No writer writes in a vacuum. Janet Fitch, author of the bestselling novel White Oleander knows this well. After the surprise success of her debut novel—an Oprah's Book Club selection, which was also adapted into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer—Fitch struggled mightily to write her follow-up. Discontent with the historical novel she had all but finished, she asked her editor at Little, Brown to shelve it, and she started writing a completely different book.
It was a difficult time for Fitch, who was also in the process of recreating her life after a painful divorce. Despite these obstacles, she continued to write amid the confusion, self-doubt and depression that had interrupted her writing and her life. And the outcome of this dark period is Paint it Black, a novel she felt comfortable sending to print.
In this latest book, Fitch details the aftermath of an artist's suicide, and she takes a raw and, at times, personal look at the struggle between creativity and madness.
In this interview, Fitch reveals that Paint it Black isn't only about survival after the loss of love, but it's also about the void so many artists face as they struggle with their own identities while trying to create. Something to which, Fitch says, all writers can relate: "Depression, suffering and anger are all part of being human. Even though it's painful to go through these things, for the writer, it's essential." Read on to find out more.
YOU WRITE ABOUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS IN PAINT IT BLACK: "IT WAS IN A WAY A STRANGE LOSS. YOU GAVE THINGS AWAY YOU COULDN'T AFFORD TO LOSE. PRIVATE THINGS. YOU SHOWED YOURSELF AND YOU COULDN'T TAKE IT BACK." DO YOU SUFFER CREATIVE POST-PARTUM AFTER YOU PUBLISH?
Anytime you work with materials that are deep parts of yourself, you feel revulsion at showing things about yourself that you don't want people to know. White Oleander, for example, was so much about loneliness, and I was revealing something about myself. You have to work as deeply as you can to give the reader something worth reading, but you're also showing things about yourself that you're not pleased with. It's your flaws, not your strengths that go down in the depths of your books. You're exposed, like dreaming you're naked in a public building.
HOW MUCH OF PAINT IT BLACK IS INFUSED WITH YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES?
There are pieces of myself in each character but very cloaked. So I hope not everyone is going to see me in any particular character.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE DARK PLACES YOUR CHARACTERS HAVE BEEN?
I've been depressed many times in my life. But under it all I'm an optimist. I've never been in that extreme a state, like my suicidal character Michael Faraday in Paint it Black. I have to tell myself, Life can be good, and I can get through this. This will pass.
WHEN YOU'RE IN THIS DEPRESSED STATE, DOES IT HELP OR HURT YOUR CREATIVE ABILITIES?
The wonderful thing about being a writer is that you value the whole experience. A lot of people think they should be happy all the time. But the writer understands you need both. You need the whole piano, the richness of the whole human experience. Depression, suffering and anger are all part of being human. Even though it's very painful as an individual to go through these things, for the writer it's essential. The idea is to not feel wrong because you're feeling this stuff. It will be of value.
YOU PRESENT QUESTIONS ABOUT CREATIVE GENIUS AND MADNESS. YOUR PROTAGONIST, JOSIE TYRELL ASKS, "WAS IT WORTH HAVING ONE IF YOU HAD TO SUFFER THE OTHER?" CAN YOU EXPAND ON THIS?
I think artists expose themselves more. Some people just have less of a skin, they feel more and are willing to take more risks. But as a writer, you have to decide where on that continuum you want to be. I'll always pull back from the edge of a cliff. I value mental health. I have mental health issues in my family. When I've exposed myself too much, and I'm getting out of control, and it's plunging down really quickly, I back off. If there's something I'm writing that's making me so insane that I begin to feel superstitious that everything good that's happened in my life has already happened and there's nothing more for me, and I'm sort of wandering the outer planets and have nowhere else to go, I stop. Some people don't. Some will go deeper into that realm. But I'm not one of them. Michael goes toward the things he's afraid of. And I think that's the difference. I think some people move toward the thing that is getting really out of hand, and we more cautious souls, we stop. We know where we draw the line.
DID YOU EVER FEEL YOU WERE GOING TOO FAR WHILE WRITING PAINT IT BLACK?
Yes. There were times in the process of writing it where I went up some blind alleys. I guess I was beginning to lose faith that things could turn out for me, and that mind-set was coloring what I wrote. It was getting very dark. I finally said, I can't do this. I tore what I wrote out and rewrote the ending and finally got something I really liked. That's why I always search for the light. I'll never be that "journey to the end of the night" writer. I always believe that there is light. I think my books are about how people in tough places can fight their way into the light. I think Michael, who didn't make it, moved toward the dark.
IN PAINT IT BLACK, YOU SHOW THE DICHOTOMY OF TWO ARTISTS—JOSIE, WHO SEES THE LIGHT, AND MICHAEL, WHO DOESN'T. CAN YOU EXPAND ON THIS?
Josie doesn't expect the world to do what she wants it to do. Whereas, Michael, by virtue of his background, expected things to be the way he wanted. That's a dangerous way to live because the world doesn't work this way.
SOME OF THE POETS YOU QUOTE IN THE BOOK—DYLAN THOMAS, ANNE SEXTON, T.S. ELIOT AND OSCAR WILDE—ALL SUFFERED FROM DEPRESSION. LIKE YOUR CHARACTER MICHAEL IN PAINT IT BLACK "COULD NEVER SEE WHAT HE HAD, ONLY WHAT HE FAILED TO ACHIEVE." IS THIS THE BANE OF THE WRITER'S EXISTENCE?
That's always a problem. As an artist you can never get what you want. What you do never approaches what you want it to be. If you hold yourself to some high standard, there's always the disappointment that the book on the page isn't the book in your mind. It helps you to have a fair scoop of realism. You have to let go of what you wanted to do and just say, This is what I'm able to do. Some people's aspirations are very high, and whatever they do they're deeply unsatisfied with. That's a terrible trap for artists and writers to not be able to enjoy something that's imperfect, because everything in the physical world is imperfect.
YOU WROTE A BOOK BEFORE PAINT IT BLACK BUT DECIDED NOT TO PUBLISH IT. YOU CALLED IT A "CREATIVE MISCARRIAGE." HOW DO YOU DECIDE SOMETHING YOU WRITE ISN'T WORTHY OF BEING PUBLISHED?
When you've been throwing yourself at the wall for so long and it just won't come together, you have to say to yourself, I don't have to do this. Do something else—create a story with fewer characters or write about a period you're more familiar with. That's what I did. I went on to write Paint it Black, and it embodied these issues: perfectionism vs. acceptance of imperfection and exposing yourself. In the arts, your weakness becomes your signature. The fact that your work is imperfect makes it interesting. A perfect face isn't interesting. A book's flaws make it less predictable.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS WHO ARE WORKING THROUGH THE DARKER SIDES OF WRITING?
If you're stuck, try not to fight your way through it. Be kind to yourself. If you feel like you're coming up on something that's immobile, just stop. Leave it. It's not worth it. Do an exercise. Write something else. Play music and write to the music. Irritating music works better than music I like, because it's more stimulating; it doesn't lull you. Find an interesting photo and write your way into the photograph. Often doing little things takes the pres sure off, until you feel comfortable writing what you want to write.