Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club by Doloris Duval, March 1, 2022
This New Author of the 21st Century provided me with many hours of satisfying reading as I poured over pages of thought-provoking, deliciously-structured text. Heather O’Neill brings a unique perspective and voice to her work. She is not afraid to explore the dark side of life and relationships in her complex, layered, titillating fiction. She smiles wryly as she advises readers that all of her work comes with a “trigger warning”.1 When asked about her fixation with Montreal as the venue for all of her fiction to date, she says that she enjoys “playing with the physics to allow different and magical things to happen in her hometown of Montreal”. 2
O’Neill gained initial recognition when her first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was chosen for Canada Reads 2007. Here she exposes a gritty side to Montreal, saying that while the book is not autobiographical it does take place in “a world not unlike the one I grew up in”.3 Baby, the protagonist, guides us through her tumultuous twelfth year of life while in the care of her drug-addicted and all-too-young dad, Jules, creating a window into the world of drug addiction, poverty, mental illness and child prostitution. She levels some brutal insights into the realities of the foster care and juvenile detention systems, failing society’s safety nets.
Her next novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was published in 2014 and might be seen as the next chapter in Heather’s own life. Set in pre-referendum Montreal, this novel is resplendent with intriguing insights into the Quebecois culture at that time. However, while offering an entertaining and informative backdrop, that is not the main thrust of the novel. What does drive this novel is Nouchka, a bright, but economically and socially disadvantaged teen, and her journey toward an identity that is apart from the world that she has been born into.
Then came a brilliant collection of 20 short stories, Daydreams of Little Angels, released in 2015. As O’Neill says herself, “We (authors) may seem to be writing in French or English or Spanish, but we are really writing in the language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.” And as critics confirm, “this book takes her writing to a new level of daring sophistication and emotional richness”.4
Then, with Lonely Hearts Hotel (2017) O’Neill creates what she calls an “epic love story”.4 It is once again set in Montreal but this time in historic Montreal, one that our author does not know. Research sent her into the realm of illegitimate children, unmarried pregnant girls and once again the underworld of a 1914 Montreal. While “Baby” and “Nouchka” showed how the world is unkind to young women, this time our heroine fights her way up and makes herself “a place at the table”.
O’Neill then returns to her childhood to write Wisdom In Nonsense: Lessons From My Father, 2018. Recalling that in addition to mending clothes and making breakfasts, her father also loved to dispense terrible life advice. For example, to an aspiring young author, he says: “Never Keep A Diary– it will be always be used against you in court. Learn to play the tuba. There are never enough tuba players so you will always have a job. Accept you are ugly and move on, which she found to be liberating words that helped her to just not care what people thought.” Heather herself says that, although the 12 rules outlined in this “guide” seem ridiculous, she used them to navigate the world and to become somebody interesting.5
With the release of her latest novel, When We Lost Our Heads, 2022, Heather is again in the spotlight and her novel is the subject of great interest and acclaim. In this novel she references the French Revolution while employing main characters named after familiar figures: Marie Antionette (obvious), Sadie Arnet (Marquis de Sade). She also introduces us to a non-binary personality, George. Through these figures she explores “gender, power, sex and desire, class structure, status and the strength of the human heart” 6 on the Golden Mile of Montreal.
Celtic Life says that while hers was an unpredictable path to success, today Heather is one of the biggest and most influential names in contemporary Canadian literature. 7 Heather herself says she feels as though she is just at the beginning of what she’s going to do 8 and I say that I can’t wait to see just where that will be. I am delighted that I decided to bring Heather’s work to our group as my pick for our New Author of the 21st Century theme.
1 O’Neill, Heather. Girls contain multitudes. Walrus Talks [ youtube video ] youtube.com/watch?=TLdrR52jzN8 Nov 6, 2017
2 O’Neill, Heather. Writers Trust [ youtube video] youtube.com/watch?= ECHEh8WstSA Nov 14, 2019
3 O’Neill, Heather. Bringing Up Baby. https://quillandquire.com/authors/bringing-up-baby/ June 2014
4 O’Neill, Heather. Daydreams of Angels. HarperCollins The Gazette (Montreal) back of book 2015
5 O’Neill, Heather. My Education 11th installment Kreisel Lecture youtube.com/watch?=YotP6Uvhwg March 1, 2017
6 O’Neill, Heather. When We Lost Our Heads https://beta.wordfest.com/2022/event/imagine-air-presents-heather-oneill?mc imagineonair.com February 1,2022
7 O’Neill, Heather. Celtic Life International https://celticlifeintl.com/heather-oneill/
8 O’Neill, Heather. Writers Trust [ youtube video ] ECHEh8WstSA Nov 14, 2019
Two eyes sleeping 1999 poetry *poetry
The Very Big Orange Cat 2004 *fiction
Lullabies for Little Criminals 2006 * novel
The End of Pinky 2008 *short story adapted for film 2013
They Danced By The Light Of The Moon 2012 *fiction
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night 2014 *novel
Daydreams of Angels 2015 * short stories
The Lonely Hearts Hotel 2017 *novel
Wisdom and Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from My Father 2018 *nonfiction
Coffee Musings 2021 *nonfiction
When We Lost Our Heads 2022 *fiction
-Winner of Canada Reads 2007
-Winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction 2007
-Winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction 20017
-Winner of the Writers’ Trust Fellowship 2019
-Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award 2007
-Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2008
-Shortlisted for Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award 2007
-Shortlisted for Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award 2007
-Short Listed for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal 2007
-Shortlisted for the Exclusive Book Boeke Prize South Africa 2008
* Heather O’Neill has been Longlisted for a number of literary awards