Interview with Janet Fitch

Posted by Goodreads on November 1, 2017
Janet Fitch is the bestselling author of White Oleander, which was an Oprah's Book Club Selection in 1999, and Paint It Black—both of which have been adapted into film.

Her new novel, The Revolution of Marina M, is a sweeping novel about Marina Makarova, who grew up in the St. Petersburg bourgeoisie. Marina is 16 when the Russian Revolution breaks out, and the book follows her through the turbulent years that follow—years that overturn her country, the bonds of her family, and everything she thought she knew about herself.

Fitch spoke to Goodreads interviewer Janet Potter about her lifelong love of Russian history and literature, her ten-year research process for this book, and ruining Chanel lipstick in the service of writing.

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Goodreads: Your first two books took place in contemporary America. Why did you decide to shift to historical Russia for this one?

Janet Fitch: The story takes you. I mean, I didn't decide to write about Russia. I had written a short story about a woman who was an émigré in 1922 in Los Angeles, and I really liked that story, and I thought it would be interesting to expand it. But when I tried it as a novel, I realized I didn't know enough about her inner life. I didn't know where she came from; I didn't know what her dreams would be about or her reactions to things.

Whenever people would read that material, they always were more interested in the backstory—what happened in Russia? It just melded with my long-seeded fascination with Russia, and I realized I would have to take her through the Revolution to find out what had happened to her and what made her the character she was.

GR: The book is so detailed in regard to daily life in Petrograd. What was your research process like, and at what point did you feel comfortable writing a scene that took place in a front room in Petrograd?

JF: Russian history was my great love—Russian literature and history—so I had an idea, but the more I did research, the more I came up against the big holes in what I knew about the Revolution. So I went to Russia. I had been a student there in 1977, at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, and I returned 30 years later with an alumni group to do research for this book. Russia had changed so completely, it was unbelievable. It was at the tail end of that trip that I took an apartment in St. Petersburg, just to get the feel of the place.

Then three years later I won a Likhachev Fellowship for American cultural workers doing a work for an American popular audience. When I applied, they had you list institutions that you wanted some help getting in to see. I listed the Akhmatova Museum and the Museum for Political History, the Museum for the City of St. Petersburg, and they made your appointments for you and got you in not just to see some assistant, but you got to see the director of the institute. I remember going to the Akhmatova Museum, and the director had me in to her office, and the tea came out, and the candy came out, and all her colleagues came in. There were at least six or seven people in that room. They closed the door, and they said, OK, tell us about your project.

I described what I was doing—I had a list of seven single-spaced pages of questions, and they began to answer my questions, and then they began to argue among themselves and pointed out things like I'd gotten wrong, like where Marina's family lived was wrong. "Oh no, they wouldn't have lived there. Too close to the train station. They would have lived here." I got so much help through that Likhachev Fellowship that by the time I left two weeks later, I had answered all my questions.

Memoirs were very helpful because as a novelist, I'm more interested in people's day-to-day lives. How did they cook? How did they heat their place? All the things that people have to tend to. Especially women's memoirs pay attention to the detail of everyday life.

Nabokov was about the same age as my character, so I could use his memoir. Nina Berberova (The Italics Are Mine) is an exact contemporary of Marina. I'm sure the people of Goodreads will enjoy that on my website I have a section about my research, and I've listed my favorite books in each category—memoirs, poetry, fiction, histories that I thought were most valuable. This was a ten-year-plus project, and a lot of books passed through my hands.

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GR: The Russian Revolution clearly has a lot of narrative pull. If you were to take on another moment in history, is there any other moment that particularly intrigues you?

JF: I find the '20s in America very interesting. That was the short story that started this whole thing. My grandmother came to L.A. in 1922 from Brooklyn, and just imagining what was going on there is fascinating. I'm very interested in noir, so noir-era L.A., which could be contemporary or could go back as far as the '50s. There are a lot of different places that interest me, but they come up, they come to me. I wouldn't go out and search for them.

GR: A lot of this book reminds me of Tolstoy, and you're a great reader of Russian literature in general. Were you in any way trying to emulate Russian novels? How do you see this book in kinship with the Russian canon?

JF: I think my idea of literature, of what a novel should be, came out of Russian literature. When I was a kid, I was given a copy of Crime and Punishment because I was in junior high, and all the boys were reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and all the girls were given things like Cherry Ames. I was a very intense, angsty kind of a person, and this did not speak to me at all. So my father gave me Crime and Punishment, and it was like, "Oh my god, there is my world." The guilt and the intensity about philosophy, about attraction, the bigger questions. Russians are super into asking what is the meaning of life. They're always up against the big questions, young people especially. So it just rang such a bell.

As a kid, I was super into Poe and Dickens, and I didn't know—but found out later—that Dostoyevsky was profoundly influenced by Dickens and Poe, so in fact it went full circle. When I read Crime and Punishment, I thought, That's a novel. That's what a novel should do. I want something super-intense, and I want to think about the big issues. Elif Batuman wrote a book called The Possessed, about people who are obsessed with Russian literature, and Dostoyevsky is the gateway drug. After Dostoyevsky, you get into Tolstoy, which is usually a little too sober for young people, but beautiful. Then you get into Bulgakov, Chekhov, Turgenev, read things like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Russian literature, to my mind, is what writing should be like.

GR: Who are some of your favorite modern Russian writers?

JF: I really enjoy Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, about a monk in the Middle Ages in Russia, but it has a postmodern feel to it. I also really love the Russian poets—the post-Akhmatova, postwar poets like Brodsky and Bela Akhmodulina, Yevtushenko's wife. I like Viktor PelevinBuddha's Little Finger is a fabulous book. The generation of the '80s tends to be ironic; it's almost like it's too much to bear to write nonironic literature. They're almost leaving it up to Americans to write those Russian novels, like Ken Kalfus and Arthur Koestler. And I grew up with Solzhenitsyn. Whatever you think about Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are wonderful novels.

GR: This novel ends at a very open-ended point, with a lot of unanswered questions and characters we don't know the whereabouts of. Without giving too much away about how and when the book ends, how did you decide that you had reached the end point of this story?

JF: Well, this is going to be two volumes, so this was the end of Marina's coming of age. She's really shed all of her support systems, everyone who could do anything to make her life easier or better. She really has come of age by the end of the book, so that's where I chose to end it.

GR: Sheena asks: What kind of books were you reading when you wrote White Oleander, and what kind of books were you reading when you wrote The Revolution of Marina M? How, if at all, do you think the different books you were reading affected each book you were writing?

JF: You often read things like taking vitamins. You read the things that you need to counteract deficiencies that you feel, something you need to help you write the book. One of the things with White Oleander is that I tend to be a little harsh, and I needed an injection of tenderness regularly, so I loved reading Robert Olen Butler's book They Whisper. It's about a man thinking about the women in his life. It's so beautiful and tender. I distinctly remember that. I also was reading a lot of Sexton because the mother's voice was a very Sexton voice to me, so I actually would listen to tapes of Sexton reading her own stuff. I also read a lot of Pound (there's certain cadences), and also the Four Quartets by Eliot really informed the voice of White Oleander.

Paint It Black has a lot of Dylan Thomas in it. It started with a Dylan Thomas poem—"A stranger has come/to share my room in the house not right in the head." It's a vision of this off-kilter girl who comes and haunts the men's words in the poem. That was informed also by Bergman's film Persona.

This book was affected by reading a lot of women's memoirs. I was reading books like Shklovsky's Zoo. I was reading all the silver age poets because my character is a poet, and I was strongly affected by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who was a real fiery woman, and her poetry has a real fiery quality. I thought a lot about what Marina would have been reading, and of course the girls right before the Revolution were crazy for Anna Akhmatova. They read a lot of Blok. So I was reading a lot of things I thought my character would have been reading. And then Brodsky was the sound of the book.

GR: Valerie asks: Have you ever edited something out of a book that you later regretted? If so, what?

JF: Writers always regret taking something out. The Revolution of Marina M started out as a novel in verse. Eventually I put it all into prose because I have a bigger tool kit as a prose writer. For narrative I need to live through scenes in real time, but I do have a fondness for those verse chapters.

In White Oleander I had Ingrid's backstory, and unfortunately every place I tried to put it in the book, it stopped the book, so I had to pull that out, and that was really hard. Paint It Black began as a three-voice novel. It was the protagonist, Josie; her boyfriend, Michael; and his mother, Meredith, and it was a story told from all three points of view. Eventually I decided I just wanted to do Josie's point of view. I do miss those chapters. But each book has its own rhythm and its own life, and you have to respect the life of that book and what it needs.

GR: Sabrina asks: Have you ever been tempted to write about secondary characters, fleshing them out and making them a central character?

JF: No, I never have, but I could see how that would be a lifetime occupation: to write a book and then take a secondary character and write a book from their point of view. And then you could take a secondary character from that book and just make a chain. You could take your whole life working that way. Once I'm done with something, I feel like I'm done with it, but never say never.

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GR: When you're in the middle of a book, what is your writing process?

JF: I work all the time. I don't work on other things while I'm working on a book. I can work on short things—short short stories that I can finish in a sitting or two. And often stories and novels come out of the short short stories, so I do that exercise. I write from a photograph or a word, just to keep the subconscious open. I work from dreams, I work a lot from the senses, so always being keenly aware of that.

I work maybe from 9:30 to 3 in the afternoon, and then if I'm really hot with something, I'll just keep going. It used to be when I started writing, I couldn't work if anyone was in the house. Then it got to be I couldn't work if anyone was in the room. Once I had a kid, it was like, "Just give me 15 minutes. Sure, draw on the couch with a lipstick. Why the Chanel? Why couldn't it be the Maybelline?"

I work in drafts. I start the day by rewriting what I wrote the day before and then continue, so I pick up the tone and the emotion, so I'm back in. I usually do about three or four drafts, but within each draft there are hundreds of drafts.

GR: What's the last book you read that you loved?

JF: There was a book of poetry called Dreadful Wind and Rain by Diane Gilliam about an affair. It's a series of poems about a girl who has had to hold herself back for her preferred sister. So there's an overlay of the Leah/Rachel story from the Bible, which was two sisters who were married to the same man, Jacob.

And then Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time, about the transition between Soviet time in Russia and the advent of capitalism, and the shock that that was to the average Russian, and the horror and difficulty of that transition. I certainly didn't understand the full impact of it when I went back to Russia in 2007 after having been gone for 30 years. I was just dazzled by all the little cafés, and hotels, and supermarkets, and fashion, and oh my god. It never occurred to me that there was this whole other aspect to the transition and how organized crime stepped in as soon as the Soviet government crumbled. Crime came in and took over, which is capitalism in the most savage form. It is a heartbreaker. It's an oral history where people are talking to Alexievich as they would over the kitchen table. So you get to know Russians talking about the things they probably don't even talk about with the people they're closest to. It's such an intimate portrait of a country. It changed my view of the world.

That's what I like: books that really let us see things that were invisible to us before.

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by Paul (last edited Nov 01, 2017 11:23AM) (new)

Paul Britton I wonder what Janet Fitch could possibly have meant by "Whatever you think about Solzhenitsyn . . . ." Can there be more than one way to view one of the true heroes and geniuses of the 20th century?

message 2: by Pam (new)

Pam I’m reading Leo’s Anna Karenina now and can’t wait to read Janet’s latest! Her excerpt was superb. Pubescents pressed inside closets stuffed with mink coats. Mercy! Janet captures the intricacies of the feline mind like no other. You go, girl!

message 3: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Berkovich Paul wrote: "I wonder what Janet Fitch could possibly have meant by "Whatever you think about Solzhenitsyn . . . ." Can there be more than one way to view one of the true heroes and geniuses of the 20th century?"

Yes. You can get less heroic picture if you ask Vladimir Voinovich "
Портрет на фоне мифа "

message 4: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Stewart Loved this article and interview. I am almost finished with War and Peace, after three years of stop and go reading. It is such a wonderful book--I can't imagine not having read it! Would love to have a long discussion or series of classes on it. One question is about the way Tolstoy keeps popping up throughout the book--"Our battle" etc. Most of the time the the book is in the third person, and then suddenly there he is right in the midst of it.

message 5: by Paula (new)

Paula I've always been interested in Russian history, which makes this book on my definite to-read list.

message 6: by Saty (new)

Saty Interesting and useful

message 7: by Hettie (new)

Hettie Paul wrote: "I wonder what Janet Fitch could possibly have meant by "Whatever you think about Solzhenitsyn . . . ." Can there be more than one way to view one of the true heroes and geniuses of the 20th century?"

Geniuses can be wrong in their views and beliefs, geniuses can be dishonest, geniuses can succumb to the power. When a genius lies, in makes things worse, because it's easier for people to believe it... the realities of GULAG were way worse than he tried to present them.

message 8: by Ron (new)

Ron D'Alena Interesting and enjoyable interview.

For those who might be interested, I just put together a collection of Russian Literature:
“The Revolutionist and Other Russian Stories”,
15 authors,
22 stories,
312 pages.

message 9: by Vladimir (new)

Vladimir Paul wrote: "I wonder what Janet Fitch could possibly have meant by "Whatever you think about Solzhenitsyn . . . ." Can there be more than one way to view one of the true heroes and geniuses of the 20th century?"

It only means that if not everybody has got an unambiguous stand to his work, nevertheless and so on.

message 10: by Vladimir (new)

Vladimir Paula wrote: "I've always been interested in Russian history, which makes this book on my definite to-read list."
In fact, she is a novelist rather than historian, so let's not look for a final judgment to Russia's destiny in her writing. There are a lot of American historians in 'charge' of Russian revolution and stalinism, but to little of novelists with more or less personal impressions of an old and new Russia. Janet Finch seems to be such.

message 11: by Vladimir (new)

Vladimir Nancy wrote: "Loved this article and interview. I am almost finished with War and Peace, after three years of stop and go reading. It is such a wonderful book--I can't imagine not having read it! Would love to h..."

You are right about War and Peace: This is also strange even for a Russian: I mean this 'popping up' and change of persons to narrative.

message 12: by Vladimir (new)

Vladimir Alexander wrote: "Paul wrote: "I wonder what Janet Fitch could possibly have meant by "Whatever you think about Solzhenitsyn . . . ." Can there be more than one way to view one of the true heroes and geniuses of the..."
One can consider it writers' rivality; however did not Voinovich spend a lot of time in GULAG.

message 13: by Catherine (new)

Catherine “Super”? C’mon.

message 14: by Julia (new)

Julia Lowrence Amazing interview! Can’t wait to read the book.

message 15: by Angi (new)

Angi Love this interview and now I’m really desiring to read more on Russian history. Though I think I’m going to need a narrator I can tell I would struggle with some of the words!

Jilgovanadam.Com.Au Loved all this interview and comments - look forward to the book (Christmas present to self!)

message 17: by Bob (new)

Bob Bullock Vasily Grossman impresses me as a superb Russian writer who lived through those times having read Fate and Death as well as Everything Flows. Have you read any of his great books?

message 18: by Ugeh (new)

Ugeh Charles Loved the interview. Took me into the mind of the author i really can't wait for the book.But i still think there is a lot missing in contemporary Russian literature.

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