Martha Baillie’s The Search for Heinrich Schlögel tells the story of an archivist piecing together the life of a man who mysteriously went missing for two weeks in the Arctic, only to find that 30 years had passed when he returned. Baillie, a poet, librarian, and actress, writes about engaging with her work in a new way.
In 2007, when my third novel came out, I decided to take the edited manuscript and drill out a core sample. I wanted to do so, in part, to tip my hat to writing as slow, layered growth, as accretion. I knew that the finished novel contained, trapped within it and silenced, an earlier version of itself, a vision that I’d abandoned, not without misgivings.
I also longed to reconnect physically with my novel as a way of reclaiming it, not from readers but from the marketplace. My motivation was in part political. I’d just made the shift from a small, independent publishing house to a publisher owned by a large corporation, and the experience had been eye-opening and deeply jarring.
Rather than stand on a street corner yelling: “Literature is not commodity!” I decided to inflict a series of physical experiments on my published work, to take several copies of the new book, go at them with my hands, and see what might result. I stripped the book of its cover, bought a pouch of tobacco, tore the pages, rolled the words...
Do words go up in smoke? Is writing an addiction? Into whose mouth are you putting your sentences? And, as you can see, this was also an opportunity to improve narrative flow... applying needles to such words as suffering, psychotic, obsession, and outrage.
As I continued making objects from my text, I came to two realizations. First, I wasn’t doing this just for myself, but in order to engage in a dialogue with readers about: (1) novels as physical entities (2) writing as a process unfolding in time, and (3) the way time and events unfold in novels. It also occurred to me that thinking spatially can perhaps allow us to play with time more freely in our writing.
I sat on my front porch with a bowl of paste and strips of my novel and turned my text into papier-mâché, sculpting a head (because my novel contained references to the 19th-century practice of phrenology, which equates shape of skull with moral traits). As I tentatively crossed over into visual art in a very hands-on fashion, my conviction grew that novels are, in their core, sculptural acts of tension, motion, and balance.
I have always had a love-hate relationship with linear narrative. I’m tempted to say that my dislike of the linear relates to its authoritative character. I think of Walter Benjamin’s distrust of the linear, which evoked for him the freight train, the unquestioned destination... a lulling of crucial faculties. The linear often feels to me like a reassuring lie, and a failure to reflect how we actually experience time.
John Berger writes: “Time appears to pass at different rates because our experience of its passing involves... two dynamic processes which are apposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation....The lived durée is not a question of length but of depth or density.” What better way to explore temporal depth and density than by looking at sculpture and applying this spatial way of looking to our writing?