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An Extraordinary Romance

When Chronicle Books of San Francisco contracted to publish Nick Bantock’s “Griffin & Sabine” in 1991, they didn’t realize quite what they had on their hands. This genre-defying interactive pictorial epistolary novel was expected to do about what first novels commonly do, so a print run of 10,000 was ordered. Advance response from sales reps and booksellers was unusually positive, however, so that initial figure was quadrupled. Upon publication, the book unexpectedly caught the romantic fancies of all sorts of readers, and word of mouth propelled it onto best-seller lists across the country. Two hundred thousand copies later, Bantock has emerged as a full-fledged cult figure with a passionate following.

“Griffin & Sabine,” and its recently published sequel, “Sabine’s Notebook” (10 on this week’s Fiction Best Seller list) contain the correspondence between Griffin Moss, a lonely London postcard artist, and Sabine Strohem, stamp designer and natural historian of the obscure Sicmon Islands, “no more than spacks of dust in standard atlasses.” Though the two have never met, Sabine possesses the mysterious power of “seeing” Griffin’s artwork as he produces it. She writes to him, and their communication quickly grows intimate. They both sense they have found their missing other halves, but Sabine’s gentle insights into Griffin’s troubled soul make him uncomfortable, and even doubtful of his sanity.

“Griffin & Sabine” ends with Sabine declaring, “You cannot turn me into a phantom because you are frightened. . . . If you will not join me--then I shall come to you.” “Sabine’s Notebook” resumes the tale with Sabine inhabiting Griffin’s London studio while he, afraid of meeting her, sets out on a globe-trotting image-quest to confront his dark side and come to terms with his fears.

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The extraordinary aspect of these books is not the possibly supernatural postal love affair, but the visual and tactile embodiment of the correspondence. We are given fronts and backs of the pair’s lush and sometimes disturbing illustrated postcards, convincingly stamped and postmarked. We pull their letters from actual, highly decorated envelopes, unfold them, and read their typed and handwritten declarations and confessions. Voyeurism aside, anyone with a love of art postcards, exotic stamps or stationery stores will be hooked.

A deeper level of the narrative emerges as we confront the possibility that one of the signatories to this improbable yet tantalizing correspondence may have invented the other. The rich visual dialogue, nicely balanced with the text, gives readers the chance to plumb the shifting psyches of Griffin and Sabine in nonverbal terms that intriguingly combine the personal with the mythological.

Nick Bantock, 43, had been a successful London book-jacket designer for 15 years when he abruptly moved with his wife and child to the Vancouver area. “It was time for a change,” he says in his soft and melodious voice. “I wanted more space to raise a family, someplace fresh. There’s a whole different attitude in North America, a positivity and enthusiasm which is lacking in England.”

Times were lean until Bantock got a call from Inter-visual Communications, a Los Angeles packager of state-of-the-art pop-up books. He became both illustrator and engineer of such 3-D titles as “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “Jabberwocky” and “Solomon Grundy.” “At first I was a complete ignoramus,” he admits, “but as I got involved, pulling things apart and putting them together, I figured out the principles involved. I’m not very mechanical as far as car engines, but paper’s different.” He’s certain that his grounding in the complexities of pop-up technology gave his imagination the freedom to dream up the idea for “Griffin & Sabine.” “I knew what the possibilities and constraints were, whereas someone else might not have had that information to start with.”

“Griffin & Sabine” was a breakthrough not only in terms of its physical innovations, it also marked Bantock’s debut as a writer. “I hadn’t written anything in any form since I was 15,” he says. “They told me (in school) I couldn’t write, and I believed them.”

Bantock sees his sudden and unexpected success in sheerly practical, if somewhat paradoxical, terms. On the one hand, he’ll be able to slow down his output. “By this time next year,” he notes, “I will have done 15 books in four years. I’ll need about six months to recharge my batteries.” On the other hand, he looks forward to the time when “ideas don’t get dissipated and defused simply because of delays in execution.”

And the fate of Griffin and Sabine? The final volume of the trilogy, “The Golden Mean,” will be published in the fall of 1993. “There will be a resolution,” Bantock allows, “though not, of course, a Hollywood-type ending. It’s difficult because so many people have a deep personal vested interest in the characters: ‘They are going to meet?’ I was careful to finish the third book before I went on tour for the second, because of the pressure I knew would be out there. It will be pulled together, so it’s not just a tease,” he says, quietly but confidently. “I’m happy with it.”


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