Heather O’Neill’s debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals tells the story of Baby, a twelve-year-old girl living with her junkie father, Jules, in a less than desirable suburb of Montreal. As Jules goes further off the rails, Baby is shifted from foster home to scummy apartment to juvenile detention centre. Yet despite such grim circumstances, she retains her wit and optimism (and the reader’s sympathies), and is unfailingly generous in her assessment of others. Ahead of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, GEMMA FREEMAN spoke to O’Neill in Montreal about writing, prizes, and how to tell if you’re American or Canadian.

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WHEN HEATHER answered the phone I was struck by the sweet, child-like quality of her voice, a deceptively naive voice that doesn’t seem capable of creating the horrific events of Lullabies. She seems a little unsure of herself as she speaks, punctuating her answers with ums and ahs and “I guess” and “kind of”. And yet her book has been nothing short of a runaway success. Nominated for an impressive string of awards, it last year won the Canada Reads competition, where Canadian celebrities campaign for the book that they think should be read by the whole country. This year it is nominated for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, the prestigious literary prize awarded to women novelists and known for awarding exciting new literary talents. While I was already convinced of the book’s merits, I wanted to know what Heather thought appealed to her readers and critics:

Probably the writing itself; that there’s kind of a dark subject, made light. Humour, literary stuff, devices that you don’t normally see in a book of this subject matter. I found that that sort of world was actually quite conducive to poetry and humour and [I] wanted a book that combined it, and, you know, people responded to it ... I wasn’t ever trying to inform anybody of anything, I just wanted, oddly enough, to entertain. ‘Entertain’ is a strange word, but maybe to make people feel.

And full of poetry and humour it is. Baby’s original, distinctive narration has been called Holden Caulfield-esque, and is certainly one of the most memorable that I have read in a long time. And this horrendous year in the protagonist’s life is filled with characters and occurrences that are nothing short of hysterical. I asked Heather if this humour was an intentional addition to soften the blow to the reader but she shrugs it off: “It kind of just happens naturally to me ... My characters are always like that.” The laugh-out-loud humour is most prevalent in the huge cast of supporting characters: the junkies, hookers, fellow foster kids and general derelicts that inhabit Baby’s world. They are rarely described in great length, but in very precise, offbeat detail – lines like ‘Jean Michel, a tall black guy who smelled like Noxzema’. I could scarcely believe that they could all come purely from Heather’s imagination, so I asked her exactly where they came from:

A couple are drawn from people I knew and some other ones are people I remember seeing, like Jean Michel was inspired by this guy I saw; I was in Chicago once and I was standing behind this guy in a corner store, and I heard him talking to his girlfriend and I just wanted to hear more from him and so I made him into a character.

As well as being much needed light relief for the reader, these descriptions also enhance the authenticity of the narration – it seems particularly childlike to see Jean Michel’s smell of Noxzema as just as essential a part of him as the fact that he’s a tall black guy. Heather agrees: ‘Yeah that’s right, you know kids are impressed by and remember all sorts of odd things!’ Even without Baby’s crushing story, I’d have happily read Lullabies’ 400 pages for these characters alone. While they weren’t the author’s initial focus (“Baby and Jules came first. They were the first thing. Then I had an overall idea. The rest of the characters came after.”), O’Neill does say she always wanted her novel to be about a bunch of different characters coming and going, and that once started, she almost got carried away with them. She mock-despairs to me: “You know, there were so many characters that I couldn’t even fit in there, that had to be cut out; I wanted to write like 800 pages on one little character!”

I was particularly impressed by the fairness of O'Neill’s writing; the way that in a book about what are essentially Montreal’s losers, her tone is never pitying or dismissive. Jules, while being a far-from-ideal father figure, still has some heart-wrenchingly sweet aspects to him, and even Baby’s pal Theo, who does some abominable things and is banned even from the local community centre, is given the chance to explain himself and the opportunity to do some pretty nice things. (Conversely, Baby is an against-the-odds amazing kid, but is not without fault, both in her actions, and in the thoughts and feelings she reveals to the reader). I wondered if Heather was this generous in her real-life assessment of others and if it was something she made a specific point of including in her writing:

Yeah, I mean I do think there’s good in everybody and people have their dark and their good sides and depending on the circumstances, your dark side excels or your light side excels and I wanted to show that. I try and describe and judge every character as we do of children. You know, when you see a child having a tantrum you don’t think they’re a bad person; we're a little fairer on them.

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Born in Montreal, O’Neill spent her childhood in Virginia with her mother, before moving to Montreal with her father as an adolescent. She has written essays about her upbringing, and it seems she has a first-hand experience of Montreal’s more squalid abodes. She currently lives in Montreal, but contributes regularly to Chicago Public Radio’s acclaimed weekly broadcast, This American Life, a show if not always in content, then certainly American in name. I wondered if she saw herself as a Canadian writer or an American writer, or if there was really any difference at all:

I mean I really spent most of my life in Montreal, so I do consider myself Canadian. But my writing, I mean people ask me ‘how do you see yourself fitting into the Canadian canon?’ But I don’t really see literature like that ... you know, all the stuff I read is from all over world, I don’t see it as being from one country or another. I guess I never thought about it too much because I always had dual citizenship and so I always just saw myself as being North American. But I support the Canadians! I think you can tell (people’s nationality) by what sports teams they support, and I support the Canadians!

At college in Canada she started writing poetry, eventually giving this up because “there’s nowhere to go as a poet in the world.” She moved on to short stories, essays, and screen plays. In her typically laid-back way, she speaks as if this fluent genre-crossing is as natural as anything: “...my poetry was always very prose-like. And then the poetry just evolved into prose. And my novel is very poetic also.” She will however concede that the shorter pieces are much easier:

I really enjoy doing them. It’s kinda fun to be able to finish things while doing a novel. You know, you start to lose your mind when you’re working on novel, so it’s nice to finish things off in between. I’m working my next novel now, and I kinda thought that after the first one I’d sort of have it worked out, and it’d be a bit easier, but not so much!

She gives little away about the forthcoming novel, and she’s been such a delight to talk to that I don’t like to ask about the pressures of the famously difficult second novel. All she’ll tell me is that it’s different to Lullabies because it’s an adult’s world, but similar in that “um, like, I guess there are similarities in my style of writing. I approach my characters in a similar way in all my writing.”

She’ll likely be pleased if it does half as well as Lullabies. Heather seems genuinely and endearingly excited by the raft of prizes she’s up for. I ask what she thinks of those who bemoan awards for women writers, saying we should be past this stage and that works should be judged on their literary merit alone, rather than being good for a woman. She seems thoroughly disinterested:

I mean I’m fine with it. I always thought the Orange Prize was so exciting, and I discovered so many writers through (it) [she mentions Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty]. And you know, it’s a prize – it’s fun and exciting, and helps sales, so it’s all good.

Heather O’Neill will be bringing her inimitable, off-kilter style to Auckland for the Writers & Readers Festival in May, just ahead of the Orange Prize announcement.