Shaun Tan – work is a bit like Brussels sprouts

We’re in the yurt in Charlotte Square for ten, to see Shaun Tan. He’s not arrived yet, so we go and wait by the approach to the yurt. I know what Shaun looks like, but not Jayne, his publicity lady. He feels as if he’s the kind of man who arrives on time, and he does. He clearly doesn’t know me, so I sort of kidnap him there on the boardwalk, and it’s he who leads us to meet Jayne.

It hasn’t yet begun to rain so we decide to risk it and go and sit down on the deck outside the yurt. It’s still fairly quiet, apart from the ever present traffic the other side of the railings. Jayne takes orders for drinks and disappears off.

‘So you write a blog, is that right?’

‘I write a blog, yes. I discovered you earlier this year when you won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and as a Swede I’m particularly interested in that.’

‘Oh, you’re a Swede, OK.’

‘I am.’ We laugh. ‘I’ve really loved your books and your art. It’s just fantastic.’


Shaun Tan

‘I was struck by what you said at your event the other day, about the quote ‘it’s a cultural thing,’ that it was your mother saying it.’

‘Yeah, probably. I mean, it’s what a lot of Australians would say.’

‘I was thinking you must have grown up multiculturally? Or was it more Australian?’

‘It was a bit multicultural, mostly Australian. You can kind of tell from my accent and everything that I say. If you didn’t see me, I’d be indistinguishable from your typical white Australian guy.’

‘There’s something about mixed parentage which always brings out a bit of everything…’

‘Yeah, yeah certainly. For a start, just the fact that you’re in a mixed race household and that’s normal, means that it never occurs to you that cultural difference is a problem. You grow up with it. Even when talking to my Dad I’m quite accustomed to the fact he might not know every word that I know, and I have to make allowances for that, but also that he speaks another language that I don’t speak. I learned a little bit of Chinese but not much.’

‘Yes, I did wonder whether you did. So you weren’t taught Chinese then?’

‘I was as a kid but I’ve forgotten a lot of it since then. We didn’t speak Chinese at home because my mother doesn’t speak any. And then in terms of food and from social activities, yes, there’d be a mixture of Australian and Chinese. And now I’m married and my wife is Finnish.’

‘Yes, that was my next thought…’

Shaun Tan

‘Maybe I’m attracted to someone from a totally different culture. That’s sort of got something to do with it, but also I’m interested in difference.’

‘I believe you said that Eric (from the short story by the same name) was actually from Finland?’

‘Kind of. I’m just generalising, but in writing the story I was thinking a lot, and the way it was resolved had a lot to do with the experiences of our friend Akki, who came to stay with us.’

‘What was it like when you went to Sweden to receive the Astrid Lindgren award?’

‘It was great!’  Shaun sounds enthusiastic. ‘It was a very intense experience, mainly  because it was an extremely busy award week. I wasn’t just going to receive the award.’

‘Who handed the prize over this year?’

‘It was Crown Princess Victoria. So that was fun; meeting her. I met her twice actually.’


‘I was doing something in Munich at the National Youth Library at the same time as she was visiting. I’m not sure if that was a coincidence or anything, but I had a chance to chat with her and it was really amazing. The whole trip was like being sent to a totally different world, you know. And also seeing how possible it is for a country to regard children’s literature so highly. Im not used to that. I’m used to constantly being defensive about it.’


‘And here was a country where you didn’t have to be, where every person on the street kind of recognise the value of it…’


‘… and had cultural heroes, such as Astrid Lindgren. We don’t really have that in Australia. We have maybe some iconic Australian writers like Mem Fox, but they are kind of regarded as almost the same category as childcare. It’s not the idea that children’s literature actually can be quite complex. The average Australian is probably not aware that the phrase children’s literature refers to books for people up to about the age of twenty.’

‘That’s true. Does the award mean people recognise you these days?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, when you go out, do people know who you are?’

‘Not really. Weell, interestingly, after the Oscar win I got spotted twice, and they were both by Asian Australians.’

‘OK, like role models.’

Shaun Tan

‘I thought that was interesting. I think they might have paid more attention than normal. Certainly, I noticed the Chinese community were quite keen to interview me for various things. They wished me to speak Chinese, which I was quite embarrassed by.’ Shaun laughs. ‘But no, generally not, until you say your name or something and then maybe one in 50 people might.’


‘But it surprises me because I don’t have much contact with the outside world. So I’m pleased at being obscure, because I’ve been working that way for 15 years. I just say, I illustrate books and generally I don’t talk about it very much. People say “are you Shaun Tan? I already know the books.” And that really surprises me. A lot of them read the books when they were in primary or high school and they are now adults.’


‘And that disturbs me because I think “how old does that make me?”’ He laughs. ‘“Oh, I read your books when I was in primary,” and I go like “what, you look the same age as me,  but obviously you’re not.”’ Shaun laughs some more.

‘I found that when you won the award, a lot of people who are in the same business as you, illustrators and so on, really look up to you, and admire your work. Is there anyone that you admire especially?’

‘Yeah, there’s a lot of the people who were nominated (for the ALMA), illustrators like Peter Field. When I was a young illustrator and I really didn’t know what I was doing, I came across people and they influenced me and I thought well, if you can really have these beautiful and quite complex picture books, that are both for kids and adults… And Maurice Sendak, edgy and kind of strange, where I don’t entirely feel I understand what’s going on, even after I read his books all the time. Yeah, there’s a whole host of artists; people like Quentin Blake. I really love spontaneous, fresh artwork, because I have so much trouble doing it myself.’

‘All right. I suppose you didn’t know that The Arrival would take five years, when you started it, but what do you live on?’

‘Oh, ah, just various commission work that I’ve had, as freelance illustrator. And there’s book covers, and fortunately during that time I got a job with Pixar, so that pretty much covered my expenses for at least a year, and working on the concept drawings of the film Wall-E. And I also did some work for another film, Horton Hears a Who. At the same time I did a couple of murals for a library, which paid. I was living very cheaply at the time.’


‘But I didn’t really need that much, and illustrating, it can be a very cheap profession, you know.’

‘True, but you still need to eat.’

‘I don’t even need to rent premises, I can do it at home. So I think what was essential in my early career was being able to live inexpensively, and I realised that time is money and that the less expenses I have, the more time I have and I can work on these books.’

‘How do you collect the topics for your short stories, like in Tales From Outer Suburbia? I particularly liked Broken Toys.’


‘Is it something you do quickly, or do you slowly collect ideas for them?’

‘Slowly collect them. If I knew how to get the ideas I’d be writing a whole lot more stories.‘  Shaun laughs ruefully. ‘I collect fragments and sometimes an idea will come quite spontaneously, but most times I have to work at it. With Broken Toys it was just the.., now where did that start? It was the idea of, I was going on a long walk and for some reason had been thinking of a diving suit. My brother’s a diver, scuba diver, very interested in deep sea diving, and imagining someone in a diving suit standing in a suburban park, like a football field, and that was sort of the genesis of that story. I didn’t know what the purpose of that image was, and then I started trying to rationalise it, thinking OK, where would this person have come from?

There’s a pearling industry in North Western Australia, that a hundred years ago used to employ a lot of Japanese deep sea divers, and a lot of them died because they still didn’t know what the bends was, they didn’t understand decompression. So there’s a whole cemetery of Japanese divers in Broome in Western Australia. I’d never seen it, but I’d read about it. Then I just combined that with a completely unrelated idea which is that of toys going over a fence, and that whole problem that kids have. And so those ideas came together and that story was the fastest one to write, really, because it kind of wrote itself.’


‘The ingredients were all there. There are other ones, I have to keep hammering at them for ages, and trying to get them to work and a lot of them don’t end up working, so they just stay in the sketch book.’

Shaun Tan

‘What’s the most fun thing you’ve done, work wise?’

‘The most..?’


‘The most fun?? Oh… ‘

‘Or was none of it fun?’ I giggle.

‘Oh, I know, it’s all terrible.’ We laugh.

‘Is it that you don’t like to start on work?’

‘I like it once I get into it. I love doing little oil sketches of scenery, I get a little piece of board, and going out with my little box of paints, sitting there and painting the landscape, that’s kind of fun. But at the same time it soon becomes work, you know you are frowning all the time.’


‘And I think the early concept stuff is fun, actually coming up with the ideas. Finishing the work is also fun, like when you’re right close to the end, because that’s when you actually see it, up until the eleventh hour it doesn’t look like much. So starting is fun, finishing is fun, and there’s the middle bit that’s kind of hard, but it’s got fun bits in it. I stretch my work out so the fun bits are distributed evenly amongst the rest…’


‘… like Brussels sprouts,’ he laughs.

‘How come you moved to Melbourne? Is it more lively, or was it something else?’

‘Well, it doesn’t really matter so much to me where I live, for a start, because it’s not a deeply special profession. The film project was gathering momentum, and I found it increasingly difficult to direct it remotely.’


Shaun Tan

‘I really like Melbourne. It’s also got a good community of writers and illustrators.’

‘That’s what I was thinking, yeah.’

‘There is in Perth as well, but all the publishers are also in Melbourne, so I was going to Melbourne about five times a year, before I moved there. And my wife was quite keen to study metal smithing in Melbourne and so we just thought, “oh, let’s go over there.”’

Here Jayne comes to tell me my time with Shaun is up, so I do that dreadful thing I do, and ask Shaun if he’ll sign one of his books for me.


‘It’s an absolutely beautiful book.’

‘Thank you. Ann with an e?’


I mention to Jayne that I’d noticed Shaun had been to Newcastle a couple of days earlier.

‘Yes, at Seven Stories. It was lovely.’

‘There you go,’ says Shaun, handing over a bird drawing with his signature.

‘It’s wonderful, thank you so much.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘I enjoyed talking to you,.’

‘Yeah, they were good questions,’ he says politely. ‘And there are a lot more questions there,’ he says, pointing to my notebook.

We laugh. ‘Yes, you never know what you’ll need.’

‘Sure, sure. OK, great,’ Shaun says as he gets up to go.


16 responses to “Shaun Tan – work is a bit like Brussels sprouts

  1. Pingback: Shaun Tan | Bookwitch

  2. Isn’t he fab? His books are so weird, which is why I love them. I think I’m into them more than my son.

  3. Yes. I think he really wants to do adult picture books. Which is fine with me.

  4. Wonderful to read this! Thanks Bookwitch. I love Shaun Tan’s work.

  5. wasn’t that a co-incidence that you did a review and I wrote up on his exhibition at the Illustration Cupboard on the same day! Thanks for this. It substantiates what I thought about him from just the small amount of conversation we had in the book signing. A lovely quite self-effacing gentle person with a marvellous insight and incredible recall of a child’s mind.

  6. I wanted to know what he meant when he said he had to be defensive about children’s books. agree with dianne – such a gentle, self-effacing chap. nice one, witch!

  7. But he still has us all worshipping at his sketchbook.

    I’m assuming Shaun meant he had to defend his ‘involvement’ with children’s literature. After all, he could easily just be a real artist.


  8. Really glad to have read this. Thanks, Bookwitch.

    Though paused at these words more than somewhat; – “almost the same category as childcare”.

  9. Yes, me too, Penny. I’m sure that’s what he said. I found some of what he said surprising, and sometimes his accent confused me, but a lot of the time he said precisely what I thought I heard, even though I went to look up names and places.
    If Shaun tells me I’m wrong, I’ll change it.

  10. This was so interesting. I’m so glad I found it. Shaun Tan’s work just takes my breath away. Interesting about the Finnish wife, too. Thanks to my son’s Finnish wife, I know about – and have read – the Finns’ great epic national poem, the Kalevala. There’s a definite whiff of the spirit of Kalevala about Shaun Tan, though of course the continents are so different. I wonder if he’s read it…

  11. I should have thought to ask… I did feel that the picture he had on his laptop at the event I went to was very Tove Jansson in feel. There must be quite a bit of influence from someone you live with, even without trying. For me Kalevala is a bit like being able to quote Homer. You can sort of do it, without having read it.

  12. Pingback: “Work is a bit like Brussels sprouts” « Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

  13. erm…..”I’m assuming Shaun meant he had to defend his ‘involvement’ with children’s literature. After all, he could easily just be a real artist.’
    Are you saying that if one just illustrates one isn’t a ‘real’ artist, as if there is an innate hierarchy of art whereby the likes of Damien Hurst sits at the top and Eric Carle is far lower down?
    I ask not to antagonise. Partly it is because I see his illustration and his painting as being on an equal footing.
    I also ask as I always wanted to be an ‘artist’ when I grew up but compromised by being an illustrator as a way of making a living. And as such have to some extent undervalued my own work and what it entails for many years.

  14. Ah, you had me really worried there, Jackie. I thought ‘I can’t possibly have said that’ and then I saw it’s from the comments. Perhaps what isn’t as obvious as it should be, is my sarcasm (the smiley with a wink was a hint), and that in turn followed on from Shaun’s own way of speaking about children’s books and art. He is (or at least spoke like) a very self-effacing man, who wouldn’t dream of putting himself or his first class work forward. That’s what I find about almost all the top rate people I meet; they are so modest you want to slap them.
    But then, none of you were there, and I made the mistake of continuing in the same vein as when we talked.

  15. And to answer your questions, you are an artist who also illustrates books. So are most of the people I admire. I recently enthused about James Mayhew’s ‘copies’ of ‘real’ art.
    I feel that anyone who can move others with their ‘pictures’ is an artist. One of my Offspring started a whole career of reading books and wanting to do art by ‘reading’ Nick Sharratt’s Tracy Beaker; ie the illustrations, and not the words.
    In your books I almost forget to pay attention to the words. The art is so powerful it can be all you see.

  16. Pingback: What you are | Bookwitch

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