Interview: Shaun Tan

A shorter version of this interview was first published on 27th September, 2009 in The Star.Shaun_Tan_portrait300px

MOST PEOPLE tend to associate picture books with simple stories, illustrated with simple, brightly coloured pictures. Of course, those with a more intimate knowledge of this medium of storytelling know that there is more to picture books than just pretty pictures that simply offer a visual description of a straightforward, basic text.

Picture books may deal with complex and difficult themes and subject matter, and this may be reflected in either the text or the art, or both.

Shaun Tan is a picture book artist whose work is definitely more complex than what the average person might expect to find in a alphabet or counting book. I know people who started collecting picture books after they read one of Tan’s. The Melbourne-based 35-year-old started his career drawing for science fiction and horror novels. His art appears in picture books written by John Marsden (The Rabbits) and Gary Crew (The Viewer and Memorial) and he also illustrates his own books (The Red Tree, The Arrival, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia).


Tan’s art is striking and detailed, rather surreal in content and style. The richly tinted, deeply unsettling images in The Red Tree (above) manage to convey the idea of that small glimmer of hope that keeps many people going through the worst of times.
In The Arrival, the pictures (see below) are sepia toned, alternating between panaromic views and personal studies that relate the story of a man as he attempts to make a living and home in a new land.

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of 15 short … I hesitate to even call them stories. Some seem like fragments that have no beginning or end. Most tantalise the reader, offering glimpses into strange worlds or strange views of this world.

Tan’s father hails from Ipoh, Perak, and met his Australian wife when he was an engineering student in an Australian university. Tan was born in Perth and visited Malaysia when he was a boy but doesn’t remember much of it.

Apart from writing and painting, he has worked as a theatre designer, and did concept art for the films Horton Hears a Who and Pixar’s WALL-E.

I’ve read your notes (on your website) about Tales from Outer Suburbia so I gather that the starting point for the book was your sketches. Did it ever happen the other way around – where a story gave birth to pictures?
Yes, although I usually begin with a vague mental image, like a “sketch” in my head. For instance, the story Broken Toys, this was a visual idea about a man walking around in a diving suit on a still, hot day, in a park, near a store or on someone’s driveway. I wrote the story before I really produced any particular drawings. This is true also of another story, about an Italian family who discover a secret room in their house. A fuzzy visual impression, leading to writing, leading to clearer images forming: the words guiding style, content and design.

Your work has a wistful air about it. There’s a lot of searching going on, and loneliness, and not fitting in, as well the feeling of being overwhelmed. But there’s also a degree of wonder and anticipation. How much does all that have to do with the fact that you have a parent to who was an immigrant to Australia, and had to deal with settling down in a new country as an adult?
It’s hard to say, because the only life I’ve lived is this one, and I’m not always aware of my motivations. Sometimes I look at my work and am a little surprised by the emotional colour of them, in the same way you might wonder why you have certain recurring dreams. I think the fact that my Dad is Malaysian-Chinese and my mother Anglo-Australian has contributed to some sense of displacement, or at least I’m never quite sure where my real home – if there is such a thing – is located. Growing up in a semi-developed outer suburb really compounds this, a place with little history or identity. But I have to say that my Dad has settled in very well, and did so quite early on, he is a very adaptable guy as long as he has a nice spot for gardening! Where does the wistful searching/ anxiety/ wonder come from? I’m not sure, but some very deep place that even I can’t see clearly myself. A lot of people seem to connect very strongly with my stories, so it’s obviously not a unique or unusual feeling.

buffaloWhere did the water buffalo come from? He made me think of the buffalo I’d see on car trips between towns before all the highways were built in Malaysia so I wondered if he’s a memory from your childhood?
It’s possible, although I think for me the animal would have been known through Asian prints, batik artwork and so on, without first-hand experience, which perhaps makes some creatures even more mystical. We have water buffaloes in northern Australia too, and here they seem very wild, dark and dangerous. I like the ambivalence of this animal, that it can be kind and helpful but also threatening, and with a great sense of bovine power, stillness and silence.Do you think you’ll enlarge on any of the stories in Outer Suburbia? For example, I would like to know what happened to the man whose property was destroyed by dog’s pee. Are you ever kept up nights wondering about the fate of your characters?
Not at all actually. I really just see them a people or things that live entirely within the length of a story, not outside of it. I like the idea of their mysteriousness too, that we never really know them very well. Ultimately, every element in a story is a metaphor for something else in the real world, and that’s a more profound question: How does each thing relate to real life?

Do you travel much? If so, how much is your work influenced by the places you visit?

I do travel occasionally, and yes, that influences the way I think, draw and paint. I recently visited Mexico City for a book conference, and had a look around while I was there, and was very influenced by the folk art there, both contemporary and pre-Columbian, the shapes, colours and surrealist elements. When I returned I had to create a poster (left) for children’s book week here in Australia, and ended up painting a picture of kids reading books on top of a brightly-coloured Aztec-looking creature.

Have you ever thought of writing and illustrating a graphic novel?
Not much actually, although it’s possible if the right subject came along, and I felt strongly enough about a certain graphic novel style. It’s such a demanding medium, so not something I’d leap into. Even The Arrival emerged by accident in a way, from a much smaller picture book of only 32 pages, to 128, completed over a five year period. Also, some stories are best left unillustrated, so I feel it’s a medium that demands caution and restraint.

The Red Tree inspired new music. And images from The Arrival have been shown accompanied by music by Shostakovich. What is it about your art that inspires the use and incorporation of music?
I think it’s the silence actually, and the absence of a clear narrative, which allows for plenty of adaptation and intervention. Both The Red Tree and The Arrival are quite mirror-like books, in the sense that readers can find their own ideas very easily reflected in them, much like music.

You have said that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child and that when you create you create what interests you. What then, do you think, about the fact that you are now a celebrated children’s author and illustrator?
I’m in two minds about it. Sometimes I feel it is a misconception brought about my starting my working life as a picture book illustrator; that if I’d been a political cartoonist or a ‘fine arts’ painter, for instance, I’d be framed differently (I have worked as both, just not so widely exhibited or published). I don’t really understand why The Arrival is often called a children’s book, it’s an interesting question. At the same time, I have no complaints, as children are a great audience, they feel and respond to things quite deeply.

murakamiWhat sort of books inspired you as a child and what inspires you now?
I was inspired by science fiction, fantasy and anything funny. I also liked stories that had unclear endings, or were slightly disturbing as I grew older. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury’s short stories as a young teenager. These days I tend to read more mainstream literature, but often with a slightly speculative twist, such as the novels of Haruki Murakami (which are weird in a quite restrained way). I also remain inspired by good picture books, and also graphic novels and comics which I did not read much as a child, only recently as an adult.

What, if anything, switches off your desire to create?
Occasional depression, which is the opposite of that creative drive really. Much more than that, though, I think any kind of stress or anxiety in other parts of life. I really need quite a quiet, uneventful space to think creatively, with plenty of time and no pressure to come up with anything good.

Who are your favourite artists and why?
This would take too long to answer! There are too many. But what I can say is that I look for any artist, regardless of medium, genre or reputation, who is able to create something honest and with complete integrity, and can come up with a visual language that is inseparable from whatever they are trying to express. The idea and its representation become the same thing.

If you could invite any artist living or dead on a date who would it be and what would you do on this date?
A date? Well, it had better be my fiancee then, given that she is also an artist (graphic design, jewellery and illustration). Otherwise there’d be trouble.

Now that you’re a picture book writer/artist, do you read picture books by other writers/illustrators? Any favourites?
Yes, more so than I did as a child (we owned very few). I like the work of Peter Sis, Edward Gorey, Chris Van Allsburg, Oliver Jeffers, J. Otto Siebold and Vivian Walsh, Lane Smith, Quentin Blake and Raymond Briggs.

And, finally, do you have a favourite story from Outer Suburbia? And why is it your favourite? If I had to choose one it’d have to be No Other Country (the story about the secret room that is refered to in Tan’s answer to the first question) because I like the idea of a beautiful place to escape to amidst such bleak and sterile surroundings. My inner courtyard would be one of my favourite books and I suppose everyone has a version of an ‘inner courtyard’ that they retreat to. Do you have one and what is it?
I’m not sure what my favourite is – I  tried very hard to make each as interesting as the next, though No Other Country is one that I do enjoy looking at and reading again. I suppose my own ‘inner courtyard’ is the simple act of drawing or writing. For me it’s really about pausing to reflect on things, to collect my thoughts and try to make connections between all the disjointed experiences that make up daily life; and to go beyond bleakness too. The ‘inner courtyard’ is also a place you invent yourself in some way, it’s not automatically present: you have to invest and build. So yes, I guess reading a book is like that too, it’s an effort of reflection, you get back what you put in.

no other country from tales from outer suburbia
No Other Country (Tales from Outer Suburbia)


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