Bantock's literary weapons: carefully guided missives

PULLING ANOTHER FISTFUL OF JUNK mail from his post-office box on Bowen Island, B.C., one autumn morning in 1989, Nick Bantock had no idea it would be his red-letter day. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a neighbor removing something more intriguing: a sky-blue envelope plastered with exotic stamps. "I looked over his shoulder and said, 'Ooh, I want one of them,' " the British-born artist recalls. "Then it dawned on me that if you can't get the letters you want, you have to write them yourself."

The letters Bantock began writing—and lavishly illustrating—after his epiphany have turned into an unlikely best-seller, Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. Part epistolary love story, part art book, it is a tale of the mysterious relationship between two artists who live on opposite sides of the globe. The "funny, strange and lovely creation," as Gale Garnett described it in the Toronto Globe & Mail, has hit best-seller lists across the country, been optioned by Hollywood and spawned two sequels. The first, Sabine's Notebook, is due this month.

"Nobody was prepared for the fact that it would just hit this button and...voooooofff!" says the 43-year-old Bantock, sitting in his studio near the ferry that shuttles people between this postage stamp—size island and Vancouver, an hour to the east. He gives much of the credit for Griffin & Sabine's success to the lure of that increasingly novel commodity: the letter. "The telephone is a great knee-jerk machine," he says. "But if you really want to tell someone how you feel, you need the slowness of the letter. In a society where everything is fast, it's like going out in the country and looking up at the stars."

Readers must pull the missives between Griffin, a reclusive London postcard designer, and Sabine, a South Pacific stamp illustrator, out of real envelopes glued into the book, thereby getting the voyeuristic frisson of peeping at someone else's mail. As for the content, well, "I wrote what I needed to write, not what I thought was good writing," says Bantock. "In school I was taught that I couldn't write to save my life."

That was back in Buckhurst Hill, the northeast London suburb where Bantock grew up as the only child of a mother who was a part-time secretary and a father who worked in the oil-pipeline business. Though close to his parents, he says his surroundings were far from congenial. "English stiffness has always been difficult for me; that's one of the reasons I left," he says. Bantock found his five years of art-school training sufficiently disillusioning—"everyone was saying art was dead"—that after graduation he went to work in a London betting parlor, scribbling results of dog and horse races on a chalkboard. Continuing to paint in his spare time, he drifted back into art when a friend referred him to an ad agency that needed someone to do sketches—at 50 times Bantock's betting-parlor salary.

Soon Bantock moved into illustrating book covers—300 of them over the next 15 years. The pay was good enough to give him time for his own painting. At an exhibition of his work in 1981, Bantock met artist Kim Kasasian, then 25, who became his wife eight years ago. In 1987 the couple and their son, Paul, now 7, moved to Canada, where the family has grown to include twins Kate and Ruth, 3½, and 19-month-old Holly.

Bantock wanted to make a fresh start professionally, to create books instead of just wrappers. Beginning with children's pop-up books, he quickly began to make up for lost time. By next February he will have completed 15 volumes, including what he calls "an adult picture-mystery," The Egyptian Jukebox, to be published by Viking this fall. "Nick works very hard," says Kasasian. grumbling good-naturedly about the 80 hours a week he often spends in his studio, a short bicycle ride from home. "I'm hoping he'll let off a bit." Thanks to the success of Griffin & Sabine, the clan will soon be moving to larger quarters on Bowen Island.

These days one of the projects on Bantock's drawing board is The Golden Mean, the final book of his love-letter trilogy. He also finds himself spending increasing time on other letters: his fan mail. One recent note—with an enclosed self-portrait—came from author Kurt Vonnegut. whom Bantock idolized as a teen. "The nicest message I get is from people who say, 'It really encouraged me In get my paints out or to write or to start writing letters again,' " Bantock says. "That's a real buzz, especially in this day of the observer."

PAM LAMBERT
JOHNNY DODD on Bowen Island

  • Contributors:
  • Johnny Dodd.