Quill and Quire

Heather O'Neill

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Bringing up Baby

Heather O’Neill’s debut novel brings magic to a grim inner-city childhood

Heather O'Neill

St. Urbain is best known as the Montreal street where Mordecai Richler came of age. Today, Heather O’Neill lives there with her longtime boyfriend, Jonathan Goldstein, an author and CBC Radio personality, and with her daughter, Arizona O’Neill, who has just started Grade 7 at École Superieure de Ballet Contemporain. Their ground-floor apartment is guarded by a lawn statue of Peter Rabbit, and I’m reminded that my six-year-old son won’t have anything to do with the Beatrix Potter classic, which he calls “that book where the father gets eaten in a pie.”

O’Neill, 32, leads me into her bright, clean, uncluttered kitchen, and while she’s making us coffee, I ask her whether Arizona has read O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. It’s a reasonable question, since the book’s narrator, Baby, is 12 going on 13. “No, she’s not allowed,” says O’Neill – a reasonable answer. After all, by the end of the novel, Baby has become a prostitute and a street junkie, like Jules, the young single father who has raised her. A dilemma looms for O’Neill, though – some of Arizona’s classmates have found out about the book, and are intrigued that Arizona isn’t allowed to read it. So they’re of course eagerly awaiting its release.

They’re not alone. In the U.S., where HarperCollins is publishing the novel (HarperCollins Canada is distributing it here), Barnes & Noble has selected O’Neill for its Discover Great New Writers campaign. When I meet with her, she’s recently been contacted by People magazine about a publicity photo to go with a review of the book. “People magazine,” O’Neill repeats incredulously, in a soft voice that is impressively smooth, given how many Camels she will smoke in the hour I’m there. “That’s so odd.

Not so odd to those who’ve read the book. Baby’s voice, intelligent and infectious, brings to mind the hypnotic charm of recent bestsellers told from the point of view of gifted children neglected by their parents – books like Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s no surprise that a New York publisher leapt on the manuscript. “I was struck by the absolute honesty and freshness of Heather’s voice,” says editor Courtney Hodell, who acquired Lullabies for HarperCollins (and has since moved to Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “The book has a shocking, visceral impact, as if its sometimes-wrenching events are happening directly to you. I have no idea how she managed to retain such a precise memory of how children see the world.”

O’Neill found her way to Hodell through a mixture of serendipity and connections. After an excerpt from Lullabies appeared in Toronto Life’s 2003 summer fiction issue, a New York friend of O’Neill’s passed the magazine to Sam Stoloff, an agent with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. Stoloff called O’Neill’s home in Montreal and learned that she was visiting New York at the time. “He proceeded to call everybody I knew in New York, looking for me,” says O’Neill. “Everywhere I went, people were [saying], ‘This agent is looking for you.’” The two finally met in Washington Square Park, after O’Neill had reached Stoloff on a payphone: “I’m really close by,” he told her. “Stay there. What are you wearing?”

The friend who passed the manuscript on was Paul Tough, an editor at The New York Times Magazine who has been publishing both O’Neill and Goldstein since he was editor of Saturday Night in Canada in the late 1990s, and also on his own website of confessional essays, Open Letters. O’Neill has also appeared regularly on the popular National Public Radio show This American Life, where Goldstein was a producer from 2000 to 2002. And Montrealers have been predicting big things for her ever since one of her short stories was adapted into John L’Ecuyer’s feature film Saint Jude, released in Canada in 2000.

At Q&Q’s press time, Lullabies was scheduled for release in mid-October, with plans for a Montreal launch at Paragraphe Books followed by a mini-tour of four U.S. cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Ann Arbor). Asked whether it feels strange to be published first in New York rather than Canada, O’Neill replies, “I have dual citizenship, so I feel more North American anyway.”

This leads to questions about parents and origins, and suddenly, if subtly, O’Neill’s voice tightens. “I was born here, and then after my parents split up I went to live with my mother in Virginia,” she says. When O’Neill was nine or so, her mother “decided to become a punk rocker” and sent O’Neill and her two sisters to live with their father in Montreal. On the Open Letters site, O’Neill has written about having been abandoned by a mother who continues to live an itinerant life, and about being raised by an emotionally unpredictable father who these days would be described as “working poor.” While there are clearly some similarities to Lullabies (which is set in the early 1980s), O’Neill asserts that the novel isn’t autobiographical – it simply takes place in “sort of the same world that I grew up in.”

The world O’Neill grew up in is NDG, or Notre Dame de Grace, a pleasant, mostly gracious middle-class West End neighbourhood. Back in the 1980s, however, NDG was an inner-city zone more often called by its unofficial name, No Damn Good. In the era between the two separatist referendums, the anglo community was in the midst of a steady exodus, and Quebec language laws further discouraged English public school enrollment.

O’Neill uses the word “post-apocalyptic” to describe her public high school experiences there. “The year I was in Grade 11, they had only signed up five kids for Grade 7 – the reputation of the school was so bad they couldn’t get any more kids to go there,” she says. “It was so rough – just a lot of foster home kids and kids who had been kicked out of other schools. There was this general kind of lawlessness, and it was just full of kids who had lost their will to live…” she trails off in a mock-dramatic tone that has enough gallows humour in it to crack up two Irish-blooded girls from NDG, if no one else. O’Neill doesn’t glamorize her adolescence, but she’s also not ready to simply write it off as grim tragedy.

The magic and the horror of Baby’s life are typical for any smart kid growing up in those circumstances, especially without a mother. It’s a precarious tightrope of experience that can turn either way. Lives like that of Baby, who finds herself juggling two boyfriends – a geeky, endearing son of an accountant and a tortured, sexy, manipulative pimp – were not uncommon then, and they may not be now. “That’s something I tried to capture in the book,” says O’Neill. “The way that lowlifes are so attractive to children. Because in a way children are the only ones who take them seriously and believe their crap…. And yet there can be something magical about that sometimes.”

For those who survive the consequences. Not so magical for those who don’t. A point made clear in the book.

The French have a word for which there is unfortunately no equivalent in English: jouissance, the joy of transgression. It describes that illicit thrill that keeps kids hungry for experience no matter how dangerous. That keeps rabbits seeking out Mr. McGregor, no matter how protective their mother. That will keep readers who pick up Lullabies for Little Criminals reading until they are crying.