Interview with Room’s 2023 Fiction Contest Judge, Heather O’Neill

Victoria Butler

This year’s Fiction Contest judge is the award-winning novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist, Heather O’Neill. 

Her novels Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels, have been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize two years in a row. Her novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and was long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and CBC’s Canada Reads. Her most recent novel, When We Lost Our Heads, is a historical novel about a female friendship with long-lasting impact set in O’Neill’s hometown of Montreal, where she currently lives with her daughter, Arizona. 

In this interview, we chat with Heather about abandoning perfection, how writers should treat rejection like the flu, and the longing for a writing mentor for younger versions of ourselves. 

Room’s 2023 Fiction Contest closes on April 30th, 2023.

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ROOM: I was going through the plots of your novels and noticed that most, if not all of them, are set in Montreal, or Montreal-ish, which is where you were born and where you live now. How would you say place defines your work? And what does your hometown mean to you?

HEATHER O’NEILL: It sort of depends on the day. I was born here. But then I left for a while because I was living with my mother. My mother sent me back when I was 7 and when I arrived on this island, I thought it was the worst place on Earth. The thing is, I had no memories of Montreal or my father, I just occasionally dreamed of them. The Montreal of my dreams was so different from the one I arrived in. Like I had this dream once that my dad lived in a building the shape of a letter D. So that was the first surprise when I got there, it was not a D…[I had] an odd, sort of childish view of Montreal. In a way, it’s kind of a homage to that magical island I dreamed about. It also seemed to me like a city that, in some ways, defies being categorized because it’s always changing, and it’s always strange, and it has kind of nothing to do with the rest of Canada. It’s off on this limb, doing strange things. I thought it was a fun city to use in my books. I felt, because it was the city I was from, I can really be more inventive and playful, and, you know, make generalizations that are funny because they’re probably not generalizations and it’s just me who thinks that. I can’t do that with other cities. But the book I’m working on now, I’ve actually left Montreal. So that was really interesting. I didn’t entirely plan that, but until now I was somehow still trapped on the geography of the island.

ROOM: I’m looking forward to seeing where your future characters end up! So, before publishing Lullabies for Little Criminals, you published a collection of poetry titled, two eyes are you sleeping. How did you make the switch to fiction? And do you find your writing process different depending on which genre you’re working on?

HO: I was really into writing poetry and thought of myself as a poet. But I wrote this one story in a class and it was a non-fiction class, butI wrote a fiction story anyhow. It’s so weird to think of now and remember your arrogance when you were in your twenties. Like this is a nonfiction class and I insisted on handing in fictional stories. They were so obviously fictional but I would just insist they were real for the sake of the class. 

ROOM: I mean it worked out! You clearly knew what you were doing!

HO: At that point, too, I just didn’t really know the difference between reality and fiction, and it was also at a time of J. T. Leroy and James Fry in the literary world where everybody had kind of forgotten that there was such a difference between if it actually happened or if it didn’t. So I see why as a writer you would get confused. So I wrote this story and I really felt that it was like a prose poem. In each sentence I was kind of crafting, as though it were independently like a phrase in the same way that it would be in a poem. And then people liked it. And then I got more responses. I realized the sort of response you can get if you write prose. That story ended up being nominated for the Journey Prize, which is probably still the biggest thing that has ever happened to me. When those awards come when you’re young, it’s unbelievable, and that story ended up being Lullabies for Little Criminals. But it was this very fluid thing. All I knew how to do was write poetry, and then I was in a class where I had to write this story. I think I just used all the devices that I had been using in poetry when I was writing Lullabies. So Lullabies had always seemed like a poem to me, or that the character was a poet thinking about the world. So I would say to switch from poetry to fiction came naturally.

The other part of your question, what’s the difference between working in the genres? Working in nonfiction and fiction, I do find it strange in terms of the difference of the brain. When I write non-fiction it feels philosophical and I’m coming up with ideas and it’s just my own statements. But then, in fiction there’s more boundaries, like you wonder which character would possibly have all these pompous ideas? In fiction, when I’m writing, there’s all sorts of these little magical, imagistic, intuitive reflections that would be so insane to put in my own mouth in a nonfiction thing. They open different little doors. It’s like in one I’m the mad professor and in the other I’m the child.

ROOM: You get to pick who you want to be that day! So we kind of already answered this, but a follow up question: do you have advice to readers who are attempting to try something new and branch out of the genre they’re most comfortable in? Like, what would you say to someone who’s like, I’ve always written fiction and I really love poetry, but I don’t know how to start writing poetry because I’ve only ever written fiction.

HO: You have to write the poems! Take a class on poetry again. Take a little workshop. I guess like with everything with writing, it’s just about actually writing the thing, like in the Middle ages when they would just bleed you all the time. Once the poison goes, you eventually get a poem.

ROOM: So you and your daughter, Arizona, run @ONeillReads, which is an Instagram account dedicated to “discovering and recommending magnificent magical works.” How did this collaboration come to be? And what does the discovery process look like before you both share your thoughts on a selected book? Do you both read it together, and then, have, like a mother, daughter, book club night? Or do you each read different books and share them? I’m very interested to see how you guys started this. I think it’s just so cool. I was going through the other day. It’s such a great curation. 

HO: It was originally Arizona’s idea. She was working at a bookstore, so she spent a lot of time looking at other bookstores’ Instagrams or other Bookstagrams. So we were walking down the street once and she was like let’s start a Bookstagram, and I was like absolutely not. I don’t want any more work. No more work! But then she kept bringing it up. And then I was like, okay, fine. So we started it. We used to read more of the same books, but now we read different books so we can have more to post about. But, you know, it’s capitalism, having to produce is just tearing us apart. Arizona didn’t want us to sign the reviews and say who they came from, because when we first started it a few years ago she thought people would take my reviews more seriously. Or that they would be comparing us, so we post incognito. 

Although occasionally we come out, like when she posted her review of the Persuasion movie by Jane Austen, where she claimed it was better than the book. I had her put a disclaimer at the top, claiming “Heather is distancing herself from the below review.” Arizona also likes a lot of horror, her favorite writers are Octavia Butler and Shirley Jackson. And then I really like dense literary stuff. So it’s kind of fun to see what we both kind of bring in. Then we have to go out and photograph it, which I’m not allowed to photograph anything. Arizona is a visual artist, so she’s just very fussy about the pictures. Occasionally, I’ve come with the book that she says is too ugly to put on the page. Once I had this book from McGill Library that I thought was so good but she wouldn’t put up because it didn’t actually have a cover. Instagram is visual!

ROOM: This is the perfect intersection of two generations trying to run an Instagram together, I love it. I’ve been following along and my plan is to just use Bookstagram as a one stop shop for recommendations. 

HO: Yeah, it’s super fun, and I do find that like Bookstagram and those other platforms for the social media recommendation of books is becoming so important now in the marketing of books. And yeah, I started being more active on it lately. 

ROOM: This next question is sort of in the same vein, but what are some of your favourite fiction books or pieces that you’ve read in the last 5 years and why? What makes them stand out to you?

HO: Oh, my God…

ROOM: I know, such a difficult question.

HO: Recently I really liked The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li and Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba. I like books about evil little girls. I also really liked Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. They also republished this writer from Denmark, Tove Ditlevsen. She wrote this trilogy that’s three memoirs, childhood, adolescents and then an addiction she descended into.

ROOM: I’ll definitely look those ones up when I’m in my relaxation era and on the hunt to read scary traumatic books. Next question, what advice would you give to writers who are afraid to submit their work anywhere in case their pieces are rejected? How do you deal with rejection in the writing world?

HO: It’s awful, but you just have to do it. I think everybody gets rejected, and it just continues to be part of your career. Because sometimes you have ideas people don’t like. My thing is, never reject yourself. Allow those people to reject you, don’t do it [to yourself] ahead of time. If you don’t [submit your work] because you’re afraid they’re gonna reject you, you’re going to reject yourself. Why are you doing that? 

Also, I treat it like a flu. When I get a rejection I feel terrible, even though I’ve got myself ready for it, and pretend I’m so cool that I don’t care about rejection. And then I get a no and I get that sick feeling – you can’t help it, you think, oh, it’s because I’m no good. But then, I just treat it like a flu that I’ve caught. I catch rejection like a bug, and it’s usually a 24 hour flu, and you start to feel better than next day. If it’s a tough one it will be like 48 hour bug. But just remember that those feelings pass you. You start feeling good and hopeful again, and then you apply for something else.

ROOM: I love that, actually. My friend used to do a competition with herself where she’d see if she could get up to a 100 rejections in a year. But if she gets a 100 rejections, every now and then she gets an acceptance. I admire her for doing that a lot. I couldn’t do it. 

HO: I also feel like you should at least be getting some rejections, because it means you’re kind of pushing your own ceiling. Those rejections kind of strengthen you: say you’re pitching an idea to a magazine. If it keeps coming back with rejections, then you’re like, I need a better pitch. What is it they’re not responding to? So there’s always something to learn from rejection too. Sometimes it takes a little while to get accepted. 

ROOM: Oh absolutely. I’m curious as to what is the best and what is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

HO: The best and the worst? I mean, they’re kind of related. The worst piece of advice I got: someone said, make sure you take all the time you want, don’t pressure yourself, but make sure you have a perfect novel so it’s ready for publication. That was the worst advice I got. But then I got better advice, which was: you are gonna tinker with this forever, you just have to hand things in. So now I feel there’s no such thing as perfection, so I hand things in when I figure they’re 85% done.

ROOM: I totally agree. We’re artists right? So it’s like, you can be picking at this forever, you have to reach a point where you decide it’s done, in the sense of, I can’t touch it anymore.

HO: Exactly. I have to embrace imperfection, too, because that’s what makes novels and writing interesting. Otherwise we would just hand it off to the AI’s.

ROOM: They’re coming for our gigs! Last question: Room aims to publish emerging writers, but we know that the writing world can feel intimidating when you’re brand new. If you could go back in time knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to pre-Lullabies Heather: about life, about writing, about anything?

HO: I’m not sure what I would tell myself but I wish so much that I had had a woman mentor. I was always grasping, and the only adults at the time who would offer some sort of input were the sexual predator kind of professors who hang around. I would have done anything for a mentor, like someone who kind of helped me with a couple of things, because I just didn’t know how to do anything. So I’d like to go back and mentor myself. Or I wish I would have approached older women more. That wasn’t even part of the culture when I was younger, like it never occurred to me to demand that older women help me. Now, whenever I get emails from younger women writers, I always answer, and I always do whatever I can do. I mean the funny thing now about the days of the Internet is there’s so many different paths to get yourself attention that who knows what helps with anything? Yeah, I just would have liked to have had an older somebody in my life. 

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Room’s 2023 Fiction Contest, judged by Heather O’Neill closes on April 30th, 2023.

Victoria Butler is a writer from Barrie, ON. She was the Poet Laureate of said hometown from 2018 until 2022 and was the first woman to carry the title. She is in the midst of completing her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. Her debut full length poetry collection, Little Miracles, was released with Black Moss Press in 2021. Victoria specializes in commissioned poetry for individuals and events.

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