Janet Fitch by Claudia Kunin

Janet Fitch

Janet Fitch was born in Los Angeles, a third-generation native, and grew up in a family of voracious readers. As an undergraduate at Reed College, Fitch had decided to become an historian, attracted to its powerful narratives, the scope of events, the colossal personalities, and the potency and breadth of its themes. But when she won a student exchange to Keele University in England, where her passion for Russian history led her, she awoke in the middle of the night on her twenty-first birthday with the revelation she wanted to write fiction. "I wanted to Live, not spend my life in a library. Of course, my conception of being a writer was to wear a cape and have Adventures."

In addition to the overwhelming success of White Oleander, she has published short stories in literary journals such as A Room of One's Own, briefly attended film school in the director's program at the University of Southern California, worked at various times as a typesetter, a proofreader, a graphic artist, a freelance journalist, the managing editor of American Film magazine, and the editor of The Mancos Times Tribune, a weekly newspaper in the mountains of Southwestern Colorado. Currently, she teaches fiction writing at the University of Southern California’s Masters of Professional Writing program. She lives in Los Angeles.

White Oleander, the story published in Black Warrior Review which grew into her novel, was named as a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 1994.

Interestingly enough, the story was rejected from The Ontario Review with a note from Joyce Carol Oates, long a literary hero of Fitch’s, saying that while she enjoyed it, it seemed more like the first chapter of a novel than a short story. It had never occurred to Fitch to extend the story, but, armed with this advice, she decided to take a chance and write the novel.

Her writing process is simple. "I write all the time, whether I feel like it or not," she says. "I never get inspired unless I'm already writing. I write every day, including weekends. For writers there are no weekends. It's just that your family is around, looking mournful, wondering when you're going to pay attention to them."

Her journalistic experience proved a vaccination against writer's block. "When I had the newspaper, I had to come up with 12 or 15 stories a week regardless of whether there was anything to write about. Someone would call me up and say, "My kid just caught a big fish, come over and take a picture of it." So you'd go take a picture of the fish and then interview the kid. What do you ask a kid who caught a big fish? "What kind of bait were you using? Where'd you catch it? What time of day was it?" I learned you could always write. You just couldn't be too perfectionistic about it."

But the artistry of her work, the lines that take the reader's breath away, were hard-won. "I could always tell a story," she said, "but I needed to learn the poetics of the literary craft." She found her mentor in the poet and novelist Kate Braverman, under whom she learned to work until she found the right word, the right sound.

Poetry plays a great part in her writing of prose fiction. "I always read poetry before I write, to sensitize me to the rhythms and music of language. Their startling originality is a challenge. I like Dylan Thomas, Eliot, Sexton. There are parts of White Oleander which use cadences of Pound--whatever you think of Pound, there's a specific music to him. I like Joseph Brodsky and the late Donald Rawley. A novelist can get by on story, but the poet has nothing but the words."

Paint It Black 
(Little, Brown, September 2006)

The aftermath of a suicide, set in 1980 punk rock LA. Josie Tyrell, art model, teen runaway, actress in student films, thinks she’s found her chance at real love and entre to a greater world in Michael Faraday—artist and Harvard dropout, son of a renowned concert pianist and grandson of a legendary film composer--until the day she receives a call from the Los Angeles County Coroner, asking her to identify her lover’s body. “What happens to a dream when the dreamer is gone?” is the central question of Paint It Black, the story of the aftermath of Michael’s death, and Josie’s struggle to hold on to the true world he had shared with her. Compounding her grief and rage is Michael’s pianist mother, Meredith Loewy, who returns to her native city with the news of her only son’s death. Despite a fierce mutual enmity, the two women find themselves drawn into an eerie relationship reflecting equal parts distrust and blind need.

From Janet: Here are the works that informed Paint It Black (ran in September 2006 issue of Poets and Writers)

We live in the creative products of our civilization no less than we live in a house on a street in a city in a country at a certain time in history.  This is just some of the music that plays constantly inside my head, the colors of my internal palette, that bleeds through all my work, and specifically, informed Paint It Black.

“Love in the Asylum,” “Altarwise by Owl-Light,” “Over Sir John’s Hill,” and “In Country Sleep,” by Dylan Thomas. There’s a whole Dylan Thomas theme in Paint It Black.  “Love in the Asylum” was actually the title of the short story.

“Riding the Elevator into the Sky,” by Anne Sexton, fromThe Awful Rowing Towards God.  Sexton and my protagonist have many fears and yearnings in common.  I can’t get her language out of my ears.

“Burnt Norton” from  Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, alsoThe Wasteland. The end of time theme. Eliot’s poetry is a constant song.

The Prose of the Transsiberian and Little Jeanne of Montmartre, by Blaise Cendrars. There’s a whole Transsiberian theme in the book, and I think Cendrars captures the restlessness and extremes of youth so  beautifully.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde.  Each man kills the thing he loves.

Other books:
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. I return to this for a certain aristocratic clarity.

The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber. The Dark Castle and the Duke who stops time with his cold cold hand.

Poe, especially The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe was my first love.

Faulkner. The existential, familial doom of The Sound and The Fury.

A history of the LA punk scene, We’ve got the Neutron Bomb by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen, totally evocative of time and place.

Punk music, circa 1980, with special emphasis on LA.  X, Germs, Cramps.  I have a character who is a cross between Nina Hagen and Lena Lovich.

Patti Smith, who inspires me always.
Nico, and Velvet Underground with Nico.  Nico to me embodies absolutely the dark poignancy of this book, songs like “These Days” and “Fairest of the Seasons,” which so evoked the boy’s mindset in my book.

Classical piano repertoire.  Late Brahms piano music, really spoke to me, the Romances and Intermezzos.  The musical voice of one of the book’s major elements.

Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, both for the modernism and the fact that Schoenberg was an exile from Nazi dominated Europe, like the grandfather in the book,
Debussy, for that out-of-time sense of a house in mourning.

1920’s music—The ‘golden age’ music of the book, so to speak. Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives and Sevens, Lucille Bogan, Big Bill Broonzy, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith.

Ciao Manhattan and Chelsea Girls, just to see Edie Sedgwick, an icon of this period, and evocative of my protagonist in certain ways.

Last Tango in Paris. One forgets, this is really the story of a suicide survivor.
Sunset Boulevard. For Goth feel. Billy Wilder was another exile from Nazi Europe.

Visual arts:
Egon Schiele, the boy’s favorite artist—a somehow desperate, highly eroticized, painter of the Viennese Secession. I love this period, but it took me a while to warm to Schiele.

Paul Tchelichew—disturbed, metamorphic drawings--highly inspirational.

Eric Fischl—I craved his eerie eroticised domestic scenes.

White Oleander
(Back Bay Books, 2000)

Astrid is the only child of a single mother, Ingrid, a brilliant, obsessed poet who wields her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. Astrid worships her mother and cherishes their private world full of ritual and mystery--but their idyll is shattered when Astrid's mother falls apart over a lover. Deranged by rejection, Ingrid murders the man, and is sentenced to life in prison. 

White Oleander is the unforgettable story of Astrid's journey through a series of foster homes and her efforts to find a place for herself in impossible circumstances. Each home is its own universe, with a new set of laws and lessons to be learned. With determination and humor, Astrid confronts the challenges of loneliness and poverty, and strives to learn who a motherless child in an indifferent world can become.

Tough, irrepressible, funny, and warm, Astrid is one of the most indelible characters in recent fiction. White Oleander is an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, burgeoning sexuality, the redemptive powers of art, and the unstoppable force of the emergent self. Written with exquisite beauty and grace, this is a compelling debut by an author poised to join the ranks of today's most gifted novelists.

(Fawcett Books, 1996)

Laurie thinks Carla is the luckiest kid in Los Angeles. After all, Carla has parents who let her do anything she wants. Laurie's mother keeps her on a short leash, demanding that she keep the house clean, cook for her sick father, and stay out of trouble. Still, at Carla's instigation, they manage to keep things on the street exciting. Sometimes it's shoplifting, sometimes it's hitching a ride, sometimes it's smoking and flirting on the beach with older guys. If Laurie could only be as brave and daring as Carla, she knows her life would be a lot more interesting.

But Laurie also knows that Carla sometimes takes crazy chances. And one night when Carla is in trouble only Laurie can help her--only Laurie and one other person, someone who loves Laurie more than she realizes, someone who would do anything to be with her. . . "Capture[s] the dark underside of growing up . . . Teens will empathize with Laurie's desire to be free from familial rules and responsibilities, and the realism of some scenes will horrify yet fascinate them."

Paint it Black

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Fitch follows her bestselling debut, White Oleander, by revisiting the insidious effects of a powerful, narcissistic mother on an only child. Michael Faraday is a Harvard dropout who paints in the L.A. art world of 1981; his suicide happens a few pages in, and sets the stage for a Fitch's masterful shifts in time and perspective. Josie Tyrell, an artist's model and denizen of the punk rock, had an intense relationship with Michael, but never managed to free him from his mother, renowned concert pianist Meredith Loewy, who moves in a bleak, loveless world of wealth and privilege. Yet their very different loves for Michael bring about a surprising alliance between the imperious Meredith and Josie, a white trash escapee whose inborn grace, style and sense of self sustain her—along with art, music and alcohol. The two find unexpected comfort in each other's shared loss, allowing Fitch to contrast the inner and outer resources of women whose lives couldn't be more different, and to flash back deeply into their histories. Fitch excels at painting a negative personality with sure-handed depth and fairness, and her prose penetrates the inner lives of the two with immediacy and bite. In Josie, she has created an indomitable young woman whose pluck and growing self-awareness beautifully offset Meredith's emptiness. Their relationship transforms a big cliché—the artist's suicide—into a page-turning psychodrama.-- Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
"Beauty and its pretenders prowl around the edges of Fitch's long-awaited second novel. Just as she did so masterfully in White Oleander, Fitch portrays the world of a young woman who is searching for a way to live after being dealt an incredibly lousy hand. Opting for the antithesis of beauty, Josie Tyrell exists within the punk club scene of 1980s Los Angeles, and, unfortunately, she finds familiar terrain in that subculture's harshness and brutal sexuality. Not until she meets Michael Faraday, a child of affluence and privilege, does Josie know that there is such a thing as true beauty in the world. He teaches her about the beauty of the night sky; of music, art, and poetry. But his obsession becomes his undoing as he cannot find enough of this transcendent beauty to protect him from his demons. Giving in to the inescapable lure of his family's ghosts, he commits suicide. Michael was the sole source of light for Josie and his tortured, tortuous mother:now both women engage in a dangerous struggle to survive in a world of darkness. As Josie unravels the story of Michael's despair, she becomes able to move from self-destruction to self-determination. Suspenseful, compelling, and superbly crafted, this work shows Fitch once again taking the art of writing to its highest level. Highly recommended for all contemporary fiction collections.-- Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati and Hamilton Cty

White Oleander

From LA Weekly, April 30, 1999
"...White Oleander is crafted with an insight and grace that elevate it above mere "beach fiction." Fitch’s hypnotic voice offers an honest and oddly seductive vision of L.A.

From The Seattle Times, April 27, 1999:
Mature first novel takes little from its counterparts
by Greg Burkman, Special to The Seattle Times© 1999 The Seattle Times Company

Though most readers approach debut novels with an emotional patina of sentimental affection, these books are often plagued with the same tiringly repetitive flaws. Some read as though they were produced by a committee at a writers' workshop. Others serve as examples of postmodern pyrotechnical cliches or reflections of pallid multicultural stereotypes that pander to revisionist versions of "history" for aesthetic validation. Worst are the combinations of all three.

Janet Fitch's first novel, however, is clear-headed and about its own business, owing few debts to current trends and fashions in fiction. The most intriguing character here is Ingrid Magnussen, a fiercely independent and ferociously amoral poet. When her daughter Astrid is 13, Ingrid murders her own ex-lover and goes to prison, leaving Astrid to her future in the grisly human lottery of the Los Angeles foster-care system.

Mother and daughter correspond by mail as Astrid comes of age and becomes an artist during the next nine years, ricocheting from household to household in a heartbreakingly rich procession of L.A.-style worst-case scenarios: living with Starr, a born-again former addict who almost kills Astrid with a bullet from a .38; then a stint with Marvel Turlock, a white-trash racist who lies to the foster care administrators in order to rid herself of Astrid because of the girl's infatuation with an upscale black prostitute; and a stay with Amelia Ramos, an Argentine sadist who starves her.

Astrid eventually ends up in the care of Rena, a Russian woman surviving on Sobraines and vodka, flea-market junk, shady profit ventures and mindless sex.

During these years, Astrid's mother has gradually become a feminist literary celebrity, sought after by institutions ranging from Harper's magazine to Amherst. When this hype results in an official reconsideration of Ingrid's case, the novel culminates in an extraordinary meeting between Ingrid and Astrid, which will help determine whether Ingrid will go free. All Astrid has to do is agree to lie about facts pertaining to the murder.

Told mostly in Astrid's voice with dignity but seductive grace, White Oleander resonates with commitment to no other master than the art of storytelling itself, a welcome relief from agendas in fiction.

The focus here is something mature that emerges when desires for survival and beauty have been exhausted, a terrible and crucial awareness that Fitch burnishes to near-perfection over the course of the book's sometimes-melodramatic narrative: faith, hope and charity in their pure sense are forever elusive and therefore useless to those truly in need of them.

What is left, Fitch reminds us, is the truth - real contemporary life, merciless yet grotesquely generous to its emotionally mutilated human surplus, pathetically starved for the barest gesture of love.

From The New York Times Book Review, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina 
"...[an] impressive first novel.... her startlingly apt language relates a story that is both intelligent and gripping."

From Publishers Weekly (starred review):
"This sensitive exploration of the mother-daughter terrain (sure to be compared to Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here) offers a convincing look at what Adrienne Rich has called 'this womanly splitting of self,' in a poignant, virtuosic, utterly captivating narrative."

From Kirkus Reviews (starred review):
"A first-rate debut about a teenaged girrs arduous six-year journey of self-discovery.... Vigorous, polished prose, strong storytelling, satisfyingly complex characters, and thoughtfully nuanced perceptions: an impressive debut indeed."

"Janet Fitch writes with breathtaking beauty about the central theme of our age: the search for self. White Oleander is a remarkable debut novel."-- Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
"This is what you're after when you're browsing the shelves for something GOOD to read. White Oleander is a siren song of a novel, seducing the reader with its story, its language, and, perhaps most of all, with its utterly believable (and remarkably diverse!) characters. The narrator is particularly memorable--there were times she made me want to cheer and weep simultaneously. Finishing this book made me feel gratefully bereft, and I look forward to Janet Fitch's next work."-- Elizabeth Berg, author of Durable Goods and Range of Motion

From Authors@Google: Janet Fitch reads from White Oleander

Author Janet Fitch visits Google's Santa Monica, CA office to discuss her book "Paint It Black." This event took place on October 19, 2007, as a part of the Authors@Google series.