The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Scholastic/Levine) is a story told solely through pictures, about a man who travels to a strange land to start a new life for his family. Bookshelf spoke with the Australian illustrator during a brief visit to the U.S. to promote the book.

What was the original idea that led you to create The Arrival?

The original idea sort of morphed from a number of different ideas, but I guess [it was] the idea of telling a universal migrant story, which came from some of the research I was doing into early Chinese settlements in Australia—guys who worked in gold fields. I became more interested in the idea of being an immigrant, and particularly of being in a country you’re not familiar with. And so I began reading migrants’ stories. The fact that my father is Chinese—he emigrated from Malaysia when he was about 20—may have had some bearing on my attraction to the subject.

Did you plan it to be wordless from the start?

I planned to have some words but a very minimal amount of text. Also in the beginning, it was conceived as a 32-page book for a series of 16 landscape paintings, which kind of showed the broad idea of a foreign person in a strange landscape. And there was a small amount of text, which was an old narrator recounting his experiences arriving in a new country.

How did you decide on the materials you use in the book?

Whenever I start a project, I have a broad range of possibilities. Doing research, I realized there was more content I wanted to incorporate [and] it sprawled out into a longer book. As a result I had to be careful of the medium I would use. I could have done oil paint, but it would have taken forever.

In terms of production, I thought it best to stick to use a sort of monochromatic color scheme, so working in black and white was my starting point. When I was looking at old photographs, I realized that the sepia tone is very evocative, and I wanted to borrow some of that. So I drew with graphite pencil and then digitally colored [the illustrations] to look like old photos.

Would you label it a “graphic novel?” What’s your take on that term?

I think of it primarily as a picture book because that’s the medium I’m used to working in. Graphic novel is as good a term as any. Someone called it a pictorial novel, and I thought that was kind of interesting, because of the fact there’s no speech bubbles or any kind of captioning.

The story, at heart, is universal. Why did you decide to incorporate a realistic story into an imagined, unfamiliar city?

I realized that a lot of [immigrants’] stories are told retrospectively when people know the country they’ve emigrated into. When we read stories about people coming to New York or Australia, we know what they’re coming to and we’re reading from a privileged position.

I thought the only way to really [reflect the immigrant experience] would be to create an imaginary country and very carefully blend it with real elements. I didn’t want it to descend into a crazy fantasy. I wanted it to have a gritty, realistic feel to it and feel concrete. I think I found the right balance by mixing ordinary people and buildings and kind of giving them a twist.

What visual sources did you draw from to create the city?

A lot were based on images from New York. There’s just a lot of visual material relating to the immigrant experience [there]. I also was looking at pictures and drawings and some of my own photographs of many different places and kind of using them together. I had the idea that the city itself [in The Arrival] is multicultural. Some parts look Eastern or Western—there’s even some South American design and a bit of Art Deco. I also took tiny forms like seeds and pods and enlarged them and used them as the basis for shapes, which is something I’ve done in the past. And using architectural structures you don’t often see, such as cones and also large wheels.

Most of the characters have a small creature or pet of some kind that accompanies them. What significance do those hold?

I guess that’s a question to the reader. For myself, I’ve kind of always been interested in pets because they’re not human. Because there are no words in the book, the relationship between [the man and] this walking tadpole-like creature that lives in his apartment is kind of like the perfect model for this community without words. You don’t expect this creature to speak—and he doesn’t. Yet they have to accept and tolerate each other’s presence and they get used to each other being there. Animals represent the abstract notion of acceptance. Living with these funny creatures—you kind of have to accept them. It’s like a test in a way.

So do you have a pet at home?

We have three birds. Two budgies and a sun conure—it’s a Brazilian parrot.

Given the level of detail in your drawings and the sheer number of them, how long did this project take to finish?

In total it took five years. The first year was a lot of dithering, so [it was] four years once I knew what I was doing and realized what the length was going to be. I think much of that time was spent simply pencil shading and building up tones of gray.

You’re in the U.S. in support of The Arrival—how exactly does one present a wordless book in public?

Well, hopefully with audio/visual support! I’ve been to a few events at writers festivals where I have to do a reading. [It’s difficult] talking in front of 300 kids and just having to describe it or maybe have people hold the book up in front of them, which is a bit lame. I like to show images for a start, since that’s where the content is. But I talk about the process, where the ideas come from, some of the boring details about putting pictures together, getting a book printed and all that stuff.

It’s tricky because the book does work on the idea of no explanations. So if someone asks you to explain it, you have to do it in a roundabout way. It’s not necessarily relevant what I say about the book. That might sound strange, but I believe that’s true. It’s more important what the reader takes away.