Hi Shaun, could you please introduce yourself?
I was born in Perth, Western Australia, and always loved drawing and writing as a child, although was never really certain that I could pursue this as a career, so I studied a variety of things at high school and university, from science to art and literary criticism. I really became involved with illustration through small-press science fiction magazines that I discovered in my late teens, and this eventually lead, many years later, to more commercial work such as book covers, anthology illustrations and various other freelance projects.
I began illustrating picture books by other writers in the late 90’s, and eventually writing my own, evolving into a kind of picture-book-comic hybrid. Some of these have been adapted as film and theatre projects, within which I’ve worked as a designer and director.
On the French “graphic novel” scene you are mostly known for “The Arrival”, which received rave reviews and won “best album” at the Angouleme festival. What inspired you to write a story on the theme of immigration?
Although being very fantastical on the surface, the book is actually based on the research of various migrant stories, told by migrants themselves as oral histories, interviews or written anecdotes. My idea was to try a distill all of these different journeys into a single universal story, that could somehow transcend any specificity of language, culture, time or place. Originally that interest began with my father’s stories of coming to Australia from Malaysia, and broadened out from there. I became particularly interested in the stories of people travelling to New York in the early 20th century, escaping war, oppression and poverty in Europe.
You mention in a different interview that once you had the idea, the actual implementation was lengthy and tedious. Indeed the format was much longer than your usual shorter stories - I believe it took you 4-5 years to finish it! Overall did you not enjoy the experience?
Good question – one that I still keep asking myself! I think at the time, I went through periods of fluctuating confidence, and that was the biggest obstacle. It’s easy to look back in retrospect and see that the work has been successful and worthwhile, but that’s impossible to know this while you are alone and struggling with all sorts of artistic problems – I occasionally feared that the book might seem pointless or unfaithful to my source material. Of course, this also meant that I was particularly diligent in my revisions, trying to assuage my feelings of insecurity.
The drawing style was not very enjoyable – very slow and tedious, involving layers of cross-hatching to build up tones - but I knew it would be necessary for the result. In the end, I guess that’s what spurred me on, the feeling of necessity. That extended to the story as a whole, I felt that it really needed to be ‘told’, and was actually possible to put down on paper, even though I knew it would take years. If I had that same feeling again with a new project, I would probably be willing to invest the same level of commitment.
Is it true that you didn’t know much about the comics/graphic novel medium before you started work on “The Arrival”? Did you have to brush up at all?
Yes, I started sketching some layouts which looked incredibly clunky and repetitive, at which point I realised I was creating a comic rather than a picture book, and needed to brush up. I read Scott McCloud’s book for a start, and also looked closely at the work of Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and other contemporaries, examining their panel compositions and sequencing. I also looked at books like Maus, which deal with real-life issues in an abstracted form, exactly what I was trying to do with The Arrival. I also studied the work of Raymond Briggs, who also straddles the fence between comic books and picture books, fiction and non-fiction: The Arrival drew some compositional inspiration from his wordless picture book / comic ‘The Snowman’.
Were you surprised by the critical and commercial success of “The Arrival”?
Yes, very much so, particularly how quickly readers of many different ages and backgrounds responded to it. In the past my books have taken their time to win an audience, and I imagined that The Arrival especially might end up being interesting to only a limited number of readers with a passion for illustrated books and experimental narrative, as something of a ‘cult’ book. I also thought that the lack of words might distance many readers, but instead I think it made the book all the more accessible, especially internationally.
Before “The Arrival” you published many “picture books”. You explain on your website that they are not specifically targeted at children (or indeed at anyone in particular), but does the industry understand that? Your publishers often add to the confusion (In France Gallimard is selling the rather dark “Red Tree” in its “Junior” collection, for children aged 10+) and you receive many “Children literature” awards. Do you find this compartmentalisation frustrating?
In the beginning, I did find this labelling a little puzzling and yes, even frustrating. Especially as I have always set out the create picture books for the broadest possible reader, irrespective of age or background. ‘The Red Tree’, for instance, simply adopts a traditional picture book structure to examine feelings that I’ve experienced mainly as an adult; and ‘The Lost Thing’ does the same as a kind of adult satire about societal apathy (that children might also relate to) – in a similar vein to Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. It seemed that no matter what I did, regardless of conceptual sophistication, it would be shelved as a children’s book simply because of the physical format. And then I would have to deal with all these questions about ‘dark’ stories and intended age-range!
At the same time, I don’t want to exclude children: they are a big part of my audience because they are naturally open-minded, visually literate readers. Over the years I’ve realised that the problem of compartmentalisation has to do more with critics, booksellers, publishers and so on – it’s a problem of exclusion rather than misdirection. All readers will find the books eventually, and the artificial boundaries between children’s and adult literature might dissolve. In the meantime, it’s a shame if certain books are only marketed to children, in the same way that it would be a shame if they are only marketed to adults or readers of comics.
One of the awards you have received recently is the prestigious Astrid Lindgren award… Wow! Has that sunk in yet? Has it made any difference to your artist’s life?
I think it is really still sinking in, and will likely have long term effects that may not be immediately obvious, particularly in terms of reaching a broader European audience who may not have known much about my work previously; there’s a been a recent flurry of requests for translation, as well as festival visits.
The whole thing was a bit of a shock, because I’d considered myself out of the running early on, in spite of the nomination: I did not think I’d accomplished enough to be ranked with the calibre of writers, artists and organisations that were also short-listed. The trip to Sweden to accept the award involved many visits to institutions focused on children’s literature, and this left a big impression on me – the high regard for books read by young people, and how that connects intimately with their later adult lives. Although it’s an award for children’s literature, the understanding of that definition is very broad, as it should be. The level of respect shown toward illustrated literature in particular was genuinely inspiring, and has renewed my confidence in my own projects.
The themes of your stories are often universal (tolerance, immigration, etc.) and so is your “graphical language”. The use of symbolism and very little or no text means that your books are for all to enjoy, but also that the underlying message is open to interpretation. Are you sometimes surprised and amazed at your readers' interpretation of your stories?
Yes, I’m always partly conscious of trying to create ‘open meaning’ when working, a kind of theoretical concern, but I only really understand this when the books are received by other readers in the real world.
I recently came back from Japan, where The Arrival has been recently published, and was surprised that many readers there connected this book to the situation following the tsunami and nuclear disaster earlier this year, where many people have been permanently displaced. A similar thing happened when The Red Tree was published, a couple of weeks after September 11 2001, readers saw the book (about depression and anxiety) as being immediately connected with a new climate of fear.
Children, of course, have a whole kaleidoscope of interpretations that they apply to every image and sentence. I realise this is the real strength of literature – not to communicate a message, but to provide a kind of interesting mirror in which every individual can project their own joy, sadness and concern. I create only half the story, the reader takes care of the other half.
And then came out “Tales from outer suburbia”, which featured a lot more text that your previous books. Was that a difficult transition? Or a welcome change after many years spent drawing “The Arrival”?
I think the majority of artist’s work remains unseen, and that’s certainly true in my case: I’ve been writing short stories like those in ‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’ since I was a teenager, but after some early rejections I did not pursue them seriously and focused instead on my career as an illustrator. So it was great to return to writing again after so many years as a visual artist.
I actually started working on ‘Tales’ in the middle of The Arrival, almost as a kind of relief from the pervasive silence, discipline and stylistic uniformity of that book. All of these other crazy, dream-like stories were itching to express themselves verbally, with a great deal of variety and humour. So yes, a very welcome change, and probably my most enjoyable project to date.
There are many great stories in “Tales from outer suburbia” (my personal favourite would have to be “Grandpa’s story”). Have you been collecting the ideas over the years?
I must have been thinking about many of the stories for a long time and you can see jottings related to each over a decade of sketchbooks, although they are quite vague and unformed. Each story tends to revolve around a singular mental image that hangs around like a recurring dream: in the case of ‘Grandpa’s Story’, a little car struggling through a bizarre desert. It was only when I attended a friend’s wedding that this image opened up – that maybe it had something to do with a couple about to be married, and having to perform a strange rite of passage far from home.
Most ideas don’t come so suddenly, however: they are the result of hammering together various scraps of ideas until something starts singing back to you. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. The stories in ‘Tales’ are a minority of successful ones. Others were abandoned, or are otherwise waiting for a secondary idea to bring them back to life.
Going back to your picture books… I find “The lost thing” most intriguing, as its meaning is less obvious. But what is it about anyway?
For me it has something to do with a kind of forgetfulness that comes with education and adult wisdom. That is, our study of some ideas or theories about the world can have the unfortunate side-affect of precluding alternative points of view; we fail to see the ‘lost thing’ that is sitting in front of us. When writing the story initially, I wasn’t thinking about any of this very intelligently of course. I was just interested in the idea of a creature or person that had no conceivable place or function, and what I would personally do if I came upon such an inconvenient thing, how it might test my compassion. It’s also based partly on memories of a stray cat that my brother and I rescued from our school when we were children (our school principal had openly threatened to kill and bury it!); it lived happily as our family pet for the next ten years or so.
It was recently adapted into a short, animated film (see trailer here), which won an Oscar for Best Short Film in 2011. Standing on a glittery stage and receiving the award from Justin Timberlake must have been a surreal experience…
Yes, it was incredibly strange, not least because it is about as far removed from my normal universe – sitting quietly in a room drawing pictures – as you can imagine. I was very nervous at the time, having only 45 seconds to thank everyone who has worked for years on the project, before being pushed off-stage by music, so that’s all I was really thinking about at the time. I was also worried about tripping on the steps leading to the stage, since all the surfaces were mirrored and hard to see!
Overall, the feeling was one of profound weirdness rather than the excitement or elation you might expect. The best thing about it was that I was not there alone, but with a small team of Australians and Brits who were in a very festive mood after so many years of creative of technical problems, and sheer hard work getting this story to the screen. It was a great night for all of us, particularly using the golden statue to gain entry into the Vanity Fair after-party, part 2 of the surreal Hollywood experience.
I personally love the adaptation, and it has won many awards... But are you happy with the result yourself? Did you enjoy directing it, and would you consider doing it again for another of your books?
I’ve never been 100% happy with any of my projects, but anything above 80% I consider successful (I think most artists would agree with me here). I think The Lost Thing is about 85%. There are few things that we ran out of time and resources to revise, and there are other parts that I would have directed differently with the benefit of hindsight. But all in all, I’m very surprised at how well it came together in the end, as I was fairly dubious about early technical tests and storyboards back in 2002, when the project began. It was also the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on in my life, so I find the prospect of working with film again both attractive and daunting. I think we were very lucky with The Lost Thing, that our producer assembled such a fine team. So essentially, if the team was right and the story worthwhile, it would be something I’d certainly consider repeating.
Would you ever consider working with the videogame medium? The indie scene is very active and creative, and produces some quirky and often poetic “interactive narrative experiences”.
Yes, possibly. I’ve always had a very open-minded approach to all media, from painting to theatre. If the concept and medium seem perfectly suited, and somehow unique, you know that a project might be worthwhile.
You worked as a “concept artist” on Pixar’s WALL-E. What did that involve exactly? What was it like to work for such a big organization from a creative point of view?
I produced a series of landscape drawings and paintings based on early story concepts for the film – some desolate post-apocalyptic cityscapes, designs for vehicles and space-ships. Most of which were unused, as is the nature of this kind of work, it’s really about creating a conceptual palette that might help Pixar’s art department to evolve their own more developed concepts. From a creative point of view, it was an ideal job, being paid well to come up with quite random ideas from an incredibly open brief. There’s also a nice feeling of working alongside other artists who have a very similar vision and level of attention to detail, and looking forward to seeing what they come up with.
I believe you have mentioned Ray Bradbury as an early influence… but what are your current influences or artists that you admire?
There are literally hundreds, it would take me far too long to list them all here with precise reasons for their appeal (some of which I can’t even explain). But as well as those graphic novelists mentioned above, I would include film-makers such as Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott, a number of stop-motion animators and cartoonists, writers of both literary fiction and SF, painters both new and old, sculptors, installation artists and architects. Picture book illustrators possibly had the biggest early influence, writer-artists such as Peter Sis, Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg; later branching out to graphic novels, including Dave McKean and Raymond Briggs, who straddle the two forms.
Your last book came out 3 years ago… what are you currently working on? Have you got other books in the pipeline?
I’m working on a picture book, smaller in scale than the last two, which is about a relationship between two brothers as they are enjoying various unexplained adventures. It’s a little too early to offer a title or anything much in the way of content, I’m still in the middle of figuring it out. Aside from that, there is some early discussion about adapting The Arrival as a feature film, so it will be interesting to see how that goes.
And finally, a traditional question for our non-French interviewees: have you ever been to France? Do you speak any french?
Je ne parle pas francais, unfortunately. I visited Paris once in my early twenties, after being invited to attend an illustration exhibition for which I had submitted some work. Upon arrival, I discovered that I had been rejected by the jury (a common occurrence in those days, sadly), and I also became quite ill from eating something at an illustrator’s party the next day – I ended up in hospital! All I can say is that I must have visited France long before I was supposed to :) Nevertheless, my visits to museums and galleries left a very big impression on me as a young artist, and especially influenced my book ‘The Rabbits’. I’ve been meaning to visit Angouleme and Annecy for their respective comics and animation festivals, but have never quite managed this so far – I hope to do so one day.
Thank a lot Shaun, for your time, and for all your great books!
Interview réalisée le 31/10/2011, par Alix.