From Lullabies to Lonely Hearts
« On that day in 1914, a young girl banged on the door of the Hôpital de la Miséricorde in Montreal. She was pudgy and had round apple cheeks and blond ringlets. She was only twelve years old. Her older cousin, Thomas, had gone overseas to France to fight. She had been crazy about him since she was a thiny thing. » Thus you dive into Heather O’Neill’s latest novel.
The novelist, short-story writer and essayist was born, raised and still lives in Montreal where all her books are taking place. O’Neill has won CBC Canada Reads, the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Danuta Gleed Award.
Last spring, she published her latest fiction, once again to critical acclaim such as in the National Post: « The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a voyage across Montreal, from realms of innocence and districts of longing to zones of cruelty. It’s a sprawling saga that combines a fairy-tale narrative with touches of social history, following two orphans in their struggles against a hostile world.” Or this from the San Francisco Chronicle: « Art, love, imagination-these values are held aloft in O’Neill’s novel.” While Elle Canada concluded: “Fans of the Canadian author’s swirling, lyrical prose will fall for this melancholic love story set in gritty 1920s Montreal. »
When you ask what inspires her, the McGill graduate quickly replies: « I’m interested in certain themes that run through all that I write. The idea of class, politics, the young female body and how it is objectified. I want to talk about gaining power in a culture where we are in shackles, imprisoning ourselves. And art is very inspiring to me. It is important to collect your æsthetic, it’s one of the first signs that you’re an artist! »
Among those who have influenced her she lists: Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jean Genet « and everything he wrote », declares O’Neill admiring the one she describes as an orphan that became so confident to express himself widely. « But I’m also very inspired by other artists that are poetic and transgressive at the same time. »
How would she define her perfect reader? « It’s kind of a strange gamble. I visualize things before I write them hoping that the readers are seeing them as I see them! There’s something magical happening here. I wish for people who will read my work with all the complexity. I write for open-minded people who are willing to go places that are hidden away in society and I want the readers to see that as an amazing thing! »
Ten years have passed since « Lullabies for Little Criminals » which was an instant success. During this time O’Neill has continue to develop her voice as a writer. « I could never write Lullabies now. I’m not that woman anymore! I’ve continued to evolve, paying attention to the dialogues people are having. My female characters are getting stronger. I feel I have grown as a woman, as a person having a place in the world. »
And if each book is independant from the other, there’s definitely a thread tying them. « I see all my work from a larger perspective now. Each piece playing off each other, following one another as in an on-going meditation », explains the writer.
Just as in meditation, one can escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life by reading O’Neill’s latest opus and listen to the courageous voices of her characters carried by the heart and vision of this celebrated Montreal novelist.