Interview with Heather O’Neill


As The Plot Thins (ATPT): Thanks so much for taking some time to chat with us. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night was released in June. It’s been a couple months, how’s the reception been so far?

Heather O’Neill (HO): You’re welcome! The reception has been great so far.

ATPT: Does the title have any specific meaning or does it just refer to how Nouschka used to be in the limelight, next to her dad’s side when he was semi-famous?

HO: It definitely refers to that. And she represents a good time to all these people because they knew her from television when they were younger. When she shows up in a room, it immediately becomes a festive occasion and everyone gets into a better mood. It’s driving her and her brother crazy.

And it represents Nouschka’s identity as a party girl. She and Nicolas have been out all night every night their whole lives. She’s trying to not have a week of seven Saturdays when we meet her.

It was also a reference to The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. Because I was reading a lot of Edwardian fiction when I started writing the book. I love the notion of the over-educated aristocrat who is losing his place in the world and has no skills other than being an eloquent buffoon. So I wanted to have a family of fallen aristocrats from the wrong side of the tracks. The idea of the aristocracy of the underworld and the lower classes is a theme that I like to explore. And I set it at the end of the last century in Montreal. Nouschka and Nicolas are the princess and prince of the Red Light District. They are treated as though they’re nobility.

It is in a lot of ways, the fall of the aristocrat is the plight faced by all young people when they leave college or their parents’ homes and go out into the real world. They are cast of their kingdom where everyone laughed at all their jokes and did their laundry.

ATPT: As a reader, I very much enjoy to read about other places and cultures. This is the reason that I enjoyed your new novel so much. Did you set out originally to write another story set in that nostalgic version of Montreal?

HO: I think so. I had sort of created this rose colored, child-like version of Montreal in Lullabies for Little Criminals. And then I wanted to build on that. So the island of Montreal is even more strange and poetic in TGWWSN to the point that the world is actually magical. Magic is happening out of the corner of everyone’s eye. Someone will slice open a pie and black birds will fly out.

ATPT: There are so many important themes in TGWWSN, one of them being the revolution and separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. Were you around during any of those referendums, if so what was it like?

HO: I lived in Montreal through both. The first one I was very little and I thought that there was a parade happening every day. I was mostly concerned with how to keep my toy poodle from chewing off the heads of my Smurfs. The second referendum, I do remember well. Everyone in the city was hysterical debating the merits of staying or going. And there started to be all these dire warnings from the Canadian government, like our money wouldn’t be good anymore and we’d all end up unemployed. I sort of found the forecasts of doom delightful and funny, probably because I was 20 years old and a pauper. How much worse could things get for me? I owned one pair of tights with holes in them and moved every three months. And in my heart, I never believed that Quebec would actually leave Canada.

ATPT: The whole Tremblay family is such a unique set of characters. Are they in any way based on people you’ve met in real life, or are they completely fictional?

HO: I suppose all characters are a little bit of both. Usually when I write a novel, I’ll start with a character. And then I look around and start collecting things that help me get a better sense of the character, until they sort of become fully formed. It’s almost like I have a big witch’s cauldron and I’ll throw in a song, a photograph of a biker, a pinned butterfly, a postcard from Florida, an article about a soldier, a conversation from the city bus, a few incomprehensible magic spells and then I go to sleep and wake up with a character.

ATPT: Both of your books so far have been based in Montreal. Do you have any intentions of writing about other areas or do you want to stick exclusively to Quebec?

HO: Not exclusively. I’m going to leave. I’m going to cross the Jacques Cartier Bridge and get off this island and write about some new places. Yes!

ATPT: What are some of your favorite books you’ve read this year?

HO: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Green Girl, White Girls. Basically anything with Girl in the title. It’s like when you break up with someone and then start dating someone else who looks a little like them, but has nothing else in common.

ATPT: Are you currently working on any other writing projects?

HO: I just finished a book of short stories called Dear Piglet which will be coming out in 2015. And now I’m working on a new novel. I’m always writing essays too.

ATPT: What do you find is the hardest part of the writing process for you?

Would you like to pass any message to your loyal readers?

HO: I think the hardest part is sticking to and finishing particular projects. I always want to take everything that I write and throw it in the garbage. I mean this is a healthy part of the artistic process, right? You do have to be savage about throwing out pieces and stories that aren’t working. But I take it to an extreme. I might as well have a shredder next to my desk and put each sheet of paper in once I’m done. I’m getting past that though. I hope. I just tell myself, everything is flawed and unfinished. And I feel better about the world accepting that.

To my readers: Thank you for reading! Readers are as much a part of the creative process of bringing a book into the world as a writer is. Every time a person reads one of my books, a new version of it exists in the world. I love that. You my readers are also my great collaborators, in what is, otherwise, a very lonely profession.

You can follow Heather on Twitter here.

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