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Wakefield Writers Festival: Heather O’Neill discusses her inspiration for orphans and gangsters in The Lonely Hearts Hotel

By Kabriya Coghlan on May 12, 2017

Heather O’Neill will be at the Wakefield Writers Festival on Saturday, May 13, to talk about her newest book The Lonely Hearts Hotel, a tale of gangsters, circus performers, and childhood dreams, set amongst Montreal’s criminal underworld during the Depression.

writersThe book tells the story of Rose and Pierrot, both unwanted at birth and left to grow up in an orphanage run by a convent of brutally strict nuns. They befriend each other and discover their shared love of performance. Pierrot is a piano prodigy, Rose dances and puts on theatrical skits, and they enrapture audiences together.

As they grow up, Rose and Pierrot fall in love and dream of starting a circus when they leave the orphanage, but circumstances force them apart and they fall out of each other’s lives. When they reunite, many years later, they’ve become entangled in lives of crime and addiction, but the dream of their circus remains.

Throughout the book, O’Neill’s writing is extremely evocative, full of delicious twists of language and unique metaphors that are immediately vivid to imagine. The world she builds has a wonderful depth of historical detail and feels almost magical, with even the most mundane sights and sounds described as if they were entirely new creations. There’s also a layer of darkness to this world, immediate from the start as O’Neill plainly details the tragic origins of Pierrot and Rose, as well as the hardships they endure in the orphanage, which include beatings, confinement, and sexual abuse.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel follows O’Neill’s tradition of writing about Montreal, the city where she was born and spent part of her childhood. Her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, a CBC’s Canada Reads winner, and her subsequent Giller Prize-nominated The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, were both set in Montreal, although during more contemporary time periods.

In a phone interview with Apt613, O’Neill said that Montreal was simply the natural choice of setting when she started writing.

“I’ve always had a sort of love affair with the city,” she laughed. “There’s something about it that I just adore. It’s like being in a long term relationship with somebody.”

The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Photo by Heather O'Neill (Twitter @lethal_heroine)

The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Photo by Heather O’Neill (Twitter @lethal_heroine)

The idea for The Lonely Hearts Hotel was something O’Neill thought about for years before she started writing the book. During that time, she researched the time period, reading old newspaper articles, looking through photographs from the era, visiting museums to examine the clothing people had worn, and speaking with her father – who grew up in Montreal during the Depression – for firsthand stories.

“You just kind of accumulate these details until in your brain all of the sudden it becomes a place that you can go to,” she described. “This takes a few years of meditating on it.”

Her own history growing up in Montreal helped her particularly when it came to writing Rose and Pierrot’s early years, she said.

“If I visit a city now, I see it from the perspective of an adult, but Montreal is a city that I know what it looks like to a child.”

She originally conceived of Rose and Pierrot as the adults they are later in the book, and it wasn’t until she began wondering about their backstories that she decided to write about their childhood.

“I was curious,” she said. “How did this strange gangster lady come to be? Pierrot was already, in the original story, stoned all the time, melancholic… so I was like, what’s with these two?”

O’Neill said she drew inspiration from children’s literature, including Dickens’ stories, and settled on the idea of them growing up together in the harsh orphanage.

“I liked the idea of them being orphans because it made them sort of unknowable to everyone, and that would make them harder to figure out and inscrutable,” O’Neill said. “I liked the idea of them being able to sort of create their own narrative from the beginning of the book, ‘cause they had no knowledge of their past.”

O’Neill said she always knew she wanted to write a book based on her father’s gangster stories.

Growing up in the orphanage, Rose and Pierrot are continually presented with a specific narrative, O’Neill explained. They’re expected to be servile and accept that they belong to a lower class and that nothing grand will ever come of their lives.

“They sort of subvert that by saying, well, if we’re orphans, we can write absolutely any future for ourselves,” O’Neill said.

“It kind of gives them a sense of classlessness that makes them brave and gives them the idea that they can slip into the upper classes or the criminal classes in any sort of way they want to, so they’re almost magically able to fit in any class. I mean, they’re performers, so in a way they’re performing different identities.”

As they get older, both fall into the criminal world of Montreal, as Rose becomes a gangster’s mistress and Pierrot commits burglaries. O’Neill said it was her own father’s criminal background which inspired this direction.

“During the Depression, he kind of got involved in crime, and he would climb into windows for criminals and things like that, and he always looked on those criminal days with great affection,” she explained, laughing.

“I think on some level he regretted that he didn’t pursue a life in crime, so he always described them in a kind of colourful, rose-coloured way – different gangsters and their funny antics and … ways they had finally been caught by police.”

O’Neill said she always knew she wanted to write a book based on her father’s gangster stories.

“They were basically my bedtime stories and I adored them. That was just part of my family lore, and I was always just interested in gangster stories because of my dad, so that’s the stories (the book) came out of. That was just so firmly rooted in me.”

Heather O’Neill will be at the “Tête-à-Tête” panel at the Wakefield Writers Festival on Saturday, May 13, at 7 pm. The event will be held at Ski Vorlage, located at 65 chemin Burnside. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online.