Blogged live at the Melbourne Writers Festival - and tidied up later at home…
Shaun Tan is the celebrated author/artist of the graphic novel The Arrival (which won the CBCA Book of the Year in 2007) and The Red Tree (which was an Honour book in 2002). His latest book, Tales from Outer Suburbia is an anthology of 15 very short stories superbly illustrated in his own unique style.
The session was accompanied by a slide show of his artwork, starting with an enchanting picture of a dinosaur that he did on his 2nd day at school. It was remarkably good with a degree of maturity not often seen in young children. Other pictures in the slide show included early signs of rocket fantasies and the strange creatures that we have come to identify with his work.
Jessica Crispin, who’s from the USA – which she said is not very good at recognising talent from beyond the US – told us that Tan’s work has become enormously successful there. She asked him if the new market in the US changed things for him, but apart from a couple of nice trips, he thought not. He doesn’t collaborate much even with his editor, and is mostly alone in his room working on his art. He wasn’t expecting much from the US market and was resigned to international obscurity. He was happy enough with the Australian reaction and everything else seems to have been a bonus. He was a bit shocked by the number of people who turned up to author events there, but the big moment for him was when his art gave him an income that he could rely on, and no longer needed to illustrate other people’s books, which he didn’t enjoy very much.
Tan’s books defy classification and sometimes booksellers don’t know where to shelve them. Some topics are dark e.g. depression, but he has never seen himself as a children’s book illustrator – he doesn’t think about children when he’s working and his interest is science fiction and fantasy. He originally saw himself primarily as a writer, and was influenced by Ray Bradbury – not so much his novels but his short stories. He had got the impression from secondary school that illustration was a lesser form of the arts – and in fact had only added a picture to the front cover of his first book to attract the attention of editors wading through the slush pile. (The short story was rejected but they liked the illustrations.)
These days he’s not writing, he’s become an illustrator. He didn’t have formal art training, but (at what must have been a very good secondary school) had practising artists at tutorial workshops on Saturday mornings. He never thought he could make a career out of art and did an arts degree to avoid having to make a decision – did history and philosophy – and even toyed with a fine arts academic career. His start, however, was with fantasy book covers and then illustrations for magazines and then children’s books - and these offered more regular opportunities as an artist. He learned how to do dragons and SF paintings from browsing at newsagents (because he couldn’t afford to buy magazines) and was eventually able to survive as a freelance illustrator.
Moving from reproducing other people’s styles to his own involved doing some painting that he hopes no one will ever see but he needed to do it to develop his skills. These are in his parents garage! He’s doing more of this private personal work as time goes by.
He finds it hard to answer some questions: when did you start drawing? When does anyone draw? About four years of age? It’s an inherent instinctive thing, he thinks. All artists long to return to that simple childhood unselfconscious stage when they don’t know or care if their work is any good.
It seemed to me that Tan is quite diffident about his talent and his hard work. He seems over-modest and a bit taken aback by his success. He calls himself a hoarder – and so is his wife – so his place is like an antique shop full of stuff. It’s probably a treasure trove! He admits to being a bit possessive about some of his paintings and doesn’t want to exhbit or sell them in a gallery and never see them again. He’s also wary of selling them prematurely – he sold some too early and now they’re worth a lot more.
He likes collage because it’s a way of including random elements and ‘getting himself out of the picture’. He also talked about the tension between the excitement of the initial idea and the tediousness of doing the work on it. He was a bit evasive about what he’s currently working on, but that’s because he’s not too sure what it’s going to be, except it’s something about relationships. He’s also doing a short animated film – something for us to look forward to! He’s not doing the animation, but has done the story-boarding and the design and is liaising with the modelmakers and the computer guys. He’s learned a lot about working both solo on the artwork and in a team for the animation – but he thinks he’d rather be working on books. The stills of the animation on the slide show look great, so I suspect that there will be some disappointment if he sticks to that preference…but an artist must follow his art.
It will be very interesting to see what he does next…