Armin Greder interview: Armin Greder, the creator of extraordinary picture books that make an urgent and compelling case for social justice, joined Nikki Gamble In the Reading Corner to discuss his book Diamonds.

About Diamonds

Mama, if I was to dig a hole in our garden, would I find a diamond?

No, darling, there are no diamonds here.

Where are diamonds, then?

Oh, in other countries. In Africa for example …

A powerful parable that explores how the desire for endless riches perpetuates chains of inequality and corruption.

Interview Transcript

Please note this transcript has been edited for readability. It remains true in content and meaning.

Nikki Gamble (00:00):

Armin Greder was born in Switzerland (which is a landlocked country), but emigrated to Australia (which is a big island) in the 1970s. And after returning to Switzerland and then back to Australia again, he now lives in Peru. His early work included an apprenticeship in architecture, followed by work in graphic design, advertising and teaching at an art college, where he ran an illustration course.

His picture book debut was a story written by Richard Tak called Danny and The Toy Box. He then collaborated with the writer Libby Gleeson on books, including The Great Bear and I and Thomas. He’s also illustrated a book written by Nadia Wheatley. More recently, though, he has authored his own books, which have a strong personal voice and deal with social justice issues. These include The Island, The City The Mediterranean, and Diamonds.

Greder’s Work has achieved international critical attention. He was awarded the Bologna Ragazzi Prize for The Great Bear and featured in the Biennial Illustrators’ Exhibition of Bratislava, where he was awarded the Golden Apple in 2003. And he’s been nominated for the highly prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2004. I am so thrilled today to be able to welcome Armin Greder into The Reading Corner.

Armin Greder (01:55):

It’s a pleasure.

Nikki Gamble (01:56):

Before we talk in detail about your work, I’m interested to know more about how internationalism, your travel, your living in different places, and how those cultures have informed both you as a person and, by extension, your work.

Armin Greder (02:17):

The beginning has a lot to do with my mother, who always brought me books about travel from the local library. And this opened my mind and broadened my horizons. It taught me I wanted to travel. I wanted to see these places. When I was 16, I hitchhiked to South France to see the sea and travelled around Europe. Eventually, I got to Australia because the Australian government then was looking for immigrants, and they paid migrants the cost of the trip under the condition that we stayed for two years. But I stayed for 40 because compared to Switzerland, Australia was very liberal. I felt that I could breathe there. I’ve always been interested in travel. I do a lot of it if I can because it’s interesting to see different people, different countries, different ways of looking at things.

I think there should only be one flag, and that’s the one that the United Nations

Nikki Gamble (03:35):

Very interesting. The credits for illustration that I mentioned in the introduction are all for international recognition. Does that bring you into contact with illustrators from around the world? And do you find that people have different cultural ways of expressing themselves in books for children?

Armin Greder (04:03):

Well, I have very little contact with colleagues. If at all, it’s in Italy because I spent about half a year in Rome. One difference I could think of between other children’s book illustrators and myself is that I have never been interested in children. I’m an artist. I have always been interested in the story that wants to be told and how to give it the best form possible. Even with Libby, the writing has shifted more and more towards heavy subjects. It has been said that picture books for children deal with the world as it should be. Books for adults deal with it the way it is. And when we stopped the collaboration when I returned to Switzerland, I just forgot about the ‘how it should be’. And I dealt with the ‘how it is’ because that’s what I’m interested in, particularly about the negative aspects of how the world is

Nikki Gamble (05:14):

Very interesting. I would certainly read your books with older children and adults. I certainly don’t see them as books made for children, although there’s no reason why children shouldn’t have access to them if appropriate.

I wanted to talk about your new book Diamonds, which I think can be viewed as a development of all the social justice issues you’ve written about, and are at the centre of your other books. Perhaps we should start by telling listeners a little about what Diamonds is about. It’s a critique of the diamond mining industry and the people that benefit from that. But it starts in a domestic setting with a woman trying on a pair of diamond earrings and her daughter Carolina asking, as children do, lots of questions about the earrings. I was interested in what I saw as a departure in having a named child in the book, making it more personal What was the thinking there?

Armin Greder (06:37):

I wanted to use names that hint at a certain class of people. That’s where it comes from. Also, there are three names, Caroline, Winston and Amina, the African domestic.

Nikki Gamble (06:53):

The story starts with dialogue. Although there aren’t many words in your books, they are very important and very carefully chosen. Why start this particular story with dialogue?

Armin Greder (07:11):

Well, Libby, with whom I’ve been working a lot, is able to pick a theme and then write about it. I can’t do that. I don’t go out and look for stories. They, they come to me. And so an idea sets in, grabs hold and turns around in my head. I don’t know what to do with it or how to tackle it. It’s all very fluid. And then, eventually, some crucial thing happens in the story. In the case of Diamonds, it was the girl and the nightmare. For a while. I called the story ‘Nightmare’, in the double sense of the word. So the idea is of a girl who dreams and comes back full circle to reality. This is an epiphany.

Nikki Gamble (08:06):

When the mother returns home from her night out wearing the diamond earrings. She asks, ‘Why is Carolina crying?’ Amina, the nursemaid, has been looking after the girl who says, ‘Don’t worry. It was only a nightmare’. And that choice of word only is critical. Every single word counts.

Armin Greder (08:40):

That’s precisely the idea. I started writing very late because my education at school in Switzerland taught me that I could not write. So writing to me is far more difficult than drawing, and I can only write short things. But at the same time, I love playing with words. I check them and weigh them to get the right one. So there is more in these short words than then meets the eye.

Nikki Gamble (09:15):

Well, I think you are an excellent writer. I think every word does count, and every word is powerful. And maybe the struggle has resulted in a good thing.

Armin Greder (09:30):

Well, actually, when I say it’s difficult, it’s a whole thing. Writing and drawing. I think the Canadian poet Anne Carson spoke about the paradox of writing – the pleasure with the tragedy. And this is actually what I’m doing. I’m picking these terrible things, and then I do my stuff about them. I remember in Italy, somebody asked me, ‘How do you sleep after working on these terrible things?’ The thing is that once I start drawing or writing, the reality is receding to the back. What is now important is in the foreground – the story and how to give it form, which puts a great distance between the tragedy and my moment.

Nikki Gamble (10:24):

I’ve noticed in several of your books that although they might start with words, the pictures take over, and words become redundant. The storytelling is entirely through the images.

Armin Greder (10:45):

To me, illustration is in the service of the story. You know? So in the ideal book, illustrated book or picture book, if you only take the words, they sort of make sense. If you take only the images, they give you a certain impression, but it’s very vague. It’s only when they come together that it’s all about text. The relation between image and text, even when there are no words. I mean, underneath, there is a story which could be told in words. Right. So this, to me, is crucial. And that’s where occasionally we have a problem when people send me manuscripts, and everything is already in the words. So what do I do if my image only paraphrases what’s already written? Why bother? And in that sense, Libby has been exceptional. In The Gray Bear, for instance, the words stop in the middle of the story; originally, she had words until the end. I said, ‘Look, why am I illustrating this?’ So she decided to throw out the words, which is quite a rare act among writers who are very possessive of their children,

Nikki Gamble (11:58):

But together, you created something greater due to that true collaboration. I’m interested that a couple of times you’ve talked about the importance of the story. It’s a picture book, and it has a narrative. But also, there are images that you view not as narrative but as art. I’m thinking, for example, in the mining scene, and you’ve shown all the miners digging the diamonds, it seems to me that you don’t have to add a story to everything that’s going on. What you’re doing is taking a feeling from the image. I wondered whether we sometimes work too hard to add narrative to pictures rather than allow a spontaneous emotional response.

Armin Greder (12:50):

It all depends on the approach. This is my criticism of many books that I see. The pictures usually are well below the level of the text. They lack believability. I’m not particularly interested in art, but I would say it’s like writing – you have to write believably. Now, if I read a book, I switch rapidly between a number of things, between the story, how it is written and how the word sounds. So with the images, it should be the same. This is why I went for charcoal and pastel because this allows me a certain control, which is necessary, but at the same time, doesn’t turn the pictures into dead wood. You might call it Expressionism. This is how the text feels, not what the text says.

Nikki Gamble (14:04):

You mentioned the charcoal that you use. It makes the pictures look very physical because you can see your hand movements. Is it very physical from your point of view?

Armin Greder (14:19):

It is, yeah. Because if I draw very carefully, very timidly, this shows if I draw with strength, this comes across. It’s like music or how somebody plays the violin, depending on how they work or attack the thing. This gives a whole different quality to the sound. It’s the same thing.

Nikki Gamble (14:45):

Does the charcoal allow you to express things that other media might not allow you to?

Armin Greder (15:02):

I would prefer to do my books in charcoal – full stop. No colour, because colour is a problem for me. So it makes me work hard. <Laugh> The black and white alone can be very expressive if it lends a dark and somewhat heavy aspect. But this is exactly what I need for my story is

Nikki Gamble (15:29):

Can I ask a question just about the format of Diamonds? The landscape format differs from the other portrait books you’ve created. Did you choose this format from the beginning?

Armin Greder (15:43):

Well, almost from the beginning. I had to organize the dialogue. In a portrait format, this gets very long. I could put four images on a double spread in landscape, which dictated the whole thing.

Nikki Gamble (16:00):

So sometimes there are very practical reasons for doing something.

Armin Greder (16:06):

Oh, yes.

Nikki Gamble (16:07):

I know commentators have talked about your work in relation to Expressionist artists, and several people have mentioned the Norwegian artist Munch and his painting ‘The Scream’.

Armin Greder (16:21):

Monk. Yes. In, The Island that the woman in panic obviously references Munch.

Nikki Gamble (17:19):

Would you classify yourself as a pessimist or a realist?

Armin Greder (17:25):

A pessimist

Nikki Gamble (17:26):

Really? Isn’t the act of creating a book quite an optimistic act?

Armin Greder (17:34):

Well, sometimes I think about that. Maybe it’s a morbid interest in seeing the world going down the drain. Several people have said to me over time, why don’t you do something positive? It doesn’t occur to me. My stories are always protests. They don’t offer solutions; they just say, well, this is it, and this should not be.

Nikki Gamble (18:09):

However, the very act of somebody reading a book like Diamonds, seeing that tiny little diamond held in the tweezers and the scale of that compared with the scale of human suffering, I can’t but help but feel that anybody who reads this book will never buy anything with a diamond in it. And that must surely be a positive outcome,

Armin Greder (18:40):

This hasn’t occurred to me. And you’re right, but I don’t think that a book alone changes anything because only the converted will buy it and read it and say, yes, that’s terrible. But when I showed The Island at Australian Publishing, they said, ‘You can’t do this. This is not the children’s story.’ Now, so many years later, I find that my books turn up a lot in classrooms. And there, I think, yes, a book can do its part to change your thinking.

Nikki Gamble (19:31):

It’s the start of the dialogue that we need.

Armin Greder (19:36):

I agree with that.

Nikki Gamble (19:39):

I’m interested in the pared-back text that you use in The Mediterranean. There are words right at the beginning of the book, before the story. They are on a plain white double-page spread, and they just read, ‘After he had finished drowning…’ such an interesting choice of words. ‘After he had finished drowning, his body sank slowly to the bottom where the fish were waiting.’ Those are the only words needed for what is essentially a circular story. This economy elevates the story above a specific instance of what’s happening and makes it more universal – allegorical.

Armin Greder (20:45):

I think any book worth reading comes from something personal, the point of view or an experience. Now to come to the point about The Mediterranean. I like eating fish in Italy, but I would frequently ask myself, ‘How many dead refugees am I eating when I eat that fish?’ That’s how the idea started. But then this crucial moment happened when someone told me about her grandmother, who one day refused to eat fish because she didn’t want to eat immigrants, and in that moment, it clicked. I saw this drowning thing, and the words sort of roughly appeared. I worked a long time on these words. This circular story almost dictated that.

Nikki Gamble (21:47):

What you’re working on next?

Armin Greder (21:53):

Two books. One will come out next year in Italy. It’s about the environment and how it goes down the drain. It is another story that has very few words, and they’re mostly at the beginning. The rest is just images of what we are doing to the environment. And the other may come out a year after. It’s called The Journey, and it is about an ocean liner with three classes of deluxe passengers and then those further down, the steerage and then the workers at the bottom. So the ship gradually fills up with water and ends with the ship being half submerged. The machines are dead. There’s no more electricity. So the captain invites the first-class passengers to a candlelight dinner and gets the bands to play to drown out the screams of those drowning below. Another pleasant thing!

Nikki Gamble (23:11):

.It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to talk to you today. Connecting all the way from Peru, which is amazing. And I look forward to deep conversations with the young people I work with, sharing Diamonds with them. Thank you so much.

Armin Greder (23:32):

It has been a great pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.