Thursday, January 28, 2010
2. About the author
3. Interview with the author
4. Bibliography, awards and review
5. Discussion Questions
6. Quotable Quotes
Lullabies for little criminals, by Heather O'Neill
A vivid and poignant child's-eye view of the dark side of urban Canada
By Julie Wheelwright
Tuesday, 19 February 2008
It's intriguing to ponder why Heather O'Neill, the author of this prize-winning debut novel, did not write a misery memoir. In an essay, she suggests that much of the material for her narrator, Baby (who is being raised by Jules, her heroin-addicted father, in Montreal's red-light district), came from her own experiences. O'Neill writes that, despite drawing on painful memories, her novel "exists in the childish realm of make-believe".
It was a wise choice, since much of what Baby endures might have made for unbearably voyeuristic reading. Her mother, pregnant at 16 in a small Quebec town, dies in a car crash before Jules heads for the city with his daughter. They move from hotel to hotel as he tries out get-rich-quick schemes and petty crime, and falls deeper into addiction.
What O'Neill has captured vividly and poignantly is Baby's desperate attempt to retain her love and respect for her father. "I liked him right next to me, stoned and not going anywhere," she writes. "I felt protected and perfect." But as Baby grows up, her father becomes increasingly destitute. At one point, Jules is forced into rehab and Baby goes into a foster home, where she experiences a fleeting form of love and security.
All too soon, Jules arrives and takes Baby back. Eventually, he spirals back into addiction and leaves town, and Baby moves in with Xavier, a pimp. Soon she's experimenting with heroin and is forced into working for her lover's clients. She still attends school and does her homework at night, in between tricks.
When Jules reappears, he tries to cut off anyone who tries to help her. Xavier is equally possessive and assaults her when he finds her dating a boy. O'Neill also does a masterful job of retaining Baby's perspective as a child, sizing up these monstrous adults and still managing to find wonder amid the rubble of her life.
There is eventually a suggestion of redemption for Baby. O'Neill's novel builds to a riveting climax, where her narrator's life and sanity seem to hang in the balance. Only when Jules finally releases his grip on his daughter can she move to a real place of safety. This is a deeply moving and troubling novel exploring the dark side of urban Canada, where, all too easily, children are still left to struggle against impossible odds.
2. ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather O'Neill was born in Montreal (1974), then after her parents split up went to live with her mother in Virginia. When O’Neill was nine or so, her mother “decided to become a punk rocker” and sent O’Neill and her two sisters to live with their father in Montreal. O’Neill has written about having been abandoned by a mother who continues to live an itinerant life, and about being raised by an emotionally unpredictable father who these days would be described as “working poor.” While there are clearly some similarities to Lullabies (which is set in the early 1980s), O’Neill asserts that the novel isn’t autobiographical – it simply takes place in “sort of the same world that I grew up in.”
The world O’Neill grew up in is NDG, or Notre Dame de Grace, a pleasant, mostly gracious middle-class West End neighbourhood. Back in the 1980s, however, NDG was an inner-city zone more often called by its unofficial name, No Damn Good.
O'Neill earned a B.A. from McGill University in 1994 and currently lives in Montreal with her husband Jonathan Goldstein, an author and CBC Radio personality, and with her daughter, Arizona O’Neill (1994).
She published her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, in 2006. The novel was subsequently selected for the 2007 edition of Canada Reads, where it was championed by singer-songwriter John K. Samson (from Winnipeg, The Weakerthans). Lullabies won the competition.
Her credits also include a screenplay (John L’Ecuyer’s feature film Saint Jude, released in Canada in 2000. Jude, played with luminous directness by Liane Balaban (last seen in New Waterford Girl), is a bright young thing living in the seedy world of Montreal’s street hustlers. In short order, she’s kicked out of her father’s house and on the run from a drug dealer. On the street, she undergoes what is conventionally called a “descent into hell”, though thanks to L’Ecuyer’s direction, and Heather O’Neill’s script, it's a fall lacking in either fear or regret. ), a book of poetry, and contributions to The New York Times Magazine, Public Radio International's This American Life, and the CBC's Wiretap.
An excerpt from Lullabies appeared in Toronto Life’s 2003 summer fiction issue, a New York friend of O’Neill’s passed the magazine to Sam Stoloff, an agent with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. Stoloff called O’Neill’s home in Montreal and learned that she was visiting New York at the time. “He proceeded to call everybody I knew in New York, looking for me,” says O’Neill
Quill & Quire
Bringing up Baby
Heather O’Neill’s debut novel brings magic to a grim inner-city childhood
by Juliet Waters
St. Urbain is best known as the Montreal street where Mordecai Richler came of age. Today, Heather O’Neill lives there with her longtime boyfriend, Jonathan Goldstein, an author and CBC Radio personality, and with her daughter, Arizona O’Neill, who has just started Grade 7 at École Superieure de Ballet Contemporain. Their ground-floor apartment is guarded by a lawn statue of Peter Rabbit, and I’m reminded that my six-year-old son won’t have anything to do with the Beatrix Potter classic, which he calls “that book where the father gets eaten in a pie.”
O’Neill, 32, leads me into her bright, clean, uncluttered kitchen, and while she’s making us coffee, I ask her whether Arizona has read O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. It’s a reasonable question, since the book’s narrator, Baby, is 12 going on 13. “No, she’s not allowed,” says O’Neill – a reasonable answer. After all, by the end of the novel, Baby has become a prostitute and a street junkie, like Jules, the young single father who has raised her. A dilemma looms for O’Neill, though – some of Arizona’s classmates have found out about the book, and are intrigued that Arizona isn’t allowed to read it. So they’re of course eagerly awaiting its release.
They’re not alone. In the U.S., where HarperCollins is publishing the novel (HarperCollins Canada is distributing it here), Barnes & Noble has selected O’Neill for its Discover Great New Writers campaign. When I meet with her, she’s recently been contacted by People magazine about a publicity photo to go with a review of the book. “People magazine,” O’Neill repeats incredulously, in a soft voice that is impressively smooth, given how many Camels she will smoke in the hour I’m there. “That’s so odd.”
Not so odd to those who’ve read the book. Baby’s voice, intelligent and infectious, brings to mind the hypnotic charm of recent bestsellers told from the point of view of gifted children neglected by their parents – books like Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s no surprise that a New York publisher leapt on the manuscript. “I was struck by the absolute honesty and freshness of Heather’s voice,” says editor Courtney Hodell, who acquired Lullabies for HarperCollins (and has since moved to Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “The book has a shocking, visceral impact, as if its sometimes-wrenching events are happening directly to you. I have no idea how she managed to retain such a precise memory of how children see the world.”
O’Neill found her way to Hodell through a mixture of serendipity and connections. After an excerpt from Lullabies appeared in Toronto Life’s 2003 summer fiction issue, a New York friend of O’Neill’s passed the magazine to Sam Stoloff, an agent with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. Stoloff called O’Neill’s home in Montreal and learned that she was visiting New York at the time. “He proceeded to call everybody I knew in New York, looking for me,” says O’Neill. “Everywhere I went, people were [saying], ‘This agent is looking for you.’” The two finally met in Washington Square Park, after O’Neill had reached Stoloff on a payphone: “I’m really close by,” he told her. “Stay there. What are you wearing?”
The friend who passed the manuscript on was Paul Tough, an editor at The New York Times Magazine who has been publishing both O’Neill and Goldstein since he was editor of Saturday Night in Canada in the late 1990s, and also on his own website of confessional essays, Open Letters. O’Neill has also appeared regularly on the popular National Public Radio show This American Life, where Goldstein was a producer from 2000 to 2002. And Montrealers have been predicting big things for her ever since one of her short stories was adapted into John L’Ecuyer’s feature film Saint Jude, released in Canada in 2000.
At Q&Q’s press time, Lullabies was scheduled for release in mid-October, with plans for a Montreal launch at Paragraphe Books followed by a mini-tour of four U.S. cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Ann Arbor). Asked whether it feels strange to be published first in New York rather than Canada, O’Neill replies, “I have dual citizenship, so I feel more North American anyway.”
This leads to questions about parents and origins, and suddenly, if subtly, O’Neill’s voice tightens. “I was born here, and then after my parents split up I went to live with my mother in Virginia,” she says. When O’Neill was nine or so, her mother “decided to become a punk rocker” and sent O’Neill and her two sisters to live with their father in Montreal. On the Open Letters site, O’Neill has written about having been abandoned by a mother who continues to live an itinerant life, and about being raised by an emotionally unpredictable father who these days would be described as “working poor.” While there are clearly some similarities to Lullabies (which is set in the early 1980s), O’Neill asserts that the novel isn’t autobiographical – it simply takes place in “sort of the same world that I grew up in.”
The world O’Neill grew up in is NDG, or Notre Dame de Grace, a pleasant, mostly gracious middle-class West End neighbourhood. Back in the 1980s, however, NDG was an inner-city zone more often called by its unofficial name, No Damn Good. In the era between the two separatist referendums, the anglo community was in the midst of a steady exodus, and Quebec language laws further discouraged English public school enrollment.
O’Neill uses the word “post-apocalyptic” to describe her public high school experiences there. “The year I was in Grade 11, they had only signed up five kids for Grade 7 – the reputation of the school was so bad they couldn’t get any more kids to go there,” she says. “It was so rough – just a lot of foster home kids and kids who had been kicked out of other schools. There was this general kind of lawlessness, and it was just full of kids who had lost their will to live...” she trails off in a mock-dramatic tone that has enough gallows humour in it to crack up two Irish-blooded girls from NDG, if no one else. O’Neill doesn’t glamorize her adolescence, but she’s also not ready to simply write it off as grim tragedy.
The magic and the horror of Baby’s life are typical for any smart kid growing up in those circumstances, especially without a mother. It’s a precarious tightrope of experience that can turn either way. Lives like that of Baby, who finds herself juggling two boyfriends – a geeky, endearing son of an accountant and a tortured, sexy, manipulative pimp – were not uncommon then, and they may not be now. “That’s something I tried to capture in the book,” says O’Neill. “The way that lowlifes are so attractive to children. Because in a way children are the only ones who take them seriously and believe their crap…. And yet there can be something magical about that sometimes.”
For those who survive the consequences. Not so magical for those who don’t. A point made clear in the book.
The French have a word for which there is unfortunately no equivalent in English: jouissance, the joy of transgression. It describes that illicit thrill that keeps kids hungry for experience no matter how dangerous. That keeps rabbits seeking out Mr. McGregor, no matter how protective their mother. That will keep readers who pick up Lullabies for Little Criminals reading until they are crying.
3. INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
Harper Collins Author Interview
Heather O'Neill on Lullabies for Little Criminals
Q: How did the narrative voice of Baby first come to you?
A: A lot of children grow up in poverty with flawed parents but their inner world is still as inherently filled with wonder and innocence as children who are kept away from the city's underbelly. In fact, they might have more of a need for this type of imagination as a defense mechanism. I wanted Baby's voice to reflect this. I wanted a voice that could at once be as simple as a child's retelling of A Cricket in Times Square yet also be able to encompass the realities of heroin addiction. I wanted a voice that kind of captured the metaphors of a childhood spent on the streets, and described the heroes and villains of that world. Baby is a poet in this way.
Q: What were some of the fictional challenges you faced in inhabiting the mind and voice of an adolescent girl?
A: Adolescents are still children in that they can't yet tell the difference between make believe and fiction. They don't believe in love making or that they will be adults. They don't believe any of this until it is right before their eyes. They don't know the consequences of being an adult. It is all still like dress up. They were just having conversation with stuffed monkeys a couple years before. They're so vulnerable; it's nerve-wracking to write about them. I found it difficult emotionally because you want to save children from hardship and protect them, but I wrote them into some dark situations. Even seeing a child missing the city bus is heartbreaking to me, so it was mentally draining to write some of the stuff that happens in the book. It made me feel like a bad person. When you write about little children, you can avoid tragedy, but adolescents look for trouble, so I thought it was necessary for sad things to happen. Adolescents are attracted to tragic heroes. That's why rock stars dress like homeless people. Adolescence is a fall. It's when every child becomes an orphan. If we could, we would keep children as far away from the adult world as possible, but they are going to be adults no matter what.
Q: The vivid first-person narration of your novel makes it read more like autobiography than fiction. To what extent did you borrow from your own experiences as a teenager in crafting the world Baby inhabits?
A: The novel isn't autobiographical. The down and out world of Montreal was the one that I grew up in, though. It's a world that is composed of what attracted and fascinated me at Baby's age. Also, like Baby, I didn't have a mother. I was raised by my father since I was seven years old. So the longing and absence for a mother is something that is in my bones, especially the difficulties of being an adolescent girl without a mother and looking for maternal love in relationships with boys. A lot of the children in the book were inspired by children that I was infatuated with. My dad is very different from Jules. But he's similar in being eccentric and outrageous, but more in a tough guy kind of way. Like Jules, he tried his best, although his idea of parenting was absurd.
Q: Your book has been compared to works by Kaye Gibbons, J.D. Salinger, and Donna Tartt, among others. Were any of these authors' direct or indirect influences on your novel?
A: I've never read Kaye Gibbons. J.D Salinger is a rite of passage. Every child sees themselves a little differently after reading Salinger. In his novels, children's angst and depression and beauty are taken seriously. We are constantly interpreting the world for children, but in Salinger's world, the child is always the authority on society and its weaknesses. Baby has the keenest sense of observation of all the characters in the book.
Also, Salinger captures the nobility and tragedy of being an adolescent. His adolescents are displaced aristocrats who have lost their kingdom and wealth, which was childhood. This is especially devastating to Salinger's Glass children, who were so precocious and starred on a radio show called "It's a Wise Child." I like to think of Baby as being one of these precocious children, on par with the Glass kids. She happened not to have a privileged childhood in the traditional sense. But to her Jules is as entertaining and exotic as a Vaudevillian performer or a philosopher. At the beginning of the novel, she sees herself and Jules as being the most interesting family on the block.
Donna Tartt's brilliant youths are at once precocious and lost in the world of childhood. They act and posture like adults, but their idea of being an adult comes from fairy tales. They still believe that being an adult means being a crusader or a daring detective. Tartt describes the dangerous path of clever children who should have straight A's but choose instead to be romantic delinquents. I think this idea of young adolescents acting out adult situations is an important one in my novel. The line between pretending to be a criminal and actually being one is a fine one for children. They never quite know when they have crossed it. I love Tartt's writing, but I wasn't thinking of it directly while writing my book. Narrative voices are years in the making. Mine was influenced by everything I read and everyone I met in some way, from Shakespeare to my father cursing a leaking pipe.
Q: Lullabies for Little Criminals is your first novel. What was the most rewarding aspect of writing this book?
A: I really enjoyed the lower class world that I grew up in. I was always smitten with lowlifes and daredevils and junkies. Being able to capture the joy and breathlessness of this world, of living les quatre cents coups, was rewarding. I had a ludicrous childhood, but I feel that I was able to profit from a lot of the idiotic and unfortunate things that happened to me by turning them into fiction. I feel in that way that I cheated fate by writing this book, by declaring that ordinary stones were gold.
During the writing of the book, I was inspired by children around me. Watching children playing their recorders for change on the street corner, seeing them try on pink Converse sneakers, sunbathing at the pool with their fake tattoos of tigers, looking both way before crossing a street all gave me imagery and ideas for the book. I was also inspired by rock and roll and photographs and leather boots and pin striped suits and roses in hats and cars with missing doors. The nature of the things that inspired this book along the way was delightful.
4. AWARDS AND REVIEWS
Two Eyes Are You Sleeping (1998) poetry
Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006)
-Winner of Canada Reads 2007 (During Canada Reads, five personalities champion five different books, each champion extolling the merits of one of the titles. The debate is broadcast over a series of five programs. At the end of each episode, the panelists vote one title out of the competition until only one book remains. This book is then billed as the book that all of Canada should read. Following the announcement of the winning title, the CBC opens an online forum where readers can discuss the book.)
-Winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction 2007
-Shortlisted for the Governor General's Award 2007
-Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2008
-Shortlisted for the Amazon.ca/ Books in Canada First Novel Award 2007
-Shortlisted for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award 2007
-Shortlisted for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal 2007
-Shortlisted for the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize South Africa 2008
-Longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2008
Positive reviews praised the authenticity of her story, finding the narrative voice honest and unsentimental, and the descriptions vivid.
A negative review. Often negative reviews provide more thoughtful comments than positive ones.
"Lullabies" is one of those novels which is basically little more than adequate, but gets a lot of buzz and therefore picks up some momentum (and sales and praise).
The summary is "a 12 year old girl from a broken home has various street adventures in Montreal".
I honestly don't think you can give much more to it than this. None of the "adventures" really lead up to anything. They're all sad little vignettes with a long stream of characters who appear and disappear and the only saving grace is that Baby herself is given a half-decent narrative voice.
So, Baby and her father Jules are fairly interesting characters. The eventual "love-interest", Xavier, is likeable, but basically everyone else just disappears.
Despite how dangerous a life Baby seems to be living, and the lowly nature of the characters she knows, there is almost no tension in the book because you never really believe that anything will happen to Baby.
As well (and maybe this is a necessary trade-off to make Baby's narrative voice fun and lively), there is little drama in the situations because the drug abuse, the lost friends, the group homes, the abusive pimp, the negligent father, are all depicted lightly. There is never that feeling that Cormac McCarthy can give his young characters in "All The Pretty Horses" and "The Crossing" that this event, or this decision, will either save me or destroy me. And this character is definitely being destroyed, but the gravity of this doesn't really come across.
As I say however, this is probably a necessary trade-off to make the narrative voice so lively.
So, basically, this book won't kill you and won't be a total waste of money, but you'd be far better off spending your money on "A Complicated Kindness" by Miriam Toews (which is another recent Canadian novel told by a young female narrator).
5. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Narrative voice: first person retrospective
p. 280 (jumping on tippy toes) "That was a kind of a prayer I used to do back then." Simply describes, without judging.
How would you describe Baby's relationship with Jules? p. 90 With Alphonse?
Falling through the cracks. What opportunities did society and its institutions have to intervene? Social workers, Jules, Jules in hospital, Jules in rehab, foster care, being hit by car, school, community center, crisis hotline (Felix), arm dislocated, Xavier's parents.
Contrast between the way Baby feels about her new apartment with Jules and the way we feel as it is described. P. 52
How do you feel about the humor in the book? p. 53, 56
What are the different forces that motivate Baby at different points in the book? To be good at school? To get back to Jules? To join the community center. To seek Alphone's attention. To let herself be prostituted? To use heroin? (p. 72) To hug other people's mothers?
The way children can move on the streets. When is a child old enough to be held accountable for their actions?
What allows Baby to turn her life around? And how does she do it?
Is the book hopeful, overall?
How would this book have sounded if Paloma from The Elegance of the Hedgehog had written it?
HarperCollins Reading Guide
* 1. How would you characterize Jules's feelings about his daughter, Baby, and his behavior as a father?
2. How does the itinerant, impoverished life that Baby and Jules lead affect Baby's self-esteem and her sense of her place in the world?
3. How does the confessional quality of the first-person narrative of Lullabies for Little Criminals impact your appreciation and understanding of the hardships Baby experiences?
4. To what extent do you think Jules bears responsibility for Baby's increasingly risky behavior?
5. How do Baby's friendships with Linus Lucas, Theo, and Felix enable her to endure some of the difficulties of her childhood?
*6. "Every good pimp is a mother." What does Alphonse represent to Baby, and why does she eventually agree to turn tricks for him?
How does Alphonse feel about Baby?
7. Why does Baby ultimately decide to try heroin, the drug that has nearly destroyed her life because of her father's ongoing addiction to it?
8. To what extent is Baby's story in Lullabies for Little Criminals a tragedy?
9. After keeping silent for so long, why does Jules finally share information with Baby about her deceased mother, Manon Tremblay, and how do these details affect Baby?
10. What does the final scene of the novel in rural Val des Loups suggest about Baby's future?
6. Quotable Quotes
"Jules had implicitly taught me to turn my back on anyone but him, the way he had done to his family. At that point in my life it probably saved me from an awful lot of heartbreak."
When the doctor takes her off painkillers. "He said it was necessary for me to feel pain so that I would know if I was being hurt."
"I felt them staring as I walked away in that haughty way that stoned twelve-year-old girls sometimes have."
"It never occurs to you when you are very young to need something other than what your parents have to offer you."
"Every good pimp is a mother."
On having sex with Alphonse: "I felt like something terrible had happened to me and he was comforting me."
"All teenagers start leading double lives anyhow; mine was just a little more extreme."
"There was a part of me that was smart and original and nerdy too."
"When I thought of my old friends, Linus Lucas and Theo, I realized that they were nor really criminals either. They were like me. We were just acting out the strangest, tragic little roles, pretending to be criminals in order to get by. We gave very convincing performances."
I was tired of their superiority complexes. Maintaining a superiority complex, especially when you were a loser, took a lot of mental effort and denial."