The Next Chapter

How Heather O'Neill's father's offbeat advice shaped her as a writer

In April 2018, the Montreal author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about book Wisdom in Nonsense.
Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from my Father was O'Neill's University of Alberta's Canadian Literature Centre's Kreisel Lecture. (HarperCollins Canada/University of Alberta Press)

Heather O'Neill's father earned a living as a janitor, but his real vocation was as a philosopher. He was fond of giving O'Neill offbeat advice, which runs through all of her novels, including Lullabies for Little Criminals, which won Canada Reads 2007, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

O'Neill recently gave the University of Alberta's Canadian Literature Centre's Kreisel Lecture, which was inspired by her father's advice. That lecture is now available as a book, Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from my Father, she has captured her father's actual tips for living.

Reading him like a book

"I tried to capture my father in Wisdom in Nonsense. Anyone you're close to is an enigma to you and they have many different layers to who they are. With my father, you could create two incredibly different portraits. If my father was a text and this were my critical analysis, I would have other academics who would attack my analysis and say, 'Are you crazy? This man was a jerk!' Having turned my father into this magical character and learned from him, being able to extrapolate the wonder in his personality enabled me in many ways to become a writer. I did the same thing with the environment that I grew up in — I was always very keen to notice wonder. I think was how I always saw the world, and it probably started with having this crazy, over the top, ex-gangster father and listening to these tidbits of advice that make absolutely no sense."

Dangerous diaries

"I loved writing and keeping journals. When my dad found out I was doing that, he said 'You cannot do that because they'll be used against you in court!' He just thought everyone ends up on trial at some point in their life, so he was against that. I think I was nine years old at the time, so I don't know exactly what I was revealing in those diaries that would cause me to be committed to a life sentence. I was a graphomaniac as a child and there was an accumulation of notebooks everywhere. My dad used to destroy my diaries when I was done because he thought it was best for everybody. But he'd often say that one of the most magical things in his life was watching me be able to read with such facility. It was this magical activity I engaged in."

The quotable parent

"My dad had a lot of shortcomings as a human being — but for me, he had these wonderful pieces of advice about never letting anybody tell you what you can achieve. It's up to you to determine your own destiny and no one can take that away from you; I really held that dear to me. I think people who grew up and have dysfunctional parents, they feel it's not permissible to recognize that, even with all the flaws their parents had, they might have had these wonderful pieces of advice. No matter how screwed up your parent is, you're allowed to value those on the same level as anything that Montesquieu wrote."

Heather O'Neill's comments have been edited and condensed.