Start reading Oprah's interview with Janet Fitch
Note: This interview appeared in the September 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Nice to talk to you after so many years. I have to tell you, I've been anxiously waiting for a new novel.
Janet: Yeah, it's about time. Lots of life intervened, and it took a while to get this book up on its feet.
Oprah: Did your becoming a writer start with a love of reading?
Janet: Yes. My father was an engineer—he wasn't literary, not a writer or a journalist, but he was one of the world's great readers. Every two weeks, he'd take me to our local branch library and pull books off the shelf for me, stacking them up in my arms—"Have you read this? And this? And this?" He taught me to always take out the maximum number of books—I think it was 12—so in case there were books I didn't like, I'd always have something else to read. If I became a reader and then a writer, I can say that it was because of his love of books and his sharing that love. When you're a little kid, you are small, your life is small—and you're terrifically aware of that. But when you read, you can ride Arabian horses across the desert, you can be a dogsledder.
Oprah: Didn't you write your first story when you were 9?
Janet: I did. The story combined my favorite authors: Marguerite Henry, who wrote horse stories, and Edgar Allan Poe. My story was called "Diamond: Horse of Mystery." I wanted so badly for my teachers to like me, and none of them did. Not until years later did I understand my problem.
Oprah: Which was what?
Janet: I needed a lot of attention. I was in a public school, in a class of 40 students. I thought I could get the teacher's attention by showing her the story, but all she did was take a red pen and mark all over it, correcting the spelling, grammar, and punctuation. She didn't say a thing about the story itself. I didn't write again until I was 21.
Oprah: I think of writers as rock stars. There's something divine about being able to use the written word to communicate in a way that's translatable through the ages. You've said that while you could always tell stories, you had to learn the craft of writing.
Janet: Yes. I kept sending out stories and getting rejected. I once sent a story to the Santa Monica Review. In his rejection letter, the editor wrote: "Good enough story—but what's unique about your sentences?" I had not taken writing classes. As an undergraduate, I had not studied literature—I was a history major. So I was on my own, and I could not figure out what this editor was talking about. I had to work on word choices, the music of language. I hadn't realized that writing would be so hard.
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?
Oprah: How do you feel when you finally finish the last page of a book and you release it to the world?
Janet: There's a gap there. I finish, and then the release to the world comes some time later. I didn't think I'd ever finish this book. I felt like I was in Groundhog Day, in a circular reality. In between White Oleander and Paint It Black, I worked on another book that never gelled. And since we last talked, I've gone through a divorce. That was quite a ride.
Oprah: Well, divorce can either help or hinder your writing.
Janet: Or both. [Laughs] I use my fiction to explore my own unconscious issues. I usually don't even know what's going on with me until I'm writing. That doesn't mean my books are autobiographical. After people read White Oleander, they often ask me if I was ever a foster child.
Oprah: You write so vividly that one would think your work is autobiographical.
Janet: Writing mirrors the interior self. You know, any book is like the perfect blueprint of the psyche of the author. When I start writing, my unconscious, my conflicts, my thoughts all start to come up. So for me, writing is an exploration. I never know how my stories will end. I just kept working on Paint It Black until the ending felt right.
Oprah: What does a writer as gifted as you are read?
Janet: I'm incredibly restless. I read a lot of poetry. I also find myself reading the first 20 pages of everything, looking for something. And you know what? I'm usually looking for the book I'm writing. And it's not out there!
Oprah: That's interesting. When you read poetry, do you memorize it?
Janet: I've tried, but I don't have the best memory in the world.
Oprah: When I read poetry, I read it aloud. It's so much better that way.
Janet: It trains my ear. If I read poetry aloud, and then I read what I've been writing, I can hear, "Clunk, clunk, clunk."
Oprah: Who are your favorite poets?
Janet: I love the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. I also like Anne Sexton and Dylan Thomas. Anne Carson has a book called The Beauty of the Husband that's unbelievable.
Oprah: Did you feel pressure to finish Paint It Black?
Janet: I put tremendous pressure on myself. My publisher knows not to push me because I'm pretty intense.
Oprah: Exactly what is your schedule?
Janet: I take my daughter to school, come home and have coffee, then start writing around 9. I usually work until about 2 P.M. Then, unless I'm really on fire, I'll set it aside until after dinner.
Oprah: Your fiction is art—real, layered, and complex.
Janet: Thank you. I'm always looking for something new and interesting to say. And it can't be something I'm directly experiencing.
Oprah: Do you think there are more people interested in good fiction now than in previous decades?
Janet: Yes, there's more openness to the kind of work I do. There used to be a category called women's fiction—meaning not too rude, not too much sex, a bit domestic and internal. Women have changed so much. We're so varied. And we've become more interested in the same varied experience in fiction. Paint It Black is a perfect example of that. Thirty years ago, it might have singed a few hairs off some eyebrows—it's a very raw book. But now middle-aged women went to Woodstock. It's not the same world.
Oprah: That's right. One reason I love your writing is that it's filled with sensual detail, as if you're trying to stimulate the readers' senses. Are you?
Janet: I think we're starved for a life of the senses. We're in the garage, we're in the car, we drive to work, we're in a windowless cubicle that's gray and beige. In a way, it's funny that we consider ourselves an advanced culture, because people who live in so-called primitive environments still enjoy the richness of the smells, colors, and sounds of our world. We all crave that. When I read, I want to be fully transported to another place. I want to feel things, smell things.
Oprah: I read a lot of fiction because it allows you to explore just about anything.
Janet: Inside every human being, there is unlimited time and space. In our exterior life, we can be only one person. But in our imagination, we can be anyone, anywhere. That's one of the reasons I read and write. It's a way for me to have more than one life.