Shaun Tan is a Melbourne-based writer and artist.
Shaun is best known for his illustrated books that deal with social and historical subjects through dream-like imagery. His works have been published around the world.
- Cicada (2018)
- Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008) received the Western Australian Premier's Book Award in the Young Adult category and the South Australian Premier's Award
- The Arrival (2006) Book of the Year in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year and the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards Premier's Prize, as well as the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Related Book
- The Red Tree (2001) received the Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year and New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards Prize for Children's Literature, and was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards
- The Lost Thing (2000) shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards and awarded the Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year
- The Rabbits (1998) Children's Book Council of Australia, Picture Book of the Year and Aurealis Conveners' Award for Excellence.
Shaun has also worked as a concept artist for animated films, including Pixar's WALL-E. He directed the Academy Award-winning short film The Lost Thing.
Shaun received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, honouring his contribution to international children's literature, in 2011. He has also been awarded the Hugo Award, the Ditmar Award and the Locus Award.
Astrid: Shaun Tan, welcome to The Garret.
Shaun: Good to be here.
Astrid: Shaun you are a writer and artist, and have found critical and commercial success across mediums. You have received an academy award for the animated film, The Lost Thing, based on your original picture book. You received both the New South Wales and the Western Australian Premier's Literary prize for your wordless graphic novel, The Arrival. And you received a prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for your contributions to children's literature. I have so many questions for you, Shaun. But I'm going to start with, how do you choose the medium and the platform to tell each of your stories?
Shaun: A good question, with great difficulty sometimes, because I like working across different media. My background is someone who likes drawing with a pencil basically, and painting with oil paints, so those are kind of my default settings. And usually, when I start a project, I'll start with pencil drawings or little oil sketches and find that they don't work, or the style doesn't work, or there's something about how I'm approaching it in terms of my mental imagery that's not being realised correctly on a canvas or a piece of paper. I'll just experiment with other things, but also look at the work of other artists – I draw a lot from the work of other artists. It's probably not directly evident because there's so many. And when I say other artists, I mean filmmakers, cartoonists, photographers, conceptual installation artists, illustrators. I don't see illustration as the kind of small area of visual arts that many people think of it as… I just think of it as narrative visual arts, a sequence of pictures that tells a story. It doesn't even have to be in time, but it actually has a relationship. Medium is a key question for me, and format, and before all of those questions, whether or not this should have pictures at all, because I don't believe all stories should have pictures. I don't believe all stories should have words, and the way I figure these things out is just by doing lots and lots of little sketches in tiny notebooks, usually just with a biro or pencil. My work kind of starts off in that medium – little biro and pencil drawings.
Astrid: You started, Shaun, by saying ‘Sometimes it doesn't work’. I guess that's a feeling, but how do you know when it's not working?
Shaun: That's what all artists are trying to ask themselves all the time, how do I know when it's not working? You often just do intuitively. And then the question is why isn't it working? That's the harder one to answer. But basically, the checking that you're constantly doing when you're painting or writing, for me, is testing if it's real. And that might sound funny because a lot of my work is very fantastical things like a bug working in an office or whatever. But I have to convince myself – I'm not an easy guy to convince of an alternate reality because I'm quite a rationalist person. There has to be something in the story that is so emotionally true that kind of supersedes the visual absurdity that I'm presenting.
The Lost Thing is a good example of this boy finding this creature on the beach while he's out looking for bottle tops, and takes it home. Well, there's something about that story that relates to my experience of growing up on the Western Australian coast – a lot of our pets that we had at home were lost or deformed animals that we found and brought home. The basic bones of the story felt true. That's the test. And I think that's important that it feels true, because I'm quite a slow producer. I haven't really done that many books considering how long I've been working because I spend so much time on each book revising it and revising it. And to actually stay interested in a subject for that long, it has to really feel more than just fun or interesting.
It has to be compelling, and it's compelling when it feels honest and truthful. And that it has something – I wouldn't say something important to say because I never feel like I do. I never feel like I have a message or a sermon that I have to impart to the public, but that the world is a more interesting and understandable place with this book in it than if it isn't in it, if you know what I mean. Yeah, just the feeling of honesty. And a lot of the work is not honest. You do it, and it feels fake, as Picasso said once when he was asked, ‘What do you think of fake Picassos?’ And he said, ‘Not so good, and I do many of them myself’, which I thought was a great answer because a lot of the time as an artist, it's a kind of magic trick and as a writer or an artist, you're a magician – you’re creating the illusion of something that's not there.
There's a certain phoniness in that action, but you’re trying to get to an interesting truth through that lie. And sometimes, it just ends up as a bunch of lies, and it's very unsatisfying, and then you start again or you change tact.
Astrid: What do you do with all of the work that doesn't make it to the public eye?
Shaun: Now, it's just sitting there in notebooks. I'll sometimes revisit it again maybe years later – in some cases, 15 years later – and look at something and think, actually, that's not such a bad idea, I was just thinking about it incorrectly or I was taking it in the wrong direction. And then I'll revisit it. In the case of Cicada, it's interesting because that one kind of sat on my desk for about 10 years, mainly as a little sculpture – a very crude sculpture at first, which was made out of a top of a shampoo bottle. It was just sort of covered with clay and painted to look like a bug working in an office. It was wearing a suit.
I tried different versions of that story, which focus mainly on workplace bullying. It just didn't really connect with me on some level, and it just sort of sat there. It was too fixated on a certain theme, and it was only when I brought it into doubt and I thought about how it ends and that the ending is more important than the beginning, that's when it sort of clicked. And in the end, it was very easy to do, but that is an old idea that I resuscitated. Yeah, nothing's ever wasted. I never feel anything's ever wasted. And I don't throw anything out – I just keep it all there. I'll flick through it, and after about five years, I can't really remember having drawn it so well. That's often when it's the most interesting because then it's like a new idea or it's been joined by somebody else. And I think, ‘Oh, that is not as crappy as I thought it was. I might actually give that another go’.
Astrid: I'm glad you did go back and revisit Cicada. I have to say, it had a profound impact on my family and I. Full disclosure for the listeners, I wrote a very positive review of Cicada and called it one of the best books that I read this year. I have so many questions.150 words in Cicada, thereabouts. Many of them repeated, obviously accompanied by your visual narrative, your visual storytelling. Tell me about your word choice, and the broken English of Cicada.
Shaun: The broken English was one of the first ideas even ahead of visual images. And it was always a repetitive refrain in my notebooks over 10 years: ‘Cicada working tall building 17 year’. That was it. I was thinking about a few things. My father is Chinese, and his English has never been 100%. Our conversations are often a little bit stilted also, because I never learnt Chinese. It's sort of like we don't share a full language each, but we share enough to have a decent conversation, which is often about science fiction and fantasy things. We read a lot of the same books––
Astrid: I'll come back to that.
Shaun: And the voice is a little bit like his, but it's also like a lot of other migrants that I've met and spoken to. My elderly Greek neighbour actually talks really similar to Cicada, I realise in hindsight. A lot of my books, I realise almost unconsciously, are about communication problems or characters who can't speak. Sometimes, I don't physically have a mouth or anything, and Cicada, you never actually see him talking. And you don't even know if he's talking to other people, or whether you are just sort of hearing his thoughts somehow, that even his thoughts are broken English. Maybe that's because he's not human – he's trying as hard as he can to communicate to you. It does create the illusion that he might not be very intelligent or something, which is often a mistake made when people encounter others who don't speak English clearly, whether it's due to a disability or different background and there’s the assumption, ‘Oh, you're not thinking on the same level I am’, which is not true.
That always interests me the way in which language facilitates communication, but it also masks a lot of stuff that we're not seeing and can create a false impression. It's like a false talking or something. Even though it's a predominantly visual story, the spine of the story was in that broken English – very short phrases followed by a phrase we don't even understand at all, which is ‘talk, talk, talk’. Always ending with ‘talk, talk, talk’. And I didn't even know what that meant when I was first drafting it, but it felt right to have this, ‘Is he complaining? Is he laughing? Is he just breathing? What is that?’ One editor asked, ‘Is that the sound of him tapping the keyboard?’ And I thought, ‘Maybe, we just don't know.’ I love those little mysteries that even I don't understand. It keeps me guessing and inspires me to explore the story further.
Astrid: Images are central to all of your work. In Cicada, there are actually five double pages with no text whatsoever. And yet, there are some of the most powerful storytelling in Cicada. Do your publishers ever ask for words or do you ever need to explain that?
Shaun: No, not really. I think there's actually been a really good tradition in picture books of having these kind of lapses. For instance, there's a great book by Libby Gleeson and Armin Greder called The Great Bear. It actually has a very similar structure to Cicada, and I may have even been influenced by it – I mean, I'm just thinking about it now that you mentioned it. Yeah, it's actually really similar – it's about a bear being tormented. In mediaeval times, there'd be a travelling circus troupe and the bear would be part of the act. It's kind of basically torturing the bear for entertainment. And this bear, this language stops at some point when the bear has had enough and it starts to go crazy and everyone runs away. But the bear is not out to attack people, it just climbs up a pole in the middle of the village and jumps into the sky, and becomes a constellation. It's actually super similar when you think about the Cicada being in a very different setting with a different atmosphere and feeling, and meaning in there as just like escaping torment… maybe he died, you don't know. It's kind of mysterious. But that's a really interesting book. That pair also did another book called An Ordinary Day, which has a similar pattern. Got some text, and then the text just kind of evaporates. And I love that feeling where the words have evaporated and what's left – it's just this empty silence.
And I also liked the fact that we are geared to grab onto words like little lifelines of meaning and we attach so much authority to them, and when you pull them away and say, ‘Okay, the words are gone now, you're on your own,’ there's a feeling of fear in Cicada. I think it's a feeling of fear at that moment, but also liberation, like, ‘Oh, I don't have to talk anymore. I don't have to think in terms of those human concepts, and I can just look at the pictures,’ and the mind kind of loosens up. Getting back to your question, I've never really had much problem with working with editors and publishers, mostly because they're very broad in their understanding of picture books.
And yeah, there's so many examples of wordless picture books, even some novels like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which oscillates between normal novel, pictures, normal novel, pictures, then photographs. I'd say in the past 20 years, it's really loosened up. And maybe 20 years ago, I might have raised some eyebrows with books like Cicada or some of the other work that I do. But these days, it's a good time to be working, I think.
Astrid: A final question about Cicada, depending on how you read or experience the images, it's quite serious – it's quite existential. How do you know what topics are appropriate for young children, and how to approach those topics to make them appropriate?
Shaun: Short answer is, I don't know. And I almost don't think about it much. I don't really write or illustrate for children. I do and I don't. It's like Maurice Sendak said, ‘I write books, other people say those are for kids’. And when he said that, the audience laughed. But I think he meant that quite seriously, they misunderstood. He wasn't making a joke. He was saying, ‘I just write the way I'm going to write, whether it's for adults or children, that's how it's going to come out of me. And if other people say it's for children, then maybe it's for children.’ But I didn't really control it in that direction. It's the same with me – I do the stories first, I show them to somebody. Sometimes, I think of ideas for books that I realise would not work commercially, even though I think they're good books. And I probably wont bother pursuing those because I have only got limited time. But it's not because they are inappropriate for children.
You've asked a really difficult question, I'm not really sure. I don't think about it too much to be honest. I'm too busy trying to get the story right that my brain can't handle the thought of how others are going to receive that, or different kinds of people. The most I can say is that I do shy away from overtly violent images, but then I would do that anyway. It's just not in my nature to represent that. If there's any kind of adult concept stuff in there, I try to make it broad. My interest is not censorship, it's more like making it understandable because all adult concepts at their core I think can be reduced to fairly universal concepts that could be shared with children. I don't think there's that big of a difference. It's just finding a way to do that, and often that’s sort of a certain kind of minimalism.
Astrid: You mentioned before that you don't believe that all stories need words or images. Tell me about storytelling without words, which, of course, you've done.
Shaun: Well, a lot of the world is storytelling without words. You go for a walk, it's a kind of a story without words or the narrative is happening in your head. Conversely, you could say that all stories have words because when the reader looks at a book like The Arrival – which is purely just images, a sequence of images, maybe over 1,000 images, one after the other – there are words inevitably that start chiming in their minds, almost like a whisper. The way we often have this voice in our heads, it's telling or narrating our lives. In that case, people say it's a wordless book. I say, well, yes, it's wordless in as much as what I'm presenting, there's no words. But for the reader, there is something going on. They're invited to almost make up the narrative.
From a creative point of view, it's really challenging to drop words because they're really handy for explaining stuff. Same with The Arrival – originally that was a 32-page picture book with some words, and it was very easy to convey the concept of leaving a country. Words are super concise, they're easy to edit and move around. The moment I decided this story just feels so much better when there's no words, suddenly, it ended up spooling out to 128 pages. Some of the simplest actions could only be described in a detailed sequence, showing the passing of time and dislocation to new places in the story. You couldn't just write, ‘Meanwhile, back at the ranch’, you had to sort of show, ‘Okay, we're not there anymore, we're somewhere else. And here, a year has passed on this page.’
But on the next page, it's only the time taken to make a cup of tea. That's how much time has passed, and just trying to find visual cues. And I ended up looking at a lot of early cinema actually to try and figure out ways of doing that and going and looking at comics because comic artists deal with this problem of time often. And there's many comics without words. Yeah, it was just constantly writing drafts, but as pictures, little postage stamp size squares with little doodles in them. And then sometimes cutting those up and rearranging them like a jigsaw puzzle so you can change the story – the way a film editor does by just moving around these little thumbnails. And it's very similar to writing with text, very similar.
Unfortunately, there's not, as far as I know, any software as good as a processor for this sort of stuff – scissors and sticky type.
Astrid: When you're creating that kind of story, do you think of those who will engage with your work as readers or as an audience?
Shaun: Actually, as writers.
Astrid: As writers?
Shaun: Yeah. I'm only doing half the story. It's the same when I'm writing as well – I see the audience as illustrators, especially in some of my fiction, which is not heavily illustrated. I think most literature, in the case of most literature, most literature is not illustrated. It's an invitation for the reader to be the illustrator or the director because you're building these visual images through a kind of screenplay on the page. And yeah, when it's just pictures, the opposite is true. Well, I would say the reader is also an illustrator as well because there's massive gaps between the pictures where a lot of stuff is going on – comic artists refer to it as the gutter, and the gutter is the critical part of a comic.
People often make the mistake of thinking, ‘Oh, it's what you see in the pictures.’ It's not, it's the empty spaces in between – it's where all the stuff is happening both in the story and mentally for the reader. And the art of sequential narrative is really about understanding where to put those gutters and what to leave out elsewhere, and almost like the absences, to control the absences so that the reader – it's the same with poetry and everything else – so that the reader has the space to invest their own ideas, which are always going to be a bit different to yours and figure out for themselves what a character is thinking or saying, all these abstract ideas like motivation and internal dialogues and characters – that's something that you just make available through those gentle little gaps in between pictures.
Astrid: I deeply enjoy the way you use words and images to tell your story. I've done quite a bit of research on you lately, Shaun. And I came across an interview that you gave, the Spiegel Online in 2011. They gave you questions and you responded with pictures.
Shaun: Yes, that was their idea actually.
Astrid: I wanted to ask you that––
Shaun: And at first, they said, ‘Could you just draw pictures?’ And I'm like, ‘What are you talking about?’ They said, ‘We'll ask you some questions, draw pictures for them.’ ‘Well, that's going to take up a lot of space in your magazine because words don't take up much physical space.’ That's the other advantage of them. But yeah, they asked me these questions. That was really fun actually to just have to do a drawing, a little drawing to answer the question. Very nice idea.
Astrid: Shaun, what is your process of creation? And I don't really mean the ideas, I mean how you physically go about taking the feeling or the images in your mind and bringing them to the world.
Shaun: Well, the first thing to say is that I don't do that because the images don't really exist yet. What I love about drawing is that drawing is thinking. Sometimes you end up with a picture at the end, but ultimately, the process of making the marks on the paper is the thinking. There is a visual image or rather something there, but it's a bit like a very fuzzy dream, like trying to remember a dream that's very fugitive. There's enough there – it's more like a feeling. And then to do the drawing, I might have to look at something else like, say it's a picture of a turtle or whatever. I'll be drawing those shapes, and then something happens in the process of putting one line against another that the thinking becomes less verbal and it becomes something else.
And I'm able to maybe access other ideas that I probably couldn't if I just kept hammering away in my mind with words, asking verbal questions. That's a really nice thing about being an author/illustrator is when I get stuck, I can switch to the other mode as a way of getting through some conceptual impasse. I don't think I'm actually more imaginative than anybody else, I just come up with devices for getting past those blockages. Drawing and painting is one. And sometimes it's what the paint and the pencil do randomly – there's these accidental things that happen, they're almost the most critical. That's why I often work small and loose because little loops and hooks and lines suggest things that you weren't thinking about like clouds, industrial landscapes. And like those ink blot tests that they would use to test for homicidal tendencies or whatever, or problems with your mother – your brain just kind of sees things, and it's drawing the subconscious up to the waking life.
And a lot of that is meaningless stuff that's very hard to organise. But occasionally, there's intelligent stuff – there's other intelligences operating below that conscious day-to-day ticket-tape narrative in your head. And drawing is a great way for me, or collage, and moving things around. Just bringing up stuff, it's like, ‘Oh, yeah, that feels right to me. I don't know why, but I'll follow it through.’ And then I come to some realisation. It's very therapeutic as well as a by-product. But the process is little quick drawings, just to describe it physically, little quick drawings in a notebook. Sometimes five seconds. And it's weird, but that five-second drawing, I'll scan in and I'll enlarge. I'll put it on my light table, another piece of paper over the top. And I'll carefully trace something that I did in such a cavalier way, which sounds strange. But you can just get shapes doing things quick that you can't when you thinking too much.
I get that basic spontaneous structure, and then I'll start to elaborate it more consciously, and edit using a light box and drawings and drawings, and drawings. And you're adding and subtracting, testing, does that feel better or worse, better or worse? And eventually ending up with a sort of image that is satisfying. But it still preserves quite a bit of that five-second quick sketch in it ideally. It’s still got that energy, which is really hard to preserve through that very architectural process of developing a drawing.
Astrid: As a creator, do you have a routine, a daily schedule, or do you go where the wind takes you?
Shaun: Well, both. As a parent, I'm more structured than I used to be because I have to be ... If I'm working on a project, and I have the time clear without any other things going on ... It's pretty structured actually, if I have to stop and reflect. It's not in terms of time, I don't have a schedule, but I have a set of tasks that I need to do in a certain order. And I've done enough books now that I've fallen into a certain pattern and have names for the various activities whether it's prelims, layout. And then I'll just have charts now sometimes. That makes it sound really organised, but I'm really just trying to keep track of time these days so I can accurately estimate when I might be able to deliver something. But apart from that, it's pretty laissez-faire sort of crazy. I walk into a studio, I always have one task I'm supposed to do, I end up doing something else. I think we all know that feeling.
Astrid: I think we do. You are a freelance illustrator and you've had the opportunity to work with quite a few other Australian writers. How do you know when you want to say yes to illustrating someone else's story?
Shaun: I want to say yes when the story feels strange to me, and I don't entirely understand it, but it still feels really good. And that's rare. The other thing is as I was saying before, the first important question is to ask: does it even need pictures? Because I've had some picture book texts come to me and I'm like, ‘Why would you even illustrate this? This is so awesome as it is. And if you illustrate it, it's just going to narrow down the reader's imagination to the visuals that maybe you don't need.’ And it is tricky. With a book like The Rabbits by John Marsden, that's almost a text. It's so interesting as a text because it doesn't answer anything.
There are these creatures called rabbits – it doesn't even say they're creatures, just says they're rabbits – they did this, and this, and this. And clearly, they're not real rabbits because they're doing things that rabbits can't do. And you can see parallels with colonial history in various countries. I had a lot of difficulty actually saying yes to that because I had trouble narrowing it down to something visually in a respectful way that didn't actually make the text really limited or squish it down into my particular visual universe.
Astrid: Was that a process between you and John or did he react to your images and you changed them?
Shaun: Well, I've worked in two different ways, mainly with two different writers for picture books. One was Gary Crew, one was John Marsden. And they couldn't have been more opposite. John's texts, that was kind of it. That was the text, and then there was no real communication between us because it wasn't necessary. That was the text, I went away, spent, eight or nine months illustrating and came back. And I think at one point in between, I sent sketches in and John just said, ‘These look great to me. I'm not an illustrator, I wouldn't know.’ He's always sort of putting himself away from that process saying, ‘I am not really qualified to comment, I'm not a very visual guy.’
That was really interesting. I was very young at the time, I was 22 and I wasn't really sure what to do. I was kind of hoping he would help me more.
Astrid: The great John Marsden.
Shaun: Yeah, but he was encouraging. Gary Crew was the opposite process. With Gary, we did two picture books together and a number of other projects together. He would come to me with this concept, and say, ‘Okay, I got this idea, and this is my rough notes.’ And I would respond with some drawings, ‘Well, maybe it looks like this.’ It was very much like developing a film where you'd have a group and to and fro, to and fro. He actually was contributing to the illustrations to a large part. He'd have visual ideas, and he could draw reasonably well enough to communicate visual ideas. I was also a writer because I originally wanted to be a writer. I'd gone to illustration almost because my writing wasn't good enough, and found my illustration was much better. And he was a draughtsman at one point.
We were both half-and-half–type people, and so we worked together that way, but writing was still his domain, illustration was mine, with a lot of bleed. That was like a real evolution, and often the story will be quite different by the end because of the reaction of words to pictures and vice versa.
Astrid: Do you prefer collaboration or working on your own thoughts?
Shaun: I prefer working on my own. That said, it's not massively better. The one thing I like about working on my own projects is I can be super rude to myself. I think when I've worked with other people, what I love about it is that they give you ideas that you couldn't have thought of with your own brain. There's a real bouncing thing even with someone like John Marsden who's not actually collaborating, you're still bouncing stuff off. It's like an alien intelligence to some extent. I never would've thought of phrasing The Rabbits the way he phrased it. It forced me to solve problems that I would not set for myself normally, I would avoid them. That was really interesting, but I still have to be super respectful to the other participants.
And that's true with filmmaking especially because that was such a hard process. The whole time, I was super worried that I was coming across as impolite as a director. I really wanted to make sure all the other people working on the film were having a good time, and they were happy with the creative process and they had some opportunity to express themselves and it wasn't just me saying, ‘You got to do this and this, and this.’ When I work on my own projects, I'm pretty hard on myself, and I'm ready to abandon the project at any point too. And that's not a liberty that I have when working with other people. It would just be a terrible thing to do to say, ‘You know what? Forget it. Let's do a different project, let's scrap this.’ There's been a few times on projects where I've felt like saying that, ‘Let's just scrap this, start something new.’
I can do that with myself, and that's quite relieving to be able to know that I can walk away.
Astrid: When you choose not to walk away, and you are working by yourself, how do you pitch? At what stage? The concept? When you've completed the images or the story?
Shaun: These days, like with Cicada, I pretty much did the whole book because I wanted to see what it looked like in great clarity before I showed it to someone. That said, I'm prepared to change it as well. I'm prepared to redo parts, but I want to see what the first parts looks like to full completion first. And also – this is the other reason I work mainly on my own projects now – I don't respond so well to deadlines in the sense that first of all, I overshoot them massively, and secondly, they stress me out. I'll sometimes take short cuts with the creative process because I'm really worried about disappointing a publisher. That's the kind of pressure where I thought, ‘Okay, it's actually starting to adversely affect my working process.’ What I'll do is I'll just work on the book in isolation for as long as possible and delay that discussion, just so that I'm not feeling anxious about other people waiting for stuff.
And that worked out quite well in the case of Cicada – I delivered it as you see it. And I just said, ‘Are you interested in this?’ And the publishers just said straight away, ‘Yes.’ And they genuinely loved it, I think because they lived in inner city, Sydney, in an office space. They kind of liked that there was this picture book about that environment, even though it was very bleak and quite nasty. And they loved the message of it. That was a really easy process.
Astrid: Tell me about the process for your new work, Tales from the Inner City, was that the same?
Shaun: A little bit. That was maybe less complete at the time that I brought it to a publisher partly because it's a stranger book in terms of genre, in terms of readership and I kind of needed the advice of the publisher... It was also more expensive to produce because it's longer, and it's heavier, distribution cost and all that is higher. It seemed better to let the publisher have a little bit more say in how this book would be edited and put together and organised. That said, there weren't many changes along the way. I had written all the stories in quite fairly polished drafts, and I had one friend look at them thoroughly who's an experienced editor just to check that I'm not crazy in thinking that this is good. She said, ‘Yes, it's good.’
And I completed most of the paintings mainly just to get a sense of how long this book would take because there's a lot of paintings in the book, and they're quite large oil paintings on canvas. And again, I took a fairly leisurely approach to them because I wanted to have the opportunity to keep them or drop them or change them radically. But things like the story order, some layout design things, that wasn't sorted out. But yeah, it was fairly complete as well when I presented it. I was very happy with it, at least. I knew I was happy with it, and that gives me more confidence to then engage in an editorial process so then when an editor comes along and says, ‘This story is not working, cut it out,’ I'm like, ‘Fine, whatever if you say so.’
When it's half done, I feel much more, ‘No, no, you haven't seen it yet. Wait, it'll be great.’ Once I've done it, there's a certain cool distance I have to a project, which feels much more professional. And it's a better time actually for me to stop talking about it.
Astrid: That makes sense. As an aside, where do you keep all of the original artwork?
Shaun: It's becoming a problem.
Astrid: I can imagine.
Shaun: I have storage, a space rented specifically for storing canvases. I also built a large structure in the front room of my house to make use of the high ceilings because there's all this wasted space up there, I just needed to get some scaffolding up. I built a special canvas holding rack. Some of the work is on exhibition at any time, but it's still a problem that comes back all the time. And I don't sell the originals – I keep them partly because I often need them for exhibitions and sometimes re-scanning, re-photographing for some other purpose.
Astrid: Is there an idea that any publisher has said no to yet? Is there something you're trying to get up and no one will take?
Shaun: Let me think. I've got a pretty good sense of what they're going to say no to already. That's one thing that's improved with my experience is I've actually learned to look at things more like an editor and a publisher. I think when you're young and starting out, there's this sense that making books is about artistic self-expression and you're trying to get a publisher to support that self-expression. The older you get, the more you realise it's about creating something that works. It can be both, but it's got to work for the needs of the publisher because it's a commercial venture. It has to make money, that's the sad truth.
I get a lot of ideas that I think would be interesting books, but they might not necessarily be publishable, or if they were, they wouldn't sell well, or I don't know. Not that that's a big issue. It's okay to do a book that doesn't sell well. I think one that I wasn't really sure about was The Singing Bones, and that's one I really wanted to do, which is a series of sculptures inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales, but without the actual fairy tales. I just reduced the fairy tales down to what I felt were extremely resonant extracts, layed against these images in a very unimaginative design of just extract-image, extract image. But I just loved it – I thought this is awesome. I think it's great. Not so much from my Australian publishers – they loved it – but there was certainly with some other publishers overseas.
There was a little bit of, ‘Could you change it? Could you do this?’ And I just kept saying, ‘Just don't publish it, it's all right. There's more books.’ I was working on Cicada at the time, ‘Just wait, I'll have something else for you.’ That was one case. And with one publisher, I had to just really almost walk out. I said, ‘Okay, forget it.’ And then they said, ‘No, okay, we'll do it as it is,’ and it was actually quite successful. But that was one case where I just thought, this is a book that is so interesting to me, I can't believe it wouldn't be interesting to other readers. But I also understood the reservations of the publishers ... I didn't disagree with them. I understood that it might not work in their market. But they did it anyway, and they were happy with it.
Astrid: I'm glad to hear that. From your point of view, what is the most difficult work that you've created and published?
Shaun: It would have been The Arrival, for sure. That was a book I started and stopped a number of times because I couldn't get the style right or the visual language. It was causing me a lot of anxiety, that repeated failure. I guess one interesting thing for other illustrators and writers to know about that process was in the back of my mind, there was always this voice saying ‘This book needs to look like photorealistic images in a sequence, like old forgotten photo album of real photographs.’ And I was pushing that back because I thought, ‘That's so technically hard, I don't want to do that. It would take me maybe 15 years to do a book like that.’
And instead, I was doing this much more stylised, almost cartoon-like book, but it was very unsatisfying to me. And the voice kept saying, ‘It should be photographed. How am I going to do photographs?’ And then I figured out a way, I could film bits of this story and I could find stills in the film and I could base drawings on that and I'll have a good visual guide. I did some experiments just with friends and family, ‘Wear these old clothes, here's a suitcase, hold this.’ And I did some tests, and I was like, ‘Well, this looks good.’ It's not old photographs, but there's something even better about the drawing. It's kind of softer, more ethereal.
And so, I did a few of those tests and then I sort of thought, ‘This book still going to take me like three years even without interruption, just solid drawing.’ And I'd never done any project that long before. I knew that, in that time, I'm not going to be drawing any income either, which was scary because I was just a freelance artist living on book covers and tiny royalties from other books. And I even turned down a job as a production designer on a big film to do this book. That was a hard decision, but I thought, I’ve just got to do this book and I've got to do it that way. Once I made that decision and committed that time, it was quite a relief. And it wasn't as scary as I thought, and I actually enjoyed it. But it went on for a long time, and it felt like a project that was never going to end. And eventually, friends even started asking me, ‘What are you working on?’ Because I'd just say, ‘I'm shading these little pictures.’
Astrid: For years.
Shaun: Yeah, yeah. And they were just joking, ‘When is your black and white book coming out?’, because it was all black and white. And when I finally did it, I got pretty depressed with it even then at various stages where I just thought I could be doing so many other more interesting projects in this time. But one thing I'm good at is finishing stuff that I start, and that's held me in good stead. That’s something I learned from my father – it doesn't matter what it is, just finish the damn thing. I finished it, and then I really liked it when it was finished, but it took a long time to get that creative satisfaction that you're wanting when you're doing artwork. You want the feedback to give you a good feeling – I wasn't getting it because it was a whole bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered all over my table for years.
Astrid: Having had that experience, what advice can you give for emerging artists or writers who might find themselves in that hard place right now?
Shaun: I don't know, because any advice I give, I can think immediately of counter advice because sometimes it's good to quit too. That thing of keep trying at a project, keep hammering it, sometimes it's good to just change tact and start a new one. If something is getting really onerous and tedious and feels over-thought and overwrought, sometimes it's good to ... It's like there’s a dam of creativity there, and sometimes it's good to just bust that wall, flood the valley and do a different project. That's happened to me a few times where I've [had] some wonderful, profound, poetic masterpiece I'm working on. And it's all, ‘This is going to be wonderful.’ And then after a while, I think ‘No, it's terrible.’
And then I'll go, ‘I'll do this funny little story about creature with tentacles on the beach, that'll be fun.’ And that ends up being actually quite profound itself in an unexpected way. I would say don't try to finish what you start, but don't be afraid to rechannel that creative energy to something that's more fun. It does need to be a little bit fun. If you're not having fun, I don't think the reader is going to have fun. They can pick up on the horror of the creative process as much as [they] can pick up on the joy of the creative process. That's what I've learnt over the years, especially doing this last book Tales from the Inner City. I should be really enjoying the process. If I'm enjoying the process for all its difficulties and ups and downs, just broadly enjoying it, the reader is going to feel elevated too.
Astrid: That is great advice. Shaun. A final question for you. You mentioned loving science fiction fantasy and, of course, graphic novels. Who is your favourite fantasy author, sci-fi author and comic creator?
Shaun: Oh boy. Favourites, that's hard. I can't really talk about favourites, but in terms of significant influences, even though I can be quite critical of their work, I have to say, especially during this last book, I realised Ray Bradbury was a big influence that started when I was 12 years old. I ended up reading almost every short story he wrote, one after the other. And they were so weird, and I loved that they were illogical. It was science fiction, which ignored a lot of science facts. And that kind of gear shifted my imagination around the age of 12 into realising painting and drawing and writing is not about entertainment – it's about commentary on things in a fun way. A real mind-expanding fun way.
And the short form of those stories is still the fact that there's not great deal of plot. It's more like an idea elaborated – that's still what I do now. It's like my imagination kind of crystallised around that idea, and it hasn't really shifted much since. Tales from the Inner City I think owes a lot to anthologies like The Illustrated Man or The Martian Chronicles – I realise that now when I look at the kind of genre that I'm aiming for. I would say he's more of a fantasy author than a science fiction author, Ray Bradbury. Comics, I really love, and his work is very different from mine, but Daniel Clowes.
I first came across his work… I was introduced by a friend in my early 20s. He did a little publication called Eightball, which were these random little comics that he produced. I was just amazed by how nobody talks about this work, I've never seen it before. Sometimes you come across an area of creativity and you just think, ‘This is some genius here, but how come no one is talking about it?’ But it had a real underground feeling, like some of it was a bit perverse and that sort of thing. You could see it's not necessarily palatable for the mainstream, but there was just some real insights into human nature in a real convoluted way. And it just felt so original. Other list is, you might be aware of Ghost World, which was adapted as a film. And that's a really great comic, which is just about two teenage girls just doing stuff fairly aimlessly and feeling disaffected.
Astrid: That's with Scarlett Johansson, wasn't it?
Shaun: Yeah, yeah. But the original comic, I really recommend it. It's just beautifully drawn, very subtle, very mature. And basically, comics are like the best of independent filmmaking. It's like you can make a movie with all the subtleties that you see in cinema, without all the things that will interfere with its creation because it's just you, a table, and a whole lot of time. And Daniel Clowes is also great at representing – and this also interests me with writers and painters, is representing people and things that are not ordinarily represented often because they're a little bit unappealing. But the way he draws ordinary looking people really fascinates me. They really look like people off the street. And he's got no interest in that kind of charisma or doing things that are necessarily popular or anything.
He's just trying to be as true as possible, ‘This is exactly how I see the world.’ It’s a bit like a lot of Robert Crumb stuff, pretty gross and ugly, but that's how he sees the world. And he's just, ‘I'm going to be true even if it offends in some way.’ And I find that really interesting, very different to anything I would do. But I draw a lot of inspiration just from the observation of these creators.
Astrid: Shaun, they are great recommendations. Thank you very much for coming to The Garret.
Shaun: Thanks. Good to be on it.