Heather O’Neill talks about the magic of Montreal

During the latest instalment of the Canadian Writers in Person series on Jan. 12, Heather O’Neill spoke about her novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (2014). This is her second novel and it was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. York teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

Heather O'Neill
Heather O’Neill

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in Montreal in 1995, and it follows the adventures of Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay, 19-year-old twins who live in a rundown apartment on St. Laurent with their grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. Nouschka’s attempt to separate from her brother and grow into a self-reliant person is paralleled by Quebec’s attempt to separate from Canada through the 1995 referendum. There is real emotion and pain that underlie these struggles for independence, but there is also plenty of humour in the book.

O’Neill talked about reading a news story about a lion that had escaped from someone’s farm and walked into Montreal one early morning. This absurd and hilarious incident made its way into the book where not only does the reader learn of a lion crossing the bridge into Montreal one morning, but also about the people who would think the “business” of raising lions in the Quebec countryside is a good idea. The author said the lion is absurd and magical, and together with the many stray cats in the novel, it helps give Montreal a certain air of magical realism.

Heather O'Neill bookA Quill and Quire review notes: “Her Montreal is a sexy, surreal landscape of laundromats, stray cats, and biker gangs; it is simultaneously magical and filthy, gorgeous and corrupt. The novel’s language – celebratory, cocky, dangerous, and desperate – reflects the atmosphere these characters live in. It’s common enough to say that a city becomes a character in a novel (and, indeed, Montreal is an irresistible, nicotine-stained presence here), but O’Neill’s very language becomes a character: unapologetic, slightly mad, impossible to ignore.”

O’Neill said that “part of being a writer is communicating things that people can’t deal with. Fiction writing opens up different worlds that are hard for people to look at.” And she certainly opens up to the reader the world of working-class Montreal in the 1990s.

During her visit to York University, the author talked about the writing process and emphasized to aspiring writers the importance of writing daily. She writes every day in a notebook and starts with writing notes about characters to see what works on the page. She says that “literary fiction is all about the writing, not the plot.”

Her first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006), won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and was longlisted for IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

On Jan. 26, Gregory Scofield will read from and talk about his collection of poetry, Louis: the Heretic Poems. Readings are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at leslie@yorku.ca or Professor Gail Vanstone at gailv@yorku.ca. All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Keele campus.