Janet Fitch is a writer and a teacher of fiction writing.
She is the author of the #1 national bestseller White Oleander, a novel translated into 24 languages, an Oprah Book Club book and the basis of a feature film, and Paint It Black, also widely translated and made into a 2017 film.
She has written a young adult novel, Kicks, short stories, essays, articles, and reviews, contributed to anthologies and regularly teaches at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She taught creative writing for 14 years in the USC Master of Professional Writing program, as well as VCFA’s Writing and Publishing program, A Room of Her Own (AROHO), the UCLA Writer’s Program, and Pomona College. She lectures frequently on fiction writing. She is currently continuing Marina's story.
Fitch was a 2009 Likhachev Cultural Fellow to St. Petersburg, Russia, a Helen R. Whiteley Fellow, a Research Fellow at the Huntington Library and a Moseley Fellow at Pomona College. Fitch graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon in 1978 with a BA in History.
She lives in Los Angeles and travels whenever she gets the chance.
A Writer's Story
I was an early reader and an all around fabulist. As a child, I lived completely in the world of my imagination—a far more real place to me than the so-called “real world.” I had a very difficult time telling the difference between what had actually happened and the things I made up.
When I was nine, I picked up a rock on the way to school and told the kids it was a piece of the true Blarney Stone and if they kissed it, they would have the gift of blarney forever and ever. They all kissed it—and I forgot I’d made it up, and kissed it too.
I often faked illness so I could stay home and read—gluttonously. In life, I was just a little kid who everyone told what to do. But in the world of my books, I could be a pirate, a murderer, a hawk or a king. How boring to only have one life!
A child of the Cold War, my fantasy life was full of secret agents. Honey West, Mrs. Peel, the Man From Uncle, Secret Agent Man. What is a writer but a spy? We desire above all things to step behind the scrim of appearances and know the subterranean life of others. If asked to choose a super-power, I would always choose invisibility.
I attempted to write when I was nine, but was immediately discouraged by my 4th grade teacher. I presented her the story—“Diamond, Horse of Mystery”—combining my two favorite authors, Marguerite Henry and Edgar Allan Poe. Alas, she took a red marker, and by the time it got back to me, it looked like it had been multiply stabbed. I didn’t write again until I was 21.
When I was thirteen, girls were given books like “Cherry Ames Student Nurse” and “Cress Delahanty”, sodden pieces of retrograde femininity that made me want to throw myself in front of a bus. My wise father thrust Crime and Punishment into my grubby hands. It was love at first sight. Dostoyevsky’s protagonist murders the landlady—with an axe! Because of... philosophy! Then, immediately wants to confess. Now that's a novel. It gave me a taste for intense, dramatic fiction that has stayed with me all my life. Dickens, Poe, Dostoyevsky-- these were my early literary influences.
After that, I became besotted with Russian literature. By high school, I took up Russian as my language, and I continued my fantasies about becoming a secret agent. All four of my grandparents came from Russia, but like many Americans of their era, my parents cared little about family history. Outrageous, that they could have their roots in that mysterious country and know nothing about it!
In college, I chose history as my major—history, with its vast sweep and outsized characters—and Russia as my specialty. I was sure I wanted to become an historian. But while on a student exchange to Keele University in England, I woke up on the night of my 21st birthday and realized that what I really wanted was to become a writer--with a very glamorous idea of the writer based on another favorite: Anais Nin, with her capes and lovers, travels and turmoils.
That year, I set foot on Russian soil for the first time to attend a summer language program at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. Fantasies of Russia were soon confronted by the realities of daily Soviet life. But it was still a country where literature mattered intensely. Bus drivers spouted Pushkin, and we stayed up all night arguing about who was the better poet, Voznesensky or Yevtushenko (Voznesensky), over vodka and guitars with our Russian minders--all cynically jocular and most certainly KGB. And yet they were more complex than that, as if their official function was not the only game they had going. My fascination only deepened.
I graduated from Reed College with a BA in history. My only marketable skills were a certain quickness of mind and the ability to read and type. I became a proofreader and learned typesetting, first in a type shop in Portland, Oregon, and then working at newspapers in the Columbia River Gorge, in Eugene, Los Angeles and Denver, all while reading continuously and teaching myself to write, tiny stories on wobbly legs which I sent out in a steady flow, and which were returned in a steady flow of rejection.
Freelance journalism was a source of income. I took gigs as a party reporter for US Magazine (a spy job, impersonating a party reporter for US Magazine), wrote for everything from lifestyle magazines to Inside Kung Fu. I served as managing editor for American Film magazine. Eventually I landed a job editing a small town newspaper in rural Colorado, The Mancos Times Tribune, where I met my first real writer, Warwick Downing. Wick sent a packet of my short stories to his agent, Bill Reiss, in New York. When the agent accepted me as a client, I was so afraid of offending him, I didn’t even ask who else he represented. I thought it would be rude.
Years went by. Rejections continued. I married, returned to Los Angeles, had a family. My daughter, then in nursery school, was asked what our family received in the mail. “We get rejections,” she said. During this time, I wrote one young adult novel that was never published, but another which made the rounds for four years, Kicks, was finally accepted. Yet my short stories continued to miss the mark.
A lucky break came in the form, oddly enough, of a rejection from the Santa Monica Review. Its editor, Jim Krusoe, wrote: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?”
After much head-scratching, I realized that although I’d worked hard on my stories, I had not yet addressed the art of writing. It was at this point I sought out a writer whose prose style I much admired, Kate Braverman, a fiction writer who had begun as a poet. After a trial, she accepted me into her workshop.
My new mentor stressed the music of language, Neruda’s “air that falls through the net.” For two years, I labored to hone the voice of my prose, working with a group of dedicated writers, many of whom have emerged into public awareness, others who continue to produce beautiful work which only fellow writers have seen. But all of us have a certain dedication to sound, a certain poetics.
I had always sent my short stories to the Ontario Review, where Joyce Carol Oates—a literary hero—was associate editor, in hopes she might lay eyes upon my humble offerings. Until then, I’d only received form rejections from them. But finally, a small yellow Post-it note accompanied a returned manuscript. It said: “Good story, too long for us. Seems like the first chapter of a novel. J.C.O.” The story was "White Oleander."
If J.C.O. thought there was a novel there, then by God I was going to write it.
Four years later, White Oleander sold to an editor I’d met years earlier at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. It quickly became an Oprah Book Club pick and a film. Whose beautiful life was this? I wondered. I’d been struggling for so long--20 years after that decision to become a writer. I was braced for failure, but was utterly unprepared for success. It was like pushing against a wall for a lifetime, and suddenly having it fall over, just like that. A miracle.
But miracles are shocking, and the force of it left me with a strange vertigo. For the next three years, I floundered. I picked an ambitious project—too ambitious—for my next book, wrote and wrote, two different tries, nine hundred pages. but nothing would come together. I despaired of ever writing anything decent again. At last, I set aside that project, and turned to a little gothic short story that spoke to my current state of mind. Gradually, week by week, month by month, I remembered that I could write. That novel became Paint It Black.
Yet a character from that failed novel lingered in my mind. I wrote a short story about her, “Room 721,” about a woman in exile after the Russian Revolution, a hotel maid at the famous Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles. I tried to extend the story, but there was too much I didn’t know about her —what were her dreams, her memories? What had happened to her back in Russia? And thus, I found myself spending the next ten years writing about the Russian Revolution and a young poet’s coming of age during that turbulent era — The Revolution of Marina M.