Interview by Matthew Walsh
Heather O’Neill’s novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night was released in 2014 to critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It’s wonderful novel for many reasons, but it excels with its sharp characterizations, vivid details, and the finely crafted world that O’Neill show us. After seeing her speak at this past Vancouver’s Writer’s Fest I knew I had to at least try to get an interview with her. Luckily, she agreed, and we talked about alternative titles, who she is reading lately, and what readers can expect from her new project, titled Daydream for Angels.
Your new novel, like your last, Lullabies for Little Criminals, has a standout title. How important is picking the right title for a book? Were there any others you were considering while you wrote The Girl Who Was Saturday Night?
I had that title right from the beginning. I did consider some other things along the way. Etienne Tremblay’s Rag and Bone Orchestra. Days of Beer and Dandelions. On the other hand, Lullabies for Little Criminals had no title at all until my agent was on the phone saying he wanted to send the manuscript out. So I doodled some titles on a piece of paper.
I was reading review of your new book and one word the reviewer used to describe your sentences was “acrobatic.” I agree, but I think they are also poetic. In The Girl Who Was Saturday Night there’s a sentence about a t-shirt one character wears. There are horses on one of the girls’ t-shirts and Nouschka remarks that “if you put your ear up against her chest you could hear them galloping.” A magical sentence. Do these kinds of sentences come easily to you?
Yes they come really easily. But only because I work on them for so long. At the beginning each sentence was impossible to find. When you start off writing you’re like a prospector, always sifting through dirt for days and days to find a nugget. Then you hit on your style and things get easier. Now I have to cut half of those types images out.
Do you consider yourself more of a prose writer or do you think you might have another book of poetry in you?
I don’t really see a difference between prose and poetry. I don’t see a difference between poetry and anything. It’s just hitting life with a magic stick. People seem to like their poetry anywhere else but in a poetry book. They prefer it spray-painted on a wall or on the back of a photograph of their grandmother. My next novel is going to be my next book of poems. But, yeah, I might write another book of poems.
One of my favourite scenes in the novel is when Nouschka sees her father again. It begins with the sentence “When Etienne sat down at the kitchen table, he didn’t even seem to be able to deal with the chair.” There’s a bunch of emotion packed into that scene. I think you struck the right balance between comedy and tragedy. Are there other writers that you feel are able to strike that kind of balance in their prose?
Everybody good. Everybody wonderful. I was just re-reading Junot Diaz and he does that really well. Denis Johnson tells the saddest jokes in the world. The Edwardians were excellent at that: being funny was high art to them. You can only really get people to the darkest places through laughter. Humour writing and stand up comedy albums don’t age. But funny stuff in literature stands the test of time. I remember being 13 and laughing out loud reading Catch-22. Who else? Miriam Toews.
I love cats and I really enjoyed all the appearances made by cats in the novel. Was that something that happened accidentally while you were writing, or did you intentionally want to have various scenes with cats coming and going?
Hmmm. That’s an interesting question. Because once you make a decision while writing a book, it feels like it’s always been in your head. I do actually remember one day being in a mood to put a lot of cats in the novels. I wanted to have a motif, like in Marcel Dzama drawing where there are a hundred ballerinas tiptoeing by with red bags on their heads. There used to be a catnip tree near the building where I lived and there were always stoned cats in the branches, so that was an inspiration. I just wanted it to be a sort of feral kind world. And I also wanted it to be like those old kids books where there are bands of cats getting into mischief and saving the day. But in the beginning there was just me describing a cat and liking the way that it felt.
Whenever Etienne is mentioned in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night I couldn’t help but think of folk singers like Stompin’ Tom Connors, who I used to watch on my grandmother’s little black and white TV. Were any characters, like Etienne or Nouschka, for that matter based on anyone?
I had insomnia when I was little and I would watch late night television and they were always airing Canadian movies from the sixties…like all five of them. I remember watching this movie called The Ernie Game really influenced later male characters. And I remember this documentary about Leonard Cohen where he’s in a hotel room in his underwear and socks (that’s how I remember it, anyways) that creeped me out and enchanted me in equal measure. What’s my point here? Yes, Etienne is a very specific kind of 1970s Canadian folk hero. Like he’s a Canadian poète maudite. So that’s why you’re having TV flashbacks. (I loved Canadian TV growing up. I was madly in love with Alasdair from You Can’t Do That on Television. I don’t know why I didn’t go on to marry him. It doesn’t seem like too farfetched a dream.) Nouschka Tremblay is me if I were a Jean Cocteau character. Whatever that means.
I noticed know that you’ve written screenplays—how was that experience for you? Would you ever consider adapting your own work for the screen? Who could you see playing Nouschka?
I do like the movies and would like to write more screenplays. And yes, I’d consider adapting something of my own. Now as for casting Nouschka… If I could time travel: Anna Karina in 1961 or Jessica Paré ten years ago.
What do you find yourself reading nowadays? Any writers you have your eye on?
I read about 150 novels a year, so everything. I’m re-reading Mavis Gallant, which is wonderful. I can’t wait for her collected journals. I’m curious what Emma Healey and Stacey May Fowles will do, both in their non fiction and fiction in the next few years. I’m curious what Anna Leventhal will do. I just got sent a story collection by Jess Taylor, which is fascinating.
Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects? I hear that you have a new book of stories coming out soon. What can we expect from them?
Yes, it’s true. I have a book of short stories called Daydreams for Angels coming out in April. They are kind of like fables and children’s bedtime stories but darker. Like there’s one story about a Cold War experiment to clone Nureyev that goes awry. And one about mothers in the 1950s waiting for their newborn babies to wash up in the surf.
Heather O’Neill’s work is strange, funny, and honest. She’s a master of crafting that perfect sentence. We’re lucky she is so prolific.
Matthew Walsh’s work has been featured in Arc, The Found Poetry Review, Carousel, Descant, Existere, Matrix, Carte Blanche, The Steel Chisel and as part of the Halifax Commons Poetry Anthology. His short fiction will appear in 11th Dimension Press’s Rock is Not Dead short story anthology. He is currently poetry editor of Plentitude Magazine.