IFOA: The Schlögel Archive is an extremely ambitious and expansive project that sprang from your new book, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. Can you tell our readers a little bit about it?
Martha Baillie: The Schlögel Archive started as an impulsive gesture. I’d arrived at a point in the novel where I couldn’t see how to proceed. Rather than tear at the prose, searching for answers, I decided to send the text away from me. By inscribing the novel on the back of picture postcards, I could briefly escape from words into pictures.
Because Inuit myths figure in the novel—myths in which souls migrate from human to raven to seal—the act of scattering Heinrich made sense to me. I felt a longing to send Heinrich, handwritten, on a journey through “real” time from author to reader.
I asked people to record themselves reading each card they received. A supremely generous friend, Gregory Sharp, started scanning the cards before they were sent and created the digital archive.
IFOA: You mention that you created the Schlögel Archive after writing multiple drafts of your novel and realizing that “an element was still missing.” Do you feel that it has complemented the novel in a productive way for you?
Baillie: Yes. Willing readers of random passages, who did not require that I offer solutions not yet available, sustained the evolving novel. My manuscript, quite literally, was having life breathed into it. I’d cycle around the city, making recording “house calls” with my laptop, while more tech-confident postcard-receivers read into their iPhones and sent me their files. Sometimes the passage being read by an expressive voice was one I’d deleted from the novel. I’d listen carefully, wondering if I ought to reinstate the words. Passages of the novel now belonged, in my mind, to certain readers.
IFOA: How do you find intertextual elements in the Schlögel Archive (sound, image, text) to be important to The Search for Heinrich Schlögel?
Baillie: Central to the novel is the question of how storytelling of many sorts contributes to the formation of identity. The postcards that I’ve used were donated by friends or bought by me (recently or decades ago) or created for my project from photos I found on the Internet: historic images from a national archive and holiday snapshots posted by tourists. The postcards have allowed me to draw upon an already existing collective visual narrative that hovers in our psyches, a narrative sold at tourist sites and in the gift shops of art galleries and museums, one sent across oceans and stored in closets. The picture on the front of each card adds a layer of meaning to the words inscribed on the back.
The recorded voices of so many different readers make audio-palpable, to my ear, how differently a text or story inhabits each reader.
I couldn’t imagine writing a novel set in the Canadian north without exploring by as many means as possible who is doing the telling and why.
IFOA: The book is a narrative about piecing together identity through archival fragments, and the Schlögel Archive further divides the coherence of the novelistic form. Can you speak to the novel’s discussion of fragmentation?
Baillie: Fragmentation is not overtly discussed in the novel, I don’t think. But it is inherent to the work. The first part of the novel takes place in Germany and is quite fragmented, though set in a manicured, highly organized landscape. The fragmentation possibly corresponds to Heinrich’s unformed sense of self, or derives from the archivist’s incomplete knowledge of her subject. Possibly, as elsewhere in the novel, it offers a commentary upon the nature of time. It’s up to the reader to decide.
On Baffin Island, the story unfolds in a very unstable landscape of shifting rock and sand, of torrents fed by melting glaciers, of moraines mortared together by concealed ice. In this setting, Heinrich’s experience is further fragmented by inexplicable visions.
The duty of the storyteller is to lure unsettled experience into a polished form, then hold the pieces steady until they break free once more. The bound book, and the shifting archive—between these two locations Heinrich travels back and forth.
IFOA: How did your physical research (hiking into Auyuittuq park, spending time in Pangnirtung, crossing the Arctic circle on foot) contribute to your writing?
Baillie: The long hike that I took in Auyuittuq park and the time I spent in Pangnirtung allowed me to write the novel. That physical research changed everything, as I’d hoped it would.
Martha Baillie is the author of four novels, including her latest, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. On November 1, she participates in a round table discussing life, death and the human struggle, and the challenges of capturing these accurately and compassionately in fiction.