Q&A: Heather O’Neill

by Anna Bowen, August 2017

Heather O’Neill is a novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Her acclaimed works include Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels. Her work has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and, twice, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She has also won CBC Canada Reads, the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Danuta Gleed award. Described by Kelly Link as “a fairy tale laced with gunpowder and romance and icing sugar, all wrapped round with a lit fuse,” The Lonely Hearts Hotel (HarperCollins) is the unflinching story of two orphans in 1930s Montreal – a tale of clowns, gangsters, chorus girls, orphans and love. I caught up with Heather over the phone from her writer’s residency in Scotland. To hear the rest of the interview, don’t miss our August podcast in which Heather talks about the meaning of papier mâché moons and bejeweled apples, the recurrence of babies in her writing, and how practice makes perfect when it comes to writing sex scenes.

MW: Can you tell me about what you’re up to in Scotland? It looks like you are staying in a shipping container.
HO: I’m staying in a refurbished shipping container in rural Scotland, part of an artist’s residency … and I’m going to be finishing a novel I’ve been working on. I’ve had this one section of it that I keep rewriting because I can’t get the voice of it right. Suddenly I came to Scotland and I’ve been locked up in a shipping container and all the solutions finally came to me. Somehow imprisonment does make you reflect [laughs].

MW: What was your relationship to books growing up?
HO: When I was young I would be punished for reading novels during class … Books were my whole world, I just adored them, I loved the world inside them. And I think that’s how I knew I wanted to be a writer because my affection for reading was so great.

MW: I heard you mention on The Sunday Edition that your dad bought Dickens novels and paid you $2 for each one you read.
HO: He was trying to help me out in the world and the only writer he had heard of was Charles Dickens… It was funny because they were so old – David Copperfield was falling apart as I read it — so my dad gave me an old milk bag to carry around David Copperfield in.

MW: There are orphans in a lot of your stories and in this novel as well. What attracts you to that archetype?
HO: I like the idea of an orphan because I think anyone who had a little bit of an unhappy childhood imagines themselves as an orphan, so you can escape your family and not belong to anyone in the world and can create your narrative from scratch. The orphan tale is about giving children agency, probably as a child I felt I lacked agency… People are always ruminating on Pierrot in the book that he must have come from an aristocratic background because of his aloof and lovely demeanor. It gives [the characters] an open spectrum of possibilities.