301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


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The Chat: 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.

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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.

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.

 

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