An interview with Martin Baltscheit “Straight to the heart”

Story-teller Martin Baltscheit.
Story-teller Martin Baltscheit. | Photo (detail): © Sebastian Hoppe

Martin Baltscheit writes, illustrates and reads stories for children. For his books he tries to find images that will stick in the mind and will appeal to every age of reader.

Mr Baltscheit, you have written over 40 books and have illustrated or given your voice to spoken versions of numerous books. Which of these forms of expression is closest to your heart?

Whichever one I happen to be involved in at a given time. When I am recording an audio book, for instance, it is always easy for me to imagine never doing anything else. On the other hand, I actually consider myself to be an artist, even when I am not actually painting. And ultimately it’s writing that captivates me most – when I succeed in immersing myself in my work and everything comes together, that’s the best feeling of all.

You did not illustrate all your books yourself – why not?

I always try to follow the strongest impulse. When I have a really strong impulse to write a story, I have to put everything else aside in order to make it happen. I do the illustrations myself if I have the feeling that only I can do them. Sometimes, however, I write a picture book story for a particular illustrator, in which case I can see their pictures in my mind’s eye even as I write.

Creating palpable images

In 2011, you won the German Children’s Literature Award for your book about a fox that loses his mind (“Die Geschichte vom Fuchs, der den Verstand verlor”) – a picture book about dementia. Are there any topics which you would not risk broaching?

No, I’m not afraid of broaching any topic – you just have to present them in a way that children can understand. The fascinating thing about my work is trying to create images that are so palpable that they will survive a lifetime. In the fox story, for instance, a powerful image is used to symbolize the fox’s alienation from normal life: when he chats to a sympathetic stranger down by the river, but in fact is talking to his own reflection.

Is a fable particularly well-suited to dealing with heavy issues?

Yes, fables are more generally applicable and their characters are easier to identify with. They allow topics to be raised that are relevant to everyone without readers seeing themselves directly.

Picture books are read time and time again. Does that mean that children are a more discerning target group than adults?

Children are different, less willing to compromise. Adults will sometimes read a 500-page book even though they don’t particularly like the first page. Children would never do that. The magic of a successful picture book is that one can read it at any age and interpret it differently.

You were awarded the German Audio Book Prize 2013 for your reading of “Zorgamazoo”. What fascinates you about Robert Paul Weston’s novel in verse for children?

The text requires the speaker to exploit the full potential of the human voice, and to use every possible artistic trick. And that’s a great deal of fun. When my sons were three years old, they began to talk in rhyme like the zorgles. Children really enjoy language that sounds interesting, and Zorgamazoo sounds great all the way through, is amusingly told and a wonderful book.

Fairy tales as a role model

From theatre play to illustrated novel: “Die besseren Wälder”; © Martin Baltscheit/Beltz & Gelberg From theatre play to illustrated novel: “Die besseren Wälder”; © Martin Baltscheit/Beltz & Gelberg | © Martin Baltscheit/Beltz & Gelberg
In 2010, you won the German Youth Theatre Award for your play “Die besseren Wälder” (i.e. The better woods). In 2013, this crime drama in fable form – the story of a wolf that is brought up by sheep – was published as an illustrated novel in a new and beautifully designed edition. Does the novel include elements that left an impression on you from productions of your play?

I believe that all our impressions lie dormant within us and influence us. At the moment my boys and I are listening to old audio plays on record that I listened to as a child 40 years ago, and I am discovering entire sentences and characters which have made an appearance in my texts, despite the fact that I would have sworn anything that they were my own invention …

What motivated you to turn your play into a novel?

I wanted to explore the theme of identity-seeking in greater depth. What is more, I was keen to draw it. With such an archaic narrative form as the fable the obvious choice is to work with illustrations. The illustrations in Die besseren Wälder not only show what is in the text but also provide additional detail. Furthermore, the images provoke a very different emotional response than the text does – they go straight to the heart, at the speed of light.

The Beltz-Verlag website presents you as the “Brother Grimm of our time”. Are the Brothers Grimm among your role models?

Fairy tales really are a role model for me. I love this archaic way of telling a story. They feature easily understood scenarios – a village, a forest – and typical characters. I hugely enjoy using characters from the world of fables and fairy tales and slightly shifting the image readers have of the character to the left or right, or changing it entirely. Fairy tales can do everything: they can shock and be cold as ice, but they always have a happy ending. That’s important – children mustn’t be left with any question marks at the end.