Janet Fitch talks about White Oleander
"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
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."
She is currently working on a second novel.