Off the Page, with Heather O’Neill

Off the Page is an exclusive series produced by the NMAF that reaches out to former National Magazine Award winners to find out what their awards have meant to them and what they’re up to now. Off the Page will appear each Thursday on the Magazine Awards blog during the fall of 2012. This week we catch up with National Magazine Award-winning writer Heather O’Neill.

NMAF: Two years running you’ve won the Gold National Magazine Award for Best Short Feature—“The First Time She Ran Away” (Elle Canada) and “When Your Mother is a Stranger” (Chatelaine)—both of which could be described as memoirs of adolescence. Indeed, one might reasonably infer from your body of work that you’re especially passionate about that stage of life. What do you find particularly special (or challenging) about connecting with your audience through the short, episodic memoir?

Heather O’Neill: The challenge of the short memoir is having such little space to tell a story in. You end up having to make every sentence contain a strong idea. There’s no room for any superfluous thoughts or tangents. It’s like the short program in figure skating championships. I do like the power of that form. I work in it a lot. There seems to be a lot of demand for it anyways in magazines and newspapers.

A short memoir piece is like a very powerful photograph: it’s a short snapshot from my life that is supposed to invoke an entire world.

NMAF: Your acclaimed debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals began life as a short story in Toronto Life magazine in 2003, since which time you’ve been published frequently in many Canadian periodicals. What is the significance for you, as a young writer, of working in magazines and ultimately winning a National Magazine Award?

Heather O’Neill: I remember when the story was accepted in Toronto Life. I received a mass email from Anita Chong at McClelland and Stewart saying that Toronto Life magazine was looking for stories for its summer issue. I stuck mine in an envelope, wrote the address of the magazine on the front, kissed it and dropped it in the mailbox. It was such a big day for me when they accepted it!

I got a lot of great feedback and everyone at the magazine was effusive and full of praise. It was very validating and it really encouraged me to continue the novel. Or it certainly put a skip in my step as I was finishing the rest of it: knowing that people had taken a peek at it and had approved.  The editor, Sarah Fulford, gave me a lot of feedback and edits on how to make the story stronger, and I applied her ideas to the rest of the novel.

Publishing in Canadian magazines was absolutely indispensible to me. I had to work like a fiend to get in them. Their standards are high. It’s a way to polish your craft and see what is working in your writing and what isn’t. It’s also a way to get the attention of publishers and agents. I sent a copy of that magazine around to different agents. It was like dressing up my story in a tuxedo. It got the attention of an agent though.

I’ve since published frequently in Canadian periodicals. It’s helped me to create a unique voice and develop as a writer. It allows me to write in different forms. I love writing essays and magazines have been the primary home for them. And, depending on the magazine, it gives you new and varied sorts of audiences. It was fabulous fun winning the prize for short essay two years in a row!

NMAF: In addition to your novel and magazine work, you’re also a poet, playwright and radio journalist. What are you working on these days? 

Heather O’Neill: I’m just finishing up my new novel, called The Girl Who Was Saturday Night [forthcoming from FSG/HarperCollins]. I’ve also finished a collection of short stories that will be coming out shortly afterwards.

Heather O’Neill is a two-time National Magazine Award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Toronto Life, Chatelaine, Elle Canada and other magazines. Her award-winning debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals (HarperCollins) was an international bestseller. She recently published And They Danced By the Light of the Moon, an ePub eBook from The Walrus and Coach House BooksOne of this blogger’s favourite pieces by Heather O’Neill is “How to Date a Writer” (from CBC Canada Writes).