Martha Baillie’s most recent novel, If Clara, was published in Canada by Coach House Books in 2017, and will be published in France by Actes Sud in 2018. Her previous novel, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel (PedlarPress, Tin House, Leméac, and Actes Sud) was an Oprah Editors’ pick. Her 2009 novel, The Incident Report, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her poetry has been featured in the Iowa Review and her non-fiction in Brick Magazine and Longreads. Her multimedia project, The Schlogel Archive, shown at the Koffler Gallery in 2015, was selected by NOW Magazine as a Contact Festival “Must See.” Martha lives and works in Toronto.
Our conversation took place over email in August and September of 2017, shortly after If Clara was released by Coach House. Our conversation has been edited for flow and clarity.
John Stintzi: The first book of yours that I read was The Incident Report (Pedlar Press, 2009). I felt really enlivened by the structure of that book (built of “incident reports” written by Miriam, a librarian in Toronto). I was particularly intrigued by the challenges that the structure posed to me as a reader, and what challenges that structure must have created for you. I’m really curious about how writers find the structures of their books, especially when their books—like yours—take such different shapes from one to another. How does a novel’s structure come about for you?
Martha Baillie: While gathering material, I try to stay alert to any clues regarding what structure might best allow the material to reveal its meanings, which, often as not, are eluding me. I live in considerable anxiety until the material suggests, or (even better) demands, the shape it requires. I’m tempted to say, “the shape it desires,” because the right structure releases an energy that has more to do with desire than requirement. By material I mean a few images or visual ideas that are consuming my attention, sometimes a character also, and several questions—not much more than that to begin with.
In the case of The Incident Report, homelessness and mental illness suggested a fragmented structure as the best way to honour those whose stories I was telling. But I’d also been wanting, for some time, to attempt to do away with linear narrative. And this material, I thought, might offer me an opportunity to do so. In the end, however, I found the work became too static without my weaving a narrative through it. I then had to figure out how to make a series of random incidents and the unfolding of a linear story support—rather than undermine—each other.
I have an aversion to the authority of the storyteller, but am far from invulnerable to the seductive appeal of storytelling. In large part, The Incident Report was set going by the dozen or so pages that covered, front and back, in densely inscribed numbers from 0 to 10. These pages of numbers were deposited through the return slot of the library where I worked for many years. They were beautiful: the paper’s very texture transformed by the intensity of the marks made. I imagined them hanging in a gallery, and wanted to hang the many random incidents I’d been collecting, to suspend them in conversation with each other within a given space—that of a book.
JS: If only all books could have origin stories like that! A testament to keeping your eyes open. I love everything you say about the energy of the moment when the structure finds the work, and vise versa—not to mention the anxiety leading up to it. That’s definitely been my experience, particularly with the novel I’m now revising. I’m not sure anything (so far) has felt more liberating in writing than the moment where the disparate bits began snapping together—both in the head and on the page—in a way that feels organic.
I also suspect there might be joy in the challenge of working in slightly less conventional structures, which I believe speaks to your aversion to the authority of the storyteller. Personally, I am very excited when I get to work against the “conventional” grain in a story or a novel. I love when the structure—in a meaningful way—feels like a round hole to the square peg of narrative. It makes the work glow a little, which is how I felt about The Incident Report, but also—especially—about The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. The structure there—written from the point of view of someone obsessed with Heinrich, but also a stranger to him—really limits what we can truly know (or believe) about Heinrich’s life, and we are often reminded about the things the narrator does not know. I think that decision gives that book a very interesting and necessary tension.
Do you think, on some level, you seek out structures that defy this authority of the storyteller, by making them vessels that are not completely—or at least, less obviously—compatible with more linear narrative?
MB: I am, by nature, quite perverse and defiant. Sometimes that serves me well; other times it obstructs. One of the first things I knew about Heinrich was that his life would be pieced together by someone other than me, that he’d not be my creation, but that of one of the characters in the novel. Soon after feeling it in my gut, I consciously realized why it was crucial that it be so: I was a non-Inuit telling a tale about the North, about Inuit culture and Inuit land, and therefore the narrator’s authority had to be thrown into question repeatedly for the work to be a valid endeavour.
But politics, ethics, and my own perversity aside, I’d still be yearning for new structures. I agree with you that having disparate pieces come together, in a way that feels “organic,” not preconceived, is very liberating. Liberating from what? Perhaps from the loneliness of being a storyteller confronted by a blank piece of paper, and from the responsibility of making all the decisions? If the material “speaks,” if it “desires” a certain structure, I have only to listen, and my solitude is diminished. I shy away from the linear because I prefer to experience time as vertical layering, story as core sample. But movement forward is inescapable, and offers its own satisfactions and dangers.
As for authority, sometimes I find it irresistible in others, in writers such as Jamaica Kincaid or Coetzee. Though what I delight in is the clarity of their perceptions. Can clarity in writing exist in the absence of confidence and of authority? Perhaps we might discuss trust—the trustworthy storyteller. If Clara is very much about questioning whose reality is to be trusted, and that may be why I chose four narrators, each of whom tells their story in the first person.
JS: I feel like you might have hacked into my brain and taken a peek at some of my talking points. When creating some of my own fictional narrators, I’ve definitely felt like I was creating a writerly colleague (or collaborator) in order to feel like the responsibilities of the story aren’t on my shoulders alone. I don’t know that I’m quite spiritual enough about art to believe the narrator is doing most of the work themselves, not exactly, but I do think the act of creating a narrator capable of standing in for myself makes room for some illusion of the narrator’s autonomy from me—or allows me to feel like I’ve distanced my reader from the assumption that the narrator and I are synonymous. I think it gives a writer freedom to play off the narrator in a way that feels less in the writer’s conscious control because their personal filter is further away. Maybe it allows us to circumvent our insecurities a little. I’m really interested in the idea of that sort of authority failing in the eyes of the reader, and how a narrator like Schlögel’s can allow that to happen. I think it’s also about making room for both the writer and the reader to feel uncertain. To evoke more than know.
I think everything here does come down to trust, and If Clara is a good example of a novel that plays with that. Having four first person narrators gives the reader a chance to occupy each character’s subjectivity and “take sides.” I think the sisters in the book—Julia and Clara—are the easiest to compare. Most notably, I found that despite Clara having a severe mental illness, by the end of the book I was with Clara in her fear of Julia. I’d caught Clara’s distrust of her sister, despite that Julia had beforehand felt “reliable” and “good.” That really shocked me—how skeptical I grew of Julia, how I was no longer sure that Julia was being honest with us (and presumably herself) about the nature of her relationship to Clara. I wonder now if you know the “objective” truth of the novel, or if you only really know each character’s subjective reality? Does knowing the “truth” even matter?
MB: That you grew skeptical of Julia pleases me. Do I know the “objective” truth of the novel? I have a set of very subjective views regarding each character. How I see Clara differs from how she sees herself, and how I see Julia differs from how she sees herself. My hope is that readers will feel somewhat torn.
When you ask if knowing the truth “matters,” are you asking: is it essential that the reader take sides and arrive at conclusions regarding the “facts” that underlie the stories told by the novel’s several narrators? If the novel contains an “objective” truth, it is that often the “truth” can be very hard to establish. There can be one set of facts and multiple truths, if by “truth” one means a particular individual’s experience of the facts.
If this conversation were taking place in a novel, I’d feel now might be a good moment for someone to leap from a cliff or receive in the mail a small pig made of porcelain. What would you like to see happen right now?
JS: I would love to see someone get a porcelain pig in the mail. Then I’d like them to name it and treasure it—dearly—for a few rough years (perhaps while mourning a good friend who leapt from a cliff on the day of the pig’s arrival). Finally I’d want to see them walk into an IKEA or a Target or some other box store and find shelves and shelves of the exact same pig on clearance. Because the pigs had been mass produced and never sold.
MB: And is the treasured porcelain pig stripped of meaning, once revealed to be one of countless identical pigs produced by indifferent, under-paid workers, or does its possessor continue to cherish Walter, the pig, because of the flaws he has acquired over time, the chipped ear and tail, and the adventures he’s had in taxis and public parks, and because of the timing of his arrival, so many years ago? Don’t feel you must answer!
Let’s leave truth, authority, and trust to dangle, undefined, in that moment before the arrival of our pig, and leave our pig’s fate uncertain as well, and move on? The weather today is perfect for making our escape. No rain in sight. But first, let me mention, before unlocking my bicycle and pedalling off, that I initially imagined Walter as no more than two inches long, with blue markings. Yet, now, you have me wondering if he’s not the size of a freezer, or a love-seat?
This digression must stop. I strongly suspect that Walter is of little interest to anyone but us. Goodbye, Walter. Goodbye, John.
JS: Yes, let’s leave his fate wide open. Goodbye, Walter!
I feel like you’re drawn to maneuvering your (often mostly realistic) work towards moments like these, moments that are wholly evocative so as to be partly impenetrable (in terms of figuring out the exact meaning or “truth” of it—that word feels so dirty, now!). A satisfying example is the ending of The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, which I shan’t spoil, but to me was such a beautiful upheaval of the book’s groundedness (ignoring briefly the fact that Heinrich has somehow, without realizing, travelled through time on a hike in Nunavut). Another example being how we’ve left Walter, our little (or love-seat sized) pig. I feel like this impulse must be rooted in your being “by nature, quite perverse and defiant,” especially towards (linear) narrative. The book of votive paintings Clara gave to Julia at the beginning of If Clara—paintings of people falling through the sky—seems to hold a similar sort of Baillian quality. Do you have an idea of what draws you to these places? Is it just a quality of the kind of art that moves you most? Do you have an idea of where that came from?
MB: Truth is definitely not a “dirty” word. Louise Glück discusses truth, actuality, and honesty better than I ever could, in her essay, “Against Sincerity”:
By actuality I mean to refer to the world of event, by truth to the embodied vision, illumination, or enduring discovery which is the ideal of art, and by honesty or sincerity to “telling the truth,” which is not necessarily the path to illumination. . . . The artist’s task, then, involves the transformation of the actual to the true. And the ability to achieve such transformations, especially in art that presumes to be subjective, depends on a conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty or sincerity . . . the source of art is experience, the end product is truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth. . . . There is, unfortunately, no test for truth. That is, in part, why artists suffer. The love of truth is felt as a chronic aspiration and chronic unease. If there is no test for the truth, there is no possible security. The artist, alternating between anxiety and fierce conviction, must depend on the latter to compensate for the sacrifice of the sure.
Her analysis rings intensely true to my ear. “If there is no test for the truth, there is no possible security.” Small wonder, then, that I should open a novel with a description of a man falling head first through the air.
Possibly the “faux” votive paintings created by the artists Chanarin and Broomberg, and later the real votive paintings from Genoa took hold of me and wouldn’t let go, because we are all, at this moment in history, falling.
I could say that the binoculars I came upon in the Koffler Gallery became the binoculars in my fictitious Kleinzahler Gallery, because we are living in an era of corroding trust, of increased entanglement, and if we hope to collectively survive, we’d better figure out how to understand and trust each other. The walls separating the characters in my novel are thin for a reason. But I’m inventing all these answers to provide you with explanations for what I’d rather leave unexplained.
The votive paintings excited me—the rawness of their execution, the hope and fear they exuded—and I felt convinced that they contained a truth worth exploring.
As for my love of the absurd and the playfulness of the surreal, it’s been a part of me for a long time. I remember reading, as a teenager, L’écume des Jours, by Boris Vian, and when the pharmacist pulled out a small guillotine and “executed” a prescription, a thrill went through me. I believe that playfulness is present everywhere in life, on many levels. I ride through Toronto every day, on my bicycle, and vehicles miss me by inches. But it was a collision with a stationary garbage pail, two years ago, when I was pedaling very slowly, through a lane between two houses, that resulted in the length-wise splitting of my tibia and the shattering of its plateau. The absurdity of the accident felt comforting. To have been struck by a car would have been brutal—not just violent, but devoid of humour. Whereas the degree of intense damage imposed under such seemingly benign circumstances (all because of the way the bicycle twisted, and the weight of books in my basket, and the age of my bones) gave my accident a delicious absurdity, which I experienced as an affirmation of how I see life; it was a playful accident, in a way. I tried to hold on to that playfulness, while sitting, for months, in a cast from hip to ankle, and then working, day after day, to get the leg to bend again. That fall from my bicycle made its way into a novel, as a possible source of truth. Truth is not a dirty word. “The love of truth” is a “chronic aspiration,” says Louise Glück.
JS: Louise certainly defends (by defining) truth. I suppose the slipperiness and anxiety is what makes it feel “dirty” to me. I’m probably a bit traumatized by truth, in my failures to properly capture it. By which I mean, when the truth a work exudes is not the same truth that I felt the need to express. Where it doesn’t feel right.
Also, I don’t mean to be asking you to explain away every syllable of the novel! I read it not knowing that you’d broken your leg similarly, but decided partway through that I’d be shocked if you hadn’t, simply because of the pain-stakingly vivid and surprising details of Daisy’s recovery. It’s this tension between a hyper-grounded realism and the surrealistically (and sometimes opaque) playful moments—the entirety of Maurice’s storyline—that really excites me. And I’m totally with you when it comes to writing what excites and baffles you, and letting it do whatever work it will. Sort of like a sacrifice to the goddess of artistic impulse. I think Clara is an incarnation of that in the book. Her mind—most of the time—races outward in many obtuse and evocative directions.
I feel like I’ve been running you through the ringer a bit here. I will say that compared to your other two novels, If Clara feels both different and familiar—different in terms of its pacing and structure, but familiar in that it feels very much like a Martha Baillie book.
I’m trying to come up with a somewhat smaller question to cap this conversation with, but I have a hard time making small talk in interviews. Do you have any little words of wisdom for novelists out there toiling along, trying to find a little room in publishing for less conventional literary work? Any advice for the budding Martha Baillies of the next wave?
MB: Advice? Whatever catches your eye, snatch it, fly home, contemplate your find, question its power of attraction. Abandon most of what you’ve collected. Write because you’ve just read a sentence by someone else, a sentence that thrilled you, that made life feel urgent. Bite every word to see what it is made of. Shake your text until it rattles. Only write so as to end up somewhere you never planned to go. Be exacting. Listen to your editor. Don’t listen to the other editor. Cry when necessary. Begin again. Begin again. Desire. Convince yourself you’re dancing.
John Stintzi is a queer writer who was raised on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. John’s fiction and poetry has been published (or is forthcoming) in Humber Literary Review, PRISM International, Black Warrior Review, and others. In the spring of 2018, John’s poetry chapbook The Machete Tourist will be published by k | f | b, and in the fall they will be an Artist-in-Residence at The Watermill Center in Water Mill, NY. John currently lives in Kansas City with their girlfriend and two stuffed animals from IKEA. Find John on Twitter @stintzi.