Heather O’Neill: What It’s Really Like to Be an Award-Winning Author

Towers of handwritten pages, Bob Dylan lyrics, and lots of dog walks: a peek inside the inner world of Heather O’Neill, two-time Giller Prize finalist and author of the brand-new novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel

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heather o'neill, author on her new book the lonely heart hotel

(Photo: Julia C. Vona)

Ever wonder what it’s really like to write a novel? What about four bestselling books in 11 years (including two that were back-to-back Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists—The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels) all while raising a daughter solo? We got to ask Montreal’s Heather O’Neill, author of the brand-new The Lonely Hearts Hotel (HarperCollins Canada, $33), about becoming a mom at 20, dealing with writer’s block, and exactly how she transformed the idea of orphans Pierrot and Rose’s love story into the epic new novel that just hit shelves. Here, a peek inside the life of award-winning author, devout Montrealer (she fondly refers to the city’s artsy Plateau ‘hood as a “mecca for the bohemian, polluted with young people with all these ridiculous dreams”), and unabashed dreamer Heather O’Neill.

What did you dream about being when you were growing up?
My number-one thing was to be a writer. When you look back, one always changes one’s narrative, so I had other ideas, too, but with writing, I was just always more successful. And then other things I tried, I was not quite as good at. And when I went to university (studying English Literature at McGill University), I was also interested in theatre and acting for the stage, so that’s probably why theatre has such an interesting and prevalent part in the new book.

I read that you sold your poems in Montreal metro stations when you were a teenager. 
That was part of when you’re a young writer—or any kind of artist—and you have this desire for other people to have your work, so I would make little chapbooks and photocopy them and be like “Would you like to buy one?” I remember once I photocopied a little girl from an Edward Gorey drawing and I put that on the cover and then inside was all my poems. And they would actually sell pretty well because there are so many kids asking for money that you seem just very Dickensian [laughs].

Do you remember what you charged?
A dollar.

What did you do after university?
In my early twenties, I was working really crappy jobs that I didn’t like—waitressing and stuff like that, “survival jobs”—but then I sold a screenplay when I was 24 so I started working professionally as a writer quite young. And then when I was just publishing all over the place, trying to get my foot in the door and someone to notice me, I submitted something to an Internet magazine and some of my friends were like “Oh, the Internet. That’s not going to catch on!”

How did you go from writing screenplays and essays to having your first novel published? 
The editor from that magazine then got a job working for The New York Times Magazine and he told me that the husband of one of the editors who worked there was a literary agent. So I gave him a chapter of my novel to give to the woman at the desk next to his and hope that she would give it to her husband. And then sometime later I was in New York and a friend of mine was like “There’s this agent calling around looking for you. And he left this number.” So I called the number while I was actually in Washington Square Park with my daughter, and he was like “Where are you?” and I said “I’m in Washington Square Park” and he said “OK, don’t move I’ll meet you there.”

Was it pure coincidence that you were in New York?
Yeah, I was on a trip with my daughter and at the time I was wearing this American Apparel dress that went like right up to here [motions to her upper thigh]—you know those things that had stitching up the sides, like basically two pieces of material sewn together? I thought, I can’t be in this for my new business meeting. And I had my bag with me so I was going through it and changing my clothes in the park. Then I told my daughter “OK, you have to stay in the playground and make like you don’t know me because I’m a professional now” [laughs], even though I’d just changed my clothes in front of everyone in the park. Then he came and that led to the publication of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

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How old was your daughter at the time?
I was 29 or 30 so she would have been 9 or 10.

I know you had your daughter when you were just 20. How did you juggle writing and being a single mom?
It was just awful. Under much duress. That was definitely, definitely the hardest period of my life, just practically. I remember going to bed at night and I was just like “What’s the point of life? It’s too difficult.”

Is it easier now that she’s how older?
She’s 22 now so it is easier and it’s also interesting because the trouble with being in your early twenties is you also have no perspective on the world, so whenever something is happening to you, you think it’s only happening to you exclusively as opposed to it being part of the human condition. And you think it’s easier for everybody else. So now that my daughter is in her early twenties, I just see that it’s hard for everybody at that age but for me at the time, it was just like “Why is this not like fun and games?”

Montreal is almost always the setting for your books, including most of The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Can you imagine your books being set elsewhere or is Quebecois culture integral to your work?
It happened organically and just made sense when I started to write it in Montreal, but it almost seems that through the different novels, the Montreal I write about is becoming more and more of a sort of fictional, magical realist Montreal that I’ve created and that’s the location of my books. It’s like the Montreal of my mind. I am always am interested in authenticity as a writer and I find it much more fascinating when writers write from a place that they know intimately. And then with other places, I feel like there are writers from that place who know it so well, so why would I bother telling their tale when they can tell it very well? And is a city that I’ve researched so much.

Speaking of research, your books always have so much detail about the time when they’re set. What’s your research process like?
I do seem to know a lot now. For this book, I did a lot of research because when you do research, it provides your imagination new scope. There are so many odd things that you find when you research that you can’t even imagine. Like, at one point I wanted to call the character in The Lonely Hearts Hotel Pierrot, but I was like “Were people actually calling their sons Pierre in that era?” And “Would he be named that at an orphanage?” So I looked up the names of boys at an orphanage in Quebec at that time and every single one of them had been named Joseph. And I was like “One can’t make that up, that’s fantastic.” You always discover all sorts of things like that that enhance the story.

How overwhelming is the process of writing a novel? 
Novels are overwhelming. They’re just so difficult.

heather o'neill, author on her new book the lonely heart hotel

(Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins)

For The Lonely Hearts Hotel, how did the idea come to be?
When I was 22, I had heard a lyric in a Bob Dylan song where he said that he was at “the Romeo Hotel” and I was so smitten by that idea, I wanted to write a novel set in a place called the Romeo Hotel and it would be full of romantic gangsters. Although actually later, I heard the lyrics of the song again and he says “I’m all around the old hotel” and I was like “Aw, I misheard the complete genesis of my novel.” So I wrote some sketches of gangster stories and I made an attempt to write the novel and it was like four pages. I just didn’t have the ability at that point to write a historical novel. Then one day I was pondering my old novel and I was like “Wouldn’t it be interesting to go back to that idea of a gangster novel set in the 1930s but the gangsters would be hopelessly romantic?” So I sat down and I started writing. Usually when I have an idea, I just write in a stream of consciousness for awhile, because sometimes an idea is in your head and when you get it on the page, it doesn’t quite live.

Do you do that by hand, pen to paper?
I fill up notebooks with different ideas and then I type up all the ideas and I look through them to see if I can see some sort of form that they would take.

What comes next in the writing process? 
Often I know what the ending is and I know what the beginning is and then how to get from point A to point B can be such a struggle. And sometimes I have such a firm idea of where things are going and I make a structured map that I adhere to but it just doesn’t work so I have to throw out half of it and do another structure. It’s a lot of trial and error.

How long did this book take from start to finish?
I always need to take breaks from my books because I get frustrated, so I’ll take a few months off and work on something else, so with this one I had actually gotten so frustrated with that I completely abandoned it. And then I was feeling kind of hopeless, like “What am I doing? I just keep starting novels and throwing them out.” I had a plane ride from Vancouver to Montreal and I had my laptop with me and I said, Oh, I’m going to look at that old novel that I wrote and discarded, and then during that five hours I just reread the entire novel but everything suddenly became clear and so for five hours I worked on the structure and then when I stepped out of the plane, I just knew I had the book. Everything from then on was just going to be incredibly simple.

How long ago was that?
That was in 2014 but I actually looked at my drafts the other day to see when I first started writing it and that was 2012. I handed it in in 2016, so actually from the first time I wrote a word of it to when it was completely done, that was four years.

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How do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t really believe in writer’s block; you just have to force yourself through it because it’s too indulgent to subscribe to writer’s block. A doctor wouldn’t say “I have doctor’s block and I can’t cure anyone because I just can’t, I’m feeling blocked.” With any job, there are days you don’t want to go and you push through. But if I’m feeling stagnant, I might take a break or do some research. Or a lot of times, I’ll read because I find reading really cleanses my brain. I think it was Schopenhauer who said “reading is like thinking with someone else’s brain” so I just do that for a bit and then I go back and my brain has had its palate cleansed. Reading always inspires me. But yeah, I never let myself get away with saying I have writer’s block. Writing a novel is such a continuous, monumental task that you have to work at it every day.

What’s the last book you read?
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner.

Are you a one-book-at-a-time person or do you have a lot on the go at once?
Yeah, tons of them. That’s why I couldn’t remember right away. I was just imagining the stack.

When you’re writing a novel, are you disciplined with your time?
I try and do it all day long, so maybe 9am to 7pm. But within that time period, the process varies. I try not to get upset with myself for not actually producing words. Realizing the downtime is also part of the process and sometimes you feel like you’re not actually putting the pen to the paper but just staring out the window and it’s like, well, my brain is just shutting down certain parts so it can like go into the back. It’s a lot of little breaks and then I write in spurts and so it’ll all come out for half an hour and then I have to trick my brain into doing it again because my brain doesn’t want to.

Where do you write?
I write at home. I have two dogs and they hate when I leave the house so that’s probably where my work ethic comes from: guilt for the dogs. I have a dining room table that I work at which has become my desk because it’s just completely covered in books and crazy things. Then every now and then, when I come to the end of a piece, I clear off the desk.

How does it feel to finish a book?
So good. With The Lonely Hearts Hotel, when I received the finished book in the mail, I was just smelling it. My daughter was like “Are you still smelling your book?” And I was like “It just feels so good, it smells like new book and glue!”

Do you have someone close to you that gets to read any of your work before it goes to your editor?
If it’s my essays, I usually let my daughter read them first. But I’ve worked with my editor for three books so I give her the books first because I trust her now.

What’s the author and editor relationship like?
Inevitably you develop some sort of relationship because you’re talking about so much personal stuff that goes into the books. It’s great having someone you trust also because they know your process, so you can show it to them earlier and you know they’ll tell you if it’s bad. And you know their feedback works.

How do you feel about criticism of your work?
I get sensitive, yeah, of course. Because if you actually didn’t care, then why would you bother doing it?

What is your favourite part of your job?
When I get inspired by something like a painting or a poem and it gives me an idea, or even someone saying something on the street and it inspires me. Then I go back and transcribe that and I feel like I’ve gotten this little message from the universe.

What is the most challenging part?
The worst thing is probably the insecurities about the books in the world. That kind of gets you down because you always want it to be this absolutely pure, magical thing. There’s always a lot of anxiety in being an artist but that’s probably what I hate the most.

What do you do to disconnect from your work?
I do like binge-watching TV. At the end of November, I was completely exhausted because I had finished all these essays and a few weeks solid of touring and so I just went to bed and binge-watched the entire four seasons of Vikings, which my daughter refers to as “Baywatch for women.” The Vikings are extraordinarily handsome.

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