2007 Snapshot Archive: Shaun Tan

Interviewed by Kathryn Linge

First published at ASiF!

Shaun Tan is a painter and illustrator know for his beautifully rendered picture books. He has had a busy week. Last Friday his latest book, ‘The Arrival’, was chosen as the Children’s Book Council 2007 Picture Book of the Year. ‘The Arrival’ has also won every Australian speculative fiction award that it has been eligible for – and even possibly some that it hasn’t. His website is: http://www.shauntan.net/

1. Your latest book, ‘The Arrival’, is an astounding book on many levels. Why were you interested in exploring migration and what kept you motivated throughout the five year process?

I was actually attracted to the subject originally in a conceptual sort of way, so not inspired by a specific story at first. It was more the idea of a migrant story, of travelling to a strange place with very few resources – nothing more than a suitcase and a pocketful of money – that I found very stimulating. There were a lot of parallels there with the kind of science fiction stories that inspired me as a teenager, of ‘arriving’ in a foreign time or place, and the dreamlike qualities of that experience. I think also that migrant stories are somehow very fundamental to all experience, because they involve having to adapt to changing circumstances, and this is something that we all struggle with, whether moving to a new school, a new job or whatever.

The more I started exploring this subject, the more I focused on more specific immigrant history, particularly recorded anecdotes from different periods. They were all very personal, yet had a lot of common threads that suggested a ‘universal story’. I guess it was the strength of this idea that kept me motivated, that it felt like a very natural and ‘obvious’ story, a immigrant tale set on an imaginary continent that nobody has ever visited before. It allowed plenty of room for interesting invention – creatures, vehicles, buildings, customs – as well as different kinds of emotional engagement.

2. ‘The Arrival’ was somewhat a departure from the style of your previous books; it’s almost a graphic novel rather than a typical picture book. In addition, the illustration is lifelike, rather than cartoon, and has been executed in graphite rather than acrylics or oils. Did you consciously set out to produce a very different work, or were these choices dictated by the book?

Essentially, these were choices dictated by the book and the evolving story. In the beginning, I had no idea what the style was, and it went through many speculative ‘versions’. In its earliest conception, for instance, it was a 32-page picture book with physically constructed landscapes using recycled, found objects that would then be photographed, all of it heavily stylised and merely showing ‘glimpses’ of a migrant’s experience, with some written commentary. That’s hard to imagine now, because it is so far from the final, very unanticipated form of the book.

I produced a number of illustrations in a similar form to the ‘silent graphic novel’ that you now see, but in a different style, actually more ‘cartoon’ as you put it. This worked at the level of telling a story, but it did not have the social realism of a more photo-realistic style, and a lot of my inspiration came from looking at old photographs after all. The decision to use graphite pencil was a way of simplifying method, and allowing for editing (ie. erasing and adjusting), because I knew that as the book developed, earlier parts would have to be ammended due to stylistic changes over such a long period – and this indeed was the case. So consistency was a big concern, as well as economy – pencil seemed the most efficient way of tackling mulitple realistic images, as was digital colouring using photoshop, rather than using coloured pencils – possible, but incredibly slow.

I’m also fascinated by the way you developed your reference for the illustration – building sets from household goods and furniture and then filming ‘scenes’ that you later adapted and drew. Is this a departure from how you’ve created reference for other works? How important is reference material for you?

Absolutely, it’s a very big departure. I use photos as reference a lot, but normally shun working so closely with them. In the Arrival, I was often tracing outlines directly from photographs I had taken, so that the real ‘drawing’ was happening at the stage of composing a photograph. In fact, the project felt much more like making a film than a picture book – it would have saved me a lot of time if I’d figured that out in the beginning! It kind of went that way by degrees, just realising better and better results by spending more time developing careful photographic references; building sets and so on.

More generally, reference material is always essential to the way I work. I do not like the appearance of my drawings or paintings when they come directly from my imagination – they seem very introverted or repetitive. I am best when I am responding to external influences, so I actively gather them around me in the form of photos, other artworks, objects and written notes drawn from researching specific subjects.

3. You’re best known for your picture books, however you’ve also been involved in collaborations to adapt your books for film and theatre. What sort of new challenges does adaptation bring? Where do you see your energies lying in the future?

Adaptations and colloborations are very different kinds of projects; in many ways a lot more fun because you are bouncing ideas off of other people. At the same time there is a little more pressure to meet deadlines, and I never feel the same kind of personal ownership over a film or theatre project as I might over a book, where you do everything yourself (concept development, text, illustrations, design). That’s not a negative thing, it just makes it different; at the end of the day what matters is the work itself.

Probably the key problem with adaptation of my own work involves injecting it with a dramatic element to sustain it as a film or theatre production. Generally, my stories and images are not big on dramatic elements, or at least do not follow a conventional dramatic structure – they are quite slow and quiet I think, which may suit a book, but not a more kinetic medium.

As far as my energies, I do see more and more time being committed to film projects, given that there is a lot of interest here in my image-making style (including a lot of interest in adapting The Arrival as a feature film). However, I still feel books are perhaps the most efficient means of a single person telling a story in a concise and satifsying way, so I will always see this as my primary medium I think.

4. Do you get much time to read in your busy schedule? What’s the best thing you’ve read this year (Aussie or otherwise)? What are your favourite picture books by other artists?

Unfortunately, I have far too little time to read, and I am quite a slow reader also (of both words and pictures). I keep buying books and never get around to actually reading them! One of the best things I have read recently is a picture book called ‘The Island’ by Armin Greder, which reminds me why I like picture books as a short, fable-like form; they can be incredibly powerful. I’ve also been very impressed by the novels of David Mitchell (especially ‘Cloud Atlas’) and Haruki Murakami (especially ‘The Wind Up Bird Chronicle’).

5. Finally, and certainly most inappropriately, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who’s it gonna be and why?

Yeah, I guess it doesn’t get more personal than that. I suppose I would have to say the ‘wife’ who appears in the beginning and end of ‘The Arrival’, given that these are actually drawings of my real-life partner!

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