An Interview with Bestselling Novelist Janet Fitch
Writer’s Break recently had the honor of conducting an interview with Janet Fitch, bestselling author of the acclaimed debut novel, White Oleander (Little, Brown, 1999).
White Oleander is the heart-wrenching story of feminist poet and single mother Ingrid Magnussen, who murders her ex-lover and is sent to prison, leaving her thirteen-year-old daughter, Astrid, in the hands of the Los Angeles foster-care system. There, Astrid bounces from trailer park to tract house to Hollywood bungalow, falling victim to an assortment of horrific situations.
Formerly a short story, White Oleander was named as a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 1994. In May 1999, the novel was named an Oprah Book Club pick, and in 2002, the story became a Hollywood film which starred actresses Michele Pfeiffer and Rene Zellweger.
During the interview, we spoke to Fitch about White Oleander, her phenomenal success, and her journey with writing. Here’s what she told us.
When did you become interested in writing fiction?
I was always a great reader. I tried writing fiction as a little kid, but had a teacher humiliate me, so didn’t write again until I was a senior in college. I just read everything I could get my hands on all the time.
Before publishing White Oleander, you worked as an editor for American Film magazine and a weekly newspaper. Did these experiences at all help you with writing the novel? If so, in what way(s)?
I guess they protect you somewhat from writers’ block. In journalism it’s ‘good enough in the time you’ve got.’ But in general, no they just paid the bills.
Did you experience rejection before becoming published? How did you cope with it (rejection)?
It took me ten years to publish my first short story, twenty before White Oleander. I was writing the whole time and being rejected regularly. When I published my very first book, a young adult novel, I had a party and pasted all my rejections on the walls of my living room. They covered four walls from baseboard to over my head. I dealt with it by hating the people rejecting me, combined with learning whenever an editor was kind enough to make an actual comment.
You’ve lived the dream most writers covet: having your book chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick. How has this experience affected you?
It threw me like nobody’s business. It’s taken me years to settle down from the fallout. On the other hand, people who never took me seriously before now listen when I say something. I feel ambivalent about this.
You said before that you’ve always been able to tell a story, but that you had to learn how to write. Please explain how you went about learning.
I went to the poets. I read poetry, I listened to it on tape, I read it out loud. I tuned my ear to the music of language. Then I read my own prose out loud and could hear whether it cut the mustard. A couple of years ago, I read that you write every day-weekends not excluded.
Do you still write every day? What’s your schedule like?
I still write every day, although some days I write and delete, write and delete, it’s not always the land of milk and honey. I take my kid to school, go to the library, work all day if I can, otherwise go for a walk and just read, then pick her up after school. Sometimes I do better work at night – I’m a morning person but this new book seems to be a night book.
What is your favorite part about writing? Your least?
When it’s flowing, when the muse sings and it just comes out like a Miles Davis riff, that’s my favorite part. My least favorite part is when you write and it just sits there like something the dog left on the sidewalk.
Describe your writing environment.
At home I write in a spare bedroom. My house is modern but I like my writing room to be old fashioned. I write on a little wooden secretary desk. At the library I work in a cubicle and everything’s green and there’s florescent light but there’s no phone and no e-mail, and I can’t take a nap unless I just put my head on the desk. I get a lot done there but can’t get in as deep as I do at home.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
Artist? Historian (well, that’s a writer too). I’d love to have been a dancer – not a star, but just part of it. I could have been a printer – was a typesetter for many years. Love print, love type.
Do you have a favorite writing book?
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lagos Egri.
What are you working on now?
[A] new novel set in L.A. in the 1980’s.
What advice would you impart to aspiring writers?
Care more about the quality of the sentences and less about getting published. You’ll be a better writer and better published too.