Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Double Trouble: Reading with Heather O'Neill & Mary Walsh

It was a packed house on Friday night to see Heather O’Neill and Mary Walsh at the Christ Church Cathedral—and well worth the short wait in line.


O’Neill, known for her brain-ticklingly gorgeous writing, is a veteran of the Ottawa International Writers Festival and easily warmed up the crowd with a few anecdotes before her reading. (I’m not kidding about the brain-tickling gorgeousness, by the way. If you haven’t read her books yet, fix that immediately.) She noted that her inspiration for writing The Lonely Hearts Hotel came partly from her dad, who was one of nine (!) boys raised in Montreal single-handedly by her grandmother after his father passed away. Since those boys came of age during the Great Depression, “they, naturally, turned to crime.” Her dad was rather talented in the field of crime, as it turned out, and he lamented the fact that he didn’t pursue it as an adult. He had missed his calling, but he did have lots of bedtime stories for O’Neill that were filled with 1930s gangsters. Her novel, which is set mostly between World War I and World War II, is infused with the spirit of those bedtime stories. In fact, she noted that Rose, the female protagonist in the book, is essentially a cross between a 1930s gangster and Simone de Beauvoir.


Walsh, who has kept Canada laughing for decades, was at the Festival to promote her first novel, Crying for the Moon . Known for her characters and for creating the CBC’s This Hours Has 22 Minutes , she surprised the crowd by saying that she had actually wanted to write a novel since she was eight years old. She joked about being a month away from collecting her CPP (Canada Pension Plan), and said that she had a moment before she started writing the book when she had to ask herself, “If not now…when?”


Dr. Susan Birkwood, the moderator for the evening, led the discussion smoothly and touched on the various imagery and influences in both novels. Both O’Neill and Walsh talked about how a first novel almost inevitably includes more autobiographical details than subsequent novels—as O’Neill noted, “You have a treasure trove from your childhood, so you use it”—but both authors emphasized how much research still goes into the writing process, even if the times and places in the novel reflect some of their own experiences. “There are also themes that you get stuck on, and the novel radiates around them,” explained O’Neill as she joked about how her editor pointed out that she was once again creating motherless characters. “I was just like, ‘Ahhh, I forgot to give them mothers!’” she laughed. (O’Neill was raised by her father and added that “your autobiography can come through [in your writing] from the strangest perspectives.”)


After a fascinating discussion that included comparisons between childhood and war, insights into abuse and escape, and links between oppression and language (which I will not spoil here and will instead use as a marketing ploy to encourage you to read these books!), the audience members were invited to ask questions.


Asked about how her lifetime in the performing arts had influenced her approach to writing a novel, Walsh emphasized that she needs to do it “out loud.” She prefers to write by hand, and then she reads the text to an assistant who types it up for her. “It gives me the chance to edit as I read it and hear it out loud,” she explained. “Plus, I can read [her assistant’s] face. If she pulls a face, I think ‘hmm, was that an undigested piece of potato or was that a bad line?’”


O’Neill writes mostly about Montreal, and she was asked if she thought she could ever write about another city in the same way. While she said that she could see herself writing about a different city, she knows that it wouldn’t be the same. “It wouldn’t have the same intimacy,” she explained. Given her own history there—and her family’s lengthy history there—Montreal “feels like my story to tell.” She also noted that she felt she could say things about Montreal that she wouldn’t be able to say about other cities, much in the same way that we can say things about our own families in ways that we would never tolerate coming from someone else. “I also get to move buildings,” she joked, “because in my Montreal, this street would be better off here . If I did that with another city, I’d be told that I was bad at geography.”


As the session wrapped up, I imagined a practical stampede to the book signing (I had to leave, but I heard lots of excited chatter about getting books signed as I dashed out the door), and on another night I would have been the one leading the charge. I am a huge fan of Heather O’Neill, so I will happily attend any and all future Writers Festival events that feature her, and I sincerely hope that Mary Walsh—despite the immense relief that she described upon finishing her novel—will also return for more books and more laughter.