The Chat: Trevor Corkum With 2015 Giller Finalist Heather O'Neill

Last week I was thrilled to introduce readers to the new interview series I'm doing with 49th Shelf—The Chat—through a special focus on the 2015 Giller Prize finalists. The first two interviews in this series were with Anakana Schofield (Martin John) and André Alexis (Fifteen Dogs). This week I'll be interviewing Heather O'Neill (Daydreams of Angels), Samuel Archibald (Arvida), and Rachel Cusk (Outline).

From a review in the Toronto Star of Daydreams of Angels:

"O’Neill is a wondrous writer whose clean declarative sentences push the stories forward. The strength of this collection is not just the stories’ delectable absurdity but also their wisdom. O’Neill reflects on the identity of artists, who she says cannot fully live in our world, but must dwell in a place apart to nourish their imaginations."

 

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THE CHAT, WITH HEATHER O'NEILL

What did you immediately do when you found out you’d made it onto this year’s Giller shortlist?

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Immediately after, let’s see. I had to sit with my head between my knees for a bit. I had eaten a lot of birthday cake the night before, and that, combined with the gas leak and waiting for all the judges to scurry across the street, did quite the number on my stomach. Then I had to walk my dogs because they’d been saying, what’s the deal for the past two hours. So I put them on their leashes and stepped outside. And let me tell you, the falling leaves were so colourful, the breeze was so wonderful, and I felt exceptionally pleased to be alive.

 

How was Daydreams of Angels born?

I don’t know. A book is made up of a hundred influences. I like the way that children read out loud. I’ve always liked the idea of swans. I was a child of divorce, so the idea that they mated for life appealed to me. I played the trumpet in high school and so did angels and famous heroin addicts. I liked old black and white movies about chorus girls. I liked the way that girls looked in their cloche hats in the 1920s. I once bought a pornographic book by Anaïs Nin at a garage sale, because there was a girl in a cloche hat on the cover. I had no idea what I was in for.

What’s a question no one has asked about your book yet that you wish they would ask?

Maybe something about stepfathers in my stories. In traditional fairy tales, you always have the recurrent theme of the stepmother. This stemmed from the reality that so many women died in childbirth and the fathers remarried. But growing up in this era, the single parent household is more likely to be created by divorce. The child is almost always left with its mother. Thus the modern era had seen the child introduced to all manner of archetypal step dads, from the Goodlooking Underemployed Dude, to the Wanting to Clean Ship Dude, to the My Own Kids Would Be Better Than You Dude, to the Stand Up Dude.

(There are also these references to the French Revolution that nobody picks up on in The Story of Little O. I suppose I made them too subtle. But someday, some grad student somewhere in a garret on St. Laurent Boulevard…..)

One of your stories, “The Robot Baby,” explores a robot feeling emotion for the first time. I’m fascinated by the idea that we’re at a historical moment where robots are beginning to take on human characteristics.  Imagine you’re spending a day with this robot. Where does the robot take you? What do you talk or argue about? What’s the one thing you learn from the robot?

I’m interested in that too. I suppose we all ought to be. The moment that machines develop a human consciousness, then we are going to be in trouble, aren’t we? I was attending a lecture by a philosopher on the subject of artificial intelligence. And he said that we shouldn’t be worried about machines taking over because it assumes that they would care about these things. Which they don’t.

Complex emotions, like caring, are harder to come up with than intelligence or computation of facts. The irrational aspects of human nature—anger, jealousy, perversity, vanity, love—are actually harder to recreate. But these troublesome traits are the ones that motivate the desire to create and dominate and reproduce.

My robot is such a sad little creature built of random parts. He’s nothing like the androids who populate the planet and are outwardly distinguishable from humans by certain behavioural idiosyncracies. He is a freak and looks like a souped up electric can opener. But he possesses the desire to be loved. He is the first to express the elusive emotions that would lead to revolution and empowerment. He is the future of the robot race.

But, he’s just a little guy now! I would give him a jacket from Paddington Bear and take him to the museum to look at dinosaur bones.

 

From Daydreams of Angels ("The Gypsy and the Bear"):

"Then one day the Orphan did not tuck her sheet in properly after she made her bed. It filled the Headmistress with so much rage that she went after the Orphan, who was so busy scrubbing away with a bucket between her feet that she did not notice her coming. Swooping down behind the Orphan, the Headmistress grabbed the back of her hair with her fist and forced the girl's head right into the bucket of water. She yanked her up for a breath, and the Orphan's body shook and she gasped uncontrollably. The Headmistress pushed her back under the water again. She let her up and the Orphan collapsed, writhing and puking on the floor. Lying prostrate, with her little finger splayed beneath her on the tiles, the Orphan knew that she could sink no further in this world. And so she slowly rose up, straightened her tiny spine and knew for the first time, and without a doubt, what dignity felt like."

What was going on for you when you wrote this passage? What does it reveal about the story at large?

This is complicated. I’m a fiction writer, which means that I use make-believe as a means to expression. And there are truths that are difficult to articulate, but are better expressed through fiction. Fiction always allows multiple, simultaneous interpretations of what you’re trying to say. Truth is as complicated and as shifting as makebelieve—which is why fiction, instead of non-fiction, is sometimes used to go after more elusive and difficult to articulate truths.

No, despite that preamble, I will try to explain what I meant without somehow trivializing that scene. I think that we are all humiliated at times in life. This scene is about the power of being a victim. Dignity is a complicated thing. It is created resistance. Sometimes appalling conditions appeal and strengthen our dignity because they force us to resist. Sometimes dignity doesn’t even need to manifest itself in a grand and noble act. Because sometimes all that is required for dignity is that a person say a tiny “fuck you” in their head.

Sometimes all that is required for dignity is that a person say a tiny “fuck you” in their head.

In this scene, the orphan is literally prostrate, like she can’t get any lower. The orphan rejects this treatment. She rejects her position at the bottom of the social ladder. She’s becoming radicalized so to speak. She becomes a completely different character in doing so.

 

JURY CITATION

This is a work of acute charm and radically deft imagination. Whether probing the behaviour of clones for some sign of a relationship between genes and genius, eavesdropping on the anecdotes of abandoned dolls, or detailing the particulars of "A Portrait Of The Marquis de Sade As A Young Girl,"O’Neill’s stories continually spar with that which so often defines our lives or limits our daring – the problem of pain. Here are characters born of a distinctive sensibility and sent forth to chart the strange and volatile terrain where grace is found, lost, and found again. There’s no thrill quite like encountering tales this tall, and few tall tales offer up their gifts this freely.

 

The FIRST FEW PAGES OF DAYDREAMS OF ANGELS ("The Gypsy and the Bear")

Excerpted from DAYDREAMS OF ANGELS. Copyright © 2015 by Heather O’Neill. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

One afternoon in 1946 a child was telling his toy soldiers the tale of a certain tall, menacing-looking Gypsy who was walking down a road in rural France. He had a trained bear and he played the violin. Something magical was meant to happen to him, naturally. However, in the middle of the tale, the child was called to lunch and never returned to the story.

The Gypsy stood there, contemplating his existence. He wasn’t even a real Gypsy, not a member of the great Romany people, but more like the fictional kind, like the ones that you see in old-fashioned storybooks. He had on a pair of black leather boots, a pinstriped suit and a hat with its brim pulled down over one eye. He had a twinkle in the eye that you could see and a violin case under his arm. At least the boy must have thought that Gypsies were the most handsome men in the world, because he was darn good-looking. He was just a stereotype, a collection of spiffy attributes and flashy characteristics. He was one dimensional in that sense. He had no depth.

And he was stuck with a bear that wore a jacket and followed him around and talked non-stop. The bear had tiny deep-set eyes that looked like buttons in an armchair and spiky black hair. What a nuisance, he thought. How could he travel by train with such a monstrous creature? The bear was actually quite gentle and kind and was oddly erudite. The child’s father was a university professor, and the bear seemed to have been modelled after him. But despite the gentilesse, the bear informed the Gypsy that he would raise his great paws and slap him to death if he would dare to try to abandon him. He had no intention of being a bear without a Gypsy. He would be shot to death immediately, and furthermore, he had absolutely no plans to return to the wild. Quite simply, he did not have the constitution for it.

But despite the gentilesse, the bear informed the Gypsy that he would raise his great paws and slap him to death if he would dare to try to abandon him.

They were stuck together in the country. Why had that idiot child put them out here on this road? He was at home in the kitchen, drinking chocolat chaud out of a fancy teacup while his maid wiped his cheek with a napkin. Then he would be tucked into bed under a comforter filled with goose down. His rocking horse would never have any idea what it felt like to have gravel under its hooves.

Where had he seen this country road? The field next to them was filled with cats with bells on their necks, and a donkey with a straw hat on its head. A line of hens marched past them, single file. This boy really knew nothing about country life. And he had created two characters—a Gypsy and a bear—who equally knew nothing about country life.

The boy hadn’t even had the wherewithal to put any money in the Gypsy’s pockets and they were forced from the get-go to earn their own keep. From the presence of the Gypsy’s violin and the bear’s jacket, they could safely assume that they were performers, but they needed a town to ply their trade. They needed an audience. They couldn’t just stand on the road, waiting and waiting for random passersby.

You could not have adventures in the country. Actually, you could have adventures in the country, but not the kind of adventure that the Gypsy wanted to have. He swiped a bicycle from the side of a farmhouse. The Gypsy allowed himself a small moment of joy when he discovered that the bear was quite good at riding a bicycle. With the Gypsy balanced on the handlebars, the bear rode the bicycle all the way down the road that led to a big city.

October 19, 2015
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