Heather O'Neill reflects on what it was like when her debut novel won Canada Reads 2007
Back in 2002, a radio program dedicated to uplifting and highlighting Canadian literature launched. Coined a "literary Survivor," Canada Reads has artists, celebrities and prominent Canadians debate books in order to determine which title will be crowned the one book the whole country should read.
To celebrate 20 years of Canada Reads, we are looking back on the show's dramatic history to bring you interviews with past panellists and authors.
In 2007, Montreal writer Heather O'Neill got a call from her publisher to say that her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was going to be on the program. Musician John K. Samson chose to champion the book during the all-star edition of the show, where the five panellists were all previous Canada Reads champions. Samson won the previous year after defending A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.
Lullabies for Little Criminals follows a 13-year-old girl named Baby, who lives in Montreal. Baby's mother is gone and her father is a drug addict who pays little attention to his daughter. When Baby catches the eye of a local pimp, she is caught up in his seedy world and soon realizes that if she wants to get out and build a better life, it's entirely up to her. The novel won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction in 2007 and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.
Samson, of the band The Weakerthans, successfully defended Lullabies for Little Criminals and the novel was named the one book all of Canada should read that year.
O'Neill has gone on to publish several more books, including the novels The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and The Lonely Hearts Hotel, and the short story collection Daydreams of Angels. Her next book, the novel When We Lost Our Heads, will be out in winter 2022.
Ali Hassan spoke to O'Neill about her Canada Reads experience.
Do you remember what it was like getting the call that your book had been selected for Canada Reads?
Oh yes, absolutely, because it was a group phone call. My publisher was calling the editor and the head of HarperCollins. I knew it was a big deal because everybody wanted to be on the phone to be part of this moment. They told me all together that Lullabies for Little Criminals had been selected for Canada Reads. It was so exciting and unexpected.
I decided to enjoy it. It was so thrilling for me.
Canada Reads means lots of people are all of a sudden listening and the focus is on you. How were you able to handle that new level of attention?
I remember Jim Cuddy's wife came up to me and she said, "One piece of advice I'd give to younger artists is, "Just enjoy these moments because they come once in a while in your life. When they come, just appreciate them." I thought that was interesting advice. I decided to enjoy it. It was so thrilling for me.
My favourite moment was when I was in Toronto the morning after Canada Reads. My daughter and I went to a bookstore. There was a huge book display that had a wall of Lullabies for Little Criminals. We sat up on the staircase and watched people buy it. It was so exciting every time someone took a book from the shelf. We got so excited and we applauded. We couldn't believe that it was suddenly part of the cultural conversation like that. I don't think there's been anything in my career that has paralleled that really fun moment with Canada Reads.
Did you listen along for the four days?
I did. I mean, I had trouble. It's funny because a lot of the debates I've blocked out. It's a bit of a challenge as an author. You're so vulnerable and sensitive and people are going to tear the book apart. But even so, I found it exciting. As a student of literature, and knowing the history of literary fiction, whenever you have some sort of controversy or someone arguing that the book is too transgressive, you know that you're provoking people in new ways. So to have criticism is also exciting because if your book doesn't incite some sort of outrage, then you're not really taking beauty and aesthetics to a new level.
If your book doesn't incite some sort of outrage, then you're not really taking beauty and aesthetics to a new level.
John K. Samson was the panellist who was defending your novel in 2007. Did you develop any relationship with John?
I had never met him before, but I knew his music and I had heard him defend Miriam Toews the year before, because 2007 was an all-star year. When I knew that John K. Samson had chosen my book — he's so articulate and beautiful and humble and one of these people who, when they speak, they speak softly but with such meaning — I had a feeling that this is my champion. He is going to take it all the way through.
What is your thought on literature being debated publicly on a national stage?
I think it's fabulous. There is this idea that literature is supposed to be presented in a very academic, school-like environment because so many people encountered novels in that way. But there are so many different, fun ways to bring literature into the public conversation and into different media. This is such a fun way to do it.
How has Canada Reads played a role in the book's success since then and in your career?
It's hard to say, but it was such a great launching pad. It immediately positioned me as someone who had a voice worth listening to. It offered me to Canada in that way: here is this brand new writer who's doing something exciting and it's permissible. Go and get it and try it. It opened me up to a huge market and audience. It made every other book more easy to put out and it created such a huge readership.
It just immediately positioned me as someone who had a voice worth listening to and it offered me to Canada in that way.
As you look back, what were your overall thoughts on the Canada Reads experience?
What it gave me was a sense of belonging because I always had felt, especially in writing the book, so much like an outsider. I was writing about this strange, little lower-class world and I always felt ostracized from the community at large, like there was something kind of odd, creepy and slightly riffraff-y about me. Then when Lullabies for Little Criminals was given to Canada as this huge book club read, nobody seemed to think there was anything wrong with that. It gave me a sense of, wow, I belong to this place and people have heard who I am and my ideas and they love them. There is a place for me in Canada. So for the first time in my life, I felt like I belong to this community.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.