Heather O’Neill Wants You to Reclaim Your Sense of Wonder: The Millions Interview

February 17, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 8 min read


One of my least attractive qualities is that, as a writer, sometimes I get pangs of jealousy while reading a great novel. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill is one that turned me a pale shade of green.

In 1914, two babies are left in the care of a Montreal orphanage, though the care includes regular beatings and abuse. Early on in life, the two children distinguish themselves. Pierrot, a virtuoso, can make a piano sing and Rose, with her supple strength, entertains the other orphans with her dancing and humor. When Pierrot and Rose become fast friends they find solace in each other until, as teenagers, they are split up. Pierrot is adopted and Rose sent out to work. With the Great Depression taking hold, they independently struggle to make a life in the underbelly of Montreal. Through their journey toward finding each other again, the novel explores ideas about self-expression, despair, and true love. The Lonely Hearts Hotel should be a sad book, but it isn’t. As Emily St. John Mandel said, “it’s also joyful, funny, and vividly alive.”

How does a writer take on the subject of sadness and write about it with joy and wonder? One way is to counter the bleak and grim, as O’Neill does, with stunning prose. All too often, though, novels are filled with stylish language, gilded metaphors, and ornate sentences that don’t hold up thematically or structurally. When this happens, the language starts to feel decorative — I can’t help but think of the gold drapery that Donald Trump has installed in the Oval Office, fancy curtains that say nothing about grandeur and only obscure the view. But the language in The Lonely Hearts Hotel adds up to much more. Word by word, the metaphors and images allow the author to build an elegant and understated exploration of theme.

So what of my envy? It’s petty and unbecoming and replacing my Ikea blinds with green curtains will do nothing to improve my writing. That said, I’ve found it’s important to chase after uncomfortable feelings, as they often point toward something I want to learn. I was interested to understanding more about how O’Neill works and asked her for an interview. Going back and forth via email, we talked about how she makes choices, doorbells, Montreal, what she sees, what she thinks about, and how she writes.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is about how two orphans turn difficult experiences into art. It makes a case for sadness — that it is important because despair contains truths that can lead to joy. It shows how an author can build a sense of wonder using precisely chosen words. I finished both the novel and this interview with even greater admiration for O’Neill’s work. Uncomfortable feelings, like envy, can lead the way to a deeper appreciation. And maybe my Ikea blinds mean I can focus on the view.

The Millions: I was struck by your writing when I realized the precision of your choices. Rose, out of the orphanage and looking for a way to make money, walks up to a building. Inside is a studio that makes pornographic films. You describe what she sees, a “descending row of white doorbells, like the buttons on a dress.” My question is specific: How did that image come to you?

Heather O’Neill: It’s hard to remember the motivations for that detail specifically. But let me try.

Doorbells at the entrance of a building is something that’s been in my imagination for a while. I remember reading an essay once, years ago, where someone said they lived in a building with loads of doorbells. And from that moment, I was in love with doorbells on the page.

What I’m saying is that, for me doorbells are fraught and magical. So whenever they are in my text, they are more than what they are. They insist on having meaning. They are put there for me as a general metaphor for the content of a building. They have some much possibility. If there are loads of doorbells, there are all these strange doors you can choose to go into. There’s something inappropriate about having too many doorbells.

TM: When you first wrote that sentence, did you already know that Rose would soon be taking off her clothes?

HO: I was imagining Montreal as being sexy. So there are lots of feminine details and images. There are buildings that are coy and some that are more forward. The buildings echo what goes on inside them.

With that building, the doorbells were a neat white line, like buttons, and buttons are always undone. And what goes on in that building is, of course, erotic. So when I got to the door, I would have wanted some detail that heralded that. So I added that detail. But I can’t recall when I added it. It might have occurred to me at the origin of the scene.

TM: When you read the essay about doorbells, did you write your observation down? Or did it come to you while you were writing?

HO: Many of my metaphors, imagery come to me specifically for the scene. I do also have notebooks filled with details. Sometimes I will have an image, like a poem that follows me around, waiting to be used. So it might have been a small line that existed before the story itself. Like my dad used to have a sewing box with lots of patches in the shapes of mushrooms etc, that were waiting for the right hole to fit.

TM: Do you have an idea of the plot and work back to the language? Or is it the other way around?

HO: There’s so much strange intuition in writing that it’s hard to say. I have no idea what the history of that actual line is, but if I tracked it down, I wonder if it would make my writing process make so much sense that I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore.

TM: Beyond the doorbell, the buildings are much more than a place to live. When Rose takes a room in a building with thin walls rather than being disturbed by the noise, she feels soothed by the voices of her neighbours as she falls asleep, “it was what the world sounded like to an unborn child.”

HO: The buildings in the novel are especially alive when Rose moves further east in the city, to the Red Light District. There were secrets maps of that neighbourhood that circulated in the 1930s and ’40s. They had secret back doors and tunnels in the walls and routes over the rooftops, etc. So they were complicit in the lifestyle and criminal goings on. I feel like the inhabitants of every building change it a little bit. The way that every intimate relationship you have changes your personality. And the lives and activities happening in the rooms of those buildings jolted them into life. And I find them so beautiful that it’s hard for me not to see an object of beauty as being animate.

TM: And the houses get moody with age, “they refuse to open or shut their windows.” Or a hotel goes up in flames, as if the building had a heart attack. You live in Montreal and set much of your work there. Do you think of the city as a character?

HO: Definitely. I always feel that it is alive. When I sit on a staircase, I know the building is aware of me. It’s always watching me. It’s talked me into some of the worst decisions of my life and whispered great words of love and belief into my ears at the same time. I feel sort of giddy when I walk down the streets. Especially in the Plateau, where I’ve spent most of my life, because it knows me. It’s always reminded me of good times we had together. Sometimes I get so taken aback when I see an old familiar building that it’s like running into an ex at the grocery store.

I think Montreal, like any city, has its own personality. It’s totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty. It is romantic and fickle and philosophical. It always has something to say in every scene I write. It’s a main character, I would say.

TM: But then you captured New York in the most fascinating way as well. It is an outsider’s view filled with awe, that the city vibrates with so much energy because of, “all the hearts beating,” and the buildings are like, “ladders up to the heavens.” If you are so rooted in Montreal, how to you approach writing about another place?

HO: It depends on the place. I think my interpretation of different cities is influenced by how that place is fixed in the imagination of Montrealers. (My portraits of Paris are always suffused with a moody, existential beauty.)

I wanted New York City to seem very big to the characters. Growing up Canadian, as you know, you have a sort of cultural low self-esteem. We’re taught that everybody is more brilliant and bright and interesting than us. That’s why we’re so polite, because we’re afraid of being noticed. We’re so intimidated by Americans, it’s tragic. That’s what the performers were feeling when they step off the train. They are giddy by the heights of the buildings in New York, because they represent the heights of their ambitions, what they’ve decided to try and measure up to. Because it is so big, it makes the characters feel somewhat like children. And much of this novel is about the nature of childhood innocence, and the relationship between who we were as children and who we are as adults. They are essentially living out childhood dreams, so everything seems gigantic in New York, in ambition and scope. Everything is exciting and bold.

TM: So much of the observation in this novel happens on the level of the street. I imagine you wandering the streets of Montreal and staring at people for inappropriately long stretches of time. Do you do this?

HO: I used to. So much as a child. I definitely had a staring problem. I was enthralled by strangers around me in the city. I thought they were so wonderful. I would watch them as though they were theatrical productions, and I was analyzing their themes. Every nutty thing they said had subtext and layers of meaning. I read people as though they were novels, before I began writing novels. So much of what I wrote, especially my early work, was based on the works of influential writers and the jokers sitting across from me on buses.

TM: That is the beauty in this novel, the layers of meaning. Your choices of images and metaphors link the language to the themes. The wonder in the your language, the awe involved in seeing something like a doorbell through fresh eyes, it speaks to how one can cope with the difficult things that happen in life. Can an adult who has lost a sense of wonder find it again?

HO: Yes. It comes when you trust your intuitions, allowing yourself to get excited about absurd things. I became smitten with the image of a girl in a Napoleon hat when reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel when I was in my 20s. I was so fixated on the image, I was trying to figure out why I was interested in the idea of a girl in a Napoleon hat. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel there is a girl wearing a Napoleon hat in an early scene and then by the end of the book there is a whole troupe of girls wearing Napoleon hats. I realized after using the image that it was because I wanted to bestow on the young girls a revolutionary power. I wanted to make them ambitious, and blood thirsty and defiant. All the while pulling nylons over their toes, wearing lace bras, and shrieking at mice, maintaining their femininity.

My chorus girls were an army, like Henry Darger’s drawings of warrior girls, or Marcel Dzama’s depictions of girl scouts with machine guns, or Gisèle Vienne’s dolls with black bandit masks on their faces.

When it first appeared to me, it struck me as the most beautiful image in the world. But beauty comes before reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way.

Living with a sense of wonder, allows the seemingly trivial to insist on having meaning. It is not hierarchical. Children know this. They bestow great importance on a mouse on a counter, or a sticker of a unicorn prancing across a binder. As an adult, the act of judging one’s self and the world around you as insignificant is what leads us to lose our sense of wonder.

Reading is an activity that causes the brain to wonder again. I find anyways. Whenever I finish a book, I put it down and the world seems to explode with new meanings. On some level, literature assumes that every reader is a child.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her novel The Last Neanderthal is published by Little, Brown and Co., was recently featured in The New York Times, and is a national bestseller in Canada. Her writing has appeared in the Lenny Letter, The New York Times, Salon, and The Globe and Mail. Follow her @clairecameron or read more at www.claire-cameron.com.