The Main is her muse

by Juliet Waters

Not long ago it hit Heather O’Neill, BA’94, that both her novels, the best-selling Lullabies for Little Criminals and the just-released The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, take place in the mid-nineties.

“Everything I write was set in the year I was 19,” she remembers telling her daughter Arizona, who also turned 19 this year. O’Neill dramatically waves an arm, in a comic, exaggerated imitation of herself, passing along the wisdom of the ‘master artist’ to her progeny. “’Look around! This is your canvas, child.’

“It's one of those fun transitional ages when you don't know who you are, but you feel all the excitement of becoming someone new,” O’Neill muses.

O’Neill was only 20, just graduated from McGill, when Arizona was born. That was also the year she moved close to the block on which both her novels are set, the lower stretch of St. Laurent Boulevard, once better known as the Red Light District. She first discovered the neighborhood through her father, who’d grown up nearby. Saturday afternoons, father and daughter would head out to the Montreal Pool Room for hot dogs.

The protagonist of her new novel, Noushcka, another 19-year-old, lives on this block with her twin brother, Nicolas. Their father, Etienne Tremblay, is an aging Quebec folk-rock icon, something of a cross between Jean Leloup and Richard Desjardins, with sprinklings of Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright.  His narcissism has cast a spotlight on his children, who have become Quebec celebrities in their own right. As the novel opens they are living the breezy, irresponsible life of bon vivant teens. Everything is new, and anything seems possible, before life teaches them that there are consequences to the choices they make.

The O’Neills – mother and daughter – are hardly household faces like the Tremblays. But after Lullabies won the 2007 edition of Canada Reads, life changed. “We felt like we were rolling in the money. We had always been so broke, broke, broke. Like we couldn’t even buy a T-shirt,” says O’Neill. “Suddenly we were taking cabs from the corner depanneur! We were like rap stars blowing our record deal,” she says, with more than a hint of hyperbole.

Arizona wasn’t permitted to read Lullabies when it first came out – the book tackles some occasionally disturbing themes and she was quite young at the time. She did read it recently – and isn’t its biggest fan. “It's not my cup of tea,” O’Neill recalls her daughter saying. Thankfully, Arizona’s assessment was hardly universal.  Lullabies was shortlisted for both the Governor General’s Literary Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. (Arizona does like the new book, says O’Neill.)

Interviewed in the wake of a Quebec election that resulted in yet another dramatic re-set of the province’s political landscape, O’Neill regards Quebec as “a place that is constantly trying to define itself. There’s always this constant [sense of], ‘This is the way we are,’ ‘No, this is the way we are.’ It has a fable-esque quality that many places just don’t have.”

One small part of the province in particular lingers on in her thoughts. O’Neill will probably always have a hard time letting go of that once-sketchy stretch of The Main, even after so much of its grit has been cleaned up in its transformation into Le Quartier des Spectacles.

Last year, O’Neill wrote an ode to the block that once was: “In my imagination... A pretty homeless girl writes the most beautiful poem in the Pool Hall. It’s as lovely and as important as all the spectacles in all the fancy dance halls, as the visiting Ukrainian ballet dancers, the orchestras, the gymnasts and clowns, and the jazz musicians. It’s a poem that proves there is a sprig of fragile human dignity in every corner of the world.”