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."
Since then, she has had more than a few Adventures. In addition, she has published short stories in literary journals such as Black Warrior Review, Rain City Review, and 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 reviews books for Speak magazine in San Francisco, and teaches fiction writing privately in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and eight year old daughter.
"White Oleander," the story 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, stating that while she enjoyed it, it seemed more like the first chapter of a novel than a short story. It had not occurred to Fitch to extend the story, but she decided to take a chance on this advice and wrote her 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 writer 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 Kate Braverman's poetry and the late Donald Rawley's. A novelist can get by on story, but the poet has nothing but the words."