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`White' into `Black'

`White Oleander' sold millions. Now Janet Fitch goes darker yet with `Paint It Black.'

September 20, 2006|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

WHILE Janet Fitch worked on the follow-up to her multimillion-selling debut novel and Oprah's Book Club pick "White Oleander," she listened to a particular cassette over and over again. It was a mix tape of what she called "the saddest songs in the world," full of morose folk musings by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. But the saddest song of them all, she said, was Janis Joplin's take on Gershwin's "Summertime."

"She wants to believe in what she's singing so badly," said Fitch, sitting in the living room of her tastefully cluttered home in the Silver Lake hills. "But you can hear that she's about to go under."

"Paint It Black," which hits bookstores this week, follows two similarly unraveling characters haunted by memories of a loved one who went under in grisly, violent fashion. It would seem a natural second novel for the third-generation L.A. author, whose living room is lined with vintage records by Roxy Music and David Bowie and pencil sketches by her 16-year-old daughter, Allison.

But Fitch didn't plan it that way. Somewhere in her house is a box filled with hundreds of pages of a weighty historical novel that, in a fit of decisiveness following months of dread, she decided to abandon in the middle of a photo shoot for that book's jacket cover.

"When you have success, people think you know what you're doing, and you start to agree with them, you think you can conquer the world," she said. "But you go from grandiosity to panic. My editor would call and I'd say 'It's fine, going great,' and I couldn't bring myself to admit it wasn't happening. It was an abortion."

Fitch was then forced to tearfully admit to her editors that, after having twice written the 300-page book using two different narrators, she still didn't have anything that she was proud of. For a mid-list author with few expectations for big sales figures, that might not have mattered. But "White Oleander" was a blockbuster, one of the bestselling new works of literary fiction that year. It had been adapted as a movie starring Renee Zellweger and Michelle Pfeiffer. Janet Fitch was a bankable name. Michael Pietsch, who edited "White Oleander" for Little, Brown, had to adjust his time frame once again. "She sent the manuscript to us, and I think she arrived at the right decision," he said. "I was sad for Janet because all that time and work must have been a great loss. But I was very grateful that she had the maturity and self-assessment to put that aside. It's the process that brought us 'Paint It Black,' and I'm glad it happened so that we have this book."

While Fitch may have felt liberated by bailing on the project, it still left her with the task of writing an entirely new novel. She revisited a story-length sketch of two resilient women desperately searching for family -- a return to the emotional core of "White Oleander." This time, though, the setting was Echo Park during the ramshackle punk culture of the '80s, when teenage vagabond Josie Tyrell learns that her boyfriend, Michael, a Harvard dropout and aspiring painter, has fatally shot himself in a desert motel. As Josie mourns his suicide, she becomes entangled with his mother, Meredith, a wealthy classical pianist who blames her for Michael's depression.

With its backdrop of crumbling Hollywood flophouses, Darby Crash's nihilistic sneering and the social specter of Reaganomics, "Paint It Black" became a historical novel of sorts, but a far more personal one for Fitch.

"I was a bit older than those kids, but I can remember the defiance, of not needing permission to breathe, that you don't need a credit card to have a right to be here," she said.

As Josie drives past the rotting bohemian bungalows of Echo Park and Didion-esque stretches of forgotten desert highway, Fitch uses the city's structures as characters themselves. Josie and Michael's tiny, mural-painted home becomes for Meredith tangible proof that her child could love another woman, and Josie spends much of the book hovering around Meredith's Los Feliz palace in literal and metaphorical intoxication.

"L.A. is such a real, active place," Fitch said. "My mother was very into the core of the city. She worked in politics, and you have to know your territory. It's an active matrix, we're all parts of it, but people don't often stop to wonder what's going on."

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