Heather O'Neill puts down the phone. It rings again. On this morning, an offer from Los Angeles to buy the film rights to the Montreal author's first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. "At first I was "No, no, no, no, no, I'll never do it,' but they're so persuasive." O'Neill's laughter draws out like taffy on tiny fingers, glimmers of a honeyed drawl still remain from an early childhood spent in Virginia.
"They have a way of talking because I get off the phone call and say, "That's just great. Let's be best friends, OK?'" Still, O'Neill, opening this year's Halifax International Writers' Festival on March 28, doesn't sound completely convinced, though she's discovered other great writers through film. Like Irving Welsh's Trainspotting. Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries ("even though the film was terrible"). Henry James classics. "I dunno. I guess so. I dunno. I grew up infatuated with J.D. Salinger and I was always like, "I'll never sell the book rights,' but c'mon. He's cultivated this incredible mystique that, who has the time for, you know?"
Given the excitement over Lullabies, a story told in the voice of Baby, an imaginative, intelligent 12-year-old living in the red-light district of Montreal with her heroin-addicted young father Jules, O'Neill should set alter-ego planning aside—she doesn't need 'em. When the novel first came out in September 2006, critics dolloped reviews with praise such as "hypnotic," "charming," "lyrical" and "powerful." Then, in February, Canada Reads, CBC Radio's on-air arena of writers, musicians and other artists who battle and campaign for their book choices until only one book remains, eventually declared O'Neill's book the winner.
Defended by The Weakerthans' John K. Samson (no slouch in the words department himself), he made his choice even before Lullabies hit bookstore pick lists. In New York on a visit to mutual friend Paul Tough, former editor of Saturday Night and the wonderful online magazine Open Letters (openletters.net), Tough gave Samson a copy of O'Neill's galleys. Samson drove home while on tour, savouring a bit every day, describing it as "harrowing and beautiful, tragic and triumphant." On the first episode of Canada Reads he said, "Then I was on a plane on the way from Toronto to Winnipeg with the last chapter and was reading it and I knew I was going to start crying because it's this incredible ending. I started to weep and there was this guy next to me reading a mountain bike magazine and he started turning away from me uncomfortably, like he would have to comfort me somehow. It's that kind of book."
Outspoken Quebec writer Denise Bombardier, who quickly took on the role of Canada Reads' antagonist, was the most vocal critic of Lullabies, denouncing it as too depressing, a reflection of the "trash vision of our time," even deeming it without any redemptive qualities.
"I couldn't really listen to it. I haven't listened to the whole debate," says O'Neill, the sound of her cigarette smoking cutting through the phone line. "Honestly, I just get clips, people always repeat to me what Denise Bombardier said. It's a weird medium and it's so raw, people trying to knock your book off."
The book-buying public is ignoring Bombardier's disses. As of March 17, Lullabies was number two on The Globe and Mail's best-sellers list and surreally enough, even before the contest, it was chosen for People magazine's book club.
Lullabies for Little Criminals is not the first book about a motherless child, who grows up neglected and street-savvy, seeking affection and heroes in ill-advised places. In fact, O'Neill likes and was "definitely informed by the form of literature. I've studied and taken or stolen what I need from it." But what's completely original is Baby's voice—funny and poetic, she scavenges small bits of magical beauty in the darkest of places.
With one small sneaker in childhood fantasy and the other pushing the self-awareness of a teenager, Baby still thinks a secondhand white fur hat with the care instructions worn off makes her "good-looking enough to be in a circus with men throwing knives at me." Especially after eating spaghetti sauce "and my lips were all stained orange. Whenever things were going well, I started to feel vain." True to a kid's fleeting attention span, this sadly mature observation is immediately abandoned with the gift of a marionette that Baby adores passionately, creating an elaborate life-story performance for it until her father and his friend are ready to "commit suicide from boredom."
Baby moves from child's play into group homes and eventually into the bed of charismatic, unstable pimp Alphonse, who flashes expensive, eccentric outfits and dreadlocks, which reminds Baby of the way "cartoon cats looked after they'd blown up. It was beautiful." O'Neill gracefully handles the most difficult and delicate material—later, after another spaghetti dinner (this time with pot sprinkled in the sauce) and Nina Hagen for mood music, Baby loses her virginity to Alphonse: his kisses described as tubes of lipstick crushed against her mouth, the taste of her tears like kissing baby's feet.
O'Neill, who spent years developing the character in short fiction and poems, was careful to keep the observations at a kid's level. "It was a voice that I liked writing from because it enabled me to write about all sorts of things, but in an unusual way and a real way," she says. Although Baby's having sex with adults, she's not embarrassed wearing sailboat underwear with a hole in the bum and a Cinderella undershirt, and is still enamoured with talking animals. She hears her guardian angel humming right before trying heroin for the first time. "I had to go back and look at it from a kid's point of view because a lot of the stuff she sees or is infatuated by, as an adult, I'm like "nooo,'" O'Neill says, laughing. "Especially the types of characters she's smitten with, it's not like someone I would meet now and want to have anything to do with."
When O'Neill was writing, she became attached to Baby's father Jules, a memorable character who's sometimes a loveable immature hipster, other times irrational enough to suggest mental illness. O'Neill says, "As an adult you look at what people have accomplished, but for kids it's about performance. It's often the black sheep in the family who the kids are totally in love with—who are the heroes." From the first page, Jules, wearing a fur hat, leather coat and flat-soled Army surplus boots that make him fall down, is completely self-involved, and in his neglect, Baby is determined to become a drug addict herself, if only to spend time with her dad.
Although O'Neill's own daughter Arizona is now just about Baby's age, she didn't use her as an observational model while writing. She listened to music—if the movie is made, it will definitely sport a kick-ass soundtrack—hung out in parks, cut out photos from magazines.
"I don't think it's something you can get from observing kids," she says. "It's more like kids observing kids, as opposed to now as an adult. I don't think you can really get access to that world from an objective point of view. You really have no sense what the hell kids are thinking. There's so much more than what adults know."
In almost every media story about Lullabies, there's a reference to O'Neill's own childhood and to her parents, but while the novel is filtered through her experiences, it's not autobiographical.
O'Neill says, "Everything does come from observation of the world—not your own story—but everything has to be real for it to ring true." Her memory for details—of what it's like to be young and in love—is astonishing. Growing up, O'Neill says she was an observer. "I was attracted to anybody who was doing anything nuts or unusual, I would get really excited by it all. It came in handy—it's a good thing that I was interested in that as a kid, it's like I collected these snapshots."
Her parents met when her mother was a young 19-year-old hippie, her father 20 years older. After they split, O'Neill and her two sisters lived in Virginia with their mother, who according to her novel's "About the author" page, believed herself to be an incarnation of Oscar Wilde with a pet rat and knee-high leather boots. Like Augusten Burroughs' mother in his autobiographical novel Running with Scissors, she's described as a woman whose dreams of being an artist superceded those of being a good mother.
A couple years later, the children went to live with their father in Montreal—his volatile behaviour made the world outside their small apartment a magical kingdom, the criminals and creeps, its rulers. O'Neill writes, "I don't consider my childhood a bad one, though, since the best times of my life always happened when I was hanging out on the street."
From the time she was nine, O'Neill wanted to be a writer. She graduated from McGill at age 20 in two years, scraping by on scholarship and tutoring money. As a young mom, she continued to write, producing work over the years for The New York Times Magazine, Toronto Life, Geist and Broken Pencil. Popular in the Montreal spoken word scene, in 1998 her poetry collection Two Eyes are you Sleeping was published by DC Books. "I started off as a poet. When I was younger, poetry was an accessible medium because you have a shorter attention span or you don't the talent to write anything longer. OK, so today I can handle five lines. And then it just became bigger and bigger," she says. "My poetry was always prose-like. I don't really see there being a huge dividing line between poetry and prose. And when I was writing the novel, I wanted every line to somehow stand on its own—like each line was supposed to be a haiku. It had to have some detail to ground it."
A story in a literary journal attracted the attention of director John L'Ecuyer, a former Montreal hustler and heroin addict whose films often explore those same themes with bracing humanity, who asked her to write a film. In 2000, Saint Jude was released, starring Liane Balaban (New Waterford Girl) as Jude, a forerunner to the Baby character.
O'Neill's distinctive voice, her spoken word experience and gorgeously illustrated prose is also ideal for radio—she's a regular contributor to Public Radio International's This American Life and to CBC's hilarious dial-up performance show, WireTap, whose host, Jonathan Goldstein, is O'Neill's longtime boyfriend. The two first met at a reading and in a 2000 Open Letter (openletters.net), he refers to her as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. "I was impressed by how fast she drank and she was impressed by my eyeglasses that only had one arm." The two exchanged chapbooks, Goldstein looked for reasons to see her again, convincing a mutual friend to drop him off with a television to replace one that Arizona had accidentally broken, writing, "now I have a reason."
As Lullabies for Little Criminals continues on a journey to household-name status, its popularity comes with increased interest in O'Neill and her life. Even in photos, with her long dark hair, direct blue eyes and effortless style, there's something intriguing—like a bohemian rock star from a more innocent era—about this young author, now 33. It's taught her to keep the private stuff private.
"I was always open about my life, but the more media I do, I get closed off," she says. "It's odd, your whole sense of everything changes once there's a book out and people are reading it, because when you start off there's a sense of no one's reading it, so you're completely open because why the hell not?"
While the rest of the world discovers Baby—Lullabies was published simultaneously in the US, and rights sold to various European countries—O'Neill is working on a new novel, which she won't discuss.
"I thought it would be different or somehow easier and then it isn't," she says, laughing again. "Oh my god, I have to start at the beginning." Montreal, her beloved, gritty, mythologized home, is "still all tied up in my sense of fiction, of people." But wherever O'Neill's writing takes her, whether she finds it buried in a thrift-shop bin, or in a seedy hotel bar with sticky tabletops, that phone will keep on ringing.
Heather O'Neill at Halifax International Writers' Festival, March 28 at Lord Nelson Hotel, 1515 South Park, 7:30pm, $10.
Jonathan Goldstein at Chutzpah!, March 28 at Ginger's, 1662 Barrington, 9pm, $12.
Sue Carter Flinn is special issues editor at The Coast. Her short story "Catechism" will appear in Invisible Publishing's anthology Transits (April 2007).