Time Taken with Shaun Tan
Work too long in any single profession for an extended amount of time and there’s a danger of growing jaded. In my particular case, sometimes I’ll have days where I feel as if nothing original or new is being published anymore. I’ll get into a slump of sorts, nit-picking and kvetching over the various lovely titles that cross my path. Such slumps are cured one of two ways. Either I bore myself out of it, or I’m so shocked by a title that it is physically impossible to call it anything but brilliant. Now meet the man who causes that kind of shock with every work he produces.
Author/illustrator Shaun Tan grew up in an isolated suburb in Western Australia, the son of parents who had immigrated to the country. This childhood had a significant impact on the books he’d later go on to write and illustrate, as themes of identity and belonging frequently crop up in his work. His books have primarily appeared in Australia, but we’ve been lucky enough to see the illustrations he created for such titles as The Rabbits and The Lost Thing. His most recent title, The Arrival, is due on U.S. bookstore shelves this coming October via Arthur A. Levine. A wordless tale, the book is difficult to pigeonhole. It’s too long and mature to be pegged as a picture book, but as of this moment in time no definition exists for this kind of lengthy wordless text.
The Arrival charts the journey of an immigrant coming to a strange new land. From the beginning the reader is put in the man’s shoes as everything from animals and food to clocks and words appear strange and magical. Over the course of the book, the man hears the stories of the other immigrants around him, and in time he is able to send for his wife and child, successfully mixing aspects of both his old life and his new. The Arrival is, quite simply, breathtaking and I was pleased as punch to have the chance to ask Mr. Tan some questions on his work.
How long had you been working on The Arrival before it came out?
About five years in all, from the point in which ideas for a book started coming together. Prior to that there was a period of random research into Australian migrant communities, especially Chinese, as I felt this was a subject that offered some opportunity for an illustrated story – I just didn’t know what kind. A lot of my books, where I have not had a text supplied by a publisher, have very long gestations, based on a vague notion of ‘there’s something in this…’
With The Arrival, most of the time was spent simply rendering the hand-drawn images, although I also spent a couple of years developing multiple drafts of the story at different lengths. It was actually originally intended to be a fairly simple 32-page picture book called My Suitcase about someone migrating to an imaginary country, with about sixteen paintings and some words, so quite conventional. But it was not a satisfactory treatment of the material, and I kept expanding it while breaking each page into more and more panels; then dropping all text and shifting to a more photo-realistic style.
It was actually a very burdensome and sometimes depressing project, just because it became so huge, and I knew I would not see the end of it for some years – and it precluded work on other paintings and books. However, what kept me going was the simplicity and strength of the core idea, which just seemed very real and natural to me, even though I struggled to find the right ‘voice’. I’ve also found that if I stick with something long enough, I usually find a way through, and it’s rare that I’ve not finished anything once I’ve started.
You have the ability to adapt your style from book to book so as to best suit the format. The Rabbits, for example, was highly stylized whereas The Arrival has a realistic silent film quality to it. Is there any particular style that you prefer?
That’s a good question. Generally, I prefer more stylised work, because from a technical point of view it is easier and quicker. Both can be equally expressive and powerful in their own way, but realistic drawing involves spending much more time guarding against errors. Especially things like faces, figures, hands – everyone notices if these don’t look right, and it interrupts their reading. With The Arrival, so much time was spent simply troubleshooting, and sustaining the continuity of objects, lighting effects and so on. Work that is more abstracted has its own problems, but it tends to be a lot less tedious and there is a little more license to improvise.
Filed under: Uncategorized
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.
SLJ Blog Network