Oprah: That's what I hear from people who do it really well. When phrases or ideas come to you, do you scribble them down on notepads, paper bags, napkins?
Janet: Sometimes. But usually I sit down at my computer in a quiet room. If I get ideas independently of the act of writing, they never really fit. So for me, there's no hanging out, waiting for inspiration. It doesn't work that way—which is why I have to keep at it.
Oprah: Yes! When we talked a few years ago, you said that a writing teacher once told you, "A cliché is anything you've ever heard before—so never use a description anybody has heard." That seems as if it would be quite difficult.
Janet: It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things. A cliché is like a coin that has been handled too much. Once language has been overly handled, it no longer leaves a clear imprint.
Oprah: When you're writing a novel, do you start at the beginning—or do you sometimes begin in the middle?
Janet: I usually start with something that has some energy, like a compressed character or a situation that's wound up like a spring. Then all I have to do is let it go, let its energy carry the story. And that may not turn out to be the beginning of the book.
Oprah: Where do the details come from? I remember you saying that when you were writing White Oleander, you put up signs inviting former foster kids to come and talk with you.
Janet: I love to research, and I've been a journalist. I didn't want a foster kid to read White Oleander and go, "This author has no idea what she's talking about." But I usually do research after I've written. And I'm always gratified when I check something I've made up and discover that I've gotten it right. How can we imagine something that turns out to be true? How can we know things we couldn't possibly know? It makes me wonder about the existence of a collective unconscious. Once you get below the floor of our personal identities, we're all connected. Perhaps that's why we can move into others' lives.
Oprah: What's your new novel, Paint It Black, about?
Janet: It's about the aftermath of a suicide. I've struggled with depression, and so have others around me. It's also about the moment when someone sees something in you that opens up a vision you might never have imagined for yourself. Does the vision disappear once that person is gone? Is that possibility yours or theirs?