July 2009

Mitchell Jordan


An Interview with Shaun Tan

There aren't many artists who have the ability to both write and illustrate their own work; but Shaun Tan is an exception. The Australian artist began working as a freelance illustrator, collaborating with well-known authors, Gary Crew and John Marsden before eventually turning his hand to writing his own books which include: The Lost Thing (1999); The Red Tree (2001); The Arrival (2006) and his latest work, Tales From Outer Suburbia, a collection of stories set in the remote Western Australia, where he grew up. Filled with magical realism, humour and poignancy, it is also the longest book he has written and comes after his acclaimed and controversial The Arrival, a 128-page picture book documenting the migrant experience, without using any words at all. See http://www.shauntan.net/.

To start with, could you tell me about your background as an artist? Have you been drawing and writing since you were young? When did you decide that you wanted to be writer/book illustrator?

I think I'm like most people, I don't remember when I started drawing: most likely as a crayon-gripping toddler. I think everyone starts out as an avid drawer, it's just a primal kind of instinct, and raises the more interesting question: "When do people stop drawing?" I guess the interest wanes, or is replaced by other skills. Some people, like myself, just keep doing it as a form of extended play from early childhood, using this simple craft to express complex adult concerns.

But - to answer the question! - I did exhibit some early talent as a child, or at least found a way of drawing 'convincing' images by the age of three, so that a bird really looked like a bird, rather than a bird-ish scribble. By five I think I understood a set of techniques and tricks at a basic level, that drawing was about finding simple elements in things. My parents, while not artists themselves, both had an interest in the visual arts (my Mum could draw quite well and my Dad is an architect), and I think their encouragement of drawing was far more important than any innate skill. It was always fun to draw something and then show it to them - they would always act incredibly surprised and amazed! Part of a parent's job description, I think. My brother's talent at the age of six was to collect, identify and label rocks: he's now a very successful geologist. I'm sure it's because of that same unqualified encouragement.

The interest in writing probably came from being read to as a child, both at home and school. I think I was quite a late reader and writer, but did find books fascinating, both as stories and physical objects, so I was compelled to create my own. Some of these ended up in the school library, being quite good imitations of real books, which other kids could borrow. They were usually stories about adventurers travelling to another world, finding treasure, and blowing everything up, inspired mostly by movies and TV, with titles like 'The Land Beneath the Sea' and 'Mission to Mars'. One or two went missing from the school library, which may or may not be a good thing as far as my artistic reputation goes.

I had no serious intentions of becoming a writer or illustrator, even though I thought that would be a fantastic job. Growing up in the West Australian suburbs, it simply did not seem like a real occupation. It was only in my late teens that I became very focused on two things: painting landscapes and writing science fiction short stories. I always thought I might end up as a painter or writer, but for a long time saw these as completely separate practices, somewhat incompatible. Generally, I did not know what career I might pursue, and going into university, it was a toss up between biotechnology (another big interest), and an arts degree. I chose the latter.

As a student I funded my studies in part by picking up various small illustration jobs, such as brochures for campus departments and the university's graduate magazine. I was also having some success illustrating stories in science fiction magazines. When I finished my degree, I still did not have any career convictions, but decided to try doing this kind of freelance illustration full-time for about a year, and see if I could make a go of it. It turned out that I could, especially illustrating children's educational and trade books, and fantasy novel covers. That eventually led into picture books, which is where I am at currently, with some recent forays into theatre and film.

A lot of your work deals with displacement. The Lost Thing and the main character in The Arrival: travelling through a foreign land and learning a new way of life. Many of your illustrations also show the characters as miniscule in comparison to the landscape which they inhabit. Where does this interest come from? Do you, like your characters, share a general sense of disconnected-ness from the world?

That's an interesting observation: I'm not so consciously aware of my preoccupations until they resolve into stories and images, so it's a complex one to answer. A psychologist might have a better crack at that! I just find myself strongly attracted, in an empathetic way, to images of isolated figures moving through vast, often confounding landscapes. My intellectual self would say that this is a metaphor for a basic existential condition: we all find ourselves in landscapes that we don't fully understand, even if they are familiar, that everything is philosophically challenging. There is also an idea that any creative thinking carries some problem of identity and meaning, that individuality needs to be endless negotiated, that we are always trying to figure out how we connect to the things around us.

I also always have this sense - perhaps gleaned from science fiction - that our current time and place is quite accidental, one of many possible alternatives, and also that humans are not at the centre of the universe. I grew up in a peripheral suburb of metropolitan Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, surrounded by the Indian Ocean on one side and flat, semi-arid bush on the other. Our world was (and still is) a small human incursion into something enormous, ancient, quiet and mysterious: small houses surrounded by dunes and dark, tangled trees; parks and schoolyards populated mainly by crows, parrots and prehistoric-looking bugs. That's since changed as huge malls and carparks have moved in, but the basic fact of a 'transplanted' world remains, one with an unclear sense of place or history. It's full of stuff but it's all somehow insubstantial.

A lot of my early work, whether paintings or stories, have at there core some issue of disconnection between the natural and built environment, which I think is actually a defining characteristic of our time. It's most clearly stated in The Rabbits for instance; and implicitly in The Lost Thing with its awkward and depressing world-by-numbers. That same feeling filters into all sorts of other ideas and themes, a sense of disconnection between people in relationships, issues of cultural misunderstanding, gaps between ideology and reality, intentions and results, language and objects. These things are all great fuel for the imagination too. I would go so far as to say that all art and literature is about some kind of disconnection, brokenness or discrepancy.

Do you like to travel and explore different countries/worlds, or are you happier creating worlds of your own?

Well, both really. I get plenty of inspiration from being in unfamiliar places, and being reminded of the different ways people can think and live, that nothing is 'normal'. Interestingly, though, I rarely feel the urge to draw when travelling, as if travelling alone offers enough weirdness. Likewise, I find it much easier to do creative work 'in tranquillity,' back in my studio which feels very plain and prosaic, working best when little else is going on. Travelling and drawing are very similar activities, in that they force you to look at everything carefully: one is an outward adventure, the other an inward adventure. They are both equally interesting and enjoyable, as well as sometimes being difficult pleasures.

If you could visit any fantasy world, what one would it be?

As a younger person, I would have loved to enter a Tolkien-esque world (and could easily pass for a hobbit too!), and some of the imaginary worlds I was drawing as a teenager, but I don't really have those kind of escapist longings any more. More and more I see fantasy worlds - as in The Arrival - as a way of tapping into the real world, of trying to understand reality better through a speculative lens. If I was to visit that world, I would immediately lose my bearings, like entering a metaphor without its real-world anchorage. I prefer to visit using only a pencil on paper.

A lot of the fantasy worlds that fascinate me the most are ones I would not like to visit at all, like Orwell's 1984, Swift's Gulliver's Travels or McCarthy's The Road. Once again, I'm interesting in places where things are somehow broken or disconnected.

Many of your illustrations are montages of scraps from the everyday that might normally be disregarded or thrown away: stamps; receipts; notes; newspaper headlines. Are you a collector? Do you have an interest in highlighting and preserving these transient objects?

Yes, I do. I'm very interested in things that are overlooked, and in trying to find value in things that are not considered valuable. Collage also introduces an important element of random chance into an image, much like a good brush mark, it's not entirely controlled. It's also a good way to break the 'surface tension' of a blank canvas - just start sticking things on, almost without letting conscious decision-making get in the way.

I do have a tendency to collect things, which I have to control a little bit, limiting it to things that are actually useful to avoid being a pack rat. I have a large cardboard box full of small papery bits, which are always useful. I also have a collection of disposable books and magazines that I use as collage material. The less this material has to do with anything aesthetic, the more useful it seems to be - hence lots of physics, maths and engineering textbooks. In my picture book The Lost Thing, this collage helped develop the central theme of the story, of what happens when playfulness enters a world that only knows calculated certainty.

There's also a lot of optimism in your books, particularly The Red Tree. Similarly, some of the stories in Tales From Outer Suburbia are critical of the paranoia that exists as a result of the 'War on Terrorism'. Do you like to assure your readers or at least let them know that the world is really not out to get them?

I feel no need at all to reassure readers or myself of anything, I'm just trying to be realistic. I don't have a message as such, just some recurring observations, which leave me feeling a little ambivalent actually. The story 'Amnesia Machine' [from Tales From Outer Suburbia] really laments the way mass media can degrade an otherwise good democratic system - and that people fall for it every time, without seeming to learn any broad lessons. But just after that is the story about how citizens find a way to cleverly disarm an absurd government policy (by literally disarming missiles) and being compassionate and conscientious, by refusing to be afraid. I feel that both of these are realistic representations, that there is a constant tension in the world between ignorant acceptance and a higher consciousness (which requires effort). This is also a tension that exists within us as individuals, competing forces of darkness and light, both of which need to be acknowledged.

Many of your characters have no names: the main character in The Lost Thing is referred to merely as "a thing," for example. Do you not name your characters on purpose? Do you think that not naming gives the work a greater universality?

Yes, I think that's it, trying to find the best universal metaphor. Though it's not really a strategy, it just always feels right to me to have characters that don't have a specific identity, to the point of not even being recognisable creatures.

Your most recent work, Tales From Outer Suburbia, is also your most text-heavy book to date. Did this come as a reaction to your previous book, The Arrival, which featured no writing at all?

I don't see Tales From Outer Suburbia as having any real relation to The Arrival, as they seem to me to be quite different books - it might have been good to produce them under pseudonyms! But as far as creative process goes, you are right, there was a certain reaction going on there. I was often sneaking off to write the stories in Tales in between the long hours of rigorous pencil shading that went into each page of The Arrival, so it became a kind of outlet for pent-up words and conceptual playfulness, as well as humour.

I was keen to try something that was very fragmented and varied, grabbing whatever tools I thought might best do the job, mixing words, images and layout designs. Before being a full-time illustrator, I used to write piles of (unpublished) short stories, so it felt as though I was returning to fairly comfortable territory, and finding a good balance.

Could you ever imagine writing a book without illustrations?

Yes, I can't see why not. Some stories don't need illustrations, and are in fact much better off without them. However, because I tend to use visual images as my starting point, I have a feeling they will always infiltrate anything I do one way or another.

Tales From Outer Suburbia was inspired by your childhood growing up in Western Australia, but you also manage to transform a suburban setting into a place of magic and miracles. In some of the stories, Water Buffalos take up residence in vacant lots and Dugongs appear in backyards. A lot of people imagine suburbia as banal and generic; do you believe it has the potential to be something else?

Yes, anything has the potential to be something else. As a child and teenager, I used to think that the place I lived in was far too boring to comment upon, that all the good, interesting stuff was somewhere else. It was only when I started painting local suburban scenes in my twenties that I realised the subject was not so important, it was how much thought and imagination you applied to it. So a painting of a simple suburban footpath could be as fascinating as the most exotic landscape, given enough emotional investment (I often think of Van Gogh's paintings of a chair for guidance, or Morandi's little groups of bone-coloured bottles, brilliant paintings of banal objects).

Of course, I do introduce a lot of exotic, surrealist elements into my suburban visual stories in a seemingly artificial way, as a kind of 'what if?' exercise, but the initial inspiration for these comes from observing pretty ordinary things; like looking at an overgrown vacant lot, for instance, and asking 'who lives there?,' or a walnut shell and wondering if it would make a good little suitcase, or a TV aerial and imagining people decorating for some special occasion. Suburbia is definitely bland and generic, but there's also a suppressed strangeness there, a culture foreign to itself. And the fact that it does, on the surface, seem uninspiring, or escapes creative attention, means that it's an excellent canvas to be painting (or writing) upon; it's blank, quiet and opens up quite easily to absurd intrusions.

When you are working on a story what tends to come first: the words or the pictures?

It's hard to say, but generally a story is triggered by a visual image, either vaguely sketched, or vaguely imagined in my mind. Words may follow, then another image, then more words, so it's backwards and forwards - each element plays with or against the other, prompting new ideas. Words are good for playing with abstract concepts, summarising storylines and outlining structure. Images seem to bring a kind of mystery and atmosphere that can greatly expand a written idea.

Yet the main thing for me is that one does not 'explain' the other, but more often questions the ambiguities of both word and image. In hindsight, many of the stories in Tales are to do with the slipperiness of understanding or naming things, hence a nameless holiday, a Japanese diver who cannot make himself understood; an exchange student with a name that nobody can pronounce; a water buffalo who points without speaking, and so on. Images build upon the mystery that's already present in language, realising that all these sounds and symbols are quite provisional, and can mean different things to different people.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

An animated adaptation of an older picture book The Lost Thing, with a production company based in Melbourne, Pasion Pictures Australia. It's 15 minutes long, and due to be completed at the end of the year; animated digitally with hand-painted textures. I'm responsible for writing, directing and designing much of the film, which has been an interesting learning curve over a period of some years - it's all coming together quite well thanks to a small, dedicated team.

I'm also trying to do a little more painting of large canvases, which use to be my main pastime before illustration took over as a profession. These are not for exhibition or sale, rather a means of keeping in practise, and learning how to see and paint, something that you never really accomplish fully. I still feel very much like an art student every time I pick up a pencil or brush, not entirely knowing how things will end up.


Mitchell Jordan is a writer and reviewer based in Sydney, Australia. He likes dogs, receiving letters and drinking blue milkshakes.