A CONVERSATION WITH JANET FITCH
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
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
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
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
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
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.