HEATHER O’NEILL speaks with a faint Southern cadence, despite schoolyard mockery when her mother sent her to live with her father in Montreal at age seven. Her accent gives the false impression of a person taking a leisurely stroll through life, because O’Neill came charging out of the gate with her 2006 debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, a novel about a child prostitute that won the Canada Reads competition and the Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night followed in 2014, a hilarious heartbreak of a novel that follows 19-year-old motherless twins Nouschka and Nicolas as they try to outrun the legacy of their washed-up troubadour father. Her work has also appeared on NPR and the CBC and in The Walrus and The New York Times Magazine.
We’ve met at the rooftop bar at Toronto’s Park Hyatt, storied watering hole of the Canadian literati, to talk about her new story collection, Daydreams of Angels, which was 10 years in the making. The stories are postmodern fairy tales that routinely juxtapose gritty urban landscapes with elements of the fantastic: a gypsy and a talking bear visit a brothel; discarded dolls commiserate at a church bazaar; babies are left behind by the tide for new mothers to dig out, some of whom would rather pass on the job; Mary M and Jesus hang out in a Montreal school yard, where his box of apple juice turns to wine. There’s a deeply feminist heart at work in this whimsical, dark collection; what she’s after, she has said, is a chance to make young girls “louder.”
CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY: You grew up in Virginia with your mother for a while, and moved to Montreal to live with your father. Tell me about that.
HEATHER O’NEILL: I lived with both my mom and dad in Montreal until they got a divorce. Then one day my mom said, get your suitcase, we’re getting out of here. So we ran off and went to live in Virginia and Georgia, moved around for a while, and then all of a sudden she was like, “I don’t want to be a mom anymore, so I’m going to send you to live with this guy.” So I went. I was seven.
That sounds like a tough start, but you’ve described that city as a “place where all sorts of magical things happened.” How was Montreal magical for you?
I was a romantic child. Maybe because I didn’t have a mother. I felt like an orphan in a tale, and that’s why sometimes I use the trope of children shipwrecked on an island. My mother sent me away to live on an island [Montreal] with this guy that I had no memory of at that point except some mythical idea of my dad. She always had some tales about him being this horrific guy we were in hiding from, this idea that he was going to come and find us.
My dad was a tough guy and he had all of these crazy stories about being down and out but he was, oddly, a good homemaker. I have memories of him in his boxer shorts and undershirt at the sewing machine, sewing me clothes while telling me tales about getting into bar fights. At the same time he’d be making me a little purse to carry or fixing little butterfly patches on my jeans.
You wrote an essay in 2011 for The Walrus called “On Growing up White Trash” that was about coming to terms with your upbringing. Like Michal in “The Man Without A Heart,” you did rise above it. In that story, Michal’s salvation was a heroin junkie. He first stole from Michal’s mother and then paid back his debt many times over in helping raise her child to believe in himself, all from the park because he wasn’t allowed back in the house. Was there a junkie in the park for you?
There were so many junkies in the park for me, adult figures I knew who had infinite rambling tales and wanted to give someone their advice. I was nine or 10 and the only person who took them seriously. I took everybody seriously. They wanted to provide me with their philosophies. So many of those people I met as a kid inform my work. I looked at these misfits with the infinite forgiveness and compassion that a kid has. As a kid you don’t really know where they stand in society, and you don’t know where you stand, either. I just thought they were wonderful and full of life and daredevils and rebellious. They seemed like characters who had walked out of a movie. A lot of my characters come from people I met on the streets, or snippets of wisdom I recorded in my memory for future use. I think I always had a sense that I was going to be a writer, or I had a sense that I was saving it for something.
In that same essay, you talked about an initial reluctance to “write the truth” about your background, and yet you seemed to come charging out of the gate with Lullabies for Little Criminals. What’s in the drawer from before Lullabies?
Early on I noticed, during readings, that whenever I talked about something personal, the audience engaged in a different way. That’s what gave me the confidence to write about it. I felt like people wanted to hear it. Writing demands truth-telling, it tells you things you didn’t know about yourself.
Sexuality is front and center in many of these stories. Young girls are sexualized early; their bodies are their only means to escape poverty and to exercise some control over their lives. In “The Story of Little O,” for example, the title character believes that perverts will rule the world. Why does she believe that?
It seemed the accepted idea that boys had the sexual drive, and girls were there to tame them, or force them to be monogamous. But that didn’t match up with anything that I was experiencing. I’ve always felt like a little pervert as a kid; I had all these sexual longings and crazy perverted ideas. I thought, “Am I the only little girl that’s a pervert?” When I read literature written by men, there was never anything there that was foreign to me. I was thinking what they were thinking. It seemed somehow limiting to say that men were the ones that had all the sexual urges, that they were the ones who were out for fun and had a wild, untamable spirit.
There was this guy who lived in our building, and he always used to leave these Victorian pornographic novels out on the stairs. In these books school boys and school girls got up to things, there was a lot of petticoats getting lifted in the barns, a lot of orgies. I would pick them up every day. I would read anything I found. Sometimes I think that’s responsible for my Sadean ramblings in the fairy tales. I was well-versed in that.
Daydreams of Angels also tackles the complexities of female relationships and roles. The sacrifices Grandmother makes for Marie in “Rose Bush,” for example, and Marie’s devastating response. Elena Ferrante called female friendships a “terra incognita, a land without fixed rules.” Would you agree?
Yes. To me, it seemed as if female friendships were a childhood thing, and when you grew up you entered the man’s world. The idea of the relationship with a man, the intensity and push for that, made female friendships seem like an empty waste of time. The importance of female friends was never talked about. When you’re young your best friend is your girlfriend, and they dump you and shit, but you need them to get through the world.
It’s no surprise to find sympathy for Mary Magdalene in this book, a biblical character that I’ve always had a soft spot for because she gives Jesus a reason to dis all of his sanctimonious friends. “The Gospel According to Mary M,” which first appeared on This American Life in 2005, reimagines Mary as a Montreal girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Why does your Jesus need a friend like Mary M?
I loved her being the narrator of it, that it was her story. It was about these rejected kids finding their identity and telling each other, You’re okay, and we’re important. She was learning to feel that she was important, and saying to him, I know what you’re doing. I’m where you are.
You write similes and metaphors of startling originality — flies like mathematicians, a cat who looks like a British aristocrat, roses like tomatoes thrown at an opera singer…you make it look easy. Why are they so important in your work?
I came by them quite naturally. When I first started writing poetry, I saw wordplay as a way to get at a truth that’s beyond words. Every word is an approximation, and should be as bold or as shocking an approximation as you can come up with. I like metaphors in that sense, because objects are not quite fixed in their identities. A good metaphor makes you see the object in a completely startling way. It’s always a bit of a leap beyond a logical understanding of things.
These stories have an Arabian Nights urgency to them, as if you’re writing to save your life. If you’re Shahrazad, who’s the King?
Who am I trying to communicate with? When I first started writing I had an idea of what I found beautiful in the world, and I’d see things that were striking and moving to me that I wanted to capture, moments that were so profound and shocking and wonderful. There was that sense of recording it, of catching that vision on the paper and having an authorship over it. I didn’t feel I was translating my own experience, I was translating this objective thing that existed in the world.
Some writers feel a sense of urgency. Chekov, for instance, went around exclaiming “Life is short! Life is short!” And for him it really was — he was dying of tuberculosis. Is there an internal deadline for you?
I do feel that urgency, but it’s difficult to say what’s motivating it. Sometimes it starts to feel like insanity, obsessiveness. I feel I’m in a hurry to catch something. I want to get to the end of one thing so I can start the next thing. I want to be able to get enough books done in my lifetime, or before I lose the ability to write.
What’s “enough books”? Is there a number in your head?
I think I just want a body of work that I’m proud of and that I feel like I got down what I wanted to say. With each book, I never feel like I’m quite where I wanted to get to yet.
Who do you read for solace? A thrill ride? The deep think?
I read so much, and the book I’m reading is the best book ever. And the next one I read, I think, I was wrong! This is amazing! I’ve been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, and they’re amazing. His is such mundane shit! It’s almost reassuring to watch someone go through the thought processes of the day. We’re all fascinated by ourselves, so when you read writers that acknowledge their fascination, and run with it…
I adored Marguerite Duras, The Lover. I read it a million times.
Do you return to some books to recapture that feeling?
Certain books, if you read them throughout your life, they change. I remember reading Lolita when I was 19, thinking it was funny and clever, a laugh, and then the next time I read it, after I’d had a daughter and was in my 30s, I was devastated, heartbroken, and I couldn’t believe that I’d thought it was whimsical.
“Messages in Bottles” seems to argue that writers ought to be of the world but not in it. Do we need to keep ourselves at some remove, sending missives in bottles from self-imposed isolation?
As a writer, you have to get into that mystical strange internal exploration where you feel you are having joyfully philosophical insights — 80 percent of them end up getting junked — and that comes from the real world in which you’ve existed, not as a writer. You have to be a writer in secret, almost, because otherwise you just end up writing about writing. I have to not be conscious of myself as a writer. I have to be private when I write. I don’t understand café writing. It would be like having sex in public!
In “Swan Lake for Beginners,” about a failed cloning experiment, the narrator says, “Art comes from some mysterious place that cannot be located by science. Scientists could make a human, but they could not make an artist.” In “Where Babies Come From,” artists and poets begin as “night babies,” those picked last by distracted and uninterested mothers. How is an artist made?
I think you need to have been a bit of an outsider. Being an outsider as a child, you try to make sense of the world. Why am I not fitting in, what do I need to change about myself to fit in? And immediately you start figuring out and deconstructing human behavior in ways that turn you into a writer and artist. If you’re happy and adjusted, you just exist in that world and accept it. You need some level of disconnect, and then the drive to change the dialogue and narrative of the world.
You’ve said that you write to expand a reader’s empathy. Is that literature’s most vital role?
The act of reading itself engages the mind so completely. Schopenhauer said that reading was thinking with someone else’s brain. It’s an opportunity to have a completely different thought process in your head.
Reading about a dark experience, you form the images in your mind and experience it in a deeply personal way that you can’t with film, which is more objective because everything is controlled. With literature, you get the words and it begins. You set your own imagery because your imagination is fused with what you’re reading.
These stories are fables and postmodern fairy tales that use elements of the fantastic liberally. What’s the role of the fantastic in contemporary fiction?
I’m interested in the fantastic because I write about edgy stuff, the sexuality of children and young girls, for example. Some of the characters haven’t left the nursery yet and are having to understand the world through the libraries in their head. Things that are alive for kids are alive in the tale with the dark themes of adulthood, but the magical relics of childhood are walking around. The fantastic provides bolder metaphors that want to participate in the plot.
Flannery O’Connor said that “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way.” Agree? Disagree?
I totally agree. I wrote the story because it was the only way I could possibly capture this idea in words. If it was something that I could explain, it wouldn’t be a story. A story is always after those intangible moments and obvious truths that somehow elude us.
Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel is The Umbrella Mender. Her short fiction has appeared in Canadian and US journals and has just been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She reviews for The Globe and Mail, and contributes to Ryeberg.com and themillions.com.