Lullabies for Literature: An Interview with Heather O’Neill (April 2007)

by Kristin McHale


On 18 April 2007, novelist and poet Heather O’Neill spoke with Kristin McHale at O’Neill’s St. Urbain street home in Montreal. O’Neill’s novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, winner of CBC‘s 2007 “Canada Reads” contest, tells the story of Baby, a twelve-year-old girl growing up in Montreal’s red-light district in the 1980s. Excerpts from this interview appeared in Canadian Literature #193 – Canada Reads (Summer 2007).


Kristin McHale (KM): Tell me a bit about the experience of having the book on “Canada Reads.” Were you surprised that your book was chosen?

Heather O’Neill (HO): Yeah, I was surprised. I think I was more surprised when it was selected than when I won, actually, because being selected for these things is always the hardest thing. Then it’s, “Okay, I’m one in five.”

KM: Which is a lot better than being one in millions. . . .

HO: Exactly. And then at least you know that what you’ve done is being considered properly. For so many things it’s just hard to get the attention of anyone who’s doing the selecting.

KM: And what was it like to listen to the debates about your book?

HO: I didn’t really listen to them from beginning to end, because it was too existentially strange, and odd. You know, it’s done for entertainment, so it can be very trashy. So it’s hard to listen to as a writer because you just start getting offended. Like, “Hey, what did I do to you? I’m not saying that my book needs to be on there like this!”

KM: What do you think about the idea of books being pitted against each other?

HO: I think it’s fun. It’s all done in entertainment, and all the books got a lot of attention. I think it’s fun: any sort of competition, people enjoy.

KM: If you were going to go on the show, do you know which book you’d choose to defend?

HO: No, I’d have to really think about it.

KM: I noticed that of the books that were chosen this year for “Canada Reads,” four of them were written since 2000, so they’re all kind of newer. Do you think that’s indicative of the literary scene in Canada changing?

HO: I think so. I mean, it may just be my own perspective, but there’s a lot more excitement about the new writers coming out. It was sort of like the canon was fixed for a while. The Atwood-Ondaatje-Munro thing was sort of impenetrable. But I think now, it’s up for grabs. It might just be because I’m publishing, so I’m like, “Hey, why not?” But I think there is just a level of excitement—there needs to be a new vanguard.

KM: Some writers have been saying that the Canadian canon is impenetrable, saying that nothing that’s been written since 1970 is being seriously considered. What do you think about that?

HO: Well, maybe I’m an optimist, but I don’t think it’s true. For a while there just wasn’t the level of excitement about the books that were coming out. But with the new younger writers—like with David Bezmozgis, it’s so exciting. There’s just a lot of hype for new books that are coming out.

KM: So what direction do you see Canadian literature going in?

HO: It’s difficult, because maybe I’m just in the fray now, but there just seems to be a lot more possibilities for excitement and publishing and sale.

Even with Montreal writers—I’m going to be doing a panel at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival with Rawi Hage and Neil Smith, and the topic is “Why? Why all of a sudden is there this literary resurgence in Montreal?”

KM: And why?

HO: Well, I just think it’s happening—there are a lot of diverse voices too, and people who were born elsewhere. I don’t think the canon is impenetrable—think of Yann Martel and Rohinton Mistry—they are just these giant voices that are coming out, so I think that there is definitely going to be a new canon in the next ten years.

KM: And do you think that there is something special going on in Montreal right now?

HO: Well no, because there’s no scene—nobody knows each other. When I hear about another writer in Montreal, it’s like I’ve never heard of them. There’s no sort of coterie of writers, so people are just at home for five years writing these books—it’s like that guy who drives a cab was also writing a book, you know?

KM: Does living in Montreal influence you as a writer? Is all of your writing set in Montreal, as this novel is? Do you see yourself writing something elsewhere?

HO: I don’t know—I’ve kind of always lived here. Sometimes I have things that I’ve observed other places or people that I’ve met, but I’ll just steal them and put them back in Montreal. Like one of the characters in the book, well I was in Chicago, and there was this guy in front of me in the line in the dépanneur and he was making a commotion. And I was like, “Thank you!” and put it at the back of my mind, because sometimes a character will just come from someone I see for 30 seconds on a bus, and that person will stay with me and then they start to build, so a character can come from there. So some stuff when I’m writing about Montreal that doesn’t come from here—like a new room I saw elsewhere. But it’s hard if you don’t intimately know a place to set something there.

KM: Hmm, I can imagine—which character was that? One from the book?

HO: It was a minor character … you want to know which one [laughs]. It was Jean Michel—he was dating the mother of one of Baby’s friends. The couple in the book came from this couple I was standing behind in the store, and he was trying to convince her to buy this beer, and she was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know if I have the money for the beer” and he was like, “Do it, you’re a beautiful woman, you owe yourself this beer!”

KM: One of the things that I really liked about the book was the way that you portrayed Montreal—but it was set in the 1980s. I was wondering, if you were going to write the same book but set it now, would much be different? Or would it be more or less the same?

HO: I don’t know, because I wrote it from the perspective of a child, so it was how I remembered it, as a child.

KM: And were you a child, in Montreal, at that time?

HO: Yeah. So, when you’re a kid you’re just more involved in where you live and people you meet, and you’re just always meeting people, and your biggest influences are the kids who live down the street, and where you go, and it’s all just a much bigger deal. As an adult you start putting these parameters around things, and your sense of the city is less involved, because you get a lot more defenses.

KM: And you’re thinking more about what’s going on, in your own head more than around you.

HO: Yeah, exactly, and you have more functional reasons to go wherever it is that you go as opposed to a kid who’s always just exploring.

KM: What about the bilingual aspect of the city? I was kind of curious as to what Baby’s linguistic situation was, because all the characters in the book spoke English, and Baby’s father’s name was Jules, or Jules maybe. Then the end, it was revealed that her mother, who’s dead, was francophone, but Baby was speaking about learning French as a second language at school. What were you envisioning as her linguistic situation?

HO: It’s kind of like I played on that a bit in the book, because growing up in Montreal a lot of people kind of waver back and forth—especially because a lot of people have one parent who’s English and one who’s French, and so some people start their life being francophone, but then they start moving more into English. So I guess it ends up whatever language you’re speaking in your head all the time, like whatever your thoughts are, whether they start being in English or French. Then you start to move toward that language so there’s more of a fine line between the two—because I find there are a lot of high schools around where I live right now, and a lot of the kids, if you listen to them speak, it’s like half in English and half in French.

KM: I’ve heard that—they switch back and forth, and you’re trying to figure out why they’re switching at that moment, and you can’t.

HO: Yeah, whichever works out. It’s kind of like that in the book—a lot of people have French names and they’re probably French and speaking in French but it’s done in translation.

KM: Right. So you grew up in Montreal—you studied in Montreal too—literature at McGill? How did you find the program there?

HO: It was always hard to tell because you could never really compare and contrast—I don’t know how it is any other places, but I liked it there, I had a good time.

KM: Did you take any Canadian literature classes when you where there?

HO: Yeah, we had to. Everyone was forced to take a certain amount of credits, so I took one class in that—I think that it was called “Contemporary Women’s CanLit.”

KM: Do you remember what you read in that class?

HO: Well, I remember Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and there were a bunch of things that had been published recently.

KM: Do you have any thoughts on what is taught in literature classes, or on the Canadian canon and how easy it is to break into that? For someone like you who’s a contemporary woman writer in Canada, how does that work—could you see your novel being taught in a literature class? Do you have any thoughts on that?

HO: Like on how easy it is to break into it? I don’t know—it’s odd because when you’re studying literature it’s like everything’s so old and at that age you don’t really have access. Kids don’t even know what’s being published at the time—you’re in such a bubble when you go to university in a way. Like I remember there was an election, we didn’t even know about it—

KM: Oh really? In Quebec, or in Canada?

HO: In Canada [laughs]—things were going on in the world and you don’t even care because you’re so wrapped up in talking about something that was written in 1901 and it seems so immediate and fascinating. I don’t even know if the way that literature is taught actually leads you to be a better writer—it’s more this academic perspective. It’s funny because the other day I was going through my old books and I found this essay that I’d written in my BA program and I got an A+ on it. I was reading it and I didn’t understand a word. [laughs] I was like, “What was this about?” [laughs]

KM: What was it on?

HO: It was on Blake—it just seems so bizarre—it’s just like a different mindset.

KM: So if literature classes aren’t the best way to prepare to be a writer, what do you think is better? What helped you to start writing?

HO: I guess it’s just writing in itself. I mean, I do think it’s one of those things that can’t really be taught. It’s good to get feedback, but even creative writing programs, which are like two years. You can’t teach an 18-year-old to write in two or three years—it just takes years of writing itself.

KM: So when did you start writing? Were you sort of practicing before you got going or did you find that as soon as you started you could get published?

HO: No, I kind of always wanted to be a writer. I think since I was in grade five, I wanted to be a writer, but I started really writing every day when I was 21. No, at that point I wasn’t getting published [laughs]; I was terrible. Just un-publishable—like any 21-year-old.

KM: Let’s talk about your book. What were you hoping that readers of Lullabies for Little Criminals would come away with?

HO: I put a lot of stuff in the book that I found intrinsically interesting, or things that I had seen and things that I thought were just really beautiful. I thought well, there’s got to be some readers out there who are affected in the same way. And these things haven’t necessarily been described yet.

KM: What kinds of things are you thinking about?

HO: Just the way that young neglected kids, like Baby and her friends, and how they try and charm one another, and how they have these larger than life personalities. They engage more with one another because their parents aren’t around much, so they become these sort of extended families. If you have a tight family, you are always going to have love. But these kids are missing love at home, so in order to get attention, they have to behave in ludicrous ways, and it comes from things they’ve seen, like how rock stars are acting, or things in movies, or the older juvenile delinquents who have a lot of friends. So you have these 12-year-olds acting out things that they’ve seen, just to get attention.

KM: I thought it was interesting in the book how Baby would find people to love her, like when she was sent to live with a foster family, for example, but then her situation would change and she’d have to leave them and start all over again. Or she’d find a good friend like Xavier, the boy in her class at school that she befriends, and then it wouldn’t work out. So she kept having to reconstruct a loving network of people around her.

HO: Yeah, because there is no permanence for children: they have no way of keeping in touch with one another. They don’t have the same rights that adults have. They can just be picked up and put elsewhere.

KM: Speaking of children being moved around, I was looking in the afterward of the book, and you said that one book that you loved when you were a child was Anne of Green Gables. And I was thinking about this—at first the two characters seem really different—Avonlea is pretty different from Montreal. But then there are sort of some similarities too; they are both 12-year-old girls who are mostly left to fend for themselves. Were you thinking about that at all, when you were writing? Do you see any connections between the two characters?

HO: I didn’t even really think about it—Anne of Green Gables, the character herself, in a way she’s a poet. She’s presented as 12-year-old who’s also somehow an author, and Baby has a little bit of that, the way she kind of translates stuff and there’s a lot of metaphor—it’s kind of presented like she’s a poet. So I think that Anne of Green Gables was similar in that aspect. Although it’s not told in first person, it’s referenced a lot that she sees herself as a writer, and she’s always kind of renaming the things around her.

KM: Which Baby does too.

HO: Yeah, so it’s like Baby has kind of a harsher life to make things into a magical world. But I guess Anne of Green Gables, she does that also.

KM: You have a daughter who’s 12—the same age as Baby and Anne. In one of the other interviews I read, the interviewer asked if your daughter, who’s 12, was going to be allowed to read the book or not, and you said probably not—so did she end up reading it?

HO: Well no, she still reads Artemis Fowl and Lemony Snicket. She hasn’t really started on adult novels yet, at all.

KM: What do you think it’ll be like when she reads it?

HO: I’m not sure—I’m hoping I have other books out by then, so I can be like, “Read this one instead!”

KM: Speaking of parents and children, one of the things that I found interesting in the book is the relationship between Baby and her father, Jules, who is a single parent and a heroin addict. On the one hand, he’s pretty irresponsible and gets her into these dangerous situations. On the other hand, he does protect her somewhat, and he’s looking out for her more than anybody else is. What were you thinking as you were creating that relationship?

HO: Well, Baby was the first character that I created, but as I was creating her, Jules was always there too. And Jules was one of my favourite characters to create, because I wanted to do someone who was such a screw-up, who did everything wrong, but at the same time was just so lovable, and attractive. And in a way, it’s he who makes Baby who she is, because the two of them have this sense that they’re the most fascinating people on the street—or that there’s always something happening, or that they see themselves as the centre of the universe. Which is I think what parents are supposed to do for children—make them feel like they are the most important thing in the world. And I think that Jules does that with Baby. But his values are also ridiculous. But he’s so young also—so in a way it’s forgivable, because it’s like they’re growing up together.

KM: What do you mean about the values being mixed up?

HO: Well, for Jules it’s all about show, or having a good time, or having the friends over. He’s like 27 or 28, so he’s in a state of arrested development. I think that a lot of single parents who have kids young kind of miss out on their own childhood, so they’re always trying to live out their childhood. So that’s what happens with Jules, and he’s in this state of acting like a child, and trying to get attention like a 17-year-old would get attention. And I think the thing with Baby is, I get the sense that she’s going to get beyond that; so in a sense she’ll outgrow Jules.

KM: What do you see happening to her after the book ends?

HO: I don’t know; it’s hard to say. It’s just when the book ends, you leave them.

KM: It ends on kind of an optimistic note, but still uncertain. Baby goes to stay with a friend in the country, so she gets away from some of the trouble she’s gotten into in Montreal, but no one knows what’s going to happen.

HO: Yeah. Some people have said that the ending is overly optimistic, which I find kind of odd, because I’m like “How is it overly optimistic?” Jules is homeless, and Baby, you don’t really know what’s going to happen to her. It’s like aside from having her murdered and thrown on the side of the road, it’s too optimistic. But I didn’t want that to be in the book because it’s about survival. And most kids do survive, you know?

KM: Yeah. I don’t think that it was too optimistic. There was this possibility of things getting better, but nothing was certain—no one knew what was going to happen. It’s not like she ended up in a castle with a loving family all of a sudden. Another thing that I find interesting is that you said that you wanted to capture the “ludicrously bad choices” that 12-year-olds can make. And there were a couple times, like when Baby decides to go back to [her violent boyfriend’s] apartment, where I was thinking, “Why!? Why are you doing that?” So how did you come up with that?

HO: I don’t know—it’s just like growing up in the ’80s. There was a style of parenting, and you’d just be left alone forever. And kids get these ideas in their heads, and their sense of consequences—they don’t really grasp cause and effect. I remember once my sister got in her head that she should jump off this balcony. And we were all like, “That would be great, that would be wonderful to see you just jump!” And she jumped, and of course she broke her arm and it was terrible, but at the time it seemed like a really good thing to do. When I was a kid I always made the worst decisions. That’s why people get so paranoid about kids. It’s impossible, really—no matter how many times you tell them, they just do really stupid things and they want to do stunts, and no matter how many times you tell them not to talk to strangers, they still talk to strangers, you know?

KM: What do you think is the best way to be protective, then, as a parent?

HO: I don’t know, I don’t know. My 12-year-old daughter’s just on the cusp of being a teenager—maybe it’s just being involved in your kid’s life. But they’re going to do stuff that you don’t want them to do—I mean, imagine you never did anything your parents told you not to do—you would have had no joy!

KM: That’s probably true. Another thing I really liked about the book was the dialogue. Do you have a special strategy for writing dialogue? What’s your approach?

HO: Well, I never write a character unless I totally believe in them, and sometimes I’ll do just pages and pages of notes about them until they kind of just live in my head and I just know what they would say. And for me, one of the ways that I know I have a character down is when I can do their dialogue—because if I have no idea what they would say, then I don’t really have them fully. But when I do, and it’s time for the character to talk, it’s just like reporting the dialogue: “I hear ya, I hear ya.” [laughs]

KM: So you have a process for developing the characters, then?

HO: Yeah, I’ll work on for months and months on the characters.

KM: And when you’re writing notes about them, is it about how they look, or the experiences they’ve had, or their family?

HO: It’s just how they look, things they would do—it’s not really like their back story because I don’t really think that’s how you know anybody. Because when you meet a person, you never really know their back story, so it’s more about making them physically real. What kind of record they would listen to, and what kind of hat they would put on, what they’d do during the day, who they’d be attracted to if they went out on the street, what they’d have for dinner.

KM: Did you find yourself thinking about the characters after you’d finished?

HO: Yeah, it is hard, because every time I’d sit down to write in the past few years, it’d be in Baby’s voice—so when I’d sit down I’d start to write in Baby’s voice, and it’s like, “OK that book is done! Stop it!” It was a really enjoyable voice to write in.