, but he fully expected it to be finished by autumn 1979.
In the course of 1978 Ende’s publishers heard very little from their author. Then in autumn 1978 Ende finally re-surfaced. The book, he told his editor, was not yet complete. Young Bastian Bux had refused to leave Phantásia, and it was his duty as an author to follow him on his travels. Ende’s next announcement unsettled his publishers further. The book, he explained, required special presentation. What could be better suited to such a magical story than a leather volume inlaid with mother-of-pearl and complete with brass fasteners? Weitbrecht set off post-haste to Genzano. After much discussion publisher and author settled on a cloth-bound volume in two colours throughout. Each of the twenty-six chapters would start with an ornamental initial illustrated by Roswitha Quadflieg. Alarmed by the steep increase in production costs, Weitbrecht made his way back to Stuttgart.
Ende’s struggle to escape the world he had created became increasingly intense. During conversations with his editor he sounded almost desperate - it was a matter of literary survival. Unless Ende could find a way out of Phantásia, Bastian would be trapped inside. In the end circumstances seemed to conspire against him. The winter of 1978 - 1979 was one of the coldest in living memory. Snow fell in the Alban Hills and the temperature dropped to minus ten degrees. Houses in Genzano weren’t designed to withstand such extremes, and Casa Liocorno soon succumbed. Ice formed, a pipe cracked and water gushed into the house. Wrapped in damp blankets, Michael Ende sat in his cold wet house and worked on The Neverending Story. Despite such difficult conditions he finally found a solution: AURYN, the gem, would provide a way out of Phantásia. Not for the last time The Neverending Story had shown itself to be a magical book.
In the course of interviews and panel discussions Michael Ende was often asked about the meaning of The Neverending Story, but the author was always reluctant to offer an interpretation. When confronted with the question as to the ‘real’ meaning of the novel, Ende kept his silence. In his view, it was not a question of simply ‘deciphering’ the novel with the author’s help. Readers eager to know whether their own interpretations were correct had to content themselves with an unusual answer: according to Ende, a good interpretation was a correct interpretation, regardless of whether it mirrored the author’s intentions.
On 23rd July 1980 the German news weekly Der Spiegel published a lengthy review of The Neverending Story. The review and the appearance of the novel in the bestseller charts started a snowball effect, and soon countless new readers were immersed in the book.
Later that year Michael Ende was awarded ZDF’s Book Worm Prize, the Wilhelm Hauff Prize and the German Academy’s Prize for Children’s and Youth Fiction.