Madeleine Thien and Heather O’Neill are two of Canada’s most beloved authors of their generation. In a piece commissioned by carte blanche, the two award-winning writers discuss a wide range of topics, from being private people in a world that worships personality to backgrounds and the influences on their work. This email exchange spanned a number of weeks this fall.
Madeleine Thien: You have this very deep history and intimacy with Montreal, whereas I still feel, after ten years, that I’m moving through a city that is always slipping through my fingers, and that imagines itself very differently from any other city in North America. With this intimacy you have, do you feel free writing about Montreal? Or do the constraints/possibilities of freedom relate at all to how you exist and write here?
Heather O’Neill: I didn’t choose to live in Montreal. As a child, I always had dreams of leaving and escaping and going other places. I wanted to be free. Where you are from dictates a lot of your narrative and is often trying to define you or threatens to define you and I didn’t like that. I wanted to be a whole other person, completely of my own creation. I think it’s in the nature of a novelist to balk at constriction and refuse to live a single identity. But I never had that luxury in real life. I was a single mother at twenty years old and my father was disabled, so I had to look after people full time. I couldn’t even have a weekend getaway my entire twenties, never mind packing my bags and moving to another city. I never got to escape my childhood landscape. I’ve been buying cupcakes at the same bakery my whole life. I’ve read paperback books in the same parks. I bought small yellow cartons of MSG at the same grocery store in Chinatown until one day I went and it was burned to the ground. I’ve seen alley cats come and go. So the landscape does become so personal. I see the house that my dad was born in the 1920s. I pass the school where my grandmother worked as a janitor every day. So there’s a sense of belonging that developed naturally, whether I liked it or not, and because I’m at heart an optimist who turns situations to my advantage. I looked at the small watercolour paint kit I was given, and thought, I will still paint my epic canvas. I was like, Montreal, you think you can imagine me, well I will imagine you. And you think you will define me, nope, I will define you. It’s like any intimate relationship, where you have to stand your ground and ask for things and demand to have a voice and proper agency.
You’ve had the opposite life, I feel. You seem to have travelled all over the world in search of stories and your own past. Was this something that you were aware you needed as a writer? How does that relate to the way that you write and gather material?
MT: This struck a very deep chord, Heather. The way you describe Montreal reminds me of how I experienced Vancouver, where I was born and lived until I was 28. I took care of my father for a long time as well, until our situation changed. By then I was in my early 20s. My sister had a daughter around the same time as you. I was desperate to escape, imagining that a different place would allow me to be someone else, but at first I could only escape to other parts of Vancouver. I used to take the bus to the more, so to speak, gracious parts of the city, and to the sea. I wouldn’t get off the bus, I would just stay on and let it carry me back to my own neighbourhoods. The city became so personal, exactly as you describe Montreal. And I still get angry when people refer to my childhood neighbourhoods as off-the-beaten path tourist destinations: the underbelly of the city, the place to see people down on their luck, to be shocked by the extent of homeless, drug use, prostitution and poverty. It enrages me that people consider this spectacle. My early stories all took place in these neighbourhoods, but no one could recognize them because they unfolded in mostly domestic spaces, inside apartments. The young women were always climbing out their bedroom windows, or running away in the night, or trying to shelter or hide other young women.
HO: In terms of feeling like you had no choice in where you lived as a young woman, I must say that I found it difficult, as a woman, because I was expected to take care of people and had so many responsibilities, to find freedom. Did you always know you would run away from home? How did you have that freedom? Did you find that you had to work against any traditional expectations for a woman in the world to find that?
MT: Your question is a beautiful one, and makes me feel a great deal of sorrow. I don’t think I was strong enough to know how to live differently. My mom passed away suddenly when I was 28, and my father’s situation changed. So overnight I was completely unanchored. I found it difficult to be in Vancouver after my mom’s death, and I went to live in Europe for a few years with my then fiancé. For the next ten years, I wandered a lot. I found that I loved traveling by myself, that I was drawn to risk-taking. I had to learn how to move through the world without judgment, and to be open, not only to others but to parts of myself that made me uncomfortable. Because I had grown up in poverty, and our financial situation always forced us to move a lot, I found traveling was in my nature, and that I have very few demands. And certain places give you perspective and humble you. That was my experience with Cambodia, which is where I’ve spent the most amount of time, and where I have friends but no family.
The writing was secondary. I felt I was living my life and, along the way, writing books. Do you see your books as one larger work? Or where do you think they’re bringing you, as a person, a woman, an artist? Would you be able to go there any other way?
HO: I do see my books as a larger work. They do represent my conscious state and where I’m at. I think of Lullabies [for Little Criminals] as having been written from an innocent place. My life was in complete disarray when I wrote it. The first book is always so ignorant and intuitive. You have no idea what you are doing in a way. There’s a level of blind faith to the writing. It has the bravado of youth, for me. If you aren’t doing something new, then you aren’t going to make a splash.
Those risks you take open the door and define you as an artist. They are so close to desire and irrationality that they represent your authentic self. My next books were built on that seed. It comes out of ideas presented in that book, elaborated on and challenged.
But I became more intelligent and intellectually brave with my subsequent books. In Daydreams of Angels I moved the world of my childhood into the world of classical literature and allowed them to interact. Like George and the Dragon. Because I didn’t want to see myself as a chronicler of a narrow experience, but a scholar and philosopher of absurd and strange joys, informed by the reading and writings of my favorite geniuses.
The book that I just wrote is brave in a different way too. It’s not foolhardy, like skateboarding through cars. It’s about taking responsibility for your life and actually realizing your dreams. It’s about acting. Lullabies was about observing and experiencing the world. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is about necessary evil and corruption and going to any lengths to have agency. And how it looks and works when a woman does that.
So, I think, after saying that, all my books are about being brave in unconventional ways. Honestly, every time finish a book, I think, Oh God, what have I done. Why was I so controversial and dark? What’s wrong with me? And I worry.
And you? In what ways do your works fit into a larger body? And speaking of bravery! You have tackled such dark subject matter. What do you draw on to write about those subjects? What parts of yourself are you pillaging? Do you believe writing about these subjects have made you a darker or lighter person?
MT: I love these words, “a scholar and philosopher of absurd and strange joys,” which for me encapsulates your work and you as a person. I feel I’ve been lucky to have a number of far-reaching and intense conversation with you over the years, ever since Lullabies came out.
I find it hard to talk about why I write about things I do, especially when it comes to political catastrophes, the Cambodian genocide, and social upheaval. The question frightens me – why I’m drawn to the ideas that I obsess over – and I suspect that not being able to answer or even address it is why I write fiction rather than non-fiction. I don’t think that I have the ability to learn very much about myself, the unreachable parts of me, by looking at my life through my own eyes and language. I sense that the difficult or even shameful aspects of myself are only available to me via the widest-ranging parts of my imagination and the least judgmental parts of my empathy.
I love this question about the darkness or lightness of our being. One of the traits of myself that I like least is that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been sad (my parents have countless birthday party photos, spanning years, where I’m just sitting in front of my birthday cake crying). Sadness is not sorrow and is not quite melancholy, it was a state of being, and one that seemed to accept fate.
Writing was a way for me to escape this temperament (even though, to the surprise of no one who knows me, there is a great deal of sadness in my work). A few years ago I was reading about Chinese conceptual frameworks for colour, and the detail that moved me the most was about blackness. In the Book of Changes, we hear of “heaven and earth of mysterious black.” Black is the colour of mystery, the gods and therefore the heavens. Scholars believe it is the single colour worshipped the longest in ancient China.
Speaking of temperament, I sometimes observe that women writer friends struggle to claim, and hold onto, the solitude, privacy and freedom they need. But some of those who stubbornly do or did (Hannah Arendt, Elena Ferrante, Eileen Chang, Shirley Hazzard, Rosemary Sullivan, Colette, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and I could go on and on) have left us bodies of work that contain universes. How have you learned to traverse this line between the public and the private, between who we are in the world and what we could be in private?
HO: I really like what you say about sadness. I think we are afraid of certain emotions. I used to be so afraid of loneliness. Everything I did clearly pointed to the fact that I was a lone wolf. I never wanted to go to birthday parties as a child. I never had a best friend. It’s hard to accept one’s identity when it seems to be outside of the recipe that’s being sold for being a fulfilled individual. I don’t think sadness is the opposite of happiness. I think it’s a profundity at times. In the same way that loneliness isn’t the opposite of being loved, it’s an experience of solitude, and deep reflection. Sadness and loneliness are those states mixed with fear.
I think also as a woman, you are more vulnerable to labels. And if you eschew the label of wife particularly, as I did, there are so many pejorative labels waiting. So I was always afraid of those too. Because a label steals your narrative. They say, no, my darling, you think you are unique, but you aren’t, I know you more than you know yourselves. But, still I have to be true to myself. Which is really hard to do. And it involves being courageous. I remember hearing an interview with Mavis Gallant and she said something like, “I liked to write, so I moved to Paris to write.” It made me so happy when I heard that on the radio. I thought, yes, I just want to be a writer. That’s the title I want.
The private and personal is an odd thing. I’m a storyteller through and through. I have a troubadour gene. It’s always been a personal delight, confessing in public. I remember reading a book about public hangings in England. You were allowed to give a speech right before you were hanged. There were people who went on for hours, confessing, telling their tale, and they became such wonderful performances that they stopped making the hangings public. (Or something like that. I’m not going to research this.) I loved that story so much. I thought, that’s how I want to live my life. Confessing my sins on the gallows.
But, at the same time, even though I share all the details about myself I can, I consider myself a deeply private person. I think because in the inner sanctum of experience, I let few people in. And sometimes I wonder whether the constant revealing of the self isn’t some sort of deflection, to maintain my own narrative.
Have you ever felt odd about the publicity that necessarily comes with being an author these days? How do you negotiate that?
Also, your work is reaching an international audience as never before. How do you feel as a Canadian writer? Are there limitations, expectations, prejudices, benefits that come with that label? Do you find that being a Canadian writer can sometimes hold you back? (the readers of carte blanche might want to know!)
MT: Troubadour! The perfect word, and the one that came to my mind when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize. I was thinking how necessary the troubadour is to politics and to living, and how song and lyrics become our public declarations as well as an intensely private emotional landscape / time warp.
Your thoughts about the inner sanctum reminded me of a line by Edith Wharton that I love and hold fast to, “But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms … but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.” The solitude that is also the sanctum. Sometimes the loneliness is unbearable, and sometimes it’s exhilarating.
The Canadian label is always open-ended for me because I’m usually identified as Canadian (with a caveat), or Canadian (with additional information) – namely, where my parents were born. This doesn’t bother me and never has. In my case, people understand that I’m made up of many people. I think others don’t get the same assumption; their multiple selves remain invisible or unaddressed, maybe even to/by themselves. So I don’t feel it’s held me back, and perhaps the opposite, the label has provided a kind of shelter, but one that hasn’t set limitations on the content or form of my writing, thinking or desiring. I’m not sure I would thrive in the American marketplace or literary culture, I don’t feel at home in it.
I think this might be the last question because of our impending deadline (and I’m sad it’s coming to an end and think we should continue in some form for years and years): If you couldn’t write or publish anymore, what path do you think your life would take? Do you think the essence of yourself would remain the same?
HO: I’ve spent so much of my life writing that I can’t separate my identity from it. It’s an absurd question too.
I can’t imagine it. Every scenario I imagine leads to words. I would make movies, which is a form of narrative very close to the novel. I would teach, which is a method of delivering lectures I wrote. I would put on a puppet show for children, and my puppets would speak of my literary concerns. They would be tragic alienated puppets.
So no, my essence would not be the same. I am a writer. Maybe everyone’s scenarios lead back to the word somehow. Maybe we are all essentially writers.
Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver. She is the author of the story collection, Simple Recipes, and three novels, including Dogs at the Perimeter, awarded the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, won the 2016 Governor-General’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Her work has been translated into twenty-five languages and her essays are widely available in The Guardian, the Globe & Mail, Brick, Al Jazeera and elsewhere. The youngest daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal.
Heather O’Neill is a Canadian novelist, poet, short-story writer, screenwriter and essayist. Lullabies for Little Criminals, her debut novel, was published in 2006 to international critical acclaim and won Canada Reads. It was shortlisted for both the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has since published the novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and the short story collection Daydreams of Angels, both of which were shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in consecutive years. The collection was also shortlisted for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Born and raised in Montreal, O’Neill lives there today with her daughter. Her new novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, will be simultaneously published by Riverhead Books (USA) and Harper Collins – Canada in February 2017.