Heather O’Neill and the Red Light District

There was Jean-Paul Sartre and the Café de Flore. Émile Zola and the Opera district. Stephen King and Castle Rock. Or Anne Hébert and Kamouraska. Great writers have always been associated with spaces, neighborhoods and landscapes that have marked their works. In this summer series,Le Devoir” visits, in the company of four Quebec novelists, the places that inspired them.

There’s something about Heather O’Neill that suggests she’s escaped the fairy world, to offer poor mortals a bit of the magic and mystery usually reserved for children. Leaning on a pilaster of the Monument-National, dressed in a black “babydoll” dress, her Venetian blonde hair wearing a cloche hat, one could say that she stands out among the heap of concrete and orange cones that form downtown Montreal.

It is here, however, at the corner of Saint-Laurent and Sainte-Catherine, that the Montreal writer dreamed and gave voice to the majority of her characters; a merry band of child poets, sad clowns, prostitute-gangsters, orphan entrepreneurs and other romantic outcasts.

For someone who grew up in the Red Light District, the area’s colorful wildlife has always seemed extraordinary. finger the place of Peace. I saw them as great philosophers, who shared great and wonderful ideas. In social housing, children who did bad things were real stars in my eyes. Several of them ended up in my novels. »

Adventures and imagination

With her father, she spends her time, sitting on the benches, watching passers-by and listening to the absurd stories of a youth worthy of a Martin Scorsese film. “My father was born nearby, on Colonial Street. He started working for gangsters when he was eleven years old. He climbed onto rooftops, entered through windows… His stories gave the neighborhood a different flavor. It was for me a place conducive to great adventures. »

With a friend – who said she was the reincarnation of actress Sarah Bernhardt – she ran to thrift stores and donation centers to dress in extravagant costumes and reproduce the shows presented free of charge each year by the students of the National Theater School. at the Monument National. “I understood quite early on the powers of art and imagination. »

Adventure and imagination have therefore found their way onto the pages, bringing to life larger-than-life children, fiery artists who find in the realm of dreams a temporary escape from poverty, violence and fear, and in love enough to weather all storms.

In Baby’s Ballad (Alto, 2020), a 12-year-old girl left to her own devices by a heroin-addicted father will find escape in the buzz of the Hells Angels and the song of street sirens. Hotel Lonely Hearts (Alto, 2020) features the orphans Rose and Pierrot who, plunged into misery by the Great Depression, dream of founding the biggest circus in the world and promise to love each other until the end of time. In Miss Saturday night (Alto, 2019), twins raised in the spotlight and pursued by their self-destructive impulses dream of independence, beauty and great conquests in pre-referendum Montreal.

The Hand, an ode to freedom

Saint-Laurent Boulevard crosses the ages in the work of Heather O’Neill as in reality, embracing the fashions, desires, struggles and moods of Montrealers at all the significant moments in their history. “This part of the city is very representative of Montreal, because it is here, in the XXe century, that it has developed its international character. As Prohibition raged in the United States, people came here to perform, play music, party, or run brothels. The bohemian, artistic and free reputation of the city has stood the test of time”, underlines the author.

As we stroll down the street, Heather O’Neill points to the few institutions that also survived the hourglass’s flow: the Cléopâtre café, a cabaret and a strip club that resisted the dismantling of the islet of Saint-Laurent; the Montreal Pool Room, which has been on the street since 1912, where she ate hot dogs every week with her father.

“It’s the ideal place for a novel, because there are people from all the margins of society, and an extremely rich history. There are so many layers to unearth. The writer pauses for a moment to take a look at a mural in progress. “There are ruined buildings facing modern constructions. The murals pile up one on top of the other. It’s an art gallery, an open-air theatre. »

In this regard, the novelist remembers a map of the Red Light district, seen in an exhibition, which had greatly inspired her for the writing ofHotel Lonely Hearts. “The map depicted doors and secret passageways where patrons and prostitutes could flee from brothels, climb upstairs, crawl on their knees through tunnels, and exit into the streets when police raided. I found it absolutely charming, this idea of ​​a criminal artist who builds channels to freedom. »

A romantic playground

Heather O’Neill finds a lot of creative freedom in the fact that the contours of the neighborhood and the memories of her childhood have gradually merged with the imaginary world, no longer being constrained by the boundaries of reality. “The more I become an adult, the more I move north, away from the district of my childhood. Even when I’m here, it seems like the place only exists in my head. All the buildings where I lived were destroyed. They only survive in my imagination. That’s why I have no trouble plunging my characters into different eras. »

Her next novel, Losing the mindwhich will be published in October by Alto, recounts the improbable friendship between two young girls at the end of the 19th century.e century, torn between the pleasures and luxuries of the Golden Square Mile (Golden Square Mile) and the misery and debauchery of working-class neighborhoods in Montreal. “My heroines were rather reluctant to bow to the frames of Victorian society and put on their corsets and large cages. I had to push them a little, ”she laughs.

With a wave of the hand, Heather O’Neill disappears at the bend of a street. Unsurprisingly, one can almost hear, in its wake, the laughter and pleas of dozens of ragged children, clinging to its skirts in the hope of being immersed, too, in one of its great adventures.

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Heather O’Neill and the Red Light District

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