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I consciously strive not to be a raving fangirl, with the consequence that I only found out about the CBCA conference the afternoon on which Deb and I were to fly to Melbourne. Shaun Tan’s keynote address was one of two which were open to the public (for a fee) and having consulted the list and been informed by Cat and Sean that it would be worth the fee twice over, I went. At 9am on the first morning in Melbourne*. My striving is not always successful.

And it was.

Shaun’s speech was lucid and humble and wise and personal, illustrated throughout by images cast upon the screen – from first grade drawings (complete with roosting pterodactyls) through paintings from life (more mysterious sometimes than his fantastic pieces), illustrations and covers (Aurealis, Sara Douglas) that I knew (and owned) but did not know were his, to his recent, mysterious, luminous work. The development and changes were striking.

He began by reading “Eric” – a short story about an exchange student from his new book Tales of Outer Suburbia, with the images on the screen behind him. I could quite happily sit and listen to picture/illustrated books this way indefinitely.

He said the major themes in his work were:

  • Fantasy Worlds
  • Real Worlds
  • The Gap of Understanding Between the Two
  • Belonging

Main points from my notes:

  • the development and variation of his style: a self-confessed chameleon, he was employed to design Who-mechanisms in Seuss’ style for Horton Hears a Who (and they were very good and it is nice to know he isn’t culpable for the rest of that movie).
  • the best advice he ever received from a writer was “finish”.

FANTASY WORLDS

  • imaginary worlds – not just situations but universes. Originally the thrill of representation, but now of drawing them out of the audience’s head.
  • became an illustrator because he couldn’t get his science fiction stories published.
  • paying attention to the details in illustration to make something science-fictional, e.g. a Honda keyring as a necklace.
  • he strayed from the story in his illustrations: the best illustration doesn’t actually illustrate, but is itself a form of writing and storytelling.

THE ORDINARY WORLD

  • he observes the ordinary world, without which he would not be able to create fantasy worlds.
  • it is the parallels to our own world in science fiction that makes science fiction so interesting.
  • it is not necessary to capture a grand subject. It is not the subject that matters but how the artist feels about it.

THE GAP OF UNDERSTANDING

  • illustrations are familiar enough to know what you are seeing but strange enough that the viewer has to use imagination to join the dots.
  • illustration is still and silent, characterised by the gap of understanding.
  • the only way he could illustration The Rabbits was by extending into a parallel story. For him, it was not political, but about the failure to communicate. The rabbits create meaning by transforming the landscape into something they know – they have a particular literacy, looking at a place of fixed meanings. The gap in
  • The Lost Thing was about a bureaucracy of meaning, inspired by 1984 and Gilliam’s Brazil, growing up in a new kind of suburban landscape, and le Corbusier’s “house is a machine for living in”, which inspired the houses drawn to look like washing machines.
  • The gap of understanding in The Rabbits led to violent conflict. In The Lost Thing it led to apathy.
  • The Red Tree was more personal in the sense it is to do with the relationship of the individual to the landscape around them and in their own head – how you feel when the things inside you don’t make sense. The failure to communicate – each medium can express things uniquely in way can’t be expressed in another.
  • he uses weirdness to startle the reader and jolt himself into action as a creator – there is a tension to resolve.
  • picture books are 32 pages which is about the same size as an exhibition. It allows him to tell a concise story but also to go back to it and over it.
  • images of people drawing recur because he is selfconscious that what he does is expressing something personal with limited means.

BELONGING

  • out of this is the question of seeking some stability, belonging. The Arrival tries to resolve that question rather than just asking it.
  • forming relationships, having to overcome an intimate strangeness. Conversations in the book change depending on how the reader approaches the illustration. It is up to the reader to create the script in own mind.
  • how to create an imaginary alphabet: chop up ours and rearrange it (it was neat seeing the page of cut-and-pasted fonts where he had done this for the book)
  • by the end, there is a logic to it, accepting, using things to advantage.
  • in his books, he will often have a big weird character and small ‘normal’ character, people and pets, adults and children. Trying to communicate.
  • answer lies in compassion and empathy – reading teaches this
  • final image from The Rabbits shows a possible resolution – there doesn’t have to be communication but there does have to be some attempt at it – wanting to help a stranger and learning to find meanings in things that may at first seem peculiar – trying to reach out to the incomprehensible and grasp it in some meaningful way.

Errata:

On the Friday night, while we were in flight, there was a production of The Arrival which the delegates to whom I spoke unanimously declared awesome.

Shaun designed the Book Week poster. You can get a copy from the CBCA site for $6.50 plus postage.

It is an expensive convention and it certainly showed in the catering – white tea and rosepetals, fresh-brewed chai, little citrus scones with a dusting of icing sugar and fresh whipped cream!