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February 7, 2017

Book Notes - Heather O'Neill "The Lonely Hearts Hotel"

The Lonely Hearts Hotel

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Heather O'Neill's new novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel depicts beauty among overwhelming sadness.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"[Walks] the hypnotic line between tragedy and fairy tale...O'Neill's prose is crisp and strange, arresting in its frankness; much like the novel itself, her writing is both gleefully playful and devastatingly sad. Big and lush and extremely satisfying; a rare treat."

In her own words, here is Heather O'Neill's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel:

Imogen Heap "I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch"

When I was a little girl, my dad used to sing me this song. My whole childhood I thought that he had written and composed it himself. It seemed too bizarre and absurd to exist in the real world. And then I heard Imogen Heap singing it. And I was so confused. For the tiniest split second, I pondered, How did she know my dad? Then I realized that all the strange wonderful things you learned in childhood are out in the world waiting for you.

The original song was composed in 1946, when my dad would have been 19 years old. It stayed in his head for life. My dad was born in the late twenties and grew up during The Depression. A lot of my ideas about the first half of the twentieth century come from his stories about being a child. And this song, of course, will always remind me of him. And it also sums up the character of Pierrot: a sweetheart in a rough world.

Chilly Gonzales "Gogol"

I love this lovely tune. It is named after Gogol, a writer whose surreal stories I have adored. It is whimsical and sweet. And reminds me of lullabies I never heard. It reminds me of theme songs from television shows from the 1970s that never existed on earth, but perhaps in heaven. I was listening to Gonzales's piano tunes while I was conceiving some of my character Pierrot's compositions.

Nina Simone "I Got Life"

Once I was feeling so down that I didn't understand how I could feel better. And then I heard this song. In it, Simone celebrates having nothing and how that can be a wonderful thing. I was happy to have nothing going on, so that the only thing I could rejoice in was my own personhood. And that made me feel alive. The book takes place during The Depression, so many of the characters really have nothing at all. That's when they are able to fall most deeply in love.

Ruth B. "Two Poor Kids"

My editor sent me this song while we were working on the book. She said that it reminded her of the two main characters, Rose and Pierrot. It reminded me of my relationship with my teenage boyfriend. It's about the power of young love. There is something so raw and shallow about young love. How quick we are to give our hearts away. How epic of first love stories are. Sometimes you can find memories in songs you have never heard before.

Regina Spektor "Samson"

This is a similar type of love story to the one in Ruth B.'s song. I like her inclusion of biblical references which also exist in The Lonely Hearts Hotel. I love Spektor's voice so much. It makes me feel pure and perfect. She's one of my all time faves.

Tom Waits "In the Neighbourhood"

Tom Waits is sort of a clown with his odd statements and his inability to accept any situation as mundane. He can't go through an interview without saying something absurd and unexpected. My character Pierrot was also born a clown. That was an idea I explore in the book: that people are born clowns without knowing it. It effects even the way they crack an egg. Everything they do is a metaphor.

And I like the rag tag feel of Waits's music. It calls to mind the way that Pierrot and Rose piece together their circus act, with hobos and misfit chorus girls. And it seems amateurish but it is really masterly. Its rough edges are what make it disarming.

And in some ways it seems as though every Tom Waits song is a dirge.

CocoRosie "Lemonade"

I like how the members of this duo have high pitched squeaky voices. Their voices sort of remind me of young female singers from the 1920s. The ones who sang in black and white films and on scratchy old timey records. I like that they are like so modern and so old fashioned. They sound at once like little babies and old women. And they wear pantomime make up in photoshoots. They are also interested in the art of sad clowns: the childlike innocence and honesty of sadness.

Bob Dylan "Dirge"

I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan when I was in my twenties. I liked how he had Shakespeare characters showing up rowdy in bars. There's a line in this song that says, "All around the old hotel." But when I was listening, I thought he said "At The Romeo Hotel." I wrote a short story about gangsters who lived in The Romeo Hotel and got their heads blown off, which was the first seed for this novel. You end up with ideas for novels when you are quite young. And then it takes you years to write them.

(I loved the idea of living in a hotel which I also got from Parisian writers. It seemed so free. I idealized the most ridiculous stuff when I was young.)

Marianne Faithfull "Kurt Weill's Pirate Jenny"

This was a song written for Bertolt Brecht's play "The Threepenny Opera." I always like the way theatrical sets often looked like a dollhouse or a building whose wall has been blown off. I use a lot of theatrical staging techniques in the book. There are trap doors. You can see into different rooms at the same time. I was very interested in Brecht productions when I was at McGill University. I liked how you saw the stage lights hanging down and the set demanded to be noticed. Brecht tries to keep us from romanticizing the context and loosing ourselves in fantasy. But we suspend our reality at the slightest hint of make believe. Like when children turn their bed into a pirate ship and cling to the deck as they sail across treacherous seas. All theatre walks on that thin tightrope between the real and fantasy.

And I like this song because it's about a very violent woman. And Marianne Faithfull's rendition is throaty and mournful and gorgeous and gritty. One of the themes in my novel is the repressed anger of young women.

Edith Piaf "L'accordéoniste"

I'm choosing an Edith Piaf song because of her autobiography. Growing up, I loved the idea that the worse the biography of an artist, the greater the work they produced would be. I don't believe that now. But it made me happy and confident through my own dysfunctional childhood. I truly thought all the horrific things that happened to me were episodes in a fascinating tale. I put a little bit of Edith Piaf into my character Rose, who comes from an impoverished childhood and rises to great heights. And I like street performers who play the accordion. When they open their instrument, it's like they are opening the pages of a great Tolstoy novel.

Nino Rota "La Strada Theme"

My dad's friend worked at the repertory cinema near our building. I was able to go in for free. I watched so many films. I went to La Strada because I saw it was about a clown, so I thought it might kind of be a children's film. At that age, I liked the idea of travelling around in a circus van performing.

I loved the main character, the clown Gelsomina. She was so naïve and openhearted. I liked that tune she played on the trumpet so much as she walks around in her black cape. It was mournful but beautiful. It sounded like loneliness. I was always so lonely as a child. It seemed like my theme song. I remember sitting in the bathtub later in the night after viewing the film and humming it. If she played it while walking past my window, I would climb out the fire escape and follow after her, as though she were the Pied Piper.

I wanted the tune to be played at my wedding. Although given the content of the movie, I now realize it would be wholly inappropriate. The whole domestic abuse and rape she suffered went over my head because I was so young watching. It kind of sounds a bit like the Godfather theme. They are both violent in such different ways. Much of my novel toys with violence in an odd playful way.

Fellini was a huge influence on me. I was never the same after this movie. I played the trumpet in high school and I learned to play that tune. I think that there's a certain time in spring when the wind plays that tune.

The White Stripes "Saint James Infirmary Blues"

This song plays in the novel at one point. I first heard the cover by The White Stripes when my daughter played it at a talent show. She was dressed in a nurse's costume and hoola hooping. It was so weird, it made me truly happy.

This song is like a compact, travel version of my novel. I love the humour of blues songs, and this one is about being at the hospital. It's part of life. We're in and out of hospitals. And everyone we love will be in and out of hospitals. Even this aspect of life is full of wonder and celebration and worthy of a song.

Heather O'Neill and The Lonely Hearts Hotel links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Quill & Quire review

Montreal Gazette profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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