My City: Novelist Heather O'Neill's 'Dream Land' Montreal
Heather O’Neill’s Montreal is a dream land. Her novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night explore the city’s seedy underbelly with grace and childlike wonder. Her characters, a mix of loafers, poor artists and lost youth, walk the fine line between angels and demons as they amble along Saint-Laurent Boulevard.
O’Neill, who lives in Mile End – Montreal’s artist Mecca – never intended to immortalize the city. “I didn’t really set out to write novels about Montreal. It just kind of happened,” she explains. Her latest collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels, was released in March.
Q: Both of your novels take place in Montreal. Why do you keep returning to this city?
O’Neill: For one thing, it’s all I know. I don’t know any other city that I could tell stories about in the same way.
Your books take place in the not-so-distant past of the 1980s and '90s. Why that era?
I was young then, so I see that time through rose-coloured glasses. It seemed so magical to me. A lot of my inspiration came from remembering the city as a kid. The first book was remembering back to when I was 12 and how I thought. And the second one was when I was 19 and 20. My dad grew up here too and he always had these really wild tales. He was born in the late ’20s, so he grew up during the depression and the ’40s and had all these gangster tales. To me it seemed like this really wonderful place where adventures happened.
How do you think the city has changed in the past 20 years?
On a physical level, a lot of the areas that I write about have changed. Yesterday I was walking down Prince-Arthur Street. When I was a kid, it was such a wonderful place. There were street performers constantly and everybody was out. I was there yesterday and all the buildings were being ripped down and it seemed desolate. I was like, “Stop tearing my childhood down!”
Are there any areas in the city that have kept that spark from your youth alive?
I was just walking up those little winding streets of the Plateau. Those seem the same, the houses with all the old balconies. I find that is timeless.
What are some of your favourite places in Montreal? Do you have a favourite park to sit in or explore?
For years it was Saint-Louis Square. I always had nostalgie de la boue (yearning for “low” things) for as long as I can remember. I liked that on the one hand there was all sorts of criminal activity happening and then on the other side there was a playground and puppet shows and accordion players. Émile Nelligan grew up around there. He was the first renowned French-Canadian poet and he wrote this romantic poetry but then he went mad at 19 or 21 and spent the rest of his days in a madhouse. He was like our Rimbaud.
Do you think there’s a specific Montreal voice or perspective that writers here have?
There is something, a bohemian quality to it. Montrealers are really into the communal experience, have you noticed? Maybe it is because of the winter; we just gravitate and squish together.
Your books have joined the likes of Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen by building up Montreal. Out of the two, who is your favourite?
I’m going to go with Leonard Cohen because he plays a larger role in my personal mythology. Growing up and hearing his songs and the way he talked about romance, I think that affected how I wrote about love and relationships. And there’s his whole half-aristocrat, half-street bum persona. That really affected me, that sort of grandiose and pompous ne’er-do-well. I also came to him earlier, when I was really young. My dad had this famous story: He was arrested when he was 11 for breaking into Leonard Cohen’s dad’s textile factory. Our lives intersected.
All right, time for some rapid-fire questions. Fairmount or St-Viateur bagels?
Drawn & Quarterly. But I like them all.
Where do you like to grab coffee?
A friend is coming to visit, when do you take them for lunch?
If they are vegetarian, Aux Vivres. It’s so clean.
Any other go-to restaurants?
Kazu. Everyone I know in Montreal raves about this place, so you usually have to line up outside. I love the shrimp burger and the octopus legs. But I love eating octopus anywhere, anytime.
Favourite place to walk around in the city?
I love Old Montreal. This is where the fur traders cut loose. All the buildings are made of grey stone along tiny streets. You feel like you’re in another time. All the old ghosts wearing their floppy hats and culottes walk right by you.
What are some places in Montreal that you think visitors should see?
The Notre-Dame Basilica is worth seeing. It so beautiful and ornate and there always seems to be someone pounding away on the organ.
The mayor knocks on your door and tells you that you will be exiled from Montreal tomorrow. Where do you spend your remaining hours?
I would just walk down Saint Laurent Boulevard one more time. It’s partly a dump, right? But I have so many memories there.
Fairmount Bagel, 74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard Ouest
Le Cagibi, 5490 St-Laurent
Aux Vivres, 4631 St-Laurent
Kazu, 1862 Ste-Catherine Ouest
Notre Dame Basilica (Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal), 110 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest