Scholastic author and illustrator Shaun Tan shared some of the secrets behind his work in this interview. Tan is the author of numerous illustrated works, including The Arrival (2007) and Tales from Outer Suburbia (2009). This interview first appeared in The School Library Journal.
With a wordless debut novel (The Arrival, 2007, Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine) and a collection of 15 stories (Tales from Outer Suburbia, 2009, Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine), Shaun Tan continues to gain worldwide attention for his work. In June 2009, The School Library Journal spoke with him about the perils of fame, the nature of his writing, and his inspiration.
Were you surprised that The Arrival was such a hit in this country?
I was surprised that people reacted so positively to it because I was expecting it would be a disadvantage, in some ways, with a wordless book. I always worry that my work will seem obscure and that people will not know where to shelve it. But I’ve learned that the key to illustrated books is to let the reader do the work.
Tales from Outer Suburbia is so completely different.
While I was working on The Arrival, I started to work on this book, partly because of the urge to write—and also to switch styles and play with humor and have that immense variety. [Suburbia] is actually closer to my sketchbooks and closer to how I work when I don’t have an overriding project. I really love discontinuity, that dreamlike state of things like nonsequitors that have some undercurrent coherent meaning that’s on the surface.
Did you originally plan for The Arrival to be wordless?
No, it had words in the beginning. The idea that interested me the most was the inarticulateness of many immigrants that I know—my dad being one. His English isn’t perfect and he will say something in a very abbreviated way about some experience he had coming to western Australia from Malaysia. But you know that contained in that simple statement there’s a whole adventure, and there’s a whole depth there, but it doesn’t communicate in the language.
Where I live there are a lot of Italian and Greek immigrants and if you ask them a question about the early days in Melbourne, they’d just say, “Oh it was very hard, very hard. Would you like a cup of tea?” And within that little phrase there’s a whole ocean of stuff but it just comes out as a few words.
Did it take you long to realize your real true passion?
When I think about it, I went through a very convoluted path to arrive at this realization that the things I love doing the most are the things I loved most when I was about five or six. So I kind of came full circle back to that, which is writing and drawing.
Having an architect dad certainly had an influence on you.
Yes, even when I look at some drawings I did as a child, there are lots of drawings of spaceships and things like that. So I was always doing the science fiction stuff as a kid. And they look like house plants wrapped around spaceships, where I’ve drawn all the ducts and air vents and doors.
Did your parents ever try to talk you out of taking this career path?
My dad only became comfortable with the whole thing when I was able to show him my tax return when it reached a certain level.
This interview initially appeared in the School Library Journal on June 15, 2009. To read the complete interview, please go here.