Canadian writer Heather O’Neil is one of the overseas guests at this week’s Cork International Short Story Festival, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
THE novels and short stories of Heather O’Neill are suffused with the spirit of Quebec, and especially her hometown Montreal, a bohemian city where hipster cafés and art galleries sit side-by-side with trashy strip joints.
The writer says there’s no escaping the effect the harsh winter has on its denizens. “I always tell people no matter how cold you imagine it can be, the Montreal winter is just insane. At the same time, it creates this really fun, communal atmosphere. You feel like ‘We’re all surviving the winter together’.
“People still go out and gather in little community centres or bars or cafés. It has this lovely feel to it — you’re all gathered around fireplaces no matter where you are and the wolves are outside by the window.”
O’Neill had an unconventional upbringing, which is hinted at in her masterpiece, the novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, and, for example, in ‘The Conference of the Birds’, one of the short stories in her new collection, Daydreams of Angels.
Her parents split up when she was a child so her father was left to raise herself and her sisters. He was eccentric, using the shriek of a bugle he got in a pawnshop to wake them in the morning, and neglectful as a parent.
Often he would send her out to walk with her toy poodle, Butch, with the instruction not to return “for a very, very long time” so she had to while away hours on end in the lobbies of apartment buildings until she reckoned it would be OK to go home again.
When she got a little older, O’Neill ran ragged on the city’s mean streets like Baby, the narrator of Lullabies for Little Criminals, who is 12 years of age and on the precipice between the make-believe world of childhood — where “plastic swans are real … and an old fan in the corner of the room is the seaside” — and the dangerous, red-light district of adulthood with its creeps and criminals on every other corner. At 15, O’Neill ran away to California but was arrested en route by Vermont state troopers and sent home.
It’s a wonder O’Neill emerged unscathed from the experience. “I look back now and I feel terrified for myself: ‘Oh, my gosh, what was I doing!’ But I was a romantic and a fool. I just wandered around as if I wasn’t in danger. Luckily I did end up skirting danger so I was able to come out of it with all these interesting tales. I would never go near any of that stuff now but at the time I was like Little Red Riding Hood: ‘Hello, Mr Wolf. Here’s my grandmother’s phone number. Call me’.”
O’Neill has a way with words and particularly a facility for conjuring memorable similes and images. Her imagination roams freely in Daydreams of Angels. One story, ‘The Dreamlife of Toasters’, deals with the introduction of androids into the general population in 2089.
“I’ve always liked the image of the android,” she says. “It seems so far-fetched and in the future, in my mind, by the time we get there. It will never happen. We’ll have destroyed the planet by then, but I love the idea of a human-made person. Why wouldn’t a fictional creation be as real as a real person?
“The most interesting androids in literature are always trying to assert themselves as real people. We kind of have to do that too as real people. You have to see yourself as independent of your family and everybody else. On some level you owe a debt only to yourself, to be yourself, despite there always being people around who say, ‘No, you belong to me. Do this. Do that This is what we put you on earth for’.’ No, I will rebel! I will find other rebellious androids like myself and we will forge our own community.”
One of the other stories in the collection, entitled ‘Swan Lake for Beginners, is a fantastical yarn about an ambitious young Soviet scientist, Vladimir Latska, who despairs at the defection of dancer Rudolf Nureyev to the West in 1961, so he decides to clone versions of Nureyev to fill the void.
Here's the listing for Cork Short Story Festival coming tomorrow & running till Saturday. http://t.co/W9KYjuYCmH— Triskel Arts Centre (@TriskelCork) September 21, 2015
With backing from his government, who furnish him with unlimited resources and a team of scientists, he sets off for a remote Quebec town to conduct his top secret experiments. The plan goes awry, however, with unintended consequences ensuing.
“I always liked Nureyev when I was a kid,” says O’Neill. “He made quite an impression on me. I saw him doing an interview with Kermit the Frog and he was odd and miserable, but he was an amazing dancer. I was always crazy about ballet since I was a little kid and I still am.
“Also I like the two sides of how arrogant and crazy Nureyev was, and how he needed that to become an incredible dancer. I thought it would be funny if they had this experiment where they tried to recreate Nureyev the dancer but ended up with an entire village of cantankerous, arrogant men who wouldn’t dance.”
Heather O’Neill will read from her collection ‘Daydreams of Angels’, 9.15pm, Thursday, at Triskel Christchurch. See corkshortstory.net
Mary Costello and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Following readings by both authors, the pair will be in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson, editor of The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, a collection of 30 stories in which they feature alongside Maeve Brennan and other masters of the form.
Claire Keegan — who has the rare distinction of having a long short story, entitled ‘Foster’, published as a standalone book by Faber — will speak about the art of suggestion and the other elements that make her stories so powerful.
Claire Hennessy, Laura Jane Cassidy and Eimear Ryan, the editors of Banshee, a new journal of writing from Ireland and around the world, will launch their new venture during the festival.
Séamus Murphy: A Quiet Revolution
A documentary film about the Cork-born sculptor, who plied his trade in the city — with the exception of a spell spent studying in Paris during the 1930s — until his death in 1975.
Panel discussion: What do editors want?
Eibhear Walshe, director of creative writing at University College Cork; author Kelly Link; Ploughshares journal editor-in-chief Ladette Randolph; and Jen Hamilton-Emery, an editor of indie publisher Salt, will discuss trade secrets to getting stories and novels published. Ideal for budding writers.
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