Nick Bantock's two books -- ''Griffin & Sabine'' and ''Sabine's Notebook'' are unlikely best-sellers

By Kelli Pryor
Updated November 27, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Nick Bantock insists he’s no writer. Even having two New York Times best-sellers doesn’t persuade him. After all, his books — Griffin & Sabine and Sabine’s Notebook — resembles nothing else on the fiction charts. No political thrillers, potboilers, or brand-name mysteries these. Bantock’s volumes are strange hybrids — part picture pop-up book, part epistolary novel. Their appeal comes from the pleasurable sensation of reading someone else’ s mail: Both contain postcards and letters that slip from envelopes as a mystical correspondence unfolds between two people who are either lovers or two halves of one soul.

”You’re a figment of my imagination,” writes Griffin. ”Foolish man,” respond Sabine. ”You cannot turn me into a phantom because you’re frightened.”

At heart, Bantock’s books are all romance and mystery. But the greatest mystery is how they became so successful.

In 1991, Chronicle Books, a San Francisco publisher known for imaginative coffee-table books, printed a modest 10,000 copies of Griffin & Sabine. Lush with Bantock’s artwork and priced at only $16.95, the book attracted so much attention that Chronicle since printed 250,000 copies. This month, Bantock’s first volume has been joined on best-seller lists by Sabine’s Notebook, which extends the psychological suspense of how the characters fit together. The mystery will be resolved in a third volume next year, followed by a Warner Bros. film.

For Bantock, a 43-year-old artist with a purling British accent, the trilogy started at the post office on Bowen Island, B.C., where he lives with is wife and four children. He happened to see another islander opening a beautiful envelope from abroad and began imagining an exchange of letters between a South Seas stamp maker, Sabine Strohem, and the man whose art unfolds in her dreams, London postcard designer Griffin Moss. The project incorporated many elements of Bantock’s life: his relationship with his wife, painter Kim Kasasian; his years at art school in England, and Gestaldt therapy. The story, he says, simply welled up in him.

Bantock meant to show his project to friends and leave it at that. But on a trip to San Francisco, peddling his sophisticated kids’ pop-up books (Wings) that have supported his family, and editor spied Griffin & Sabine pages in his suitcase. ”If the socks had been in a different position,” Bantock says, ”none of this would ever have happened.”

Not likely. As their author points out, there’s something eerily — and appropriately — fated about the books. He remembers choosing a French stamp to adorn one of the letters in Sabine’s Notebook, only to find out that its official French title was Sabine. ”When that kind of stuff is going on,” he says, ”you start looking over your shoulder to see who is really doing this thing.” Whoever it is know precisely what he’s up to.