Heather O’Neill is back with The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, a profound tale of the vice of fame and the ties of family. She took some time to discuss the books she can’t bear to part with (“geniuses of melancholia”), her literary crush (Forster’s George), what might come crawling out of Amazon boxes (tiger cubs), and more.
What’s one book you return to over and over again?
I read all of Salinger over and over. For years I also reread Poor Cow by Nell Dunn. It’s about a young single mother in the ’60s in London. I was a young single mom at twenty and I so related to the plight and the color of the narrator’s world. She’s so alive even though she’s made a botch of her life and has terrible taste in men. It made me feel really less lonely. It was quite like a friend. I would sit on a bench and eat toffee with her and listen to her yammer on about her latest boyfriend.
What book would you consider an “ancestor” of your own most recent FSG book and why?
Hmmm….Well I liked the idea of it being a bit like The Portrait of a Lady because the protagonist, Noushcka, has all these odd suitors and you know she’s bound to choose the worst one. And I liked the idea of Franny and Zooey because it has a brother and a sister who used to be child stars of sorts. I’m not sure anyone reading my novel will see either of those books in my pages, but there you have it.
What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
David Copperfield. When I was 8 years old my dad said that he would give me two dollars if I were able to read David Copperfield. It was a tiny old version with a leather cover and onion skin pages. He gave me a Ziploc bag to carry it around in. I just wasn’t able to read for profit, I suppose. And I was entirely too young to make sense of it. Funnily enough I went on to be a huge Charles Dickens fan. And I’ve read loads of his novels and they’ve been a major influence, but I’ve never been able to read David Copperfield. I still have the idea in my head from when I was a very little girl that it is impossible to get through.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
Once I shed one tear while reading Elie Wiesel’s Night during silent reading in high school. That the only time I can remember crying while reading.
Can you send a photo of your bookshelf?
This is my paperback skid row. They wouldn’t sell these for a dollar at a second hand bookstore. They are like hobos dressed in mismatching suits with cigarette burns in the sleeves. It is the truly beloved little nook of my bookshelf though. Some of these books have been with me for decades! Some of them have the stamp of my high school on the inside cover because I couldn’t bear to be parted with them at the end of the semester. I was so amorous about books back then. Look! Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute. What geniuses of melancholia!
(I should put some wrapping paper on them, so that they look like re-editioned classics.)
Who is your favorite literary character? Why?
I’m not sure. There are a lot of them…. But I’ll tell you which one I wanted to date the most: George from A Room With a View. When I was a teenager I wanted to meet him in real life and marry him. I thought that we would surely have a ball together. I imagined us doubling on a ten-speed bicycle through traffic together.
What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?
Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal. They are right around the corner from me. They’re also a publishing house for graphic novels and very pretty books. They organized my Montreal book launch at The Rialto Theatre. This is my favourite theatre because it’s where La La La Human Steps rehearse and where I saw Withnail and I for the first time. It was quite fun. They had hired 12-year-olds to work the door and greet people, which gave the whole thing a Wes Anderson feel.
I just received a package of books in the mail. I usually only order what I can’t find in a bookshop. Anyways, it was a copy of The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. One was much shorter than I imagined and the other much longer. You never know what physical thing is actually going to greet you when you order books. One day a tiger cub will crawl out of my Amazon box.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride. I was just in London and I picked it up at the wonderful Daunt Books bookshop. It’s not out in North America yet, so I was delighted to bring it back in my suitcase. What a book!
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
The first chapter book I remember reading was Little House in the Big Woods. Oh how wonderful it was. It was especially fun to read in the Montreal winter. I thought I was living a very similar life to her. Especially because my dad would put on a big fur hat and chase me around the room on all fours. (Except in Little House in the Big Woods, the neighbors never banged up from downstairs.)
What’s one book that ended up different from what you expected, whether for better or for worse?
Anne of Green Gables. I thought that I couldn’t possibly like it because it was set on Prince Edward Island which is filled with houses and flowers and geese. I live on the island of Montreal which is filled with buildings and trash cans and bugs. It seemed like it must be filled with boring and trivial people. But I read an excerpt from it in a textbook in class and I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. I begged my dad to buy me all the books. We took the bus down town to buy all the books. I had a paper bag full of them.
HEATHER O’NEILL is a contributor to This American Life, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. Her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, an international bestseller, won the Paragraphe Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction and the Canada Reads competition in 2007; was short-listed for six prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Governor General’s Literary Award; and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She lives in Montreal, Canada.