In­ter­view: Shaun Tan

We find out how the Aus­tralian pic­ture book artist and au­thor goes about cre­at­ing uniquely strange sto­ries for chil­dren.

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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.”

Cre­ative tech­niques

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.

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