A CONVERSATION WITH JANET FITCH
Deborah Vankin

Swink: After struggling in anonymity for so long, what was it like for you, with White Oleander, to meet such widespread commercial success right out of the gate?

Janet Fitch: It was totally surreal. It drew on every experience [I’d had] as a taker of psychedelic drugs. Of course I’m sitting here talking to a talking horse and Abraham Lincoln is shimmying down the tree, of course. I can dig it, I can cope, I can deal with it. That’s what it was like.

Swink: Did you go through those highs and lows—feeling on top of the world, invincible, then the inevitable crash, the imposter syndrome?

JF: That came when it was time to write the next book. First you think you can do anything. “Look, see, I’m such a success. I’m going to take on some massive historical novel. I can walk on water.” Then you go and make a colossal mess. Three years—a colossal mess. I had such delusions that [commercial success] wasn’t going to affect me in any way.

Swink: Did you actually start a historical novel after White Oleander?

JF: Yes! A historical novel, two different perspectives, two different protagonists. Huge mess! And I couldn’t tell anyone about it because I was supposed to be this big novelist, I was supposed to know what I was
doing! My publisher had sent a photographer to take a jacket photo for this book that was a huge mess. I couldn’t admit to anybody that I was in serious trouble. “How’s it goin’?” “Fine, fine.” Finally, my editor had his assistant call me to get the name of the book. And I just started crying. I had this mess of a novel that I couldn’t tell anyone about. Then my editor called me himself and I copped to the whole thing: I’d been working for three years and had just made this big mess. I’d also started something else that was set in the 1980s—a time I could actually remember, so I didn’t have to do research—and it was a three-person book, so I thought I could finish it. [My editor] said: “Just box everything up and send it to me.” So I did, about 900 pages. And he said, “Keep working on what you’re working on.” And that became Paint It Black. By that time, I probably had 150 pages. And I really felt the book, knew where it was going, what it was about.

Swink: Which is what, exactly?

JF: Creative despair! (Laughs)

Swink: Fitting . . .

JF: It’s a book about suicide. It’s about the suicide of a creative person who couldn’t meet his image of perfection.

Swink: And all that came out of the “big mess” you’d been working on for three years?

JF: Yes, absolutely. It’s about that despair of not being able to meet your ideals. A lot of it is about my own struggle with perfectionism after that failed novel. You go from, like, Godzilla to this single-cell animal where
you can’t do anything, you’re afraid to just exist, it’s all a lie, complete failure.

Swink: That can be creatively debilitating, those thoughts. How’d you manage to push through and finish?

JF: The idea that it doesn’t have to be great, that it just has to come from you, be authentic, that you do it yourself and don’t need anyone’s
approval—that’s what I hung on to and that’s what enabled me to write the book.

Swink: You conjure sadness and loss so vividly in Paint It Black, it’s almost painful. Did you lose someone, tragically, that you loved?

JF: I was in a relationship that was pretty intense at the time, and when it broke up, that certainly influenced the story, that intensity. But this has been the question with everyone I’ve lost—relatives, the loss of my
grandmother who really saw me, believed in me. What do you do when you lose someone who sees something in you? How do you keep that alive in yourself once they’re gone, how do you take on their vision? Or
can you?

Swink: Josie did it by becoming Michael.

JF: Right, and I think that’s how you do it. You become that person. When they’re gone you keep them alive by becoming them in some way. It’s an expansion of self—it’s not that you’re dumping who you are, you’re adding something, you’re adding them. When my grandmother died, I started doing things I never would have done before because it made me feel close to her.

Swink: Both of the mother characters in your two books are these accomplished, artistic women—a poet and a pianist—who also have violent, destructive tendencies and this negative, whirling dervish effect on the central character, a younger, more vulnerable woman. I have to ask: Do you have mom issues?

JF: A good antagonist is hard to find! I always look for someone to wind up the plot, somebody who’s able to drive a story. As to why difficult, artistic women: I have a conflict, you know. I’m a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m a person who wants to have loving relationships with other people. But I’m also an artist, I can be selfish. And I obviously feel some conflict between those two things. I have my mom issues. And I’m a mom, too, so it gives me more of a thematic understanding of that situation. The perfectionism of both of them (the mom characters) is the
difficulty in parenting while also being an artist.

Swink: So they’re both kind of manifestations of you.

JF: A novel is like a dream in which everyone is you. They’re all parts of myself.

 

You can read A Conversation with Janet Fitch in its entirety in issue 3 of Swink.

Janet Fitch’s new novel Paint It Black was published this year by Little Brown. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as Black Warrior Review, Room of One’s Own, Rain City Review, and Speakeasy. She currently teaches fiction writing in the Master’s of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California.

Deborah Vankin is a senior editor at Variety. She’s also written arts/culture and lifestyle pieces for the L.A.Times, New York Times, and L.A.Weekly, among other places.

 

© 2007 Swink, Inc.