Shaun Tan grew up in Perth, Western Australia and currently works as an artist, writer and film-maker in Melbourne. He began creating images for science fiction stories in small-press magazines as a teenager, and has since become best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through dream-like imagery. The Rabbits, The Red Tree, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia and the graphic novel The Arrival have been widely translated throughout the world and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer, a concept artist for Pixar and Blue Sky Studios, and won an Academy Award for the short film adaptation of The Lost Thing. In 2011 he received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden, in recognition of his services to literature for young people.
Congratulations on your Ditmar Award for Best Artwork for Rules of Summer. Can you tell us a bit about the book? If he eats the last olive at the watchful-bird party, will the birds eat him? (Asking for my daughter.)
To answer your daughter’s question: probably. What I like about narrative painting, which is probably a more precise description of what I do than ‘illustration’, is that there is a little mystery in a picture’s past and also its future. All we can see as an audience is a particular moment, and I suppose I’m trying to make that moment as charged as possible, exploiting the stillness and silence of painting, which I love. Rules of Summer is basically a series of such charged moments that collectively describe, in a weird and fractured kind of way, the relationship between two boys who are probably brothers (it’s never clear, and I usually don’t ascribe any particular identity to my story characters). There is no traditional narrative, although there is a kind of building conflict and resolution told through several oil paintings, each accompanied by an obscure rule that appears to have been broken by the youngest boy: Never step on a snail, Never leave a red sock on a clothesline, Never give your keys to a stranger, and so on. It’s both frivolous and serious at the same time.
What were the highlights of working as a concept artist and animator on the various films you’ve worked on, including The Lost Thing? How does it compare to working on artwork and narrative for a book?
The main difference is collaboration. Books are very solitary projects for me, even in the past when I’ve collaborated with other writers I’m still very much working on my own. The Rabbits, for instance, with John Marsden involved no real discussion between author and illustrator during production, and that’s not uncommon with picture books, that can work fine. Film, however, is fundamentally about collective creativity, simply because it’s impossible for one individual to do everything (with rare exceptions). How is that different? It can actually make the process a lot more fun, a lot more fluid, because there’s a conversation between diverse imaginations, and those moments of collaboration would be the highlights. The possible down side is that certain compromises are required, but that’s nothing unusual, and not necessarily a negative thing. The main thing is that everyone is working towards the same objective, the realisation of which can take many different forms. You learn not to get hung up on any singular vision necessarily, because it just might not be able to be realised in practical terms: instead you take a core feeling and adapt it as best you can.
What projects are you developing at the moment?
Not much at present, partly on account of looking after our baby daughter at home a lot of the time (ie. she is the new project!). I recently illustrated a collection of Grimm fairy tales for a German publisher, and am trying to get that work together for an Australian edition. That was an interesting project as I put aside painting and drawing, and for the first time decided to illustrate each story using clay sculptures, which I then photographed. It forced me to simplify my work, and not think too hard about each one, modelling the forms quite spontaneously, which I found very refreshing.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Gosh, I feel I haven’t been paying much attention lately! I’ve been revisiting a lot of older work that left an impression on me when I was younger, particularly Tim Winton as a fellow West Australian whose stories are very landscape-inspired (as I would say mine are). In the SF vein, I very much like the work of Jeremy Geddes, amazing oil paintings with subtle narratives. Comics by Many Ord I find very amusing and honestly drawn. Both these artists make some use of the Melbourne urban landscape that I’m gradually tuning in to.
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
It hasn’t changed the way I work very much, in fact that hasn’t changed significantly since I had my first illustrations published in Aurealis and Eidolon magazine in the early 1990s. I’m sitting at the same desk, literally, and using the same materials. I have made slight forays into new media, co-directing an app adaptation of Rules of Summer which was very interesting. Overall I’m quite lucky, as my early career was nurtured by small independent publishers who were happy to take certain risks with unconventional work, and my stories seem to have often appeared at the right time; for example, coinciding with a renewed interest in graphic novels and picture books for older readers. If I was starting over again, I’m not sure how I might go.
What will I be working on in five years? No idea, or else more of the same! I always have a bunch of ideas for books rattling around, but they rarely coalesce into something that is worth pursuing, it’s such a commitment of time and effort. I’m also interested in spending more time doing straight landscape painting (ie. not illustrative or fantastic). The Arrival is also being considered for feature film development, but any news on that front is likely to be some way off, and I’m not actively thinking about it too much just now. It could make a brilliant film, but only if the right people are at the helm, and finance is a whole other conundrum. Whatever happens, I’ll most likely continue working from the same desk as I’ve always done, a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other.