Here's an interview I did with Heather O'Neill last May. I made the fatal error of not writing it up and pitching it immediately. Instead, I pushed headlong into planning our summer holidays in the UK and registering my two children for day camp. When I came up for air, I noticed that every conceivable media outlet in Montreal had interviewed the author, so I decided wait for a lazy day, like today, to post it.
It’s been seven long years since the release of Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals, the gritty tale of Baby, a motherless child raised on Ste-Catherine Street by her drug-addicted father. The book went on to become an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Orange Prize and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. This is indeed impressive for a first novel. But that unexpected success put considerable pressure on the author to come up with an equally as good follow-up, and according to the author, this was not easy.
“The idea for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night came very slowly,” said O’Neill at our interview, one of many she would give that day.
According to O’Neill, the pressure came mainly from herself. “I’d start something and then ask myself how it would be received in say, South Africa. There was this idea that I had to please, something I didn’t feel with my first book. ” She added that her brother-in-law had once referred to her distracted stare as second bookitis.
Although the idea came to her like a coffee-machine set to slow drip, there are some undeniable commonalities between Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. Baby, like the twin protagonists Nouschka and Nicolas, basically raise themselves in the same sordid area of Montreal, clinging to each other for comfort as parentless children often do. O’Neill described the twins as “enmeshed.”In the story, they often feel like a single character with Nicholas embodying the dark side and Nouschka the light. However at age 20, Nouschka begins to forge her own path away from her brother, just as in the backdrop, Quebec is moving away from Canada.
“I chose to set the story in the period leading up to the 1995 Referendum to emphasize the theme of separation, both for the twins and Canada.”
Another commonality between the two novels is the less than ideal paternal figure. The twin’s father, the top-hat wearing Etienne Tremblay, is a washed up 70s folk singer with a criminal past. He is self-obsessed and uses his cute little twins as props, a means to garner more of the public’s attention. As I read the story, I tried to think of whom the character might be based on, and Jean Le Loup immediately came to mind. “Yes, he definitely wore a top hat,” said O’Neill. “I do have an unrequited love for Jean Le Loup, but he’s the wrong period.” Etienne was in fact a composite character based on many Quebec folk singers and performers, such as Gilles Vigneault, Robert Charlebois, Leonard Cohen and Claude Dubois. However, O’Neill emphasized that she drew on their very best, charismatic sides. After all, Etienne has some unsavoury proclivities.
But is The Girl Who Was Saturday Night a condemnation of celebrity? According to O’Neill it isn’t. Instead, she was interested in what it would be like to be a star or the child of a star growing up in Montreal.
“The Quebec star system has always been of great interest to me, and it’s funny that so few people outside of Quebec actually know it exists,” said O’Neill. Apparently, her US publisher needed to get the rights to the work of a Quebec artist that O’Neill had used in her previous novel. The publisher was incensed that she had to jump through so many hoops for the rights to something from a forgotten folksinger. The artist in question was Félix Leclerc. . . .
Overall, O’Neill’s latest novel is fun-loving with plenty of highly visual metaphors and simile. The author confessed that she did “have a soft spot for similes.” To give you an example of their visual quality, here is one my favourites: “When he exhaled, the cigarette smoke looked like a girl doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon.” In fact, there were many scenes in Girl that I could easily see in another short animation like Claire Blanchet’s adaptation of O’Neill’s short story “The End of Pinky," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
This book will be a hit with many young readers, or any reader for that matter who enjoys living vicariously through ingénues who chase bad-boys for some intense short-term pleasure, even when it means long-term pain. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night serves up a whimsical, sensual adventure through Montreal's dark side, complete with criminals, bikers and brilliant psychiatric patients–a great escape for a hot August day.