canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Heather O'Neill

Heather OíNeill has written for the New York Times Magazine and is a contributor to This American Life. Her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, had been selected for Canada Reads 2007.

Janine Armin conducted this interview early December 2006.


TDR: Was it difficult to stay faithful to the voice of a young girl?

No, I've written a lot of things from the perspective of children. I did a whole series of radio essays from kids voices for the radio show WireTap. It comes easily to me. I find it allows me to use all sorts of narratives techniques and inventive language because children are poets, looking at the world in weird and jarring and astonishing ways.

TDR: What kind of research was involved in the writing of this book?

Most of it was drawn from things I'd observed when I was younger. I've been scoping people out to use as characters since I was a little kid. A lot of it is informed by what's been said about street kids before, like Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist or Larry Clark's Tulsa or Mary Ellen Mark's Streetwise or the film Christiane F. I think if you're going to write about a subject, you should know what's been said about it before. When an artist describes something, it changes the way it actually is. Life imitates art.

TDR: Do you think finding beauty in small things is a quality unique to children? Specifically children who have to resort to such things in order to cope with an otherwise caustic existence? Or, is the ability to look on the bright side an innate characteristic?

I think all children kind of pan through their environments, looking for bits of gold. I find the objects that children attach themselves to, whether it be a bottle cap or a star in the sky, so lovely. Children are great collectors. I don't think its peculiar to children in caustic situations, but I do think these children are forced to find their beauty in more odd and startling places than those who have conventional childhoods.

I think looking on the bright side is a result of education. I think if you fill your house with books and art and ideas, you will be able to find more meaning in life. If you read to little kids, they'll be happier adults. Jules gave Baby an odd education, but he did turn her on to the possibilities in a grain of sand. He always told her stories and played music and made conversation with her. It gave her the tools to look on the bright side.

TDR: What is it about Montreal that makes it so great? Are you still an active in Montrealís spoken word community now? What was it like being a part of that community during its boom period in the mid-to-late 1990s?

I like the bohemian, apocalyptic, falling apart feeling of Montreal. I like its history and the poems and songs that have been written about it.

Good lord, no, I don't do spoken word anymore. It's really an art form for the young, I think. Being part of the scene in the mid nineties required nerves of steel. There was something really ugly about it, sort of like the dark side of stand up comedy. The venues would be packed and the audience would be loud and drunk and jeer at the performers. The crowds were always badly behaved. Always. The object, like in comedy gigs, was to control the crowd and get them to be quiet and get their attention. I had to write the most outlandish and breathtaking imagery to startle them into shutting up. It did, in the end, make me a much stronger writer though. I developed my narrative style doing spoken word. I'm always trying to impress the reader with every single line I write. I'm always tap dancing, juggling knives and yodeling when I write, like some late night Vaudevillian performer.

TDR: Can you tell us about your contribution to This American Life?

I've written a lot of creative non-fiction, so I was suited to writing for that show. The last story I wrote for them was a retelling of the Jesus story set in an inner-city high school, told from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. I find it hard to find time to do side projects though, a novel always swallows you whole.

TDR: Who are some of your favourite present-day authors, or influences? What does not influence you in any way?

Growing up I always like literary first person narratives. I also liked bold and daring narrative styles. I liked J.D Salinger, Nell Dunn, Denis Johnson, Agota Kristof, Tadeuz Borowski etc... Often what inspires me depends on what I'm writing at the moment. I don't personally read many spy novels, but a character in my new novel reads them everyday. So they've ended up inspiring me although I never thought they would.

Janine Armin has written for The Globe and Mail, The Village Voice and Bookslut.







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