Interview: Shaun Tan
We find out how the Australian picture book artist and author goes about creating uniquely strange stories for children.
Shaun Tan feels like he’s reached a point in his career where he finally knows what he’s doing. Kind of. The picture book artist and writer, who grew up in the fairly isolated suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, has gone on to win some of the biggest and richest literary prizes, but his success almost sounds like it’s taken him by surprise. “I didn’t have any particular ambition,” says Shaun about starting out. “Children’s publishing wasn’t really an area I necessarily had any vested interest in.”
Luckily for readers, Shaun grew to enjoy the playful, subversive opportunities offered by picture books, and this year sees the release of two new titles: Cicada, and Tales From Inner City. His previous books have landed him Hugo Awards, the only film he’s ever worked on has scooped an Oscar, and his career as a whole has seen him honoured with the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2011. Not that he’s let any of this go to his head.
“I’m like a real artistic downer,” Shaun jokes, “because I often don’t feel that motivated to draw. It just feels like a lot of work! When I get an idea, like when I was a kid, I want to see what it looks like, and the only way I can do that is by drawing. For me, drawing is like a means to an end.”
Tales from Australia
Speaking of his childhood, the boy known as ‘the good drawer’ started turning his interest in science fiction and horror into a career as a teenage
freelancer by submitting illustrations and paintings to smallpress magazines. “Perth wasn’t exactly a centre of publishing or an illustration culture, but it’s as good a place as any,” says Shaun.
“I gradually got better jobs,” he continues. “I was being asked to illustrate some small horror stories and other genre fiction, and maybe there
weren’t so many other illustrators in Australia at the time who were specialising in that kind of work. It led to a series of relationships with editors and other writers, and I started to do picture books collaboratively.”
This all came to a head in 1998 when Shaun collaborated with edgy young adult writer John Marsden on The Rabbits, a cautionary tale of colonial rule by rabbits.
“I use the term collaboration loosely because we didn’t really speak to each other, which was just because of distance,” says Shaun. “It was the first time that I’d been given an illustration assignment where the publishers more or less said, ‘Feel free to do whatever you like.’ I was quite anxious about that, but the result was way better than I expected.”
The Rabbits was well-received upon release. Its themes also generated controversy by tapping into sensitive aspects of Australian history that were the subject of charged political debate at the time.
“I was surprised at the kind of world that emerged through about a year spent working on The Rabbits,” says Shaun. “I got to the end of it, and I really felt that this was a complete project that I can be proud of, and it was some sort of accomplishment. It cemented my interest in picture books as a means of telling all kinds of story – even very strange stories.”
Lost and Found
Despite the controversy surrounding The Rabbits, Shaun still felt the book flew beneath the radar. “I quite liked that you could create work that not many people see,” he says. “But it’s there and it sort of develops its own audience over time. There’s not a heavy critical environment or anything like that, so you can kind of get away with some quite strange things.”
Overlooked and unusual objects were the subject of the first picture book Shaun wrote and illustrated: The Lost Thing. Coming off the back of The Rabbits, The Lost Thing was completed in a year alongside other work. The story of a boy who finds a mysterious creature and tries to find a home
It cemented my interest in picture books as a means of telling all kinds of story
Cicada had a strange humour to it. I tried to integrate it with other stories, but it just kept wanting to fly free
for it was warmly received by publishers, who felt that Shaun had finally decided to create a book for young children.
When Shaun submitted a dummy version of the book though, the publishers joked that it had seemed too good to be true. “Because, of course, the illustrations are quite different to the story in many ways and they deal with a lot of what I think are adult concepts,” explains the illustrator.
Shaun adds that, “At the same time I wanted the story to be very accessible for young children and so I think I was trying to balance quite a few things with The Lost Thing.
“It also felt like a really personal story. At the time I was 25, still pretty unemployed, still struggling to find steady work and pay my bills and see any kind of future as a visual artist, and so the story kind of reflects all those things.”
The book’s full title, The Lost Thing – A Tale For Those With More Important Things To Pay Attention To, is a nod to the way audiences discover his work, with adult readers often coming across copies by accident while shopping for nieces or nephews and keeping them for themselves. “That was also a real comment on my part about the status of picture books and illustration generally. The fact that it wasn’t taken seriously and how that’s kind of a good thing.”
Plenty more picture books followed, as well as forays into the world of films thanks to concept work for Pixar’s WALL-E and Blue Sky Studios’ Horton Hears a Who! in 2008, and 2011’s animated version of The Lost Thing released by Passion Animation Studios. Through working on a range of projects, Shaun has refined techniques to help his imagination flow rather than solve technical problems.
“One of those techniques is building small-scale models,” says Shaun. “I would make little dioramas out of paper and move things around and photograph them. It’s a form of sketching. Rather than drafting lines and erasing them and shifting them, you’re actually moving objects around to try and get a composition and a sense of visual space and narrative.”
For Cicada, his latest book about a diligent and underappreciated office insect, Shaun created detailed sculptures and small arrangements of architecture made out of foam cork board. These models would stand still just long enough for him to take photos and start composing the story.
“Part of the problem I have as an artist is I can’t imagine things that well until I see them. So whatever process allows that to happen before I lose interest in the story really helps.”
Cicada has been in mental development for years, but once Shaun found a way into the story it was painted and designed in just three months. “Cicada was its own very unique species with a kind of strange humour and absurdity to it,” he says. “I was trying to integrate it with a bunch of other stories, but it just kept wanting to fly free. So I just thought, okay it’s a separate book, I’ll think about it that way, and as soon as I did that it kind of unfolded surprisingly easily and I could imagine it very clearly. So it was an easy book to get down on paper.”
As well as models and sculptures, the support of his friends, family and readers also helps Shaun to keep creating. “Even though most other artists are quite isolated, I’m preoccupied with my own idiosyncratic concerns,” he says. “I’m influenced by the thought that I’m doing some good by drawing, rather than inflicting pain or boredom.”
Influential Art Even though Shaun didn’t set out to write a therapeutic book, The Red Tree has had a profound effect on people. “You can’t get a stronger review than that – someone telling you that a book saved their life. That’s pretty amazing.” Smooth Sailing The Red Tree scooped Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature in 2002.
Finding Home The world of picture books is uniquely liberating for Shaun. “Books aren’t profitable, so that frees you up. There’s not a great burden of having to make money for the publisher – you just need to sell a small amount of copies and that’ll be okay.”
Lost Property The cover of The Lost Thing references Cahill Expressway, a painting by fellow Australian artist Jeffrey Smart.
Wayfinding “I’ve had a very elderly migrant who would never read a comic in their life comment about how much The Arrival has affected them. That makes me want to draw more.”
Good Taste Shaun likes it when readers find their own meaning in his work, such as with Rules of Summer. “I think readers are far more advanced in having very eclectic tastes when it comes to the kind of material they’ll read and the way they approach illustrated literature.”
sights and sounds The app created for Rules of Summer gave Shaun the chance to experiment with creating soundscapes while keeping the visuals static.
Deadly Game The Red Tree’s theme of struggling through adversity resonated with readers. “I’ve had a few people at signings who can’t even talk to me about it, like they just become quite frozen.” Miraculous Metamorphosis The story of the mild-mannered insect who eventually breaks free from a lifetime of office drudgery was inspired in part by Shaun’s father.