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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
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.
Read January Magazine's 1998 interview with Nick Bantock.