Heather O’Neill is pleased to be returning to the Yukon this year for another engagement during the Yukon Writers’ Festival and Young Author’s Conference. She was last here In 2016.
“I love the sunlight in the Yukon,” she said. “Everything seems surreal to me. I hope to meet more of the people in this strange land and speak about books and ideas.”
She had an early love of books and now can’t imagine a life without writing.
“I love words. I adore books. When I was little, I slept with them in my bed. All I wanted were books, books, books. I asked for them for my birthday and Christmas. I love books more than anything else. I discovered how much I loved writing and I believed I had some talent at it.”
When she was 21, she began writing at least part of every day, when she wasn’t working or looking after her daughter.
“Writing in notebooks, on the back of napkins, typing away. I had no real interest in anything else. I began to feel alive when I wrote. It was an all-consuming passion.
“It was then that I no longer wanted to become a writer, but rather, I was a writer. For better or worse, I had engaged on an addictive path I would never be able to renounce or sway from.”
In 1999, she published a book of poems, two eyes are you sleeping. By the age of 33, she had a novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. It would go on to win the Canada Reads contest in 2007, as well as the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. It was also shortlisted for seven other major awards, in Canada and elsewhere. Since then, there has been a second novel, The Girl Who was Saturday Night, a short story collection, Daydreams of Angels, magazine articles,two short films, and a third novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Much of her fiction has been longlisted or shortlisted for awards and O’Neill has picked up National Magazine Awards for several stories. She was the winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction again in 2017 and was on the jury for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
“I think it’s important to have an overriding theme,” she said. “And for my work to have a both philosophical and political angle. I’m going to spend a couple years at least working on a book and I need to engage with it in a way that is both fruitful to me and the text.
“I become a different person as I explore the politics of my character’s existence. It’s a mode of thinking and I see every novel as a meditation that results in surprising conclusions and pushes my morality and conceits to extremes.”
She believes that writing is a job that requires time and dedication.
“I write every day, anywhere between 10 to 14 hours. I usually begin with sketches of ideas. I create small scenes to see what a character will look like on the page, also to feel what the voice of the novel and tone will sound and feel like. This can take a long time, with much thrown out.
“When I find a character and a world that intrigues me and seems beautiful and new to me, almost as though I am reading something by a stranger, I build a blueprint, an outline of a story, for them to exist within.”
She’s looking forward to working with students at the Yukon Arts Centre on May 2 and 3.
“I love working with high school students. I was recently in Paris conducting a workshop at a high school and the students wrote so beautifully. And they began discussing my work and one of the students told me how she believed the swans in my writings represented abuse in relationships. It was magical, the ideas that fiction stimulates in the young.”
She advises young writers to persevere.
“Start putting words on the page and showing them to people. Find any platform to publish on. You need to be active and putting pieces out in the world before getting a book deal. Everything you do counts and, even if it doesn’t seem like it, you are building a career.”