Writer Heather O'Neill finds wisdom in an eccentric father's advice

Acclaimed writer Heather O'Neill's father was a janitor, but listed his occupation as professor of philosophy, and he offered a series of unusual rules for life as she grew up in Montreal. In her Henry Kreisel Lecture at the Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton, and in conversation, she talks about unexpected muses and mentors, being a 'problem' reader, and how some idiosyncratic lessons prepared her to cross the class divide.
Heather O'Neill (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Heather O'Neill is one of Canada's top fiction writers — winning awards, accolades, and readers for her vivid novels. But it was an unpredictable path to success: she comes from humble Montreal roots. She was raised by her single father — a janitor who wryly listed his real occupation as professor of philosophy. He offered his book-obsessed daughter a set of rules for life. In conversation, and in her Henry Kreisel Lecture at the Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton, Heather O'Neill describes her dad's colourful advice to her, as well as the surprising people who made her into a passionate writer and reader, and helped her bridge the class divide that restricted her father's own life. **This episode originally aired February 1, 2018.

"I was born in Montreal and spent my first years in the city. When I was five, my parents got divorced. My mom packed me up and put me in the back seat of our burgundy car. She tossed my dad's stuff out of the trunk and we drove down to Virginia where she was from. After two and a half years of moving around, she told me she had changed her mind about wanting to be my mother. She basically broke up with me. She put me on a plane and I showed up back in Montreal where I was to spend the rest of my childhood with my father.

My dad was a petty criminal as a child. He worked sneaking into windows for older hardened criminals. He was in prison when he was 11 years old.  As an adult, he worked as a janitor but he saw himself as street smart. He had a little silver transistor radio that he attached to his belt. This kept him abreast of the news. He listened to it so often that he assumed he was as intelligent as the most intelligent people were.

My dad was determined to take care of me properly. He made me pancakes and cookies and sewed my clothes properly. He was actually really good at that. What he was a little worse at, was what he regarded as an integral part of parenting: the dispensing of life advice. But nonetheless it was one of his favourite things to do.

He had several rules he was adamant about..."

Heather O'Neill's father's eccentric lessons for life

  1. Never keep a diary.
  2. Learn to play the tuba.
  3. Make friends with Jewish kids.
  4. Accept that you're ugly and move on.
  5. Never tell anyone what you do for a living.
  6. Know something about history.
  7. No matter what anyone tells you, crime certainly pays.
  8. All sophisticated people have dinner parties.
  9. Make yourself a family.
  10. It is the thought that counts
  11. And the final lesson: Never ever ever watch a Paul Newman film.

How reading and writing helped a blue collar kid succeed

"I [had] a real sense of being from a working class background [but] I was given this strange gift, where I could pick up any book and just read it. [My dad] had only gone to grade three, so it was almost magical to him that I was able to read everything and keep up. Once he...bought me a pile of Charles Dickens novels at a garage sale.  He was incapable of reading them himself, but [he told me], 'I'll give you two bucks for each one you read.'

I remember spending so much time with the dictionary because... there was this idea that I could get over to the other world if I understood these books. My dad had this great feeling of being stuck:  he could never move to another class, and he was always going to be looked down on, and he didn't want that for me.

I developed a sort of graphomania at an early age, and I had a lot of teachers who noticed that I was able to write. So I was lucky in that sense. I had a grade 5 teacher who [read my] short story about a cockroach trying to pass itself off as a cricket, and she thought it was so beautiful [that] she told me I should be a writer. I came home [and told my dad], and my dad was like, 'Well, so you shall!'

The wonderful thing about writing and literature is that it can come from anywhere in the world. No matter what your background, [we] have this wonderful capacity for imagination that cannot be kept down."

**Comments have been edited and condensed.

Watch Heather O'Neill's Henry Kreisel Lecture presented at the Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton

Books by Heather O'Neill

**This episode was produced by Dave Redel.


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