Nick Bantock - A beautiful, mysterious story drawn out in real letters and postcards. The story is only heightened by the breathtaking artwork on each page

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence

Nick Bantock, Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence, Chronicle Books, 1991

Griffin: It's good to get in touch with you at last. Could I have one of your fish postcards? I think you were right -- the wine glass has more impact than the cup. --SabineBut Griffin had never met a woman named Sabine. How did she know him? How did she know his artwork? Who is she? Thus begins the strange and intriguing correspondence of Griffin and Sabine. And since each letter must be pulled from its own envelope, the reader has the delightful, forbidden sensation of reading someone else's mail. Griffin & Sabine is like no other illustrated novel: appealing to the poet and artist in everyone and sure to inspire a renaissance in the fine art of letter-writing, it tells an extraordinary story in an extraordinary way.

This singular, magical volume invites readers to examine handmade postcards and open colorful envelopes as they eavesdrop on lonely London card-designer Griffin Moss and mysterious South Pacific islander Sabine Strohem. Sabine introduces herself to Griffin with a note congratulating him on a design on one of the postcards he illustrates--and alluding to an alteration he made during the creative process. Perplexed because he works alone and discusses his creative dilemmas with no one, he responds, begging her to enlighten him as to how she knew about the original design. In her next missive, she admits, "I share your sight," and their correspondence grows increasingly intimate. Sabine continues to make psychic observations and beckons to Griffin from her atoll; Griffin fantasizes about her to escape his drab existence, his interest turning to obsession. Their personalities shine through both their art and penmanship: Griffin's faintly disturbing, often subliminally violent collages, blocky printed words and imperfectly typewritten pages contrast with Sabine's whimsical doodles, fanciful postage stamps and flowing, calligraphic script. Pop-up book author Bantock's (There Was an Old Lady) images and concept will haunt the imagination Publishers Weekly

Peer into the mysterious and playful world of this internationally recognized artist and best selling author.

Director / Editor: Jenn Strom

I remember being introduced to “Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence” by Nick Bantock, way back in 2000 by a colleague at Crossword Book Store at Mahalaxmi (I worked there part-time for a bit) and I cannot thank her enough for the recommendation. Since then I have read two trilogies of Griffin and Sabine and can never get enough of these books. This is the first time after ages I decided to revisit them and here I was at the start of the year, with my second read: “Griffin & Sabine”.
It will be very difficult for me to review this book. Not because it was a difficult read, but because it always manages to shake me up. It manages to leave me breathless – in its writing and through its images. Yes, it is a sort of a graphic novel and at the same time, it is so much more. “Griffin & Sabine” as the title suggests is about two people – Griffin, a postcard artist in London and Sabine, a stamp designer in a small Pacific island.
They are lovers. They have never met. They correspond through letters and postcards. There is however one more detail to it, concerning Sabine which I will not disclose through the review. I would urge you to read the book and find that out. Lovers love, irrespective of distances, they do and this is one element of the first trilogy. After reading the first book, you would want to go out and read all of them. That is one thing I can guarantee for sure.
Bantock makes the reader/s believe in love that surpasses time and transcends the thought process of the “email” generation and takes it back to letter writing. The structure of the book in itself is unique. One can see the beautiful images and open the letters from the envelopes and read them. The first time I read the book, I almost felt like I was eavesdropping or sneaking on someone else’s life.
The grand illusion of love is forever present in the book and one can see it – in the colours, in the words and sense it through the emotions of both characters and yet there is also hopefulness which propels the reader, through the book and sometimes life. The book is like love waves crashing against the rocks, knowing that someday something will come out of it. The day I finished reading this book, I recommended it to so many people. I just had to; because I knew that everyone can connect with the book. It is but after all trying to define love, to mould it and to feel it. So do yourself a favour and read this. You just have to.  

Renegade Films Options Nick Bantock’s Best Selling Chronicle Books Trilogy: Griffin & Sabine

LOS ANGELES--()--Los Angeles based independent production house, Renegade Films, announced today that they have acquired the rights to the epistolary novels, Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. The 1991, best-selling series, written and illustrated by Nick Bantock, will be adapted into a feature film that travels through the three novels: Griffin & Sabine, Sabine’s Notebook and The Golden Mean. It is the first time the Griffin & Sabine trilogy has been optioned for film.
“Renegade Films is thrilled to bring to life the magic of Griffin & Sabine and to share it with the world through cinema.”
“With over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and published in 10 languages, the Griffin & Sabine series is one of our most popular ever,” stated Chronicle Books publisher, Christine Carswell. “Not only popular, but also beloved, for the mystery of its storytelling and for characters who live long in the imaginations of the millions of readers who’ve enjoyed these utterly distinctive novels.”
Author and Artist, Nick Bantock added that he has been approached many times over the years about capturing Griffin & Sabine on film. “This is the first time I've felt comfortable that the essence of the story is understood. Transitioning this tale from a novel to a movie will test the bounds of dreams and creativity, providing an opportunity to create something intelligent, entertaining and visually extraordinary.”
Griffin & Sabine is an unconventional, cross-continental tale of love between Griffin Moss, an artist with a penchant for designing postcards, and Sabine Strohem, an artist who self-expresses by illustrating postage stamps. The books, originally published in 1991, 1992 and 1993 respectively, depict a journey between two people who fall in love before ever meeting and connect as soul mates before ever making eye contact. Griffin and Sabine's only tangible intersection occurs through an artful and intuitive correspondence.
Renegade Films is currently in the process of confirming a screenwriter, director and cast. Head of Development, Karla Braun added, “Renegade Films is thrilled to bring to life the magic of Griffin & Sabine and to share it with the world through cinema.”
Production on the film is slated to begin in 2014.

Nick Bantock was not attempting to rock the publishing world when Griffin and Sabine debuted in 1991. He was simply trying to find a home for all of his creative passions between two covers. Back in England, in art school, Bantock says, "We were encouraged ... to become obsessive. To pick a certain area. There was one guy who studied painting cereal boxes. And there was this woman who was making these white, six-inch square boxes in every single variation."
Bantock loathed this focused obsession. "So I tried to make every single thing I did completely different to everything else."
Later, when illustrating book covers for a living, Bantock found himself balking at enforced repetitiveness once again. "They wanted me to do sci-fi/ fantasy or detective or whatever. And I said: No. Just give me something different each time." After a while, he says, publishers happily got the hang of it and started sending him the "peculiar" projects. And, for a time, Bantock was happy.
This is all, of course, prior to the publication of Griffin and Sabine, the charming picture book for grown-ups that would, in a trilogy, sell millions of copies and validate the quirky artist's insistence on doing things his way.
Ten years later, Bantock has published 20 books, ranging in nature from pop-up children's books like There Was An Old Lady (1990) and Jabberwocky (1991) to the dreamlike post-life way station in The Museum at Purgatory (1997 but new in paperback) and, most recently, to The Artful Dodger, a deliciously illustrated autobiography that, Bantock says, will help readers understand his delightful twists of creativity more fully. "What I tried to do in The Artful Dodger is regroup the images in such a way that you can see the connections." Not just, says Bantock, in each individual book, but throughout his now admirable body of work.
At 51, Bantock is passionate and enthusiastic about his work and, in some ways, the messages he shares with his readers. "I do not give answers. And so really what I'm doing is encouraging people to ask questions of themselves. Or form their own questions."

Linda Richards: With Griffin and Sabine, you created a genre, I think. How do you account for the popularity of your books?
Nick Bantock: Publishers want more bells and whistles. They can't quite get a handle on why these things sell. So they'll return, basically, to: Well, it must be this or it must be that. As though there's a single answer. Whereas for me it's a multiplicity: it's about what people want and need. It's a far more complex issue than simply something that's "neat" or "entertaining."
Is it about passion, too?
I think so. I think that's a big chunk of it, but for me the whole issue of the relationship around [what's working], that marriage, fulfills a very distinct and profound need in people in general. As well as the fact that I think probably what I do more than anything in my books is ask people questions. I do not give answers. And so really what I'm doing is encouraging people to ask questions of themselves. Or form their own questions. And that all happens within the realm of the story, but it also happens within the realm of a fantasy world that eats away at the collusion of history and reality. Which I think all of us get a bit bored with. We're all pretending we see exactly the same red when we look at it. We're not: we're seeing a completely different thing. But we feel comfortable pretending because it's the only way we can communicate. What I'm doing a lot of the time is mussing that up and saying: Well, you can't really trust history and you can't even trust what I'm saying and you certainly can't trust the relationship that the people have in here with their own lives because they're trying to cover dishonesty. [In Museum at Purgatory] the stories that they've told themselves all their lives that they're now suddenly faced with in this purgatory of facing their truth. They can't dodge anymore. Well, they can. They can stay there for eternity until they finally come to face themselves.
You're taking away a safe commonality that everyone can relate to.
Yes! So, on this one level I'm doing this, it could be a trap. But I hope that I'm doing it in such a way that I'm creating a humor -- a kind of gallows humor -- though I'm not trying to take away anyone's crutch. If someone wants and needs that, that's fine. I mean, I can't mock it away. But if they care to chuck it away because they see something else that may be more invigorating, so be it.
You have a huge fan base. I know this because the interview we did with you previously has gotten a lot of attention and continues to generate a lot of mail. You have many very dedicated fans.
Yeah, it's surprising how much stuff there is out there [on the Web]. And it's not so much me, but there's hardly anyone else who is working in approximately the same area, so in a way I'm kind of the one that's in full focus, because the genre is an unfulfilled genre.
And though there are other people working in the genre, it's still a genre that you've created.
I suppose, in a way. But I see myself as sort of a Johnny-on-the-spot. I just happened to be there at the right time. I'm really lucky. I came from the publishing world, having done book covers. I knew what publishing was about. And when I came to write, I just found I could do it. It was just one of those freakish things. So I'm in this sort of extremely lucky position of having had the various factions fall into place. Plus I have the capacity to control these things from day one right the way through to the print[ing] and getting it. I mean, if this stuff went into the hands of a publisher it would just disintegrate in no time, because there's no one to hold it together. The only one that can hold it together is yours truly.
Is your background in design or illustration?
Painting. I'm a fine artist. Then I learned to make a living at it doing book cover illustrations, but really I was still doing painting and being paid for it. And that went on for many years and it's only nine years or so ago that I started doing books on my own.
And that was children's books?
Yeah. I started with a little pop-up book. And then Griffin and Sabine happened quickly on the back of that and it's just... I can't believe it! I started counting them the other day, I counted twice and it was different, but it was 19 or 20.
19 or 20 what?
Books. Including the little pop-up things, but they still take a lot of time and energy. And I thought: My God, and I had three children in there! How did it all happen? It's insane. Now, finally, I'm getting it a little bit slowed down and it's wonderful.
Many of your books deal with the supernatural...
... Yeah. In the broadest sense.
Yes, a very broad sense, of course. Griffin and Sabine was a relationship between two people that wasn't exactly on a real level...
Well, I would say it was on two levels at once. One with the internal level of the individual, but the question being: which individual? The assumption was that it was Griffin. It could easily have been Sabine. But the other level is the external level in their actual physical relationship. And I think that's what confused a lot of people: the notion that it could be on both at the same time. You know, in Western society we're forced to choose between black and white, good and bad. Always sort of at the expense of the other. What I'm proposing there is that you don't meet someone, you don't manifest your internal need until you deal with it. At which point that person appears -- quite literally. And you can look at that on a supernatural or metaphysical level, or you can look at that as a purely functional ordinary basic level.
And the way they each saw their own world.
And so what brought you down the dream well into purgatory?
I needed somewhere that was a stage on which I could bring on the characters where the rules were in some ways quite anarchic. Where the place adapted to the individual. And the idea of going down through the dream well, I mean I've always been fascinated by our sort of weird attitudes that dreams were somehow something that were given to us. Some sort of present from who or what, I don't know. And so the idea that the dream world was both a place and [a sort of] conscience. Because when we sleep and we dream, we don't actually get stuff coming in, but we're watching the downloading of our own daytime experiences. We're actually getting the back-projected view. And to me that seemed to make a lot more sense. I quite like the idea that my dream characters are also shared with other people. That there is a central area where these characters move and that I'm the one that is on the outside. As one character says: We always talk about having dreams, but maybe dreams have us.
If you ask the question: OK, if that's what goes in, what comes out? Then I would say: creativity. You know, the things that we make. That's why the characters take their stuff and hang them and look at them because that's their direct connection to the collective unconscious and through that their honesty and their ability to be honest about themselves...
It's also a catharsis. It helps them move on.
Are you a philosopher?
No, I would say I'm a skeptic and that I have a lot of questions and am fascinated by everything. Look at it this way: I'm more like a cat that, introduced to a new house, goes sniffing around every corner. And then, when it finds a comfortable place, rests but never actually stays there. That's my attitude to the sort of philosophical arena.
I'm not an academic. Far from it. I use stuff and hold stuff because I have a sense that it's right. Because it feels, on some level, like it works for me. But I don't have to dissemble it. I don't have to break it down. I don't have to be a Yeats scholar to use a Yeats poem because the Yeats poem moves me intensely and touches a place that I also want to touch, as well. In Griffin and Sabine [there's an image where] there are hooks going into the sand of the desert and the Sphinx rising up and not knowing whether it's Armageddon or whether we're looking at rebirth. I mean, it's such an exquisite and powerful image that to attach the book to that and each individual search -- Griffin's search and Sabine's search -- gives it a kind of widened credibility.
And yet I think there are modern philosophical elements in all of your work.
Well, once you start asking questions and start talking about it, you can disappear into New Age completely. [Laughs] And there's no one that wants to do that apart from New Age groupies. So you're faced with the question: Do I then ignore the big questions and just spend my life dealing with the little ones. Or do I ask the big questions, but I ask them in another way. And so the way I try to do it is to go around. To circle 'round peppering questions. Another way to say it is: imagine you have an object that you couldn't see. And you circled it in such a way that your shadow was cast over that object. By the time you complete the circle, you have a sense of what the object looks like. And it's the same kind of thing with this. I have no idea what the questions are, let alone the answers. But I'm curious. And if I can stimulate other curiosity then I can propose an idea and someone goes: Yeah! That's akin to my experience. As well as: Or what about...? Then I'm contributing to moving away from life that's pure consumerism.
Tell me what you mean by moving away from pure consumerism. What does that mean to you?
Consumerism comes in so many different forms, as far as I see. Whether it's people taking photos of themselves while standing in front of a monument, because they want to be identified and show that their holiday was a physical thing. We have become so geared to relating to things through objects. And in a way I'm very gently mocking that in the characters [in Museum at Purgatory] who have to understand the world through objects. But because I do the same, I'm really mocking myself as much if not more so than anybody else. I may not go out and buy the stuff, but I find it on beaches or I make it from scratch so, in a way, I'm more a part of the need to make objects to understand myself. But, there's a point in consumerism when that's all there is. There is only: What is the next object? What is the next thing? It becomes a deadening object. It becomes the same as smoking a cigarette or drinking too much alcohol: that you're trying to kill the feelings.
I hope that I do it the other way around: that I'm trying to release the feelings. Trying to release the self-understanding and inviting other people to do the same.
Is your work about spreading that message?
No. This is about me having experiences and saying: This is my experience. I have fun doing this. I have mischief. This is how I perceive the world. It's up to you. If you read and look at this and you start to get the things that I'm getting or you get some parallel things or something else completely different -- bam! -- it stimulates you into getting down your paints or writing to your granny or whatever. Or just simply feeling more alive. It's not missionary zeal, it's just that I'm alive. I feel alive. I like to meet other people who have got their eyes in the here and now so if I can help to instigate that so that I can have a better experience in life, then I will do so.
Like the artists in Purgatory, are you working through what you do in order to move on to the next thing?
I think we're always functioning a bit like moles, shoveling the earth behind us. There's nothing [in Museum at Purgatory] that you could relate directly to my life. Yet it's completely and utterly about my life. Every single one of these characters is part of me. From the shyness of Alice -- there's a part of me that's intensely shy. I mean, I can sit here and sort of talk the blarney, but I also desperately need to get away and get back to my little room and stop hearing the noise of other people and I am scared. But I have a front. Otto Sengler, his views on the world and his lack of confidence because he feels he hasn't had the academic background and has to keep convincing himself that what he thinks and feels is valid. And I go through that as well. And as for Non, well, I spend my whole life trying to make beauty. The fact that I'm doing it on paper as opposed to a woman's body: maybe I'm just one or two steps back from that outrageous level of megalomania.
I know you work in a fair amount of isolation. Does that help your creativity?
Yeah. I think some people get stimulated by what everyone else is doing. You know, they like to be in the sort of hustle bustle of what's the latest stuff and that's the last thing I want to see, really: to look over my shoulder to see what everyone else is doing. I don't want or need that kind of influence. I saw enough of that in the fine art world to make me well wary of being too conscious of trends or style or anything. There's so much stuff still inside me that needs to come out. So many places I've been, things I've seen, friends I've known, complexities of relationships. I mean, there's enough for another thousand books. But I want to do that in a truthful way. In a way that I can avoid my ego getting in the way. I simply go into that room and start playing and make myself that conduit, so that, what comes out is as clean as possible. And the moment you become self-conscious, it changes that.
So you don't feel you'll ever get stale, then?
No, I'm as connected as I want to be. The biggest thing you have to avoid is overstimulation. Particularly when you're making things, you can be so bombarded by input. Our understanding of the visual image has been overwhelmed by the degree of images. The capacity to be selective is lost. People have lost the ability to draw. At one time, a hundred years ago, everyone could draw. Now, most people are so confused by images. All they see them in is in terms of advertising. And that's a very, very devious and dodgy space that we've gotten ourselves into.
It's true. Lots of times we don't pick up on the meanings of images. They just sort of float by.
Yeah. Think of 500 years ago. Someone might look at a painting, over a period of eight or nine weeks, they might look at it for eight or nine hours. What that meant was the painter could build in levels of speed of observation and understanding. They could load it. You can't do that now. A lot of the time it's got to be absolutely immediate. That's why I get enormous satisfaction when people say: I got to the end of your book and I went back through it and I started to look at the pictures again. Or: I keep going back and every time I see something different. That's great, as far as I'm concerned. Because it means that they're not looking across the picture, they're looking into it. And when they stop to do that, then they're going to get a much, much richer world.
You work on building in those layers, too.
Yes, absolutely. It's to help step it down. I mean, you give people easy access by being a book and not being a painting or something grand. They're not self-conscious and they can look at it and say: Oh, it's just a postcard, there's a picture. It's easier to get into. They don't have to have an artistic judgment. So then maybe they go back and say: Oh, that's a sun. What's this moon? And what was that reference to alchemy? So, little by little, they can always keep coming back, looking at the images and saying: Oh! I get it. It's like listening to music where you pick up the themes and then later say: Oh, that comes up again there.
And so, what I tried to do in The Artful Dodger is regroup the images in such a way that you can see the connections. So you can actually see there might be a picture in [one book] and one in another book and one in another, you can see that these three pictures are related to each other by a yellow cord. So it helps them understand the visual language.
I find somewhat of a dichotomy in your work because, even though it says "Nick Bantock" on the cover, the pieces inside are claiming to be somebody else's. You create art, but you say: This artist created it.
And with the writing, as well. How else could you create a series of voices? Because we're so used to trying to hear one voice. Most people are not comfortable with hearing one person change their voice. So if I want to come from a different standpoint, then one of the very simple ways is to say: So and so said it.
And you do that with your visual art, as well.
Yes. Absolutely. But think about when I was at art college. We were encouraged -- at the end of our second year, going into our third year which was the final year -- we were encouraged to become obsessive. To pick a certain area. There was one guy who studied painting cereal boxes. And there was this woman who was making these white, six-inch square boxes in every single variation. Everyone was being obsessive, because they were told that was the way to present. I hated this. So I tried to make every single thing I did completely different to everything else.
An obsession of a sort.
An obsession of a sort, yes. I didn't realize that at the time. But essentially what that meant was I got to learn lots of different materials. So instead of learning how to do one thing on a practical level, I got to learn lots and lots of different materials. So I was always having fun. I was always playing. I was always, as it were, the apprentice.
Even up to 10 years ago I really thought of myself, very much, as the apprentice because I'd never actually found the area in which I could put it all together. Finally I found the area in which I can actually do all of this stuff and I don't have to justify that I'm one person. That all of the various parts of me, all of my thoughts and ideas. I mean, why should I not, one day, draw with great craftsmanship accuracy and another day whack paint on with both hands? It's part of my personality.
I didn't want to be pigeonholed. I'd say: No, no, no! I don't want to go in that pigeonhole. Yes, I could probably make a better living by working in this area, but I absolutely refuse.
And I did the same with illustration when it came to that. They wanted me to do a particular genre. They wanted me to do sci-fi/fantasy or detective or whatever. And I said: No. Just give me something different each time. After 10 years they finally got the hang of it. And when anything peculiar came in they'd [give it to me]. And you get to do your own art direction, you get to do exactly what you want, you get to learn and that means that the things you create are built around your own mythological internal history.
So, that's why when it came to doing Griffin and Sabine much of that material was already there, because I'd been doing it for years. I just had to find a home for it. And all of these things I'm interested in, I've found a home for and a place. | February 2001
 intervew by Linda L. Richards Nick Bantock

by Nick Bantock

Nick Bantock collage

The first thing you notice are Nick Bantock's hands. Elegant, almost delicate long-fingered hands. The hands, of course, of the artist. The artist is the person you meet again and again when speaking with Bantock. Bantock the writer is a newer piece of the whole picture, a piece that was perhaps born of happenstance as much as any other single thing: of need and demand. The happy discovery that he could write -- and write well -- came actually after the sale of the first Griffin & Sabine book: the book that would go on to be an international bestseller in many languages.
Along with several children's books, Bantock is the author and illustrator of the bestselling Griffin & Sabine Trilogy as well as The Egyptian Jukebox, The Venetian's Wife and -- most recently -- The Forgetting Room.
All of Bantock's books have strong visual elements. They are not merely read: they are participated with. Rich and colorful illustrations -- all Bantock originals -- are a matter of course. As well, you can expect letters to pull out of envelopes, parts of pages to fold out and even the occasional pop-up. They are books for grown-ups, certainly. But his "fictions", as he likes to call them, are also stories that demand participation. Custom made, it would seem, to delight the child in all of us.
Private to the point where he no longer allows journalists to photograph him at home, the British-born writer and artist lives with his wife and four children on an island on Canada's west coast. He spoke with January Magazine while promoting his latest book, The Forgetting Room, a "fable and a fiction" that looks at the inner workings of an American man's mind as he explores his roots in Ronda, Spain. Here he confronts the creative process and seeks to discover more about himself.

Linda Richards: What comes first. The stories or the pictures?
Nick Bantock: Together. And not from beginning to end. But I start in the middle, usually. I start with a small series of images and a few lines of text, and then the text will give me ideas for more images and vice versa. I write and make pictures much like a collage: always moving stuff around. Within almost like a peripheral vision sense of where it's going and what it's about. But it is peripheral and if I try and turn to it and look at it directly then it evaporates. So I have to trust in process. But I've doing it long enough now. Painting teaches you that anyway. Because any painting that you know exactly what it's going to look like is dead by the time you finish it. It's got to have this capacity to be able to change.
LR: Were the images in The Forgetting Room things you'd done maybe, and liked. Or were they done for the story?
NB: This was all done for the story.
LR: Do you ever work that way?
NB: The Griffin and Sabine stuff was really an accumulation of 20 years' work. The first one, about 50 per cent of the images in there were already done. Because, really,the book was a way of taking images that I'd worked on for a long period of time and giving them a home. And giving them a sense of continuity. And taking character and giving my work to a character. And then another character. Because I worked in so many different ways. My work tended to be quite varied. But by giving chunks of my work to these two different people who were inside myself and then having them talk to each other in terms of words and an exchange of images it gave a sense of purpose to pieces that in many ways the only thing that had linked them up until them was me. And my own idiosyncratic interests and peculiarities. But with The Forgetting Room it was completely different. Everything was generated from the notion of an idea. And I think what came first was the word duende and then everything else spilled out from that.
LR: Where'd you get it?
NB: The word duende? Someone wrote it to me. A designer in Los Angeles wrote me a chatty kind of letter and she said "This word interests me, have you ever come across it?" And I told her I hadn't, and then she sent me a couple of Lorca quotes. And the moment I started to read what duende was it just resonated. I guess I'd been looking for something that described my own sense of creative energy and fire and passion and this -- particularly because it was Spanish -- had a sense of that blood earth feeling to it. And it was like, "Yeah! Now I've got a word for it."
LR: Is your background in fine art?
NB: Yeah. Painting. I trained as a fine artist painter. And then when I left art college at the age of 21 I did a few bits and pieces for a couple of years and then got involved in illustration. Book covers. And I worked in the publishing world for many many years doing covers. And then when I came to Canada I'd just had enough of that. I was going to do something different, but I didn't really know what I was going to do. So I got involved with pop-up books with a company in Los Angeles and then one day I was down there working on a book with a guy who had been very successful and we were talking and I said to myself, 'You know, I can do everything this guy can do, and I can paint and draw. How come he's had the success and all I do is get nine point type on the back of somebody else's book?' And a sort of light went on above my head and I said, 'This is about permission. This is about saying that you can do it.' So I just came back and started. Just literally started doing my own stuff. And it just went from there. And I was very lucky. There was never any real struggle. The first thing I ever proposed was a pop-up book and they accepted that. And then Griffin & Sabine happened very matter of factly.
The whole thing has been remarkably like a series of dominos. Where you push one over and one leads to the next one.
LR: Life is like that sometimes.
NB: Yeah. It is. Once you hit the right point. And someone said to me, 'Don't you feel guilty about making lots of money?' And I said, 'Quite frankly, no. I've toiled my guts out 12 hours a day, six days a week for 25 years for what probably amounts to 35 cents an hour learning my craft. So, when it came to it, basically all I'm doing is getting back pay.' So, no. No: I don't feel at all guilty.
LR: So the first book you did was a pop-up book. Was it aimed at kids?
NB: Well, I've never really aimed stuff directly at kids because I've never really seen the difference. The pop-ups were humorous, but they had a sort of dark edge to them. In fact, when Viking bought the first pop-up book they didn't release them in the children's section because they said there was something slightly too nasty about them. Although really there's not too much nasty about someone swallowing a fly.
LR: What was the title of the first one?
NB: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Big deal: as though kids could get really frightened by that. I mean, they go home and watch chainsaw massacres on TV, and they're going to be disturbed by an old lady swallowing a fly? But children's publishing is funny anyway.
LR: What year was that?
NB: I guess it must have been about 1991. I did a whole series of these little pop-up books. There was that one, there was Jabberwocky, Robin Hood, just a bunch of fun things. But they all had a little satirical edge to them. So, I did the pop-up things and then I just wanted to do things more and more meaty. And that's when I did the first idea for Griffin & Sabine which this publisher accidentally saw. But when they said they wanted to do it, I never remotely mentioned that it was me that would be doing the writing because I didn't write. And so when they said, 'Yeah. Sure. You do it.' I just thought, 'Sure. I'll do it. What have I got to lose?' And no one was more amazed than me to find how very comfortable I was writing.
I think it was because I'd never done any serious writing. I've never been looking over my shoulders at other good writers. I mean, I've read voraciously, but when I wrote, I wrote the way someone who has been involved in therapy writes: using basic gestalt. Where you sit down and say, 'All right. I am this character. What does this character have to say?' And then you sit down and allow the character to express itself without interference. And for me that makes very easy writing.
The hardest thing is to find a character in the first place. So you have to decide which of the multiple characters inside you are you going to give voice to?
LR: I've always kind of thought that a publisher would have thought that your books would be so expensive to produce and so outside of any known genre that you would have had problems finding a publisher.
NB: I think there was a huge great hole in publishing for the kind of book that Griffin & Sabine was, which was this mixture of words and images which dealt with a form of symbolism. Basically it was taking people who care about images seriously. And saying that there was some way to experience images other than as an art book. I think that publishing had just missed it. And it's partly to do with the structure of publishing houses. And the structure of critical appraisal.
LR: It's got to be an expensive book to produce.
NB: But it wasn't. The average 250-page hardback novel when Griffin & Sabine came out was $30. Griffin & Sabine was $20. It's just that the timing was right in terms of what the new print technology could actually do if you used offshore printers.
LR: But things pull out and then there's die cuts and...
NB: But it was all very feasible because of the equipment that is now available.
LR: So you didn't have any obstacles in terms of getting it published?
NB: I think Chronicle would have been the only publisher at the time who would have had the sort of vision needed to publish it. But you see, they thought of it as a 10,000 print run book. And I was just happy. I didn't know. And they were going to do this 10,000 print run. You know, they calculated their costs and if it sold out they were going to do nicely.
Then they went to the ABA [American Booksellers Association convention] and the guy from the Washington Post saw it and picked it as one of his five or six books of the year. And they went back and said, 'Okay. We'll do 30,000.' Which seemed pretty risky. They were taking a bit of a chance. But they could never catch up. The moment the book hit the stores they could never ever print enough. That first year it ran out three weeks before Christmas. If they'd have had enough books they could have sold twice as many.
LR: So how many were sold?
NB: The trilogy has done worldwide just the other side of 3,000,000. It's about 1,000,000 each.
LR: You have children.
NB: Yes. Four. The eldest is 12, a boy. And then I have eight year old twin girls. And a seven year old girl. My first book was dedicated to my wife. Her name is Kim Kasasian. She's also an artist, though she's not really working at it now. With four kids and having done homeschooling, so she's done very little painting recently. Which is too bad because she's very, very, very good. But when she wants to get back to it, she will. But she's playing the cello more now.
LR: Do you have a regular work schedule?
NB: It used to be insane. When I was doing two and three books a year I'd get up at six in the morning and work through until about five and then go back into the house and then there'd basically be another five hour day getting the kids and house dealt with so it was insane. But now I've eased up. This time around I said I'm not going to do this book on a year deadline. Like, the one I'm working on at the moment, The Museum of Purgatory, I'm doing it on a two year deadline. So I gave myself a two year cycle to do it. So I'm working basically seven until one and then I go back and spend time in the house before the kids come home and then I'm there ready for when the kids come home from school.
LR: How long have you lived in Canada?
NB: About ten years. When we landed here we didn't know a soul. We didn't know a single person here.
LR: You and Kim and your son?
NB: That's right.
LR: But why Canada?
NB: My parents had traveled all around the world. My father worked for a petro chemical company and they ended up in Calgary. We went out to visit them and after the claustrophobia of Thatcherist England and all the negativity and put downs, Canada just seemed like such an open, free, positive place. So we just did it. We just came.
LR: That was big move, though. I mean, you had a family. A young son.
NB: When I look back, it should have been scary. But I was just so relieved to get out of England. People ask me what I miss. And it's weird because I was the sort of person who would get homesick very easily but I left England without any difficulty. I miss the countryside. The physical countryside. The fact that it's rolling hills. I always describe it as being female countryside. Canada is sort of masculine: there's hard rocks and trees and so on. Whereas the English rolling hills are very sensual to the eye. I miss that, and I miss the Saturday afternoon soccer results at 4:45. Apart from that... And now I've got the Internet, I can get those results anyway.
I'm really glad we came. I'm really glad I got out of England.
LR: A lot of good stuff has happened to you here.
NB: I think it was mostly that sense of positivist attitude. You've got an idea? Go for it. You want to do this? Go for it. Instead of: no. You can't do that. In England people always gave you reasons why you couldn't. And there was always that 2000 years of social structure that wanted to know which school you went to before they ever looked at what you were doing.
LR: Did you spend a lot of time in Spain, researching the book?
NB: Not really. No. I spent a couple of weeks. I didn't really go to research the book. Not in the normal sense. I went there because I'd heard about the place and I had an idea for a book and it was the right place. It was really just a matter of picking up bits from the gutter. That's where you get your ideas from. It's like sniffing around. It's the odd little things. It's not the big picture.
LR: Tell me about the painting that Armon works on in the book.
NB: It's paint and found things. The process that you see is my process. The idea is that you get to see and understand through Armon working, the process of making a picture. And that mixture of using paint, using charcoal, using chalk pastel, finding something in an old box and sticking it on and so on. Basically what I had to do to do this picture was have transparencies taken at each stage. I didn't know if the damn thing was going to work. I mean, you can do a picture and come to the end of it and it's shit. So it could all have been wasted and I would have to have started all over again. But after you've been painting for a long time and you have a certain degree of trust in yourself. You believe that the final thing you're going to come up with is good enough.
LR: Can you talk about The Museum of Purgatory, or is it all secret-y?
NB: Sure. It's a satire. Very dark comedy about what happens to you and your collections when you die. It's very peculiar that when you die someone else judges your life. It always struck me that you should be judging your own life. So in The Museum of Purgatory, 10 dead people have rooms in this museum and we see their art and things: very surreal. We have the curator's interpretations and impressions of these individuals, but we also see their own analysis of their lives and their relationship between that life and the things they're obsessed with. And they have to make their own judgment about whether they deserve to go on to utopia or distopia. But this whole business of utopias and distopias is played around with, because I've got this whole mixture of sort of serious and unserious places.
LR: Tell me about the philosophy of your work. Why do you do it in this way?
NB: I really think that there's a very important connection between the way we've developed and the way that we have gone from being creatures that had a night time experience. Namely, that we saw and see and perceived in terms of images. And our daytime experience was exactly the same. We used the same building blocks of understanding.
Then we developed a thing called language. Which, in its written form, started out in the form of pictograms. Which is exactly the same: pictures and images. But that became abstracted. And so we developed a form of abstract text which became our means of communication. We got further and further away from the basic building blocks of our understanding. So we developed a very patriarchal type of language that was about control and the further and deeper we got into that the further we got away from our comfortableness with images. Consequently I think we live in a society that sees images as things with commercial usage. We're basically scared of them. We're scared of our minds. We're scared of our dreams. Because we don't understand them.
LR: You're deep in research on the next book, aren't you.
NB: This is the reason I'm doing the next book.

What you're looking at is a left brain, right brain split in individuals, not only in society. Essentially what I'm trying to do by marrying words and images is to try and bring the two back together again. Because I feel more comfortable with my whole sense of day and night, my left brain and my right brain and my two major forms of perception. Perception in terms of image and perception in terms of text language. And I don't want them to be split. I want them to belong together as a single uniform way of perceiving and understanding.
intervew by Linda L. Richards


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