An Interview with Heather O’Neill

I recently sat down with author Heather O’Neill to talk about her latest novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel.  Just as she does in her novel, she brings a unique and fascinating perspective to our conversation. The Lonely Hearts Hotel follows the story of two disenfranchised Montreal orphans, Rose and Pierrot. They are both destined for greatness but are plagued by countless disadvantages along the way. The Lonely Hearts Hotel has a magical and fairy-tale feel that delights and surprises the reader as the story unfolds.

Tyson Burger: What were your relationships with your characters like while you were writing this novel?

Heather O’Neill: I never really think of characters as existing only in books, I always relate to them as though they’re real people. I’ll often learn from them as I write, and there is always something that the characters are able to teach me.

Especially Rose. Rose ended up being much more forceful and angry and psychotic than I’d imagined. She had all of these perspectives on being a woman, and this feminist strand started dictating her character, which was surprising for me to see. When I was done with Rose I felt that I was a stronger person, and since writing the book, I’ve felt that my perspective on who I am in the world has really changed. Rose said, “No more moral passivity with women, Heather.” She’s not there to observe, she’s just going to take over. I feel more confident after spending all that time with her.

Burger: One of my favourite things about reading your novels is your use of creative and unique metaphors, and I’m curious about what your process is like when coming up with them. Do they come to you as you write, or do you save them up beforehand and then apply them to the context of the novel as you write it?

O’Neill: It all depends, sometimes they come as I’m writing, and sometimes they come later. Then I’ll think of where I want to put them, or it’ll come to me as I’m rewriting. Sometimes it takes a really long time– they come from a strange part of my brain. I don’t know if one day maybe they’ll just stop coming to me. I have to be all alone for it to happen, and trick my mind into doing some irrational thing. Like, I’ll see a cat on the street and try to imagine what it’s thinking, and what kind of perspective it would have. I like the images that the metaphors create, and I often like to end sections or chapters on an image that reflects on the events of the text to give the power to the images.

Burger: The book challenges a lot of the established roles and stereotypes that exist in society. Do you ever worry about readers being offended by your challenging of the legitimacy of those roles?

O’Neill: No, because I come from the bottom. One of the reasons I’ve tried to be so open about my own background is because I’ve always read and interpreted texts through the writers’ biographies. I know that some people are the opposite and think that works should speak for themselves, but I’ve always read works that way. My texts are written from the voice of someone that was in those positions, and I think that it legitimizes a lot of what I’m saying. I was able to write in that voice because I survived that, and can present my characters in that light. If someone who did not consider themselves a survivor was writing about this, I would have a bit of a problem with that. The only way my characters can think the way they do is because I think that way.

Burger: Warning: the following question contains spoilers. Rose and Sister Eloise are two characters that have an interesting connection because they are the only two women in the novel that have any kind of power. They each attain that power in completely different ways. Rose earns her power, and it builds her way up from the bottom, honestly. Sister Eloise attacks vulnerable children behind closed doors. Does this ideological inconsistency play a role in Rose’s eventual decision to kill Sister Eloise at the end of the novel?

O’Neill: No, I would say she was motivated by revenge. Sister Eloise’s power was an abusive power within the domestic sphere, which was the space where women were relegated to at the time. Rose’s power was from moving into the outside world – she was determined to get out of the domestic sphere, whatever it took. She did try to do it in a legitimate way, but there were no ways for her to do that, which is actually the same conclusion that criminals—especially young men—at the time, came to. They were all incredible, ambitious and clever young men who couldn’t make it in the world in a regular way so they went into crime. Rose followed the same logical conclusion; the only illogical thing was that she’s a woman. I’d say the end is motivated by her promise to Pierrot; that she would kill Sister Eloise for him. It’s also a reminder that all of the wonderful things that she has at the end of the novel were achieved through violence. I was trying to write it in a way that different interpretations were possible, which is one of the reason I love imagistic writing.

Speaking with Heather O’Neill was as delightful as reading The Lonely Hearts Hotel. She was insightful, thoughtful and often funny. Next Heather O’Neill is judging the fiction section of the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence at The Puritan. You can find the long list for the fiction prize, here.  The Lonely Hearts Hotel is now available for purchase at most local book stores.