HEATHER O'NEILL SITS DOWN WITH THE KITTEN LIFE
Heather O’Neill stands among Canada’s most talented and impactful female authors.
Ranked in the leagues of Margaret Atwood, both women are among the 17 writers who were just announced to be long listed for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
O’Neill’s novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, and her most recent release, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, are all based in Montreal and feature young, motherless characters who get caught up in drug abuse, prostitution and other heavy situations that we wouldn’t wish on our enemies, let alone our children.
And therein lies O’Neill’s gift; the picture she paints of “childhood” and “growing up” is both beautiful and true. Her prose is sprinkled with magical metaphors while walking lightly through the darker side of life, which she neither condemns nor condones but rather treats with an almost airy sense of humour and acceptance.
The Kitten Life recently sat down for coffee and a chat with Heather O’Neill in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood.
In this part one post, O’Neill talks* about the struggle, her writing habits and what feminism means to her.
Our conversation focused on her career as a writer, but you’ll find that her story and advice are widely applicable to all fields and life paths.
*The following is an edited transcription of our recorded conversation.
Has it always been your dream to be a writer?
Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I remember when I was eight or nine I started keeping a journal that I wrote in on a daily basis. It was something that appealed to me – to record the adventures of my day – and then when I was in grade five I had a teacher who really praised my short stories, and that’s when I thought “maybe I could do this professionally.” There were a couple other things I was interested in along the way, but writing was the main one.
It’s also hard to say because you can always look back and see your path as a lot clearer than it is/was, but I think whenever I tried anything, I was always more successful at writing.
What do you think about the concept of the muse?
I do think there’s an inspired feeling I need to have, but I think that a big part of writing is learning to harness that inspiration so that you can channel it each and every day. It almost feels unhealthy a little bit, like I’m over-wiring something in the building, or something, but it’s mainly that I just sort of force myself to be inspired.
It used to be harder when I was younger, so I would sometimes create mood boards of different images that would inspire me and I would stare at it to remind me of the feeling that I was trying to get to in the book. Now it’s a lot easier to get to that feeling, to activate whatever part of the brain that sees things in a sort of irrational, fresh way.
What sort of pictures would you put on that mood board?
When I was writing Lullabies, I remember there was a lot of photo journalism during the time period I was writing about, the late 70’s, early 80’s: Alphabet City, Mary Ellen Mark, and Larry Clark, I remember being a big inspiration to me. At the same time, I would have some sort drawing by Edward Gorey, or Henry Darger, and that type of thing. There’s always that interplay in my work, which was reflected on the mood board, like I’m almost making a visual recipe of what I want the aesthetic of the book to be.
What does your daily writing process look like?
It’s pretty ritualized at this point. I just write all day long, every day. I have nothing else in my life… [chuckles] that’s the problem. I started off prioritizing my writing, but it’s almost like… I wonder if ‘prioritizing’ by definition becomes an obsession when you start ruling out everything else, and then you’re like I “prioritized” it to such a point that I have no hobbies, or friends [laughing]. But I also find it deeply pleasurable.
What’s your editing process like?
Out of all my books, Lullabies was fairly easy to edit. I had a conversation with my editor to make sure we were on the same page, and all of her suggestions were really good and made the book richer. It was my first novel and it was written in the first person, so sometimes I was missing a reaction here or there. When you write in the first person, so much of it is happening in your head that you forget to translate the emotion to the page. My editor was great at helping to fill in the gaps there.
The most difficult editing process was with The Girl That Was Saturday Night. For some reason that process caused me much pain. I think it was the nature of the characters, because in the story the narrator and her brother are so crazy and I blamed everything on them because they were hard to tame… and the book was out of control because the characters were out of control. Maybe if I wrote a book about a completely calm person, I wonder if it would be a more calm writing experience. But these characters were just so crazy, so it just exhausted me.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
No. I think sometimes I procrastinate in different ways and I think there’s a way to procrastinate by writing. When you’re just writing crazy spaghetti, meaning that you’re writing but you’re not getting anywhere. So to curb that, I always work on two projects at once, so I’m not just writing to produce words, as though trying to trick myself into thinking that I’m being productive, when what I’m actually doing is not being productive.
You know back when we had typewriters and sometimes they would get stuck and you would be typing on the same letter over and over and there would just be a big black blob? Sometimes that happens to me when I’m writing, I’m just creating a big black blob. So that’s something that I try to be conscious of. It’s a tricky kind of writer’s block.
Do you still journal every day?
No, but I write in notebooks. I actually stopped writing a journal while I was at McGill because my boyfriend at the time had found it and read it and then confronted me about everything in it…. That kind of ruined the entire world of it. After that I stopped journalling and I thought well, I might as well just write everything for public consumption so that that never happens again. But that’s kind of what we all do now, this journalling in tweets and in blogs.
How do you deal with self doubt?
I think it’s part of the human experience. I think we make ourselves miserable. So, yeah, I make myself miserable on a regular basis saying things like “I’m no good,” but I mean, it’s just a part of getting older that you know that it’s something that will always pass. Whenever I get that bad feeling, I think of it as a flu. Sometimes, once a thought comes into your head, you just know it has to play itself out. It’s like catching a bug… a self-doubt bug, that you can’t get rid of just like that, so you have to let it play out, knowing that the next day you’ll find something that gives you a glimmer of hope and you remember that you’re really not that bad.
In The Lonely Hearts Hotel you make a lot of comments about feminism. Can you tell me more about those comments and your broader thoughts about feminism?
That book was written in the third person, so I was almost able to have myself as a character, in the role of the narrator. I kind of allowed myself to put in all these feminist thoughts that I have, or there’s parts where characters in the novel have access to things that I know about feminism, that they wouldn’t have had being a chorus girl in 1935.
Do you feel like you have had a more difficult go at writing, being a woman?
I think I had a more difficult go at life in general, in so many ways. I wasn’t prepared for the obstacles I came across, especially as a woman. And you don’t know before you have a kid just how stacked the world is against mothers. Like, why are you isolated and expected to do everything? It’s still next to impossible to operate in a functioning way as a mother and as a professional. You just end up being inundated with work and your life becomes incredibly stressful. And there’s no respect for it. A woman’s time is still considered to be worth nothing.
Some of what I touch on in the book is the gender roles. There are a lot of men who also can’t live up to this weird masculine shit, especially little boys. People are so harsh on little boys in our society. If they show even a tiny bit of sensitivity, or maybe if they want to wear a tutu, they can’t without their sexual orientation being questioned. I mean, a girl can actually be a tomboy if she wants without everyone getting on her case about her sexual orientation at four. But with little boys, everyone is obsessed with their sexual orientation and them being heterosexual. Like, you have to have lots of girlfriends, and attract the opposite sex, and then they grow up and we wonder where our rape culture comes from, you know? I mean, stop pressuring four year olds to be these Casanovas, it’s absurd.
I think a lot more men would be happy staying home with children if society didn’t look down on it and if women didn’t look down on it as being an inherently unattractive quality. I mean, even for me, I’ve been so ingrained to think that an attractive male is someone who is successful, dominant, a jackass. I can feel that in my head, but we have to get past that for some equality to happen.
Montreal seems to be your muse. Is this your favourite city in the world?
I think it’s grown to be my favourite city in the world. If you’d asked me when I was, say, 19, I would have said, no. No, New York is so much better, or, Paris is fantastic. Today I have such nostalgic and intimate feelings towards Montreal, that now it’s my favourite city.
What are your favourite things about Montreal?
I really love Chinatown. I always used to go down there with my dad. So eating at those old restaurants and hanging around that area is always really nice.
I like Sparrow and I used to really love Casa Del Popolo [both are bars on Saint Laurent] and would spend a lot of time there, but I feel like I’ve aged out of the place. Plus, bar-hopping isn’t really my thing anymore.
I go to the McGill library a lot. I still have a deep affection for McGill, so I love picking out books and reading in the library.
What’s your favourite cocktail?
I’m not a drinker, but I do like to drink beer in the summertime in Montreal. There’s something sort of sublime about drinking a cold beer in the evening.
I used to drink wine more, but it’s never really agreed with me. Although I always expected it to, because there’s Marguerite Duras, Jean Rhys, and all these writers I read when I was young who spent such a great portion of their lives being drunk, so I always assumed it sort of came with the writer’s life… but it just doesn’t agree with me at all.
What book or books have had an impact on you?
About 3000 of them [laughs]. I really liked Anne of Green Gables as a child. That was the first book that I read where I was just madly in love with the protagonist. She was the first character that I really loved.
In high school, my school was given this McClelland and Stewart collection of classics and they didn’t even take it out of the box. I found it in the storage room and asked to borrow it and they let me, so I took it home and I read all the Margaret Laurence books and all the Margaret Atwood that had been published up until them. Canadian women were a big influence on me. I also love Alice Munro and Sheila Heti.
Growing up I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald. I liked how he turned Zelda Fitzgerald into a character. That was something really influential to me. I understood the way he was seeing the world in a literary way: treating people as though they’re literary characters, and living a life that sort of becomes a novel. That complete immersion in one’s life as a literary spectacle definitely influenced the way I went about living and creating characters. Although it’s not necessarily a healthy way to live [laughs].
Any last words for readers of The Kitten Life?
Be brave. Let other people reject you, never reject yourself. If someone tells you you suck, that’s part of life, but never say that you suck.
If you get an opportunity just go for it. Never be the one to chop your own legs off. Everyone else will do that for you. It feels awful, but that’s just life.