Books·My Life In Books

9 books that inspired Heather O'Neill

Heather O'Neill shares 9 books that shaped her life and work.
Heather O'Neilll is a Canada Reads winner and two time Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist.

Heather O'Neill's The Lonely Hearts Hotel, one of the most anticipated books of the year, is a historical tragicomic love story about two orphans hustling in Montreal's underground. O'Neill was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in consecutive years for her novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and the short story collection Daydreams of Angels.

Here, she shares nine books that have shaped her life and her writing. 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was one of Russia's most cherished writers. (Penguin Classics)

"I remember when I was a child, watching figure skating championships on the television. The Canadian skaters were often competing against Russian ones for the gold. The Canadians always had such joyful, gymnastic, bubbly and innocent routines. But the Russians came out dressed like black swans with pouts on their faces. Their serious demeanours seemed to indicate that they were not even particularly interested in skating, they simply happened to be better at it than anyone else in the world. I actually think my love of Russian culture began with these televised spectacles. In my book, Rose is always reading Russian novels. It is from these novels that she learns to communicate melancholia and grandiose themes.

"I could choose any number of Russian novels as being significant, but I'll go with Anna Karenina because it's like a treasure trove of sentences and ideas. And there is a heroine. I always prefer a novel with a woman at the centre. It is my proverbial cup of tea. I quite like the power of seduction described in the novel. The attraction between Anna and Vronsky is so beautiful and dirty. Tolstoy's details are exquisite, from a pink bow at the back of a dress to the pupil of a man slightly dilating to the lips of a woman turning downward for the briefest instant. I love seduction. It's strange and hypnotizes us and makes us bizarrely conscious of the minutiae of one another's actions."

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. (Hugo Jehle)

"I first read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett when I was 12. Here are some wonderful corrupt existential clowns, Vladimir and Estragon. I liked that they plumbed the depths of existence with the vocabulary of mad janitors. It was so real, like drunk men explaining the world to their cats. Men who had been single for decades and who shouted out the window in their undershirts. The language really resonated with me. It was the poetry of loss and failure all around me. Sort of like a cross between my dad and Friedrich Nietzsche."

The World Doesn't End by Charles Simic

Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. ( Mariner Books)

"This is my favourite book of poetry. My ex-boyfriend Seth introduced me to Charles Simic. He played me a recording of Simic reading a poem about a boy who had two fathers and they both keep kidnapping the child from one another. It was then I had a coup de foudre [love at first sight] for Simic that never let go. These dark poems have an almost Fellini-esque carnival quality while being as tragic as lines on tombstones. In this book, you'll find mothers made of smoke putting on their overcoats, a woman in cowboy boots picking mushrooms in the forest, a saint asleep with a rag on their face, an androgynous child playing with black apples. It is a fairy tale of childhood told in the ruins of Serbia after the Second World War. It is horror as its most beautiful. Each word is the colour of a crow."

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Bronte was an English novelist and poet, best known for her novel Jane Eyre. (Penguin Classics)

"I related to the early section of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, set in the orphanage. Jane, with all the other little girls with rebellious thoughts in her head. Jane, standing on a chair with no one allowed to speak to her. I sometimes felt that I was being punished for being a girl or that being a girl was inherently shameful. Growing up, I liked stories with schools of girls, A Little Princess, Madeleine. There's something that appeals to me about the composition of all those small girls. There are like an army, ready to be deployed. 

"I never liked where this book ended up. I don't think that Jane Eyre should have gone back to Rochester. I never got the attraction. Perhaps because I was the same age that Jane Eyre was when I read the book and I had no interest in older men, even though they were always trying to make conversation with me at the milk freezer at the back of the corner store."

The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway

Tomson Highway was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1994. (Fifth House Publishers)

"Tomson Highway, especially the plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. I was first attracted to Tomson Highway when I saw him speaking with tears in his eyes on the Adrienne Clarkson Presents show when I was a teenager. He played his piano and described his experience at a residential school. He talked about how his brother was so handsome that he would cause car accidents when he walked down the street. Then there were parts of his plays read out loud. They were like Michel Tremblay, but with magic and possibilities and doors to different worlds I knew nothing about. I put on my ski jacket and ran to the library to get every play they had by Tomson Highway. I thought he had to be the most beautiful man alive."

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen was an Irish novelist and short story writer. (Anchor)

"I always forget that The Death of the Heart is one of my favourite books because I don't hear Elizabeth Bowen being mentioned that much. Not in the same way one speaks of someone like Henry James, say. In my mid-20s, I found a paperback copy of this novel at a library book sale and was intrigued by the cover. It seemed to be a novel about a sad girl. How could I not give it a chance? Women writing about sadness and melancholy have been some of my loveliest reading experiences. It is a novel about a girl from an illegitimate union who goes to live with the family of the women her father betrayed after she is orphaned. That feeling of being made to feel invisible and unwanted and disliked and disrespected as a girl is so perfectly rendered in this novel. There is a scene where the character observes a swan that bewitched me, and I read it 100 times. And from then on decided that every novel deserves a swan."

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, best known for his novel The Great Gatsby. (Penguin Classics)

"Speaking of particular scenes that arrested me, there's a description in The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald that I read and fell in love with. I copied it out on the back of a postcard of a woman smoking on a balcony in Paris that I had been using as a bookmark and never had any intentions of sending to anyone. I kept it pinned to my bulletin board so long that it became my paragraph and has seeped into my work. "She put on a light coat and a quaintly piquant hat of Alice Blue, and they walked along the Avenue and into the zoo... " I adored those details. All the details in the book are exciting like this. Fitzgerald writes about being in love with the world and being in love with life and being in love with his wife. I wanted to have all those things too. I had such a romantic idea of what I wanted my life as an author to be like. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald and have my lovely mad Zelda. Or to be Zelda Fitzgerald and have my mad lovely F. Scott."

"Axis" by Alice Munro

Alice Munro was awared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature as a "master of the contemporary short story". (Reg Innell )

"Axis" in The New Yorker is a short story by Alice Munro that has been haunting me for the years since I read it in a magazine in 2011. It spans a period of 50 years. And when you finish it, you feel as if you are carrying the enormity of half a century in your heart. The story touches on what it means to go into the world in pursuit of love. It's always a vicious fairy tale. Some of us come back feeling rewarded and sound, and others are punished and ruined. The seemingly innocent and lighthearted choices I made in love when I was young have haunted my whole life. This story reminds me of the magnitude of choosing partners in a woman's life. And never has there been anyone as naked as one of the girls in this story is, sitting on the edge of her bed, knowing she is about to be cast aside.