Shaun Tan – Interview with CKT

Shaun Tan

Q. What five words best describe you?

Short, semi-Asian, husband, father, artist.

Q. What prompted you to sit down and write your first story?

Geez, that’s going back, circa 1980 if you mean my very first, which I don’t remember at all… but as soon as I could write, I was writing stories. Of those I do remember, the most prominent was probably an illustrated book called ‘The Land Beneath The Sea’  at the age of 10. It was about three scientists who get sucked into an oceanic whirlpool and discover a subterranean world of magical creatures (very much inspired by ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’  which captivated me as a child). They travel down a long river, escaping various perilous encounters, and discover a huge totemic statue with treasure inside. They steal the treasure, blow everything up, and escape back through the sea into the ‘real world’ as heroes. Now that I’m older, I realise it’s actually a story of mindless colonial vandalism and right-wing atrocity. Why did I write it? Probably the same reason I write and paint now, I want to see how it turns out. I don’t have a big plan when I start, just an idea, and like foolhardy scientists on a subterranean adventure, I want to see what’s at the end of the journey. Anyway, ‘The Land Beneath the Sea’  was available for loan in my school library, and proved quite popular. There’s a lot to be said for kids writing for other kids. Unfortunately the book went missing after a year or two, either nicked or thrown out. If anyone ever finds the one and only copy of (made in an era before colour copying was accessible), let me know! I never planned on being a book creator as an adult, so it would be so interesting to see this early attempt now as a harbinger of things to come.

Q. What comes first in your creative process: illustrating or writing?

Usually a drawing of some kind, but it can work either way. It’s less interesting how a project starts as how it proceeds, and that is often a constant back and forth ping-pong match between words and pictures. So I will draw something, which suggests a story, so I then write a little. That writing often redefines the image, takes it in a new direction, and I’ll redraw my ideas accordingly. It goes on like that for a while, and somewhere along the line I realise what the subject of the story/sketch actually is, which occasionally can come as a surprise. As in, oh, I thought it was a story about a funny buffalo but it’s really about my grandparents.

Q. Is there any part of the creative process you don’t like?

Yes, there is always an awkward stage about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way in, where the idea becomes a bit ‘worn out’ or loses direction, or encounters some technical difficulty to do with either drawing, writing or design. It all feels somewhat pointless; a moment when I might want to give up or do something else that could be a lot more fun or inspiring. But I’ve learnt to expect this part of the process and to just persevere through it. In fact, I think most successful artists and writers owe more to their ability to persevere than anything like skill or talent: just sticking with something to the end, for better or worse.

Q. Are you a plotter or a panster?

(Plotter =Plotting out your manuscript before you write it. / Panster = Putting pen to paper and plotting as you go along)

I’m a bit of both. My dad is an architect, and I’ve inherited a lot of his penchant for meticulous pre-planning. But I also find that it’s best to just randomly scribble a lot of ideas before thinking about them too much. There has to be room for a lot of evolution, for things to happen that would be impossible to plan. For that reason, I’m also not averse to ditching an initial structure and trying something else, time permitting, if I feel I may be painting myself into a corner through excessive planning. One important thing I have learnt as a creator: never start with a planned theme, always start with an object or event. For instance, to say ‘I’m going to write a story about the migrant experience’ or ‘I’m interested in environmental problems’ is a terrible way to start. Much better to just draw pictures of random things based in intuitive feelings, and figure out what it means much later. The story will tell you what it is about, not the other way around. Mastery has little to do with control, it’s more about understanding the natural flow of things, accepting the beauty of accidents and listening to your subconscious.

Q. What excites you about the future of children’s books?

Technological advances in image-making have really made anything possible. That does mean you see a lot of bad, half-baked digital work where artists have become too distracted by superficial possibilities, and not practising drawing enough (the basis of all good illustration is good drawing, there is just no substitute for a few thousand hours of pencil practice). But on the plus side, new digital media does give an artist a lot more control, and ability to play with variations, and present work in the best light to publishers.

I think we are also seeing a breakdown in genre boundaries, which is a very good thing. What I mean is that genres like children’s literature, science fiction, picture books, comics, and all other formerly segregated areas of practice, are getting a bit blurred or contested, or readers just don’t care about the fencing so much. I think this encourages more originality, and also means that unusual books are reaching wider audiences, and there’s lots of cross-pollination. Pictures books in particular don’t just have to be for kids; they can be for everyone, and deal with any subject. I still think there is a long way to go with this art form, but perceptions are improving and there are no shortage of terrific, universal picture books which demonstrate a high level of artistic skill being published. Publishers are still slow in understanding what is possible, I think dragged down by rear-view-mirror marketing, but there are many visionary editors around.

Q. What’s the funniest thing a child has ever said to you during a read aloud session?

One kid said, ‘if you’re so good at drawing, why aren’t you a real artist?’. This was said in the spirit of genuine curiosity (not a put-down) and was actually a very good question, one of the best I’ve been asked actually. The question is really, why be a book illustrator if you can be a ‘fine artist’, for want of a better term, someone who has gallery openings rather than book launches, more cultural kudos, potentially a lot more money. I could probably work in either field (and I do have gallery shows occasionally) but I’ve opted for book illustration, because I love this form of expression, and it also suits the way I think narratively. I’ve also found that you can reach a far greater and more random audience through a picture book than you can through an exhibition. Books also last longer! It’s hard to see an exhibition years after a show, but you can always pick up a book, even decades later, and see the whole thing as it was originally published.

Q. What’s next from Shaun Tan?

Well, having said all that, I’m spending a lot of time these days just painting, mostly landscapes of places near where I live in Melbourne. Some of these are for exhibition, but many others I just do for myself. Maybe I’ll put them in a book one day, I’m not sure. I’m also collaborating on a couple of film and theatre projects, but these are at such early stages that there is little point commenting on them, except to say that the film is a possible adaptation of my graphic novel The Arrival.  I recently published a book of sculptures inspired by Grimm’ fairy tales called The Singing Bones,  which was a great deal of fun to do and something different for me. These days, a lot of my time is spent looking after our 2-year-old daughter, and I imagine a bit of creative work might eventually emerge from many weird conversations with a toddler!

Shaun’s website: www.shauntan.net

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