Shaun Tan's The Arrival--My Favorite Book of the Year

Arrival_2 Welcome to the new blog! I'm Jeff VanderMeer, and I'm a novelist and a nonfiction writer who has been writing for the Amazon blog for the last few months. (Check out my reviews in The Washington Post, Bookslut, and elsewhere.) My own work tends toward the fantastical, magic realist, surrealist part of the spectrum, and so I cover Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror for this blog.

I also receive a lot of fantastical graphic novels for review--and my favorite book of the year for 2007 is actually a graphic novel, Shaun Tan's wordless The Arrival about an immigrant in a strange city. I discussed it on this blog a couple of weeks ago. "Timeless classic" wouldn't be a bad description of this beautiful book. But it's always better to let the creator describe their own work, so I talked to Tan about certain aspects of The Arrival, including his creative process.

Amazon: The book has several elements that could be considered grace notes, not least of which are the many, many faces portrayed on the endpapers/inside boards of the book. As you were developing the idea for the book, was this always part of the plan? And where did these faces come from?

Shaun Tan: Yes, I always wanted to have a collection of anonymous "passport portraits", right from the very beginning. I find the endpapers a fascinating part of the book, a kind of footnote to the main story, the first and last thing a reader will see. I had the idea that you could select any one of these portraits and create an entirely new story, as if each nameless individual has a tale to tell. My own narrative about a man leaving a disintegrating city is simply one of a million possible stories, real or imaginary. The faces themselves are all hand-drawn, borrowing from a number of sources--some are family and friends, some are immigrants from about a century ago, traveling to the US and Australia, and some are imaginary. Why did you decide to use a fantastical element in this evocative portrayal of the immigrant experience?

Shaun Tan: I thought this would be the best way of conveying an impression of an immigrants' experience, by creating a new country--possibly and eighth continent--which will be foreign to all readers (including myself). That's one reason, putting the reader in a migrant's shoes. Secondly, I think that the fantastical elements operate as metaphors, allowing a myriad of different ideas to be contained within something singular and universal. For instance, the black serpents that crowd the sky in the first part of the book suggest something dark and oppressive, but do not specify a particular meaning. They may represent poverty, hunger, political problems, disease, or something else--their "unreality" allows for multiple interpretations and especially personal interpretations from different readers (who may themselves be immigrants). As an artist, I'm always looking for images that can work this way. How do stories like this generally come to you? Could you talk about your creative process?

Shaun Tan: It’s really a little of all of those things. I suppose most stories begin with a few images; vague, dreamlike impressions (often I'm not sure where these come from) as well as a set of more conscious questions. In this case, "What would it be like to travel to a country that you know nothing about?" and "How can a book best convey this experience?" Other ideas emerged from fairly methodical research--looking at archival images relating to theme of immigration, and gathering a collection of written accounts of immigrant experiences, as well as interviewing friends who are from other countries about problems of language, food, work, education and so on. I also keep sketchbooks all the time that are filled with random doodles and written notes, inspired by things I see or hear everyday; a conversation, a news story, a glimpse of landscape, any daydreamed bits of nonsense. These become part of a random, indispensable library of ideas I can draw upon and refine, and hopefully will trigger narrative ideas.

Drawing is the essential thing that brings various threads together, and also suggests new ideas. I sketch very quickly using a simple ball-point pen, pictures in small squares, dozens at a time, like a form of writing without words. Often the act of scribbling creates unexpected impressions, a little like finding shapes in clouds--and this brain-storming opens a pathway to a more subconscious world, and can trigger distant, subtle memories. Things often "feel right" without the benefit of a clear explanation: I just trust my instincts. I try not to control or worry about what I am sketching--that comes later when I go through and "edit" my ideas more critically, deciding which parts are relevant or meaningful, and which are not.

Once I have a rough plan of the entire story, like a storyboard for a film, I concentrate on developing finished images, again making reference to research, new sketches and so on. In the case of The Arrival, I took many reference photos as the basis for drawings of people, objects and landscapes. Often friends or family members would "act out" scenes in my garage, which became a kind of temporary theatre set. They would interact with each other, and basic cardboard props (things I would draw in more detail later) and I would video this, transfer this to my computer and select which image frames best captured the gesture or composition I was looking for. I would then re-draw everything a couple of times, adding new details, and eventually produce a final drawing using graphite pencils on paper. It is really quite a slow and methodical process, one page of twelve images taking about a week to complete.... the main reason the book took over four years to finish!


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Comments (1)

Fascinating replies, indeed. I'll look for this book.

Posted by: Michael Bishop | Wednesday October 24, 2007 at 5:20 AM

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