Making a monster

"White Oleander" author Janet Fitch talks about creating a wicked woman, the debacle of film school and becoming an overnight success after 20 years.

Published July 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Recently, Janet Fitch's life has had an enchanted quality. At 43 -- after 22 years of laboring away at her fiction, publishing the occasional story in small literary magazines -- she has seen her first novel, "White Oleander," become a national bestseller. But "White Oleander" itself is no fairy tale. It's the story of Astrid Magnussen, daughter of the beautiful, merciless poet, Ingrid. In Venice Beach, mother and daughter live a peripatetic bohemian lifestyle ruled by Ingrid's rigorous idea of beauty (three white flowers in a plain glass vase is the epitome of her aesthetic) and her contempt for emotional weakness. When Ingrid condescends to an affair with a less than exquisite man, falls in love and then is summarily dumped, she poisons her former lover and eventually winds up in prison. Astrid then begins a journey through a series of foster homes, in each one learning about sex, money, love, independence, courage, rage and the manifold ways of becoming a woman. Salon Books spoke with Fitch at the beginning of a triumphant nationwide publicity tour for "White Oleander," shortly after she appeared on television with Oprah Winfrey, who made Fitch's novel the May selection for her book club.

Tell me about the genesis of "White Oleander."

I had the character of Ingrid first. She was actually the protagonist of a short story. It was black comedy. There's a writer, Sei Shonagon. She was a lady-in-waiting to the Heian empress in Japan in the 11th century.

She wrote "The Pillow Book."

Yes. It was about a society based on aesthetics. Soldiers were promoted by how well they wrote poetry. Of course the Heian empire didn't last very long. They were pretty easy to wipe out. It was a time of tremendous refinement where the aristocrats would have a party in which they would go and look at moonlight on a pond. But they had no conventional morality. Sei Shonagon could see somebody beheaded right in front of her and it's like, pfft, there's no connection between her and that person. But if somebody wore the wrong color combinations in their robes, then for days she just couldn't get over it, how disgusting it was. I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to take someone like that, an aesthete, which is an aristocratic position, and put them at the end of the 20th century in America, with a crummy job and a crummy apartment, having to make a living, and see what happened. And so Ingrid emerged.

People read that story and they hated my character, Ingrid. They didn't want to walk a mile in her moccasins. They didn't want to be her; they said, "She's a monster, you cannot have her as your protagonist. Give her a co-worker, give her a friend, someone to see her through." And so I gave her a daughter. And suddenly it wasn't funny anymore. When you're the kid of someone who is an extreme person, it's not funny at all. And then the tone changed, and the perspective changed, and I got something very different, which was much better.

Then you had a short story and ...

I had a short story and I sent it around. I send all my short fiction to Ontario Review because Joyce Carol Oates is associate editor there, and I think she's fantastic. They rejected it, but I got a little Post-it note saying "Too long for us. Liked it but seemed more like the first chapter of a novel." I thought, oh, Joyce Carol Oates thinks it might be the first chapter of a novel. So I started writing the novel, trying to continue the short story and trying to figure out what did happen to Ingrid and Astrid.

Did you always have the idea of Ingrid being undone by an affair?

Absolutely. That's a common experience. Many women get involved with a man that you pretty much know isn't suitable and you're kind of breaking your rules, but he's attractive in some unknown way. And then he doesn't even realize what a sacrifice you're making by being with him and he dumps you! [Laughs.] And you're just so angry at yourself for breaking your rules and angry at him for not realizing what he's given up. I think it's one step from that to, if you're an extreme unbalanced person, just going off the deep end.

Did the idea of Astrid going through a series of foster homes follow from the idea that Ingrid was going to wind up in jail?

If a murder happens, the first question is, is she arrested or not?. If she wasn't, what's the point? It negates the act. I've always been concerned with what happens to children in our society when there's nobody left to take care of them. I've always been aware of that, and of course she would end up in foster care -- and start moving from house to house and really seeing the various components of our society. We don't have a unitary society anymore, you know; it's very fragmented. I look up and down my block in Silverlake and there is a different universe in every house. Fifty completely different worlds and who would see that better than somebody in foster care?

This is the first novel you've written?

This is the first novel that's seen the light of day.

Tell me a little bit about your writing life up until this point.

Oh, the long sad story. No -- it's a story of courage and struggle. I started writing when I was 21. I was going to become an historian. And then I realized there was more to the world than just the past. I didn't want to spend my life in the library. I wanted to be Anaos Nin, I wanted to have adventures and look glamorous. What a mistaken idea of what a writer's life is like!

Then what?

I wrote short stories. I went to film school for a while. I wrote screenplays, which were terrible. And I realized that if I was never going to make any money at writing, never going to sell anything as long as I lived, I might as well do what I want to do. Because then, no matter what, I would have spent my life doing what I want to do. So, I went back to writing fiction and just kept writing and learning. I had to learn to write. The desire preceded the ability. Let's see, I started writing fiction in '78 or '79, and I went to film school for a semester -- not even a semester. It was a debacle.

Why was it a debacle?

Because I'm really a writer. To make films you have to have boundless energy, you have to work and play with others really, really well and I'm really a more contemplative kind of person. I like to sit at home and think, a lot. And have time to read and think and walk the dog. To live in my car and eat at Burger King three times a day and be constantly trying to persuade people to do things  I just couldn't do it. In film, you reenact things in physical reality. And physical reality is recalcitrant. I can write a line like, "She picks him up and drags him onto the bed," but if she can't pick him up and you're struggling, then it's two hours later, and people are starting to walk, and say, "Hey, I got to go." It was just wrong, but at least I found out. It was terrible. I was crying every morning when I woke up and had to do it again. My husband said, just forget it, forget it.

So, I went back to writing fiction. I became a newspaper editor in Colorado. I was the editor/reporter/photographer, I set the type, I laid out the pages. I did that for two years, which is a very demanding job. And then when I quit in '87, I wrote 18 short stories that first year and I've been writing ever since. It's been 20 years since I started writing. It was 12 years after I first started writing before I published my first short story. My "overnight success" is the result of 20 years of learning to write. A lot of it is determination and trying to find the teacher who has what you lack.

Where did you study writing?

Well, I had taken a couple of UCLA extension classes, but I didn't find any of my writing classes particularly helpful. I got to a point where I could tell a story, but I would get rejections like, "Interesting story, but what's unique about your sentences?" Oh, it drove me crazy! What do you mean, "What's unique?" What do you want me to do, put the verb at the front? I tossed and turned for years over that one.

Were these notes from editors?

From editors. Up to that point the fiction classes I had taken were on the lax side. I found myself teaching more than learning. But there was a writer I adored, who wrote very lyrical prose. What a beautiful writer, Kate Braverman. I signed up for her UCLA workshop and then she invited me to work with her private workshop.

You describe Kate Braverman as your mentor rather than as your teacher. Tell me a little bit about the relationship.

I've had teachers who haven't made much of an impact, but when somebody completely transforms your world, that's a mentor. Somebody who's always challenging me and somebody who raises the standards, that's what I needed. And she would attack a flaw as if it were a personal affront. She's very epigrammatic. She would put things in a way that seared on your brain. I remember I brought in an early work. I was a former journalist, so I had a very straightforward, pedestrian style. I was trying to really punch it up and I brought in a story and she said, "You know, you could make a really good living as a romance writer. It's a good living, you could do that." And I remember going outside and sitting in my car and crying. Would I ever get it? If you wrote a line that thudded, she'd say, "What did you do, fax that in?" She demanded excellence, sentence by sentence, and she would make it very clear to you, in not a very tender way, if even a sentence wasn't cutting it.

In addition to that challenge, there must have also been something else that was encouraging.

Oh, absolutely. The fact that I'd been invited into this workshop to begin with was a vote of confidence. And a lot of it was sheer psychological endurance, because it is, in many ways, a very brutal process. But I could see the advance; I could see that I was getting better. Many people were not able to get the information that she was teaching because they couldn't tolerate the level of intensity and personal affront. But what I was getting was worth it.

And when you were good?

She would praise you and repeat felicitous sentences over and over so people could really hear why it worked. Tremendous praise. But you learn also that there's no such thing as a permanent state of grace. Just because you did it right this time, didn't mean that you had it. You never have it for good. It's a practice, like any kind of art. You're always working at it.

Did she also offer you advice or support about how to get by when there wasn't that much validation coming from the outside world?

Her point of view was that it would always be hard, that you had to accept rejection and the difficulty of being an artist if you were going to make it at all. Because people who had mistaken ideas that it would be easy and glamorous were the ones whose disappointment would never allow them to hang in there.

How did "White Oleander" come to be published?

I'd gone to Squaw Valley Writer's Conference. One day we got a leader who was so smart and so right, and I agreed with everything he said about people's manuscripts, this editor Michael Pietsch. And I thought, gee, I'm going to remember this guy. And when I have a novel, I'm going to send it to him. So I sent it to him. It took him a while, a few months. The manuscript went to a couple of other publishers who turned it down, but in the end Michael took it.

Then the Oprah thing happens. What was that like?

I was at work. I worked one day a week at a government relations company. I did their writing, you know, brochures and letters and rewrote reports in English. I did everything, answered the phones, paid the bills. And got this phone call at work and it was this very familiar voice.

Does she call you herself?

Yes. She talked and I sort of sat there with my mouth open. I was simply stunned out of my mind. Evidently I paid all the bills that day and I put every check in the wrong envelope. It took them weeks to unscramble that.

Some people in the book industry have an ambivalent relationship to Oprah. There's a knee-jerk literary-world assumption that television can never be a good thing.

I think that Oprah's on a mission to improve the lives of the average American in various ways. And one of them is to bring literature to people who would normally not be quite as demanding in their reading tastes, to show them writing that can be more than just entertainment. That it can change people, it can open us up, it can make us more human. I have a little shrine to Oprah, a little picture. I change the flowers every day and put a little incense. I feel she's the patron saint of contemporary literature.

Are you getting a lot of people asking you about your relationship to your mother?

Oh yeah. Luckily my relationship with my mother is really good right now. We had a very hard time when I was young. My mother wasn't ready to be a mother. She didn't really understand, didn't have the skills. Parenting skills are modeled. And if your model isn't there or is flawed, then you don't have the skills. So it was very difficult. But now that we're all older, ... she realizes that -- where the wrong turns were and what she missed and what she didn't understand or see. All we really want is for our mothers to say they're sorry -- that they made horrible mistakes and they didn't understand and they're so sorry. And once my mother admitted that, we started to have a completely different relationship.

One of the things I love about this book is that you're completely willing to let Ingrid be evil. It gives the story so much vitality. There's not enough of that in literary fiction sometimes.

She's very single-minded. And it's very difficult to be the child of a single-minded person because everything goes one way. They're not good listeners. They don't look at that child and think, "Oh, she seems sad. I wonder what's wrong." Ingrid didn't want to open that can of worms because it would limit her freedom. And she was pursuing her own vision of herself. We all have some of that, and the more determined we are to do something, the more we have it. A child will take up 100 percent of you if you let them. It's only natural for them to want that, to try for that. So motherhood's a dance between individual needs and the needs of your child. And Ingrid's failing is that she had a child but refused to dance with her. She refused to look at her at any point and say, "What does my child need here?" But she loved her. She loved her in her way.

Did you worry in writing that character that you were going too far?

No. I think everyone has an aspect of themselves that doesn't want to care about other people, that just wants the absolute freedom. But we are more compassionate than that, we realize that in the long run, relationships have so much to offer, but you have to give in to that relationship to get anything back. And Ingrid is willing to sacrifice everything for her individual freedom.

What was your biggest challenge in writing about that character?

Oh, I enjoyed writing her character because her language was so beautiful. And strength of will in a character is the most important thing. If the character has strength of will, you're on the train and they are the locomotive. If your character doesn't know what they want, and they're sort of drifting around, then you're pulling the train yourself, which is a lot more work. I like Ingrid. I understand her. She's a monster. She has tremendous flaws, but tremendous intelligence and wit and she expresses a certain unspoken desire of many people. We're nicer than that, we care more about other people than that, but I think it's understandable on some level.

"White Oleander" is a California novel. California plays a peculiar role in the national imagination, and that makes it hard for people from other places to put the idea of literature and California together in their minds.

That started in the '20s. California was perceived as the locus of hedonism, and how can literature come out of pure hedonism? How can a deeper evaluation of the human condition come out of a place where there is no human condition, and nobody has any problems or worries? Which is, obviously, a complete and utter fantasy. Even in paradise you have daughters and mothers and disappointment, struggle and all the rest.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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