About The Author
Heather O'Neill has written for This American Life and the New York Times. Her first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was shortlisted for the Orange Women's Prize; her second, The Girl who was Saturday Night, was longlisted for the Baileys Women's Fiction Prize, and shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Her collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize. She lives in Montreal with her daughter and a chihuahua named Hamlet.
Her new novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, has been longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. This heartbreaking and beautifully told tale tells the stories of orphans, Rose and Pierrot, who find a way to temporarily escape abuse at their orphanage when their talent for entertaining adults proves to be a money-spinner. But though they are cruelly separated, they never lose their shared vision to create a magical world together that will lift them out of the gutter and on to a glittering stage. In pursuit of their dreams and of each other they battle more abuse, poverty, the Depression and addiction not knowing if they will ever find each other or their place in the world.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Heather about where addictions come from, the physical and psychic geography of love and unleashing her fury through her female protagonist.
Author photo © Julia C Vona
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your novel?
I had the idea when I was quite young. My dad was fascinated by gangsters and would always tell me stories about criminals he had known in the 1930s. I loved the stories and became quite obsessed with gangsters. Some of the first short stories I wrote when I was 20 were about lovesick gangsters who lived in a place called The Romeo Hotel and got their heads blown off. I decided to return to those characters with more developed themes.
Was the orphanage based on a particular one you’d heard about?
No. It was a composite of different orphanages at the time that I’d read about. The way it was architecturally and the physical details of it were from real orphanages in Quebec. The spirit of the place was influenced by orphanages in children’s literature. And the one in Jane Eyre. And Dickens, of course. There was a touring exhibit of old cribs and cradles assembled by a Canadian artist named Spring Halburt that I saw at a museum in Montreal. It looked like a strange cast iron garden and made me begin to dream up an orphanage. I suddenly saw children in the beds.
Orphanages and circuses in their different ways are both stages for reinvention. Is this at the root of their appeal for writers?
Yes! Because I think they both free you from your family. The writer’s life and path is so eccentric that it often takes a wild turn from their family’s history. So often writers feel alienated from their families and seek kindred spirits. Or anyways, I’m probably talking about myself. I always wanted to create my own family. I never understood why one ought to love their biological relations. Although, that obviously speaks to the environment I grew up in. One renounces heritage, the other renounces being human altogether.
Heroin and other drug use is both devastating and not uncommon in the world of this novel. If anything, it seems more of an epidemic in the 20s and 30s when your book is set, than now. Do you think that is actually the case?
I don’t know if I would say that. It’s something that has always haunted the underbelly of Montreal, and definitely still does today. It was all around me growing up. I was offered it all the time and so many of my friends began using in their twenties. And there’s a growing opioid crisis in Canada now that seems so threatening, it’s hard to wrap my head around. I’ve never quite been able to decide if people go in search of the drug, or the drug comes looking for them. Some people say an addict is born, and always has that sad gene. It’s something I explore in all my writing. Where does the addiction come from?
You describe life on the stage with great love and zest. Did you ever secretly wish to be a performer yourself?
Oh of course. I often considered going on stage. I adored the stage. When I was at McGill University I took lots of theatre performance classes. My favourite style was Commedia dell’arte. I thought I had a gift, or definitely a passion, for physical comedy and clowning and renaissance buffoonery. Naturalism and Chekov wreaked havoc on my GPA [grade point average].
You tormented the reader (this one anyway!) with how close to meeting Rose and Pierrot come, deliciously drawing out the agony for as long as possible. Did you always know how their story would end?
When I originally conceived of the two of them in the orphanage, I was surprised they found each other so quickly and fell in love so deeply. I don’t know why I didn’t see it. I’m a fool. Then I tore them apart, the sweethearts. It’s almost as though they have to outwit me and the narrative and the writing to find their way back to each other. I did sort of know where it was all going. Sometimes it made me eager to get there, and at other times reluctant to let them find one another. I quite enjoyed them being apart, but being somehow still so close to each other, and playing with the physical and psychic geography of love.
Your writing is characterised by beautiful and surprising similies: ‘When the tailor was done, there was a pile of measuring tape on the ground as if a mummy had just performed a striptease.’ Or: ‘A butterfly passed by the window. It had made its wings out of the pressed petals of flowers.’ Can you say something about your writing process and how you resolve any tension between the need to drive the plot forward and the desire to linger on words and images?
That’s a good question. I suppose I feel that each image has to be as unexpected and thrilling as a plot twist. It would be like an acrobat doing a flip off a trapeze and catching onto another one, in a circus show. The awe it creates must make your pulse quicken in the same way suspense would, in order to keep the reader moving along. The image had to be a box that is opened, and the reader looks in for meaning. And then grabs some treasure and moves on better equipped to understand the rest of the story. A good image advances the plot in other less linear ways. I’ve said enough. I might be tightening the knot, rather than unloosening it.
‘She was proof that a woman could take as much from life as a man.’ How conscious were you at the outset that as well as telling the story of Rose and Perrot it was also going to be so strongly feminist?
My Rose was inspired by characters and women who were outraged by their predicament in the past, but destroyed by it. She was so strong and had such a pathetic circumstance that it could only be a feminist tale for her to survive. She starts off as one of Jean Rhys’s down and out chorus girls, but instead of lying in a hotel weeping about men, she gets up, polishes her boots and goes out in the world looking for trouble. She gave voice to a lot of outrage I had inside of me. One can never be sure what a character will be able to articulate. She was able to channel so many ideas and opinions that I had. I did know it would be a feminist tale, but once I realized how bold Rose was, I took advantage of a wonderful opportunity to unleash my fury.
Here and in others of your books your characters are left to fend for themselves while still young and are often catapulted into adulthood from an early age. Can you say more about the attraction of such a scenario to you as a writer?
Oh it’s my favourite. The world described by an innocent. A horrendous world observed by a lineless face. I adore juxtaposition, probably to a fault, and innocence and sophistication battling it out is such a delicious trope to me.
Do you agree with Rose that ‘the pursuit of happiness always makes a person miserable’? Is that the irony of the human condition?
Rose’s cynicism is almost humorous to me at times. It’s the type of thing I would believe were I in a bad mood certainly. Always looking into the future drives people to despair. Ambition is a double edged sword. It challenges you to achieve great things, but then causes you to be perpetually unsatisfied and looking for something else, something better. What is happiness, other than something just around the corner, just out of sight. The present. The present. The present. If you can stay there for a moment, there’s something miraculous in that. Maybe that’s what romantic love does, makes you stay in the present. (I change my definition of love on the hour, just so you know.)