|Interview by Gavin J. Grant
Nick Bantock, originally from London, England (where he once worked in a bookshop for a couple of months!) lives in Vancouver with his family. He is the author of the incredibly successful Griffin and Sabine trilogy (including Sabine's Notebook and The Golden Mean), as well as The Forgetting Room, The Venetian's Wife, and his visual autobiography, The Artful Dodger. We talked to him by phone about his latest book, The Gryphon, which continues and expands the story of Griffin and Sabine.
BookSense.com: Everyone I know seems to know about the Griffin and Sabine books, yet I've rarely seen them reviewed. What kind of coverage do they get?
Nick Bantock: They get very little coverage or reviews but still, the word of mouth…. If the incredibly intelligent mail and messages I get are anything to go by, the books are very, very understood. The marriage of words and images and the layers of the books are perfectly comprehensible. It just doesn't seem to be particularly accessible to many in the literary scene, people who are basically fairly defensive of the word as their creature. I'd much rather have it this way, though, rather than not have these really great audiences.
The books have been reviewed in the more populist papers.
The New York Times has never reviewed any of the books. At first I was really uptight about it and then it dawned on me, "What else do you expect if you do something that is its own genre? How can you actually expect anything that is heavily structured to step out of its own realm?" It's not going to happen.
It's a genre no one else has really worked in since the publication of Griffin and Sabine.
The only other person is Barbara Hodgson, although her books are slightly different. She's working in a more traditional manner, where the illustration is a means of supporting the text -- whereas in my stuff the illustrations and text are very much an equality.
Your publishers seem to be great supporters of your work.
I've worked with Viking, Harper, and Chronicle. Chronicle have their finger on the pulse. They're a much smaller company and we've built a relationship over the years. I like the people there right the way to the top. We just speak the same language. They give me enormous freedom because I really do create the books from start to finish.
When you're making your books, what part is the most fun?
In all honesty, I just have a ball. I get up really early in the morning because I want to get to the studio. I never suffer from things like writer's or artist's block because I work in a circle. If I don't know what comes next, then I simply move on to something else. I tend to work from the middle outwards. An image will give me an idea for the text, and the text will give me an idea for an image, and I build up from the center outwards. So I don't have a lot of those draining struggles. It's structured that way for that very reason; I don't want to waste time and energy. In my book The Forgetting Room I talk about the Spanish word duende (a word for the creative spirit of the earth, which comes up through the soles of your feet and gives you a passion. It's the idea of the artist as a culvert. Once you've learned your craft, things pass you.
Where do you start? Is it the images that lead you along?
It's both, really. For example, I had no intention of doing The Gryphon. Seven years had passed [since the last Griffin and Sabine book] and one day, two weeks before Christmas two years ago, I was chatting with a friend about the internal mythologies we all have. This person said, "What about Griffin and Sabine, aren't they part of that?" And I said, "No, I gave that away when the books went out there. In fact, that was the last I'd thought about them." Then I thought about it and realized that wasn't strictly true, because [for me] those characters are always there. Then I started to really think about what I learned about the books. When you work on something there's a lot of stuff that you don't realize just then. Like when you have a dream and it's only six months later that you remember the dream and go, "Wow! I get it!" The same applies to books. So I was looking back and I started to make some notes. After about half an hour, I went, "Oh my god, I'm not just taking notes -- I'm writing the next book." [Laughs] It was such a shock! For the next six weeks I was working 15 hours a day. I missed Christmas, I missed the millennium. Stuff was just pouring out of me.
I hate to say it, because it sounds like new-age tripe, but I start where the book wants to start. Images and ideas are always floating through my head. It's a constant process. I'll do a little drawing, put it on the wall, and little by little things start to belong and have a place. Then it's moving them around until they have a place, like a jigsaw. Then it becomes a book -- a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and a collage that you just keep moving and moving and moving. There's a point where there's some kind of internal click. People who are really good at searching for antiques, every now and then they get some kind of weird "bonk" in their stomach, and they know -- even if it's not their subject matter -- that they've found something special. It's exactly the same way [for me]. You're moving these pictures and ideas around and suddenly the little click goes, and you know that that's it. It's exactly where it's meant to be.
I'm curious about your office. When you say you're pinning this and that to the wall, I'm thinking it must be about the size of a barn…
It's not, it's not! It's got a wooden floor and a pot-bellied stove -- I don't light it, I'd probably set the trees on fire. This studio used to belong to Wade Davis. The walls are covered in paintings and bits and stuff. All the objects I made for the The Museum of Purgatory are around.
How did you get into this kind of art?
Originally I trained as a painter. Then I had to earn a living, and I did book covers and that sort of thing for a long time. That was a great period, in that it allowed me to continue to paint and to learn my craft. I can handle everything from charcoal to watercolors to acrylics and combinations of them. Over many many years I learned to shuffle the deck. I've never been one to narrow myself down to one area. Because of that, I've enjoyed myself a lot. It did mean I didn't know where I was going to end up!
It's like having a large vocabulary in many languages. Collage was a natural extension. All that was, was taking all those different techniques and bringing them together. In any collage you'll probably see anything between 10 and 15 different media mixed together.
Do you make everything in your collages? Or do you use things you've found?
Sometimes I've found things. Quite often it's torn materials. I collect vast quantities of old magazines and books. I buy odd bits of crud in auctions, then I work into it and paint it. I don't use a computer, I like to do everything by hand. Also, the collages are relatively small. People tend to think the collages will be quite large, but a lot of the time they're no more than twice postcard size.
In your new book, The Gryphon, is anything real? For instance, the stamps from Egypt and France?
They are real. In the first trilogy, the only stamps that were real were the Machins -- the British stamps showing the head of the Queen. In this series, the French and the Egyptians stamps are real. Modern Egyptian stamps are boring, so I took old, engraved Egyptian stamps and created my own cancel overprint that gave the correct price as if it were going to be sent now. I created a realistic world, but it's not 100 percent truthful.
There's a postcard in The Gryphon, "Plate 1, the Bactrian Camel," which is reminiscent of David Roberts' Egyptian engravings. Were you tempted to use source material like that?
Because I didn't want to make Isabella an artist, nearly all her stuff is found material. I wanted it to be genuine stuff she could have found in the flea markets of Paris. For many years I've dug around and collected old engravings. A lot of her materials are simply black-and-white engravings that I retouched, colored, and then put on the stamps. I design the rubber cancellation stamps and then a friend who runs a rubber stamp company makes up a one-off stamp so I can make the cancellations real.
You've become something of a living legend to rubber stampers.
I was just on tour in Cleveland at the Art Continuum, which is a big rubber stamp convention. It was amazing. I read to this incredibly fabulous audience. Then we went out and sold 350 books in two hours! They've got that real grassroots keenness. There're times when the fine arts scene turns me off, so seeing these people who are so devoid of any real preciousness...they just love what they do. I feel really inclined to encourage and support them. They have really taken to this stuff. There's a group amongst them called the Capolan Exchange, which is based on my imaginary country, Capolan. They do their collages and paintings and artwork and trade them with each other.
There is an extent to which, when you have a market like that, that you work towards it. I've just done a line of rubber stamps with colored inks. I don't mind doing stuff that is literal and attached directly to the subject matter. What I don't like is mugs saying, "Griffin and Sabine were here."
What about the movie of Griffin and Sabine?
I think we've had 13 scripts so far, god knows how many producers and studios. The rights have finally reverted to me. I've done a script outline for all six books together. Instead of doing it as a movie, we're thinking of doing it as a limited TV series. That way we could really get into it and extend the story, rather than dropping so much of it out. It would also give me a great deal more control. Once it's in the hands of movie directors and producers, it's gone. They could churn out anything.
This is a question I'm carrying over from when I worked in a bookshop years ago: Are the envelopes in The Gryphon hand-stuffed?
[Laughs] Yes, they are. You couldn't possibly do it any other way.
One of the things I liked in The Gryphon was the ticket Sabine sent to Matthew for him to get the package of Griffin and Sabine's original letters from storage.
I stumbled on that in London. Originally it was a huge stock bond. It's the real thing. There really was an Alexandrian Electricity and Ice Supply Company. I just fell in love with it. I had to work backwards and contrive a way of working it in, so I turned it into a ticket.
Do you intend to include more ephemera like this in the next books?
The next book is Alexandria, and it's finished and at the printers. There's a little piece of something additional in that. I'm working on the last one, Morning Star, and I just found something that's even more quirky today that I want to include. Ephemera is just wonderful stuff.
Do you have any role models or influences for this kind of art?
Not directly. In The Artful Dodger there's a section called "Under the Influence" where I talk about painters and people who have been really meaningful [to me]. People tend to come and go: there's no one person who remains a hero. I've never really thought that way; I've always thought that hero-worshipping tended to devalue your own expectations. I tend to try and treat everyone on the level of equality.
But, obviously, people like Joseph Cornell and Marcel DuChamp have been very influential on my thinking. As have Cézanne, Leonardo Da Vinci, and a whole list of others.
On a superficial level you're writing love stories. Are you afraid of crossing the line of sentimentality?
Of course. There is always a line, but to some extent that's how you get a larger audience. The love story is something everyone can relate to; it allows the first layer of entry. Then the metaphysical stuff, the alchemy, and the Yeats can be slotted in. The books have a loose framework that gives them the potential of a larger audience than they would otherwise get. As the story develops, you'll see that the whole love element is really about alchemical fire.
You're using the common experience to bring things to people who might not otherwise see them.
Precisely. If I went straight into the hard end, the audience would shrink enormously. This way it's like a fairy story or a parable. You put it in a form that allows each individual to go down as deep as they choose to go. It's a classic style of storytelling.
Are there certain symbols that resonate particularly for you and that you find yourself returning to?
My experience with alchemy has been very much with the visual side. It's almost a contradiction. It's sort of like Zen -- the more you try and study it, the more it slips away. What you'll find within the images and the storyline are references to the sun and the moon and the relationship between the sun and the lion. All the symbolism that runs throughout the whole thing about half-and-half animals, like sphinxes and gryphons, those for me become the most powerful and potent symbols. They relate to harmony and balance and the internal meaning of the male/female, black/white dichotomy, which leads us through to the notion of being able to accept and live with our differences instead of just choosing one and disregarding the other. In many ways that's what gets us into so many problems. We're not comfortable with, and we don't want to, hold both within our hands at the same time.
Have you ever written non-illustrated fiction?
No. As I became more involved in what I'm doing, it made more sense to me. Before we wrote, before we spoke to one another, we conceived life in terms of images. Originally our daily life and our nightly life came from exactly the same place in our heads. Once we started to build language, we started to move more towards abstraction. That tended to pull the left and the right brain apart, so now we have this schism between our dream life and our contact with imagery. Also, to some extent, our contact with our subconscious self: more of a wedge has been driven between the two. What I'm interested in is bringing the marriage back together again within myself. That to me is of fundamental importance. I don't see myself as a teacher. I don't have any answers, I just have questions, and if I can provoke questions within other people, I think I'm doing my job.
Are there people writing about this idea of the relationship between images and text?
There's a book called The Alphabet and the Goddess.
If you took a standard novel and knocked out every second word -- that's how much sense my books would make if you took out the images. They're not illustrative, they're not subservient to the word, they are very much part of the narrative. If you choose to ignore them you're only getting half the story.
It must be fun making such rich books.
I love it. They're very, very complex in their structure, but, in the end, if anyone can see that they're difficult, then I've failed. If you see the sweat and blood on the page, it's a disaster. It's got to seem seamless.
Are you touring behind this book?
I've just been in Ohio. It's quite an interesting area -- Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Ann Arbor, MI.
There are some really good bookstores in those towns.
There are, and good bookstores produce good readers, and a good reader is a good thinker. Then I'll do Seattle, Portland, and Denver, which is another really good run. Then I'll be doing San Francisco and Los Angeles, and at the end of the year I'll be going to London and Paris.
You're asking the bookshops to find someone to read the part of Isabella at each reading. How's it going?
That's fun. Some places they're doing raffles. So far I've read with four people and it couldn't be more varied. The first reader was a middle-aged housewife. Then there was a young girl who drove for eight hours from Chicago to Cleveland. She was only 18 years old and she was so nervous, but when she actually got up there she read like a dream. I read with a local actress, and the most recent one I did was with a Fox TV anchorwoman. In Corte Madera on the November 14 I'll be reading with Robin Wright Penn.
What are you reading at the moment?
I read very little these days because I spend so much of my time working! I'm reading on the plane, though. I thought Niall Williams' Four Letters of Love was just brilliant. It's just one of the most exquisitely sensitive books I've read for a while.