Morris House Reading Series opens with critically acclaimed author Heather O’Neill

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This school year marks the twelfth year of the Morris House Reading Series (MHRS), a program that brings both established and up-and-coming Canadian authors to the students and community surrounding Bishop’s University. The MHRS coordinator, Dr. Linda Morra, accompanied by Tomlinson Internship recipient, Kristy Bockus, work together to bring pertinent authors to Bishop’s University to share their knowledge and experience with an audience of open minds and eager ears.

On Sept. 17, members of the Bishop’s and wider communities assembled in the Centennial lobby to welcome author Heather O’Neill. Approximately one hundred students, faculty, and community members were in attendance at the event. These numbers make Heather O’Neill the most attended MHRS event since the series began.

As a Montréal author, O’Neill drew a fan base of Québec natives, along with those who have studied her work.

At the event, the author read “Dolls”, one of the published short stories from her collective work Daydreams of Angels. Students followed along with O’Neill using their own copies of the book, as some were enrolled in The Canadian Novel course where Daydreams of Angels is part of the curriculum.  O’Neill spoke softly and concisely, and while she performed, the audience was nearly silent; the only noise heard was the shuffle of feet and the occasional laugh.

After the reading, a question and answer period was held followed by a reception complete with refreshments. O’Neill’s personality shone through, as she answered the eager questions of audience members.  She shared intimate anecdotes about her life and adventures, all of which were taken in by the students, faculty, and community members who gathered to meet the author.

During the reception, O’Neill was gracious enough to autograph purchased copies of her novels. Many attendees were excited about the opportunity to chat quickly with the author while attaining a souvenir and a memorable experience.

Heather O’Neill’s novels (along with a few signed copies) are available in the campus bookstore for purchase.

This article was written by Hayley Winch and originally appeared in the issue of The Campus published on September 30th, 2015.

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Short & Sweet, but Definitely Not Meek

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On Sept. 8, 2015, the longlist nominees for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for fiction were announced. One of the 12 nominated Canadian authors is Montreal native, Heather O’Neill. The nomination came as a bit of a surprise since O’Neill was shortlisted for the prize in 2014 for her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. The 2015 nomination is for her recent publication of a collection of short stories titled Daydreams of Angels. This marks the first time in the prize’s history that an author has been nominated for two consecutive years.

The stories in Daydreams of Angels play on common tales that children are exposed to during childhood. O’Neill challenges the original ideas by bringing to life characters of all sorts of backgrounds and social classes.

O’Neill breaks down the conventional framework of masculinity and femininity. The little girls in Daydreams of Angels deviate from the societal expectations of the unspoken, non-sexual, disempowered woman. These are the little girls of the 21st century, reinventing themselves.

The title, Daydreams of Angels, brings to light the angelic attributes of the characters within these short stories. Most are told from a child’s point of view, but with maturity that is usually reserved for adults. Yet this sense of aged understanding is somehow still paired with innocence that seems, in and of itself, like a long lost fairytale. The characters within these stories demonstrate the sort of grace that lives with children, not yet set to fulfill the fancies and whims of the distorted construct of social norms.

O’Neill paints pictures with her words, frequently using unusual similes and metaphors that challenge the reader to view even the smallest details in an entirely new way. This is probably O’Neill’s strongest talent. In most situations, an abundant use of similes and metaphors would bog down the text and make for a slow read. However, O’Neill masters the skill with ease, leaving the reader yearning for the next comparison.

One story that particularly deserves special mention is called Where Babies Come From. The myth of the stork is cast aside as the ridiculous tale it is, “Shall I tell you where babies used to come from? Well, they weren’t delivered by storks. That’s the silliest idea anyone ever had” (p. 82). O’Neill uses the lie told to children about their own creation and brings it into the 50s era. She highlights the strangeness of the time when the expectations of motherhood were shifting with the very idea of it being a different thing for each person. There are the women eager to dig up a baby whose bottom peaks above the sand early in the morning after being washed ashore, while others dilly-dally along the beach and are left to find the babies in the evening before they are pulled back out to the sea forever.

Through the fantastical, O’Neill continually exposes and breaks down expectations, commenting on a generation that dares to think beyond mere regurgitation of information and instead thinks for itself regarding manners of freedom and faith. It really isn’t much of a surprise at all that O’Neill should find herself as one of the Giller Prize nominees once again.

The subject of her nomination will surely be a hot topic for discussion when O’Neill arrives at Bishop’s University on Sept. 17, 2015. O’Neill will be hosting a reading and discussion of her works in conjunction with the English department’s Morris House Reading Series (MHRS). For the past twelve years, MHRS has brought Canadian authors to Bishop’s to share their work, answer questions, and speak personally with students, faculty, and community members. The reading will take place in the Centennial lobby at 4:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

To stay updated on upcoming guests follow MHRS on social media via Facebook (Morris House Reading Series) and Twitter (@BU_MHRS).

 

This article was written by Kristy Bockus and originally appeared in the issue of The Campus published on September 16th, 2015.

Claire Holden Rothman Discusses Translation, Terrorism, and How Characters Are Born.

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Rothman Photo

Interview by Alison Petrovich

Can you pinpoint the moment when your novel, My October, began not in writing, but as an idea?

I have been thinking about the events of the autumn of 1970 for quite a few years now. And I have been fascinated by the way what we now call the “October Crisis” is talked about and not talked about here in Quebec. To this day, a lot of unease arises when the kidnappings of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte are mentioned. For good reason. Cross was held at gunpoint in an apartment in Montreal’s north end for almost two months. Laporte was killed by strangulation after a week of captivity. The violence of these acts, and the violence with which Ottawa and the Quebec government responded to them, shocked Quebecers to the core.
Forty-five years have passed since those events took place. Much has changed in Quebec and outside of it. Terrorism is now a word we hear almost daily on the news. But we had a brush with our own home-grown political terrorism all those years ago. And it marked and shaped us.
This book was sparked in October of 2001, about a month after Al Qaeda bombed the twin towers in New York City and every network in North America was bombarding us with US President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” I was listening to the nightly news on Radio Canada, and a journalist read aloud an excerpt from a letter Jacques Lanctôt had written to the Montreal papers. “Au nom de toutes les victimes innocentes, je crie vengeance,” Lanctôt wrote. I was cooking supper when this came over the airwaves. I stopped stirring the pot.
Jacques Lanctôt, for those who don’t recognize the name, is the man who kidnapped James Cross in 1970.
Wow. What a strange thing to say.
It got me thinking. Three years later, I watched, by chance, a wonderful documentary film by Carl Leblanc called L’Hôtage, containing interviews with both James Cross and Jacques Lanctôt. These two men were not young anymore. They spoke of the events of October 1970 with the hindsight of over three decades. The documentary was poignant and fascinating on more levels than I can list here. And I realized I wanted to open up this subject in fiction, to examine it, air it out. There were so many stories in there that needed to be told, and in Quebec, I felt, we were now capable as a society of talking about them. To live happily and well together, people do not have to agree on things, especially things like politics, which tend to cut close to the bone. But they do have to talk. Talking and exchanging are a must. And fortunately, Quebec has a long, proud tradition of discourse.
So these were two of the moments which sparked the novel, My October, into being—a sentence heard by chance on the radio, and words heard in a cinema. Words can have an influence.
Who gets to tell the story of a person, a family, a nation? Who decides what is true, what is false? Who is the arbiter, in the end, of this thing that we call history? These were some of the questions I set out to answer.

As a novelist, do you believe art serves a moral purpose or is it solely entertainment?

I don’t believe that the purpose of literature is to convey a simple moral message. I do, however, believe that novels have an ethical component. Literature is about human beings and how they act and react under pressure. When life turns difficult, we reveal what we’re made of. Sometimes we show compassion; other times all we can manage is to shrink back and think of ourselves. Our reactions are often complex and contradictory – generosity and self-interest and resentment and even self-hatred can mingle and mix in a single gesture. Literature is not about right or wrong in the conventional sense, but about human thought and speech and actions playing out in particular instances. In this sense it is ethical. It’s also highly entertaining.

When you create a character, such as Hannah, Luc, or Hugo from My October, is there a starting point or first trait that you build from?

Characters are often composites of people I have met. I might take some aspect of someone’s personality that intrigues me and match that with the body of another person I know. Usually the starting point for a character I create exists in the world, in “real life” — which is really life seen through my eyes and therefore an imaginative construction, at best. But there is this grounding in so-called reality. Once born, the character takes on a life of his or her own and reveals who he or she is to me. Often the revelations take me by surprise.
Luc, for instance, is based on a real-life person whom I met only a few times. I do not know him well, but he intrigued me. He is a successful working artist, which I wanted for that character. And he has a physique that is impressive, which also inspired me for Luc Lévesque. Is Luc this real-life man? Not at all. I barely know the guy. But certain details of this individual’s looks and dress and speech patterns and mannerisms opened up possibilities for me that allowed the birth of a fictional being.

When translating, do you ever get stuck on an idea, moment, or phrase that does not seem translatable? If so, how do you overcome these challenges?

The job of translating is different from writing fiction. In translation there is always a text in front of the translator, already written by someone else. To me, translation is more like doing puzzles than creating something. If I am stumped by a French phrase I go first to dictionaries, of which there are many. If it’s a Québécois text, and the problem is a Québécois idiom that I don’t recognize, there are dictionaries that specialize in this. So I look things up. If that doesn’t do the trick, I consult with people. Phone up friends who might know. And I mull things over, trying out the best way to express things. Sometimes it’s hard straddling two languages. If I have been reading nothing but French for a while, the syntax of that language begins to creep into my English, or even French expressions begin to infiltrate, and momentarily I lose access to my own English idiom! It’s like seeing the world through different glasses. I have to pause and remember to pick up my English glasses again. Eventually the most appropriate English words come into focus and settle into the right order on the page.