Buy it online
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.
Read January Magazine's 2001 interview with Nick Bantock
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.