Interview with Shaun Tan (part 2)
Your books, as you yourself have described on your website, display, "a recurring interest in notions of ‘belonging’, particularly the finding or losing of it." That’s certainly true of your newest work. Is it true of all your art, or just your children’s books? And if it’s just the children’s, why do you suppose that is?
That’s a very interesting question – I’d have to think about that a while! It is probably true of all my work to some degree, because I see it mostly as an exploration of my relationship to place. My paintings, for instance, are almost always a struggle with landscapes, even if they are portraits or quite abstract, and when I’m working on them my thoughts are always ‘how do I feel about this place, here and now?’ and trying to connect to deeper, subtle feelings than those I’d consciously admit. In fact, painting in many ways helps me connect more strongly with things around me, like a form of mediation, so it’s process is as important as the result, a picture on a wall.
I think the books are not too different, but driven by more awareness that a lot of other people are going to look at them, whereas I rarely exhibit my paintings. I tend to get the impression that ‘belonging’ is an issue that affects a lot of other readers, because our lives are often changing, and are a very complex web of family, work, education, friends, goals and meanings. Also in the modern world I really think that one big issue is our fraught disconnection from nature (The Lost Thing deals with this issue especially, but also The Rabbits). Our sense of belonging is fundamentally problematic.
Even more broadly, it’s possible that the root of all story is some notion of belonging anyway, when you think about it – characters trying to find something – and returning home. If it is more obvious in my books than paintings, it’s perhaps because the narrative somehow draws it out… but I’m only really aware of those themes in retrospect. At the time of writing or drawing, I’m just following threads in the best way I can.
How much time do you dedicate to your books as opposed to the time you dedicate to your painting?
Well, it’s very disproportionate in favour of books, a shift that’s occurred over the last ten years as my book projects have become more ambitious, and also more central to my livelihood, whereas before illustration was a bit like an unprofitable hobby. I also found the world of publishing a little more attractive than the art world – it seemed to have a more welcoming integrity, and comparative lack of elitism or pretentiousness. Books also reach a much wider audience potentially. That all said, I’d like to spend more time painting, because that is the basis of all my work, a more spontaneous and direct reaction to immediate realities, and just good practice at looking. It’s just a matter of finding a balance.
You mention on your website that humor is essentially a non-didactic artform. ". . . what makes things funny or meaningful is that we discover it for ourselves, rather than being told outright." I wonder if you might elaborate on this a little. Certainly, The Arrival is able to balance out the funny with the serious. How do you decide which project can afford a little humor while others, like The Rabbits, do not?
It just depends on what works, and what comes to mind. Developing a book is really about performing a series of experiments, taking the successes, dropping the failures, and doing more experiments. Very little can be preconceived in advance, and especially not humor – it either emerges or it doesn’t. Humour can often be a good counterweight to the pretentiousness of saying something profound, as in The Lost Thing, where there is a funny discrepancy between normal words and bizarre images. It’s also a natural byproduct of caricature – and all art involves a degree of caricature because you are providing a distorted representation of reality that exaggerates some features over others. And it’s a natural byproduct of a certain reticence, where you allow significant ‘gaps of understanding’ between what is said or recognizable and what is not (and jokes exploit this too).
Sometimes these gaps are funny, sometimes just strange –The Arrival can go either way, and it depends often on readers. It’s a question of how one copes intellectually with things that don’t make immediate sense. In either case, the result is the same – you have to think about the connection between parts rather than having them spelt out to you. The idea works because the reader realises it, and ‘works’ a bit for it, rather than being told it. Humour can make that work seem less like hard labour, it invites a playful contemplation.
Will we be seeing more of your books, originally published in Australia, coming here to the U.S.?
Yes, I think so. At the moment I’m working on a series of short fable-like stories set in a suburban environment, and there is a large US publisher interested in this already, so it is likely to be published simultaneously in Australia and the States.
Beyond the obvious, what would you consider one of the more interesting differences between publishing in the U.S. and publishing in Australia?
I’m not sure what the ‘obvious’ is, as I’ve not had too many dealings with US publishers. My general observation though is that Australian publishers are far less conservative than their US (and British) counterparts when it comes to picture books. I don’t know why that is exactly, whether the reasons are cultural (where there is more acceptance of things like ‘picture books for older readers’ in Australia), or the publishing industry, or the inertia of such a large U.S. market, or the nature of commercial illustration and writing, or the influence of an educational system. In any case, I’ve met a lot of illustrators working in the U.S. who become very excited when they see the experimental nature of some illustrated books published here. Australian publishers seem more able to take certain risks. Not sure if that’s changing though, as the voice of sales and marketing people seems to increasingly eclipse that of editors.
It’s also interesting to note that U.S. publishers seemed reluctant to take my books because they were difficult to categorize, difficult to market, and sometimes not entirely suitable for young children. Up until The Arrival, my books found distribution in the US via an independent Canadian Publisher, Simply Read Books.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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