We All Always Feel As Though We Are 12 Years Old Inside :: An Interview with Heather O’Neill


Imagine a place where stories continue after the teller stops talking, the characters continue to move and exist and even question that very existence after the narrator has left the scene. Imagine an island where women are so scarce, men instead date human/animal hybrids, learning the troubles and joys of falling in love with a half-swan. Imagination, stretched to its very fantastic ends, is key in Heather O’Neill’s new collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels, a collection that explores these premises and more. I got the chance to talk to the woman the literary world has nicknamed the “demented angel with an uncanny knack for metaphor” about the inspiration behind these stories, her own relationship to fantasies and more: 

Kati Heng: If it’s possible to pinpoint, to what or to whom do you credit your sense of whimsy?

Heather O’Neill: I think that I always had that sort of imagination. I didn’t have a mother growing up. I spent a lot of time taking notes and making observations in black journals. They were all the types of things that a mother might applaud and find adorable. But I didn’t have anyone to share them with. I got used to expressing these sorts of childish ruminations on the page. I don’t know if my style changed – it just sort of evolved from those notebooks. There’s a subtext of sadness and loneliness to everything that I write. But also an attention to absurd detail and maybe amazement. I like to be amazed by everything.

I think that all of my humor comes from when characters are just themselves and express some radically simple but utterly unique philosophy. It’s funny when people just decide to be true to their weird selves. It’s startling and liberating and sometimes obscene.

Although, those are just guesses. I don’t really know. Every work of fiction is a complicated way of saying, I don’t know, but let me throw a couple possible scenarios at you.

KH: So many of these stories read just like fairy tales or fables, just for adults instead of children. Are fairy tales/fables something you’ve always been drawn to? Do you have any favorite authors that write “fairy tales” for adults?

HO: I had a giant blue book of fairy tales that I read countless times as a child. My dad repaired the spine of the book with duct tape because my frequent readings caused it to come apart. I studied those stories as though they contained the corrupt and complicated meanings of adult life. I mistook the drawings of the heroines for illustrations of myself, because the stories seemed so intimate to me.

I, of course, like Angela Carter. I love her wildness and irreverence and feminism. I love the plucky female heroine that recurs in traditional fairy tales. Angela Carter’s writing itself has the sort of charming, clever bravado that was inherent in those protagonists.

It’s the fairy tales with female heroines that have become the most popular and the most revised. I think it’s in part because there are secrets and messages in the tales that women have found important. And they’ve found the abusive relationships familiar and worth dissecting. I’ve often come back to the story of Cinderella when I’ve found myself in unhappy circumstances – or I’ve sort of unwillingly found myself in a state of submissiveness or that I’m in a relationship (of any sort, not necessarily romantic) where I’m being taken advantage of.

I also love Helen Oyeyemi. She uses fairy tales to go to such incredible places. In college I took a course on fairy tales and I found that when I analyzed them, I could just fill up notebooks. That experience comes to mind when reading Oyeyemi. A fairy tale to her is like a huge chest of drawers, and she pulls them open and finds the most unexpected treasures and frustrating keepsakes and shocking secrets in each one.

I like Kelly Link and Diane Cook, who sort of write fairy tales, or their stories have the magical realism and clever subversions of fairy tales.


KH: Many of your stories focus on relationship between children and the elderly. What is the appeal, and in your opinion, the magic between these two age groups?

HO: It’s a pity that children don’t really have grandparents around in the same way that they used to. Grandparents used to take care of children more often. It’s a natural partnership. Old people are storytellers and children like to listen to stories. And they kind of move at the same pace. They both seem to take pleasure in random, repetitive actions. They might want to spend the entire day working on a puzzle, or decorating Easter eggs. They both inhabit the present. Their main goal is just to enjoy the here and now.

They are both confined to the domestic sphere. Neither of them have jobs, so they have no need to toe the line and be anything other than themselves. They both find farting funny. They will both get out into the background with no pants on. They are both outspoken and espouse unpopular opinions at the dinner table.

Old people can be very innocent. And children can be unexpectedly wise. Nobody is ever quite sure whether or not they were being intentionally brilliant – or whether, by virtue of spouting nonsensical utterances all day long, they inadvertently stumble upon the mot juste. It’s like the riddle that the Sphinx gives to Oedipus. We start off being children and then end up as children again. But, ultimately, I think that we all always feel as though we are 12 years old inside.

KH: Similarly, many of your stories take place in the first half of the 20th century. What draws you to this time?

HO: The answer to this question does follow from the last question. The stories that the old people in my life talked to me about when I was little were set during this time. It was always so peculiar to imagine them as young and falling in love and not having a sandwich for lunch or being a soldier. So I learned about the history of that time period first from them, and later I grew up and fact checked it and realized that truth was stranger than fiction.

KH: Can you talk a little about what’s different between putting out a collection of short stories versus putting out a full novel? Do you have a preference between the two?

HO: I think of short story collections as novels in a way, or like a series of photos in a photo album –they each tell their own story, but then all together form an overreaching narrative. But then I think of poems as short stories and plays as novels, so I don’t know. It all gets mixed up in my head, and an idea ends up dictating its own form. I don’t have a preference. I suppose marketing looks at it a different way, novels being more popular and such. But I never think about that when I’m writing.

Although, I will say that my short stories have always started with a plot in mind and my novels have always started with ideas for characters.

KH: Finally, tell me about your bookshelves. Where do you keep books in your home? Do you alphabetize? Do you sort by category? What books are by your bed right now? What books have you had since you were little? What books are you constantly rereading?

HO: All my books are in bookshelves that line the walls in my living room. Every time I run out of space, I put up a new bookshelf. So the books get shelved chronologically in order of how I read them. If I’m looking for a book, I sort of remember when I read it and what books I read around the same time as it. To be honest, it takes me a while to find a book. And after explaining that you, I think that I’ll go and get them sorted alphabetically or something Dewey decimal-like…. When I was younger, I never seemed to have time for anything, I could never work it into my schedule to tie my shoe.

Next to my bed, I have the collected stories of Clarice Lispector. I’m so excited. It’s enormous and wonderful and it’ll carry me right through snowy December. I’m looking forward to each story like Christmas ornaments, shiny balls and tiny deer. I also have a pile of little books by César Aira. I read the book How I Became a Nun because I was attracted to the title and then I fell is love with his writing.

I’ve also got Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still. Her photo essay At Twelve had a really big impact on me as a writer. Also my mother is from Virginia, so I find that part of the world intriguing. To bring it all back to my mother.

I’m always rereading Jean Rhys, Agota Kristof, and J. D. Salinger. And writers of children’s books that I adored as a child include Maurice Sendak, L. M. Montgomery, Else Holmelund Minarik, Ludwig Bemelmans, Frances Hodgson Burnett, anything involving a dodo bird.

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