Shaun Tan, author/illustrator of The Arrival, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |July 20, 2010

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Oscar Winner,

Shaun Tan

author/illustrator of

The Arrival, The Red Tree, The Rabbits, The Lost Thing and more…

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

Born in Fremantle, raised in Hillarys, a northern suburb of Perth, currently living in Melbourne with my wife and three crazy birds. WA remains sunburnt into my subconscious, and it’s landscapes are the source for most of my stories and images. My childhood in the northern suburbs was like being wonderfully marooned on the edge of the world, surrounded by high blue skies and infinite empty beaches. Not so much to do but potter around with paints and pencils.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, I probably wanted to be an artist – in a vague sort of way. I kept being told how unromantic it really was, that I’d end up starving in a garret. But then again, someone was doing all those paintings, book covers and film designs, and they were probably paid well enough for it, so the whole idea of an ‘artist’ remained a big mystery for me for a long time. Was it or was it not a real job?

At eighteen, I actually wanted to be a writer. I was painting also, but spending far more time writing; illustration was also a possible career, but again, it didn’t seem very dependable. I was also considering studying biotechnology at the time, being quite interested in genetic science in late high school. Unfortunately, science and art were rigorously separated, as if the idea of doing both was impossible. So in the end I chose art and literature, which I studied at UWA for four years.

At thirty, I wanted to be an artist, writer and illustrator, possibly doing a little work for theatre and film productions also. And that’s pretty much what I was doing.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

Gosh, that’s an interesting one. Keeping with the theme, I guess that I thought I would have to have a ‘day job’ if I wanted to be an artist or writer. And now I realise that it is a day job, provided that it’s approached with the discipline of any other small business.

I also thought that picture books were a trivial art form and nothing a serious artist would have anything to do with. My opinions about that have changed radically.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

One key book – among hundreds – was ‘The Illustrated Man’ by Ray Bradbury. It actually has nothing to do with illustration: it’s a collection of strange short fantasy stories, often a bit awkward and dated, but with a very weird atmosphere that I found immensely appealing at the age of 13.

Another very different book, ‘An Open Swimmer’ by a very young Tim Winton, was about places around Perth that were very familiar, and also about fishing in the south west, which my family did all the time. This and other books made me realise that poetry was in the prosaic, that art comes from life, that things can be transcendental without being separate.

I can’t point to any single painting as an exclusively big influence, but I know that some early abstractions by Brett Whiteley (such as ‘untitled red painting’ 1961)had a big effect on me, as well as the landscape paintings of Arthur Streeton. As with Winton, it was partly the recognition of a familiar light and form in their work which made it so resonant – they captured it spot on, in a way that only painting can.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a (graphic) novel?

I’m not very attracted to long narratives as a creator, so in the case of The Arrival – which is quite a lengthy graphic novel / picture book – it was really a case that the form chose me. It began life as a much smaller book, and grew as a result of researching the subject of immigration, taking up five years.

6. Please tell us about ‘The Arrival

It’s a wordless illustrated story about a man who leaves his family to find a better life for them in a strange, distant country. The entire book is a general metaphor not only for immigration, but any major life change which involves sacrificing something familiar for the promise of something unknown.

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

The new edition of the book (The Arrival box set) includes a companion volume (Sketches from a Nameless Land) with extensive sketches and notes referring to my sources of inspiration – mainly immigrant stories of the past century – as well as general thoughts about graphic fiction as a means of accessing non-linear, ‘silent’ stories. I hope that as well as enjoying the graphic novel for the strange object that it is, readers might gain a deeper awareness of my artistic concerns and background study.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Letting us see the world from inside the minds of other people, and in doing so realising that we are not alone, giving some order to the chaos of daily experience.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

Just trying to stay creative in an original way, and not end up simply imitating a past success – which is challenging enough in itself. When Picasso was asked what he thought about fakes of his work, he said ‘I’ve painted many of them myself.’ I think we all know what he’s talking about!

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers/illustrators?

Be your own worst critic – then you don’t have to worry about all the others.

Shaun, thank you for playing

The Arrival and Sketches from a Nameless Land

Shaun Tan’s THE ARRIVAL is an incredibly unique, multi award-winning book, and an internationally acclaimed publishing phenomenon.

In acknowledgement of this indelible and magnificent tale, we bring you an extraordinary slipcase that encapsulates the heart and soul of THE ARRIVAL.

Contains hardcover editions of THE ARRIVAL and SKETCHES FROM A NAMELESS LAND.

Both books will fit inside a framed box. A ribbon attached to the inside frame will allow the books to be lifted out of the box with ease.

Discover what inspired Shaun Tan to create the wordless tale which captures the universally understood concept of displacement, entirely through artwork.

The response to The Arrival has been overwhelming, especially given Shaun’s concerns that it would be considered as an idiosyncratic book.

The Arrival has been “translated” into many languages, enjoyed by children and adults alike, and widely ‘read’ by migrants.

Such interest has made this volume of 48 pages of preliminary notes and sketches, now known as Sketches From A Nameless Land, possible.

“Tan’s illustrations are haunting and brilliantly paced. The story moves forward seamlessly, never stifling the reader’s interpretation of what the tale is about.” The Age

“ …a remarkable and skilful work of art.” The Sunday Times (UK) Description

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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