Heather O’Neill on the Compulsive Joy of Endless Research
By Heather O’Neill, in lithub.com, June 26, 2019
When I was a little girl I lived with my father who was an illiterate janitor in Montreal. I would wake up in the morning and kill cockroaches with the soles of my running shoes. Then my father would keep their corpses and stick them neatly in an envelope and mail them to the landlord. When the sun went down we would go garbage-picking together. My father liked to rip the cords off appliances and take parts from old refrigerators and put them into a bucket we pulled on a wagon. He would come across lovely things and hand them to me as though they were gifts from the bottom of his heart. And they were.
Once, he found a soap dish with an angel sitting on the side of it that I’ve kept my whole life. My father liked to tell me the story of how he had found me as a baby in a garbage can. I was so filthy and ugly, he realized no one could raise me but him. So he brought me home and washed me in the sink with the dishes. It was looking through garbage that my true life’s passion began, as I would always pull out books and put them in the wagon of treasures.
My father had a violent temper. He would lose it for weeks at a time. I found myself in the hospital being stitched up from the cuts the plates he had thrown at me had caused. I decided to run away from home and seek my fortune elsewhere. It was what the characters in my books would do. They were always getting on ships, and trains and fleeing persecution. I read Maxim Gorky’s memoir wherein he flees from grandparent’s house at 14. I considered my research complete. I packed a small suitcase, taking my toothbrush and a pile of books. I would need my characters’ advice since they were more worldly than I was, and they loved, more than anything else, to reflect on their circumstances.
I would later dearly regret not having packed a pair of socks. But I did spend a very fascinating afternoon, eating a hotdog from a truck that came to the park to feed homeless children, and reading Lolita. I wondered about morality. And believed all writers and the earth to be populated by degenerates. It furthered my belief that having a perfect way with words did not in any way make you a noble person, and if anything, quite the opposite.One afternoon I decided it would be important to research puppetry for the novel, even though there isn’t a puppet in the novel.
To this day, I have an almost amorous pull towards books. I walk by a book store and every book looks amazing to me. I just know the characters inside them are going to fascinate more than any person I could possibly meet. Why in the world would I go out for drinks at a bar with a friend when I can read about what it means to be a woman in an ugly body, or what it means to be prostituted by your own family? And it seems as though something almost tragic will happen if I don’t read them. A drunk chorus girl in a novel from the 1920s will be sitting naked on the side of her hotel bed with only one stocking on, waiting for an eternity for me to set her off on her adventure to meet a man who will treat her badly.
I read a book a day. Some days I read three. I am embarrassed to tell people sometimes, as they look at me in horror. I have clearly gone too far, and have entered into the realm of compulsive activity. But even if I read a book a day, there is no way I can keep up with the books that I feel compelled to read. When I see any list of books, I order at least a third on the list. My God, I think seeing the list, I am so ignorant, and once this box arrives, I will be enlightened.
However, I filed my taxes and discovered I had spent more money on books than anything else. My apartment is filled with books that I haven’t even begun to read yet. I decided to stop purchasing books until I made a dent in my enormous pile of unread books.
Of course, I still made one allowance: I could buy books that were relevant to researching the novel I was writing, a retelling of the French Revolution set in Victorian times where the characters are all very young girls. Instead of curbing my spending, it led to a glut of expenditure.
First came the books about the French Revolution and its thinkers. The stacks of books on Marie Antoinette and Robespierre printed on thin sheets of paper, to disguise their girth, were normal. Then came the Victorian era. Because that was the era the characters lived in, there was much more to research about everyday life. I adore describing women undressing, so boxes of books on Victorian underwear arrived in the mail. Naturally, being young, my characters masturbate all the time. But what would they be fantasizing about? Boxes arrived with Victorian porn and erotica knocked at my door.
Then I thought I would buy books about young girls who are madly in love with each other. That basically led to a period of beautiful randomness. Girls holding hands in New Zealand. Girls getting lost in ice caves together. Girls standing on the decks of ships with their pigtails in the wind and the tips of their noses being burnt. Two girls on a train, one who would survive the war and the other who would not.
One afternoon I decided it would be important to research puppetry for the novel, even though there isn’t a puppet in the novel. But there was something about being manipulated that I wanted to convey. I bought a book with a talking fox because there is a pig who doesn’t speak in my novel—as a study in contrasts, you see. I bought a book about the history of women in insane asylums, even though no one in my book gets committed. But how can you write women’s dialogue without knowing the subtext of hysterical persecution that has haunted them? I bought a book about a male boarding school in the 1950s, because one of my characters goes to a female finishing school in the 1890s.
I wanted to capture what it was like to lose a newborn baby, one who had only been able to experience a few glorious impressionistic moments. Then came the books of poems to answer the question, how do you fit a world into a sentence? There was a book I read about potatoes. I thought it would help me write about the sordidness of being an unborn child, not yet yanked from the earth. I read a French absurdist play to imagine how a genius might speak to a baby she had just birthed.
I bought a book about the way women dealt with unmentionables in the Victorian era. I specifically was looking for the manner in which they dealt with their menstrual flows, as I cannot have a book filled with young women and not provide them with some manner of hygiene for dealing with them. After this book, I was satisfied that my research was done. As I had now created a world in which fiction and reality met, as I would be able to properly describe my characters taking a dump. And they wiped their pretty bottoms with squares cut up from newspapers and pages of magazines that had already been read.
I went through a hundred books to write one book. But really I went through a lifetime of books to be able to write any book at all. If you don’t read widely, you can never have the strangely informed psyche of a fiction writer. So I occasionally feel guilty about having an apartment filled with unread books I purchased impulsively. But then I remind myself that it is only through hunting through the trash for random objects of beauty that we can build a world.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.
Heather O’Neill is a novelist and essayist. Her works include Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Lonely Hearts Hotel. She lives in Montreal.