An Entertaining Talk with CanLit Icon Heather O’Neill before her St. John’s Appearance at Sparks

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Montreal-based Heather O’Neill is a masterful storyteller. She’s fascinated with the underbelly – misfits, renegades, and black cats. Lives feral, and unhinged. O’Neill’s writing seethes, and exhales.

She’s published multiple books, including; a poetry collection: two eyes you are sleeping, two award-winning novels: Lullabies for Little Criminals, winner of CBC Canada Reads and Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and her latest, Daydreams of Angels, a short story collection, also made last year’s Giller shortlist.

She makes her first trip to Newfoundland to read at Sparks Literary Festival January 31.

How does working in multiple genres help or hinder your creative process?

I remember writing a lot of plays when I was very young. I was madly in love with Beckett and Harold Pinter. I think it was because I lived in an enormous building with low rent apartments and the tenants were always screaming at one another. There would be couples fighting in the stairwells.

My father had a ferocious temper and was always yelling mad obscenities too. So there was something about the ugliness of their linguistic worlds that appealed to me as a very young child. So I think that helped a lot with the dialogue in my books. I learned to write dialogue that way. To give an example of how working in one genre benefits another. And of course poetry was where I learned to bend language out of shape.

Actually, on a side note, when I was twelve, I adapted Me and My Million by Clive King into a screenplay. I would love so much to have that now. My dad was a poor archivist though. Much of my juvenilia he used to write grocery lists on the back of. Seriously.

Do you still write poetry? Will you publish another poetry collection?

You know how chess player play like seven moves ahead in their minds. I have books mapped out before I start them. I only have novels mapped out in my head right now.

Montreal is a mainstay in your work. Why? How much does your relationship to the city you live in play into your work?

People always ask what my heritage is, but I haven’t a clue. My dad made up our last name and his parents died when he was young. My dad gave me all his stories about growing up on Coloniale Street, so that is sort of my heritage.

That’s where my people are from. The great cultural landmarks are the bakery, the Polish grocery store, the old elementary school, the Portuguese church, the old bathhouses, the gravestone carver’s yard. Maybe my people came from Ireland, maybe I’m a Russian Jew. I wouldn’t know. It doesn’t matter.

We traveled all over the city when I was little. I had a really eventful childhood, all on this island. And I’m a collector. I collected so many things for my novels back then. And most of them come from Montreal.

Both Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night are written in adolescent voices, as well as some stories in Daydreams of Angels. What is it about this age group that appeals to character narration?

Oh, I don’t know. Young people are a bit like aliens, taking notes on the world in order to report back to their people, when they find them. So I like the rawness of their voices. And their subversion of expectations, liking what they aren’t supposed to like and deeming the unacceptable acceptable. It’s all interesting and very funny.

I’m moving away from that nowadays. I feel like I’ve explored that enough. I’m more interested in being an adult. I like the richness in it. I was always terrified about not being very young, but now that I’m in my forties, it’s so unexpectedly wonderful. I’ve never been happier.

Young people are filled with new hypotheses about how to be and older people know the results of the experiments that have tested those hypotheses. The things I know now! And so much more to come.

Many of your characters are marginalized. What is about life on the fringes that compels you as a writer?

Well, when I started writing, I didn’t think of them as marginalized, I thought of them as me and everyone I know. I suppose nobody ever expected me to become anything in life. I was told flat out that nothing would come of me.

Growing up I was really interested in writers who described the experience of being young and outcast, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet. One looks for writers who share their themes and concerns. I felt that I was lucky to have been born in a world where there is great potential for story. So I was very careful to collect observations for future transcription.

Black cats saunter throughout The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, there’s even a little illustrated black cat prefacing each chapter. What does the black cat symbolize? Why the fascination/fixation?

I was feeling blue one afternoon and I was walking down an alley. I live in Mile End and it has all these wonderful alleys filled with graffiti and ramshackle gates and gardens. And there were like thirty black cats sitting in front of me.

See, I’m not entirely convinced that I’m not a character in a book, because I see metaphors and leitmotifs and symbols in life all the time. And people come up to me and say strange things that can only be the writer tipping their hand and revealing the themes of the book I am in.

And Nicolas and Nouschka were feral kittens to me, strutting around, whining all night, getting pregnant, having terrible luck, and being elegant and refined at the same time.

You write in English, though some French appears in some of your work given your characters are Quebecois. Would you ever consider writing in French? How does language dictate a story, and how your characters speak and relate?

Probably not. I grew up speaking both languages. But I think in English. A lot of writing happens in my head. I’ll be working on a line while I’m riding the bus or in the shower or looking at an exhibit at the museum. When I was younger I could only write when I had a pen in my hand, but now I can write in my head.

I learned to speak French from my dad’s girlfriend. She was always screaming that he didn’t love her enough and that she was murdering her soul, that type of thing. So sometimes my characters speak French when they are expressing something operatic like that. There is nothing quite like cursing the universe in French.

You’re reading at Sparks Literary Festival on January 31 at Memorial University. What can we expect as festival goers? What will you read from?

Hmmm. Do you know that a few months ago I traveled to a reading and when I got to the city I realized that I hadn’t packed any clothes? The suitcase was empty. All I had on was a Tony Soprano track suit. So, first I would like to say that I’m not going to do that. I will have on something classy. I will answer any and all questions. And I’m not sure what to read. But if anyone brings a favourite passage along, I will read that.

About Author

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell is an award-winning poet, writer, and journalist of Indigenous ancestry. Still No Word (Breakwater Books 2015), recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award, is her first collection of poems. She was the Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence in 2014, and holds a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia, a BA from Dalhousie University, and currently studies literature at Memorial University.