Combining collage and found text allows new stories to emerge in ironic and interesting ways, writes Governor General’s Literary Award winner Diane Schoemperlen
Sometimes the gestation period for an idea takes place over a long time, and sometimes the eventual execution of that idea requires an unforeseen convergence of inclination and intention, accident and opportunity.
I consider the original genesis of By the Book to have occurred in 1995 when, quite by accident while visiting my hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, I discovered a new collection by Annie Dillard called Mornings Like This: Found Poems. These unusual pieces were carefully built out of bits of broken text from such varied literary sources as Aspects of the Tongue (1828), The Friendly Stars (1907), Nervousness, Indigestion, and Pain (1943), and The World of Silence (1948). I was inspired and I wondered if I might someday try to do something similar with prose.
It was not until 13 years later, in 2008, that I found my own source material for this project. In fact, I didn’t find it – someone else did. It was a book called Grammatica Accelerata, an Italian-English handbook published in 1900, intended for Italian citizens emigrating to the U.S., and it ended up in my hands by way of a “book rescue.” It was saved from certain death by pulp at the recycling plant in Peterborough, Ontario, by a friend who was working there at the time. He said he thought it was something that might interest me. Indeed, it did. It became the sourcebook for the story, “By the Book, Or: Alessandro in the New World.”
I’ve always been interested in experimenting with form in my fiction. Between the 1995 Dillard discovery and beginning to work on By the Book in 2008, I wrote and published five other volumes, including Forms of Devotion – a collection of stories that do not fit any standard definition of “story” and that are illustrated with black-and-white collages I constructed from 18th-century line drawings and wood engravings.
My interest in collage had grown out of my previous book, In the Language of Love, in which the main character is a collage artist. When researching collage techniques for that novel I began making some of my own and I got hooked. Back in high school I’d been as attracted to visual art as I was to writing, but quickly discovered I could neither paint nor draw very well. Collage was the perfect solution for my frustrated visual artist self. It was not a big leap to consider using it in a book.
In fact, I’ve always been interested in the intersection of words and images. My very first book, Double Exposures, published by Coach House Press in 1984, was a novella illustrated with old family photographs that had also come to me by way of a “rescue.” Visiting my parents in Thunder Bay, I found my mother threatening to throw out a shoebox full of old photos because she was tired of moving them around and didn’t know who half the people in them were. I took the shoebox home with me and a year or two later Double Exposures was published.
When I began working on By the Book I found myself reading and rereading a number of writers whose work fuelled my own: Donald Barthelme, Carole Maso, David Markson, Octavio Paz, Padgett Powell, Fernando Pessoa, and Georges Perec, among others. Their various experiments inspired me and gave me permission to go forward with my own.
The stories in By the Book are in the tradition of the objet trouvé – taking the form of a found narrative or conversation or meditation – each being an expanded, exploded, and embroidered rearrangement of the original material. The selection and ordering of the sequences in each story was a very labour-intensive and time-consuming process, but one that I found immensely enjoyable and satisfying.
Reading and rereading each old book with a pencil in hand, I searched for its hidden treasures and marked each sentence that resonated for me. Then I moved them around like puzzle pieces, working out of instinct and my love of language and its unpredictable largesse, until the whole thing began to gel. More often than not, I was happily surprised by the power of the juxtapositions and how far I could take them. It was a matter of simultaneously trying to control the material while remaining open to accident, chance, and serendipity.
Once each story was complete, I began making the collages. They were all constructed in the old-fashioned way, by the traditional cut-and-paste method with real paper, real scissors, and real glue. For me, this tactile experience was a vital part of the process. The creation of both the collages and the stories operated on the principle of putting apparently unlike or unconnected things together and seeing what happened. They are both based on fragments and layers, bits and pieces placed side by side, piled one on top of the other, until something entirely new and unexpected emerges. It is how they bounce off each other that makes them work, often in ironic and humorous ways.
Someone has suggested that I’ve created a whole new genre with this work. I don’t know about that, but I do know I’m far from done. Old books never die. They are all out there still, just waiting to be rescued, resuscitated, and revitalized by someone like me.
Diane Schoemperlen won a Governor General’s Literary Award for her collection Forms of Devotion. That book’s sort-of sequel, By the Book, is published by Biblioasis.