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Heather O'Neill finds independence in 'The Girl Who Was Saturday Night'

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TORONTO - The great dilemma of being 19, according to author Heather O'Neill, is that you crave adulthood — but your every decision only makes it harder to grow up.

For Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay, the teenage twins at the heart of O'Neill's new novel, "The Girl Who Was Saturday Night," that dilemma is deepened by their family history. The children of beloved Quebecois folk singer Etienne Tremblay, the pair have been in the spotlight for as long as they can remember: sitting on their father's knee on talk shows, waving onstage at concerts.

"When you're 19 or 20, you sort of feel like you're famous," says O'Neill. "I wanted to somehow capture that and for them to be the popular, party kids. Wherever they show up, it's immediately like, 'Oh! Nicolas and Nouschka are here, it's a party!' ... Then I thought it would be interesting if their dad had been really famous, because then they could be famous, but for nothing."

Set in 1995 Montreal in the lead-up to the Quebec referendum, the novel explores the siblings' struggles to step out from the shadow of their alcoholic father and establish their own identities. The 19-year-old twins are so painfully close they still share a bed in their tiny childhood room.

As the province in which she lives hurtles closer to a vote on independence, Nouschka slowly begins to define herself as separate from her family. But lest the book be read as a political novel, O'Neill explains that the separatist debate is meant to linger in the background — as all politics does in the lives of 19-year-olds.

"I was the same age as Nouschka at that time, when all that was happening," she says. "Everything started to seem surreal, and it was like anything was going to happen. I was super engaged with it, and then the next day, you're worried about your boyfriends.

"It's kind of funny at that age, because you'll be so interested in the world but then your own problems are so enormous too. You're so distracted. You're like a cat... worried about the referendum, but then there's a little string."

"The Girl Who Was Saturday Night" (HarperCollins Canada), follows O'Neill's 2006 smash hit "Lullabies for Little Criminals," which also explored the border between childhood and adolescence through its wry narrator Baby, the 12-year-old daughter of heroin addict Jules. The novel won the 2007 Canada Reads competition and was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award.

"I had no idea how many people were going to respond to it. For me, it seemed like such a little outsider tale," says O'Neill. "Then when such a wide range of people liked it, it was amazing. I was like, 'I can't believe Baby and Jules, who have this squalid little lifestyle in the lower classes, were able to speak to so many people.' That was so magical to me."

O'Neill wrote "Lullabies" while busy raising her young daughter, on scraps of paper and the backs of receipts — "a huge grocery bag of a novel, covered literally in dog prints," she says. The novel's success came as such a surprise to her that she felt almost as though she was competing with it when writing "The Girl Who Was Saturday Night."

"It feels a little bit like (Lullabies) doesn't belong to me in the same way. It just has its own identity. That's probably why I was feeling competitive with it a little bit," she says. "It seems like it kind of walked off and went into the world. It's like, 'Thanks. I spent a long time on you and now you're just abandoning me here and I'm stuck working on another novel. Have fun!'"

O'Neill, 40, who grew up in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood of Montreal, says she felt some nerves about being an anglophone writing from the francophone perspective of Nouschka. She pored over Quebec history books and even got a researcher to read and check the novel for accuracy.

The novel's title came to her as she was reading lots of Edwardian novels at the time and wanted to write a fin de siecle novel, but set in the "faded aristocracy" of Montreal in the 1990s. G.K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday" was among her favourites, thus her book became "The Girl Who Was Saturday Night."

Originally, she planned for the character of Etienne Tremblay to simply be a voice on the radio. O'Neill always loved Quebecois folk singers' funny and bizarre lyrics, and the song ideas kept coming to her. Then the idea struck her to make him the twins' father.

"That's what makes it so hard for Nicolas and Nouschka, because he was this important figure to a lot of people in Quebec," she says. "He's not nice to them as a parent. They have to hate somebody that everybody loves. At the same time, they're so influenced by him in the same way.

"They don't even know where their own personalities and personas are. They're sort of still on the Etienne Tremblay hour, every day they wake up. That's how people treat them, as though they're the walking, breathing Etienne Tremblay show."

Nouschka and Nicolas are gorgeous and immensely likable people, admired by all around them, but gripped by self-destructive impulses. O'Neill says she wanted their charisma to almost represent "a doomed quality," in the tradition of Oscar Wilde characters.

"Everything they say they're trying to be witty, almost to the point where they're driving themselves crazy. It's almost an inability to communicate, when you start being too witty," she says.

It's hard to talk about "The Girl Who Was Saturday Night" without talking about cats. Nouschka herself remarks, "It was hard to have a memory without at least one cat in it." Tiptoeing through alleyways and crawling into bedrooms, stray felines wander through the story like omniscient, if indifferent, spectators.

Asked about the significance of the ever-present kittens, O'Neill laughs.

"I wrote one scene and this cat just struts by and the cat has so much personality. The cat knew the score and was kind of above all this and was commenting on it a little bit," she says. "I was like, 'I'm going to have these cats all over the place.' And then I wondered if people were even going to notice that I've put a lot of cats in here."

O'Neill still lives in Montreal with her daughter, who was the same age as Baby when "Lullabies for Little Criminals" was published and is now 19, the same age as Nouschka. O'Neill says her daughter recently read "The Girl Who Was Saturday Night" and assured her: "It's a masterpiece."

The twins' apartment is on St-Laurent Boulevard near Ste-Catherine Street, not far from where much of "Lullabies for Little Criminals" took place. O'Neill says she continues to tell stories of adolescence set in Montreal in part because of her own upbringing.

"There's something about that age, when you're leaving the realm of childhood. There's always, for everyone, this sense of being exiled from some kingdom," she says. "You go from having your chocolat stirred for you in the morning to having to have a minimum wage job. You're like 'What happened? I was the king! I sat at the table and people wiped my chin.'"

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