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Out of the White, Into the Black

Paint It Black, College writing instructor Janet Fitch's anticipated second novel, explores the psychological consequences of loss through rich, raw metaphors

Out of the White, Into the Black

Janet Fitch weaves metaphor into her storytelling like Vincent van Gogh fuses bold, swirling brushstrokes into his oil painting.

“Metaphorical writing, to me, tells you more about both the phenomenon you are observing and about the bigger world,” said Fitch, who began teaching at USC College after the success of her debut novel, White Oleander (Little, Brown and Company, 1999), chosen for the Oprah Winfrey book club and adapted into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer.  

In her anticipated second novel, Paint It Black (Little, Brown and Company, 2006), to be released Sept. 18, Fitch’s figurative language elevates her writing to a fine art.

She felt bluish white and raw, like an Egon Schiele woman — Michael’s favorite artist.
She looked at the coffin, lying there like a giant question mark. Like the monolith in 2001.

Those passages from Paint It Black offer insight into the protagonist, Josie Tyrell, who’s forced to confront her artist boyfriend’s suicide. During a recent interview, Fitch revealed some of the philosophy behind her writing and why she loves teaching at USC College’s Master of Professional Writing program.

“Metaphors appeal to you in a non-rational way,” Fitch said in her Silverlake home, where she has lived since the birth of her 16-year-old daughter, Allison.

Barefooted and wearing jeans, long wheat-blond hair parted slightly off-center and a serious look, Fitch meditated on a question before answering.

“They appeal to the part of the human being who understands music, who understands painting,” she said, sitting near a shiny black piano and a giant abstract poured acrylic painting. “It’s less intellectual and much more emotional.”

Fitch blamed the seven-year gap between novels mainly on a book she was writing that didn’t jell. She finally put aside that novel set in Los Angeles in the 1920s. She pored over her short stories and chose a tale that also takes place in L.A., but during the punk rock scene of the early 1980s.

Originally called Love in the Asylum, the book was renamed Paint It Black, after the haunting sitar melody about a man enraged over his lover’s sudden death, which the Rolling Stones recorded in the psychedelic ’60s.

“I’m going back to it at some point,” Fitch said of her unfinished book. “But I have great trepidation. I probably won’t use anything I’ve written and start from scratch. Now that I’m out of the panicky second-novel stage, I can probably go back to it with a little calmer approach, a little less desperate feeling.”

Fitch, who was going through a divorce, instead selected a story that examines the emotional and psychological consequences of loss.

“I think [the new book] was dealing with some of my own personal issues around depression more than issues directly related to my divorce,” she said. “I was dealing with everything that was falling apart.”

In addition to raising Allison, a constant in her life has been teaching.

“I love sharing the tools that I’ve crafted out of lots of failures,” Fitch said. “Most of my students are experienced writers. When they get the tools that are missing, they know what to do and really take off. I really love to see that. I love to see a student become a colleague.”

Fitch was born in Hollywood and raised in L.A.’s Koreatown, and Paint It Black reflects an author who knows the city intimately. Her late father, Vernon, was a civil engineer and voracious reader who introduced her to books and often took her to the local library. She dedicated White Oleander to him.

Her mother, Alma, to whom she dedicated Paint it Black, worked for L.A. city and county governments, and was the city council’s first woman chief deputy. Both her novels explore the complicated mother-daughter connection.

“The mother-daughter relationship is such an interesting one,” Fitch said. “Now I’m a mother as well as a daughter so I can see both sides of it. It’s a relationship that nothing else prepares you for.”

Fitch earned her bachelor’s degree from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and became a journalist. But her art was always fiction, inspired by the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton and T.S. Eliot.

For 10 years, she unsuccessfully submitted her short stories to publications, often to the Ontario Review, where author Joyce Carol Oates was an editor.

“I always addressed the manuscript to her in hopes that she would see it, and it was always rejected,” Fitch said. “Then this one story came back with a little yellow post-it note. It said, ‘Good story, but too long for us. Seems like the first chapter of a novel.’ It was signed JCO. I tell you, that was a heart-stopping moment.”

That short story morphed into White Oleander. But Fitch swears that if not one of her stories sold, she’d still be writing.

“You don’t need anyone’s approval,” she said. “It’s nice, but at some point that ceases to be the reason why we do it. If I hadn’t sold anything, I would have been one of those dotty mothers who’s always writing a novel, always writing short stories and always getting rejections.”

She said the MPW program, which prepares students to become professional writers rather than for more schooling, is a perfect fit.

“I don’t have [a Ph.D.]. I didn’t come up the academic ranks that way. I decided to become a writer, then I started to write. So I can bring a lot of experience to teaching what not to do,” Fitch said with a throaty laugh. “Because I know. Because I’ve been through all of it.”