Magic 8 Q&A

Heather O'Neill on cat dialogue, laundry room phobias, and other people's brains

The 2018 CBC Short Story Prize juror answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Heather O'Neill is a juror for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize. (The Canadian Press)

Heather O'Neill's debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was a finalist for a Governor General's Literary Award and won Canada Reads 2007. The Montreal-based writer was the first back-to-back finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize: her novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night was a finalist in 2014 and her short story collection Daydreams of Angels was a finalist in 2015. Her latest book is the novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

O'Neill is currently a juror for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize alongside Eden Robinson and Kevin Hardcastle.

The prize is open to short fiction submissions from Canadian citizens and permanent residents until Oct. 31, 2017.

Below, Heather O'Neill answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Timothy Taylor asks, "Does the novel still have a job in contemporary culture?"

Yes, of course. There are so many ideas in every book. I think Schopenhauer put it the loveliest when he said something like, reading is thinking with another person's brain. You get to live a whole other wonderful wild life every time you read a book. There's a difference between the brains of people who read novels and those who don't. They make you brilliant, deep and full of love & compassion. You're not a whole person unless you read novels. Every good mind has its own library and talking to them is like searching through shelves full of metaphors and insights and intrigue.

2. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writers block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

I'm a graphomaniac, so this question doesn't apply to me. I write all the time, everywhere. I sometimes feel like I'm just writing words in a way to procrastinate from actually writing. Like I should be writing a novel or something with an upcoming deadline and I start writing a play where two cats are discussing the price of fish for a hundred pages.

3. Charlotte Gray asks, "Do you think Creative Writing Courses encourage or discourage originality?"

I don't know.

4. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "How do faith and science intersect for you as a writer?"

All my characters live downtown, in the heart of noisy, electronic, constructed modern worlds. My characters fall to pieces in the country. But at the same time they see grace in everything, from a cigarette butt to a cockroach to a television screen. They understand that the universe is a magical place, full of insights and gifts that are up to them to accept if they have the faith to believe in them.

5. Lorna Crozier asks, "If you could write in any room anywhere in the world, besides your own writing room, where would that be? Please describe it."

Maybe a sprawling apartment in a building on the Upper West Side in New York City. Like the one described in Franny and Zooey. I would like it to be filled with books. And I would eat soft boiled eggs for breakfast at a table beside an enormous window while writing my pensées.

6. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? Can you tell us about that, if you feel comfortable doing so? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"

The reading of the first draft always kills me. I always feel like throwing it out. I do throw a lot of things out. It's usually a good time to let an editor take a peek at it to tell me where I actually stand.

7. Kate Pullinger asks, "Do you pay attention to the opinions of your family — parents, spouse, siblings, children, etc. — when it comes to your writing, both in terms of what you write about, but also how you write?" 

My 19-year-old daughter is my first reader. I ask her opinion on everything. I wiggled her toe the other morning and asked her which of two sentences she preferred and she rolled over and said, "The third, definitely." 

8. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you ever feel so scared in the dark, when you're alone, that you have to turn on a light? If so, what are you afraid of?"

Creatures from American movies, mostly. Sometimes, I'm afraid of the girl from The Ring. When I'm in the shed, I'm afraid that the Blair Witch is right behind me. In my old building I was afraid of the Blair Witch when I was in the laundry room.

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