Heather O’Neill, Kevin Quain collaborate at Dunedin Literary Festival

 In Events, Visit Creemore

Heather O’Neill is bringing her big-city stories to the country. 

She is the top-billed author of the Dunedin Literary Festival and will be featured in the evening’s Words and Music event. O’Neill will bring the words and Kevin Quain will provide the music, during a collaborative performance. 

O’Neill plans to read from three novels Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and her most recent novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, which tells the beautiful and tragic story of two orphans making their way in the world. Both performers, Pierrot is a gifted piano player and Rose has a knack for spotting talent in others.   

With his cabaret noir style, Quain has a sound that would be suited to one of the Montreal nightclubs of the 1930s featured in the book, perhaps one Rose herself would book. 

Quain has been performing his cabaret show with The Mad Bastards at the Cameron House in Toronto for more than 20 years. This summer he released a new album called About November, and will be playing some of that material at the Dunedin show. 

Quain will play a musical interlude in response to the books between readings, including an original song, a representation of Pierrot’s love song for Rose which is performed throughout The Lonely Hearts Hotel. 

Faced with the proposal of a collaboration, O’Neill said she was drawn to Quain’s music because they share a Bohemian, down-and-out but qith a joie-de-vivre sensibility. 

“Whenever I write historical stuff it’s always a little bit ahistorical so it’s the modern world but seen through a metaphor of old art forms, which I think Kevin does also,” she said.  

O’Neill is able to write colourful stories full of wonderment against a backdrop of poverty and dysfunction. She often writes about motherless children, addiction and abuse. 

She is very open about her own childhood, growing up with a single dad, her mother having run off when O’Neill was seven. 

“I know there are some writers who like to make their personal life and their fiction completely distinct but for me, my personal life in the way it informs fiction is really important. Part of my novels and part of my writing has been to be incredibly open about things that I’ve gone through and the world that I come from,” O’Neill said. 

“It gives me a lot of joy to be able to be open about this stuff. For me anyways, being an author there is a certain level of transparency to it’s the only way I could exist as an artist in the world was to have no secrets and to be completely open. It is sort of the nature of who I am.”

O’Neill said she writes from the world of her childhood and while her novels are not autobiographical they contain elements of her, especially within the female characters.

“Even though The Lonely Hearts Hotel takes place in the thirties, Rose is very reflective of a philosophy I had developed coming into the world as a woman, whereas Baby (Lullabies for Little Criminals) represented who I was as a child,” said O’Neill… “I am always surprised by all of them when I create them. Even when I finished with Rose I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize how much rage there was inside of me’.”

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and the short story collection Daydreams of Angels were shortlisted for the Giller Prize. This year the author was selected as a juror. 

“I learned a lot about literature just from the other judges. It was like being part of this psychotic book club, where we read like 20 books a week and then get together and argue viciously about what is good literature,” said O’Neill. 

Also on the line-up for the festival: Arif Anwar, The Storm (Harper Collins, 2018); Karma Brown, The Life Lucy Knew (Park Row, 2018); Tish Cohen, Little Green (Harper Collins, 2018); David Demchuk, The Bone Mother (ChiZine Publications, 2017); Claudia Dey, Heartbreaker (Harper Avenue, 2018); Wayne Grady, Up From Freedom (Doubleday Canada, 2018); Uzma Jalaluddin, Ayesha at Last (Harper Avenue, 2018); Iain Reid, Foe (Simon & Schuster, 2018); Heidi Sopinka, The Dictionary of Animal Languages (Hamish Hamilton, 2018); and Amy Stuart, Still Water (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

Children’s authors will be appearing in Storybook Park: Paul Covello, Every Day Canada (Harper Trophy, 2018); Kevin Sands, Call of the Wraith (Aladdin, 2018); Kevin Sylvester, Minrs 3 (Simon & Shuster, 2018).

There will be readings, moderated conversations, Q-and-A and book signings throughout the day.

Admission to the third annual festival at Dunedin Park, which opens at 11 a.m., is free. New this year, there will be a beer tent.

For a full schedule and to purchase tickets for the evening’s Words and Music show at Dunedin Hall, visit www.wordsinthewoods.com. Tickets cost $25. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 6:30 p.m.

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