Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Peeking Out from the Collars of a Fur Coat: An Interview with Heather O'Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel (HarperCollins), Heather O’Neill’s third novel, follows two orphans and a memorable cast of supporting characters as their dreams unfold in Depression-era Montreal. Published to rave reviews and nominated for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, acclaim for this novel shows no signs of slowing down. Maisonneuve had the chance to talk with O’Neill about corrupt city officials in the red light district, how every line of writing is like a musical score, and how the Montreal in each of her novels is different from the last.

Matthew Walsh: I was wondering how you crafted each character in the novel. They all have distinct voices—the things Rose says, especially early in the novel, are intriguing, dream-like, surreal. A teacher once told me she liked to go to bars and listen to what people were saying, and sometimes it would inspire a poem or character. Was any of the dialogue inspired by something you overheard?

Heather O’Neill: No. It’s a historical novel, so the dialogue has to be less colloquial. In that sense, it was harder to write. The dialogue I’ve written in my novels with more contemporary settings has been based on overheard language and peculiar speech patterns I’ve encountered and enjoyed, and the way I speak myself. But this was a more stylized dialogue, based on a cross between the dialogue in children’s books, depression gangster novels, and feminist voices of the twentieth century. With, of course, a touch of the deadpan humour that I always adore in conversation.

MW: Where did the character of Rose originate? Did you base her on anyone?

HO: She was based on a character I invented when I was twenty-two called Doll Stockings. She was a cynical gangster’s moll with a penchant for violence and a wild sex drive. Of course, in the novel, I developed her into a rounded three-dimensional character, with melancholy, ambition and a childhood. I looked behind the persona. When I first met her, she was peeking out from the collars of a fur coat and didn’t want anyone, including me, to know who exactly she was.

MW: I saw a post on Twitter about how you visited orphanages while writing this novel. The novel has a historical component to it, beginning in the early 1900s and continuing through the Depression. And there are references to streets and landmarks in Montreal. The Darling Hotel, for instance. I was curious about your research methods for The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Did you learn anything about Montreal, or other facts from this time period that were new to you?

HO: For the beginning of the novel, I learned a lot about the predicaments of unwed single mothers at the turn of the century and the Hôpital de la Misèricorde. I was interested in the treatment of foundlings and abandoned children. I learned about the history of the red light district in Montreal. I found out a lot about clubs and brothels, how they were organized and how corrupt city officials were. Interestingly, the only reason the city made an effort to clean up the brothels was when the American army refused to dock their ships in Montreal because all the soldiers had contracted the clap here.

MW: Pierrot, one of the two main characters, gets a job playing piano for people in a theatre that used to play musical scores for silent era films. While I was reading I couldn’t help but recall some of those old Hollywood silent films, performers like Shirley Temple and Mickey Roone, vaudeville theatre, and shows like The Little Rascals and The Judy Garland Show, where people would sit and chat, as well as perform. Did some of the inspiration for this book come from these art forms?

HO: Yes, definitely. I wanted the aesthetic and style of the writing to reflect the staccato rhythm of those films, and the actions of Rose and Pierrot to mirror the melodramatic style of performance that was employed—particularly the scenes were Rose is working in pornographic films. The conventions of the physical humour in silent films are also used in the book. I was, of course, influenced by Charlie Chaplin too.

MW: There’s always an aspect of performance in your novels. I’m thinking of the characters in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, in addition to your latest book. Music and art seem to preoccupy these characters, and appear in the works themselves. Does music inspire your writing?  

HO: I’m interested in the musicality of language. And style. I always think of a line of writing as a score that will be played differently in each reader’s mind. I’m particularly interested in the sound of a solo piano and the words on a page. There’s a way that children play the piano that I try to mimic in my writing. I played the trumpet in high school, but I was always convinced my trumpet was broken and depressed—although the teacher swore I played in an idiosyncratic way she’d never heard before and should continue.

MW: Nearly every sentence in this book has a captivating image in it. One character gives another a pearl which is described as “[looking] like the moon through a peephole”; elsewhere in the novel, Pierrot compares aristocrats with their big wigs as “just [having] stepped out of bubble baths.” You’ve have written poetry in the past, as well.  Through writing poetry, have you discovered anything about novel writing?

HO: I think of all my novels as poems. My novels were an extension of the way that I learned to use language while writing poetry. I think that my voice and use of metaphor was developed in my poems. I’m not sure if I’ll ever write another book of poems. One might will itself into existence. But as I said, I don’t see a huge distinction between my novels and poems. And I think of myself as a poet.

MW: This is such a well-paced novel with a large cast of characters. It also struck me as a very cinematic novel. You juggle a lot of plates without having to sweep up any glass—there’s so much action, so many characters, so many great moments. Were there characters or events that got cut from the novel during the editing process?

HO: Yes, of course. Things were lost. One cut I made concerned Rose’s violence. There was a scene where she put into motion a series of violence acts as a form of poetic irony. One of my editors felt it took away from Rose’s empathic nature and the reader’s ability to identify with her, and wasn’t true to the performer she once was as a child, and tainted the magic of who she ultimately becomes. So it was removed. It was a little painful for me because I thought of it as a beautiful literary set piece. But I’m going to turn into a short story and publish it on its own.

MW: The city of Montreal plays a big part in your work. In each of your novels, do you find yourself writing about Montreal differently? Do you see Montreal as a character? Are there different Montreals, so to speak, in each of your books? 

HO: I do. The Montreal of Lullabies for Little Criminals was a poetic world of the child. It was the closest to how I perceived the city as a child, growing up there. The Montreal of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night was a magical-realist one, where surreal, transformative moments happened. There were flights of metaphoric fancy in that creation of Montreal, where cats roamed every inch of the island and the flowers on wallpaper bloomed. The Montreal of The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a stage set, where there are trap doors and the characters are all performers, and the moon is made of papier-mâché and is rolled down the street and suspended on wires. I also think that Montreal is a living, breathing personality in The Lonely Hearts Hotel. The hotels have the characteristics and souls of people.