An Interview With Janet Fitch
by Cortney Winn
Janet Fitch is an American author and 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, Paint It Black, also widely translated and made into a 2017 film, and her epic novels of the Russian Revolution, The Revolution of Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.
Learn more about Janet at her website: www.janetfitchwrites.com
In my pursuit of traditional publishing, I have found myself entertaining the idea of earning my degree in creative writing many times. As an author I keep racking my brain for ways to better myself, and my writing, so that I can stand out among the masses. Isn’t that the goal of any author?
While toying with this decision, I reached out to nationally best-selling author Janet Fitch to get some insight on the subject of writing success in terms of writing degrees.
After earning your BA in history, did you seek a degree related to writing?
No I did not. I got work as a proofreader, then a typesetter. I wrote, I learned here and there. I became a journalist, a newspaper editor, a magazine editor, and wrote all the time, submitting and getting rejected and learning all the time.
If so, did it play a key role in your publication? If not, do you believe it would have helped you avoid certain pitfalls along your publishing journey?
No, it played no role in my publications. I do believe that if I had participated in an MFA program, it would have helped me avoid a million mistakes and and develop as a writer much more quickly than I did.
Looking back, what would you say played the most crucial role in your writing career?
My stubbornness probably was a critical element, the intensity of my love of literature, and my ambition to be a great writer. Not a good one. I was always swinging for the fences.
What was it on your 21st birthday that inspired you to write again after the massacre of Diamond Horse of Mystery?
Ha! I was intending to go into history, to become an historian, but I took a year abroad. Getting away from the intensely academic environment of my own college, stepping back from that competition (I am very competitive, easily caught up in whatever is going on) gave me a chance to wonder what I really wanted to do in life. And to my surprise, it wasn’t becoming an historian. It was becoming a writer, living a life of art and adventure.
What is your thing in fiction. What came naturally to you and what did you have to work at? Besides prose?
Character is what came naturally. I see people in three dimensions, I create characters like a termite queen. I feel people. I’m also intensely emotional, and that intensity marks everything I do. I had to learn everything else—prose style, scene and story, dialogue, working from the senses, rich description.
As a teacher of fictional writing, do you think a degree in creative writing is an expedited route to traditional publication? Why or why not?
I think the work that leads to the degree is tremendous help to a writer, solving problems in their writing—it gives the writer the tools with which to see their work clearly and to shape it, to understand what goes into good fiction. A program ensures a writer gets the feedback necessary to become aware of what still needs to be done. Working independently, one has to find this feedback for oneself, randomly, and sometimes not at all. For better or for worse, working independently and finding the information we need, takes so much more determination. It’s not that the degree expedites the route to publication. The degree is irrelevant. It’s the knowledge and exposure and insight that accelerates the process.
What problems did you face in the time between White Oleander and Paint it Black? How did you overcome those trials?
I had a book that failed after White Oleander. After that surprise success, I took on a story that was even more ambitious, but I didn’t have the peace of mind to work, and it failed spectacularly. There are two kinds of writer's block—one is the one where you can’t write a word, the other is when you write and write but nothing jells. That was what happened to that book. Three years, 900 pages, a complete disaster. What it took was admitting that it was never going to come together, and going back to something small, in this case a short story featuring three people, one of whom was dead. It picked up the mood of my despair, and gradually, I remembered that I knew how to write.
What advice or resources would you recommend to authors aspiring to be traditionally published? Aside from reading a lot, and writing a lot?
Those two things are important, but more important are reading like a writer—which means pulling apart what you read, understanding how the sentences were put together, understanding how the book was put together. Reading books worth that kind of study, and noticing how it affects your own writing. Writing a lot too, is not enough—it’s about learning and getting better. In the ten years I wrote before I sold my first short story, I wrote a great deal, but I was too focused on publication and not enough on the development of myself as an artist. The dawning of that realization was a major turn in my writing career. I have been doing a weekly ‘fireside chat’ about issues of writing that I’ve put up on a YouTube channel, Janet Fitch’s Writing Wednesday, in part for that girl I was, who couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t
In your opinion what education should a writer seek out in order to attract agents and have a successful career as an author?
I am always a great supporter of history as a course of study, a way of understanding our world. History is everything. It is the grandmother of all. Philosophy isn’t bad… English, biology, medicine, so many fields of knowledge to pursue, which would leave their traces on the writer’s mind. The one thing I would not suggest is undergraduate major in creative writing. Know something before you start writing. It is the saddest thing to see people who are really talented with story and the word, but have nothing to write about.
Agents don’t care about your education. They care about the book. Can they sell it. Is it beautiful, is it intelligent, is it moving.
What are you currently working on? My spiteful spirit hopes that one day you will resurrect Diamond Horse of Mystery.
Ha. It’s a book that takes place in a contemporary Los Angeles, but its roots are in the city as it was in the 1970s and in the 1930s. I'm still first draft, so there is much I don’t know about it, but it starting to coalesce around certain issues—of memory and the problem of forgiveness.
What are your writing classes like and what have you learned from that role as a teacher?
Right now I am largely teaching special topics of fiction writing virtually through the Community of Writers. I like a weekend workshop—to lay out an issue in fiction writing and examining it from various sides, really packing in the exploration and the information into a short time, which then the participant can take away and unpack at leisure in the weeks an months afterwards, and apply to their own writing as they will.
The most important thing I’ve learned as a teacher came from facilitating a workshop with Pico Iyer at the Esalen Institute, called The Traveler’s Practice, Journal and Journey. Pico didn’t want to pre-plan what would happen in workshop each day. He wanted to talk to people at breakfast and see what they were interested in, what was on their minds, and just talk with one another and allow it to take an organic course that would be a surprise to everybody. It was not at all how I taught—in a masters’ writing program at USC—and it kind of freaked me out. Especially in that you couldn’t do your Xeroxing once you were at Esalen. Plus, many of my materials are physical objects—I had to bring everything with me, all kinds of handouts, so I would be prepared no matter which way the workshop flowed.
It scared me but it was so liberating, absolutely the best workshop I’ve ever led—and affected my teaching from then on out. To be much more in the moment, to allow things to take an organic course, to both be prepared but also to listen and to be ready to respond to the moment.