An Interview with Heather O’Neill

Photo by Angus McRitchie
Photo by Angus McRitchie

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Canadian Heather O’Neill, author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, over a skype IM call when she was visiting the UK in May. I was very starry eyed to think that this amazing author was on the other end of the line and she was a delight to chat with. Our conversation went as follows:

Heather: Hi Victoria… Heather here! 🙂

Victoria: Heather, hello! Thank you SO much for chatting with me!

Heather: My pleasure.

Victoria: I have to say first of all that I absolutely loved The Girl who was Saturday Night.

Heather: Oh that’s wonderful to hear. Thank you.

Victoria: Can you tell me what drew you to that particular period in Quebec history?

Heather: I was the same age as Nouschka was at the time. So I sort of wanted to recreate that turbulent and bohemian period that I sort of came of age in.

Victoria: And were you living in the same sort of social conditions as Nouschka? Only I was so intrigued by your choice of circumstances as well as location. I wondered what drew you towards the poorer, rougher end of town, and whether you think poverty has a history? Is being poor in Montreal different in 2014 to the way it was in 1995? (sorry awful lot of questions!)

Heather: I grew up lower class. I actually modelled the apartment that Nouschka and Nicolas live in on the one that I grew up in. I’m always interested in depicting the beauty and the culture of the lower classes, because it’s often overlooked and interpreted as a terrible waste land when it has its own distinct poetry and character and voices. As for history….it’s hard for me to say. Because I’m certainly not poor anymore. In 1995 I was so young that I wasn’t responsible for my circumstances, so I just lived in a sort of happy reckless penury. And I wasn’t even aware of how the world looked down on me or how difficult it was going to be to make my way up in the world coming from a poor background. I do think that people are becoming more and more intolerant of poverty and seeing it as a result of personal failings instead of circumstances.

Victoria: That’s fascinating. I was thinking about your novel and thinking that if Zola and Louis Aragon had a love child, your book would be it (or maybe the Tremblay twins would be it!). I can’t think of any other writer who makes being poor look like so much fun. Yet what’s unusual about the twins is that they are poor AND famous… not a normal combination and yet it works brilliantly. What drew you to framing their experiences with the documentary filming – what does that bring to their story?

Heather: Hahaha! That’s such a wonderful way of putting it. Thanks! I used the documentary film team showing up to sort of show that Noushcka and Nicolas are stepping back into the public eye, and maybe changing the accepted narrative of their family life. It was also sort of metaphorically to show that this part of their life is going to be a transitional one. And it was just an excuse to get the family to perform a little bit more, because, whether they like it or not, they are all fabulous orators, so this was forcing them on stage a little bit.

Victoria: Oooh so much to love here, and to ask about! Can we talk about families first – because it felt to me that family in your novel is this strong, powerful bubble from which it’s hard to escape, but vital, because otherwise the narrative never does change. Is that a fair assessment? I’m really intrigued by the way your novel is about having family AND not having family all at the same time – how you need to have a family firmly in place if you’re going to leave it behind. What would you say was the most important transition for the Tremblay family in TGWWSN?

Heather: I think everybody has to leave their family’s strange reality tv show when they turn 18. Because even though it can be wonderful and rich and full of legends, it’s not really your world. If that makes sense…. you have to go out and find your own adventures and identity.You have to challenge your family’s point of view. And living too closely as a clan certainly closes you off from other people. The Tremblays twins are too wrapped up in this us versus the rest of the world mentality which ultimately makes them dysfunctional. Nicolas wants to regard the rest of the world as incompete outsiders unworthy of their full attention. And Nouschka romaticizes everyone. They have to engage with the world.

Victoria: Yes, yes I see that… and you leave them taking their first baby footsteps (in Noushcka’s case quite literally) into that world. Would you ever consider writing a sequel for your characters? A ‘What the Tremblay’s Did Next’?

Heather: I don’t know! For the moment, I’m so happy to have a break from the Tremblays. They are so full of life and hysterically, that they are quite exhausting. They stay up all night, every night. I could hardly keep up with them.

Victoria : Lol! Can I ask then about Frenchness? This felt like SUCH  a French novel to me, and I can’t even pin down why. You aren’t from the French-speaking side, are you? How did you manage to infuse the francophone spirit into the narrative so well?

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Heather: No, although my grandfather on my dad’s side is francophone, I’m an anglophone writer. I guess I just spent my whole life living in the city, surrounded by francophone culture and friends, that it left quite a poetic imprint on me. I also like the idea of writing in English when it was supposed to be in French to sort of bring the idea of language and voice to the forefront. Because the novel is about Noushcka finding her own voice and language. And she also has a half-fairy tale half-realism voice too, so the boundaries of language are kind of fluid in the novel. If that makes sense!

Victoria: Yes it does! The richness of the metaphors in your novel really brings that out, I think, because that’s where language is at its most adventurous. And, I was also thinking about cats. The cats show up around Noushcka all the time, and they are the very essence of half-fairy tale, half-realism. Every one that pops up starts out real and seems to end up surreal! What do the cats represent?

Heather: Oh I have a million different answers for that one. I really enjoyed writing the cats. They were this strange chorus of commentators. They reflect on the scene or are above it or sneer at it. They are sort of like the Tremblays themselves. They are feral: so beautiful and lovely to look at, but dangerous to touch. And they are arrogant like the Tremblays too. They added to the childlike world, because they are practically talking animals. And I just wanted to have cats all over the city, because I was sort of creating my own city with its own laws of physics and flora and fauna. And it seemed like a beautiful exercise. I had seen an ink drawing of loads of cats by a young Russian artist while I was writing the book and I thought, there will be cats!

Victoria: Oh I love it. I’ll be thinking of them as a multitude of Tremblay kittens now! So, may I ask about your writing process? How did TGWWSN come about – what was the germ of idea that started it? And when you are working on a book, do you try and shut yourself away with it, or try and be more open to inspiration from other genres, practices, whatever?

Heather: I first had the idea of the twins. I almost always start with characters. And then I figure out what sort of adventure they are going to go on. Almost like meeting someone in real life I suppose, you encounter someone lovely and then set out on expeditions wherein you come to know one another. Everything always gets its way into my novel while I’m writing. The songs that I hear, the films I see at the cinema, non-fiction books I read. I should probably not be so impressionable, but what can I do. I live downtown. it’s noisy.

Victoria: Please don’t move!  And do you know where you’re headed next? Have you got new characters starting to tug at your imagination for the next novel? (I always feel a bit bad asking this, when any novel takes so much time, energy, sweat, blood, etc, before you even begin to publicise it, but hey, readers, we are dreadful vampires when it comes to authors…)

Heather: Yes, I’ve found a brand new character that I’m particularly smitten with. I’m excited about starting a new novel. It’s so fun being a novelist, being able to live so many lives.

Victoria: Well it’s fun for us, too, being able to live them with you. Whatever you write next, I’ll certainly be reading it. You have such an amazingly unique and delightful voice. I’ve taken up loads of your time – thank you SO much. It’s been sheer pleasure.

Heather: Oh thank you. Those were really such fun questions. And again thanks for your wonderful descriptions of my book! Until next time!

Victoria Best: Yes please! Until next time.

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