|Shaun Tan with some feathered friends|
Shaun Tan grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, and currently works as an artist, author and film-maker in Melbourne. Books such as "The Rabbits," "The Red Tree," "Tales From Outer Suburbia" and the acclaimed wordless novel "The Arrival" have been widely translated and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Shaun has also worked as a theater designer, feature film concept artist, and wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning animated short "The Lost Thing." In 2011 he received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden for his body of work. His most recent publication is "The Bird King."
Shaun will be giving a Keynote address the Saturday February 2, 2013 of the upcoming 14th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference, titled "Internal Migrations." I'm delighted to share with you our discussion...
Lee: You've written about your work opening "a passage between familiarity and strangeness" (when you were discussing "The Lost Thing") and I also see that same space explored in "The Arrival." Is that space magical for you?
Shaun: Yes, it certainly is, magic in that it partly makes sense, but not entirely. There's the craziness of imagination, which can sometimes be a bit too crazy to communicate anything meaningful (as with dreams), but when it's anchored to other familiar, very real and studied things, it can present a kind of alternate reality on the page. It shifts subtly from ordinary to extraordinary. I think all of us are vaguely aware that the 'real world' we live in happens to be just one of many possibilities. We might have been born anywhere, at any time, and maybe even in any universe! So what then makes us who we really are? The Arrival plays with that idea a little bit, that we have to make sense of ourselves within a world that can shift and change radically, and taking the point of view of an immigrant in order to examine this.
Lee: I've read that many of your characters and moments in books are taken from sketches you've done over time in your notebooks. I imagine you walking around your life, always ready to doodle something that catches your eye or inspires you. Do you have a system where you go back and look through your old sketchbooks to find images and re-new inspiration?
Shaun: No, I wish! My note-keeping is extremely haphazard. However I've found that the act of sketching is enough to plant an idea in my mental library, it's a form of study that lends itself to easy retrieval. Then when I'm in a creative emergency, I can just remember that little thing I might have sketched a couple of years ago. If need be, I might then look it up physically, if I can endure my terrible filing system. On rare occasions I will actually thumb through an older sketchbook, and be reminded of new ideas that may in fact generate fresh inspiration, or provide 'missing ingredients' for a current project.
Lee: You also wrote that "my concern is to involve the reader by the use of their own imagination, in trying to make sense of the 'unfinished' stories that I'm presenting to them." But there must come a point where a story is so 'unfinished' that it isn't satisfying. And your stories often have a numinous resonance that stays with me long after I've put them down. (Like the ending of the short story "Eric" in "Tales From Outer Suburbia") Can you talk about crafting the end of your stories?
Shaun: Yes, basically a story is finished for me when it feels satisfying, so I keep working on it up until that point. Interestingly though, that feeling of completeness comes from a story or image feeling a bit incomplete, by which I mean it doesn't reveal too much about character, motivation or meaning, but the direction of all these things is implied. I usually over-write or over-draw my stories, spelling things out in a little too much detail, and then spend a lot of time stripping them back to their bones. Sometimes - including on the advice of editors - I have removed a final paragraph from the story, and that's often improved it a lot... it's as if you are left with a footprint or wake of an idea, and the reader can then fill that little vacuum themselves, in a personal way. The physical constraints of picture books, and animated films - limited page numbers or screen-time - has also been instrumental in helping me learn how to edit carefully this way. The fact that drawing and painting just takes so long to do is also helpful, a good discipline. It forces me to think very carefully about how little I can get away with, and still convey a good story.
Lee: I like that question - how little can I get away with, and still convey a good story! "Distant Rain" also stayed with me (the image of the massive ball of poems hovering over the neighborhood!) That story's fusion of words and drawings was - not seamless - but seeing all the seams made it even more beautiful. Having both words and pictures in your 'toolbox' presents a challenge: how do you best express what you're going for. So, in telling a story, how do you choose the moments to illustrate, the moments to use words?
Shaun: That's the question! I know with that story in particular, I changed my mind a lot and I still wonder about alternative presentations. In the end, to use that as a good example, I always return to a fundamental concept, asking what is the story really about? In Distant Rain, it's really about forgotten poetry and mismatched experiences, the chaotic detritus of ordinary life. So the story is predominantly a written one, torn into little scraps, and the illustrations take a back seat. Elsewhere, such as in The Arrival or The Lost Thing, the central concept involves a failure of language or communication, and in that case the illustrations carry almost all meaning, because they can show things that can't be named. Generally speaking, words are good for interpretative concepts, such as identifying a creature as 'lost', and other things too tedious to show in pictures. Pictures are great for presenting much more ambiguous ideas, and have their own economy. The companion creature in The Arrival would take an entire page to describe physically, and even then we would not quite 'get it', whereas a picture is just so instant and matter-of-fact: look, here's a creature. You can also hide things in pictures, go off on little tangents, offer optional things to examine, which might be harder to do with a page of text.
Lee: As a writer, I'm familiar with the revision process for words. What's your revision process for images?
Shaun: Very similar actually, like moving paragraphs around, rewording sentences, adding and subtracting here and there. For images, I tend to do equivalent visual adjustments by drawing over the top of previous draft sketches using a lightbox. I keep the bits I like - trace them off - and rework the bits I don't like. I'll sometimes use scissors and tape to cut out and rearrange parts; since working digitally, I can do a lot of this in Photoshop too. In fact, although almost all my final art is hand-made, there's a lot of digital editing that goes in in my preliminary sketches.
Lee: That's fascinating! What have you learned over the course of your career so far that you wish you had known when you started?
Shaun: I think to just relax and have more faith in my intuition. As a younger artist, I worried too much about where my work fit in, its significance and so on, not to mention the problems of generating income. Most of those issues resolved when I just trusted in my own ideas, beginning with a picture book 'The Rabbits', where I more or less thought, to hell with it, I'll just do whatever I want and not care if it all falls in a heap or even gets published. As it turns out, that book was the turning point in my career as an illustrator, doing something nobody else had really seen before (including me!).
Lee: Excellent advice - be yourself! Okay, Bonus Speed Round: Coffee or Hot Chocolate?
Shaun: Coffee - I'm not a morning person!
Lee: Pencil or Pen?
Shaun: Impossible to decide: enjoy pencil, but hate stopping to sharpen. When sketching I usually use a cheap ballpoint.
Lee: Karaoke Song?
Shaun: Anything instrumental that requires no actual singing. Sparing you all from needless misery.
Lee: Thanks, Shaun!
Shaun: Thanks, see you soon.
And if you want to see Shaun's keynote, there are a limited number of spaces still available for the Saturday and Sunday of the 2013 SCBWI Winter Conference (the Friday intensives have sold out.) You can find out more details and register here.