'White Oleander' tackles a universal theme

May 21, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

"White Oleander," a novel by Los Angeles author Janet Fitch, explores emotional territory that can never be resolved.

At least, that's what Fitch says and she believes that's one reason her first novel is such a success.

"White Oleander" is the story of an obsessive mother/daughter relationship, forever changed when the mother, Ingrid, is sent to prison for murdering a former lover. Her daughter, Astrid, is then sent to a series of foster homes in the Los Angeles area and the book chronicles each one of these bleak and comic experiences and Astrid's ultimate survival as a loving, creative human being.

This book, which sold 1.2 million copies and has been translated into 22 languages, recently was released in paperback (Back Bay Books, $13.95).

And, fortunately, it is not based on Fitch's personal history.

"I had a friend who went into foster care at age 9," said Fitch. "She lost both parents and an aunt in the course of a year. It can happen."

But Fitch is more than a little surprised by her first novel's overwhelming popular success.

Fitch never had doubts about her talent, but that's quite different from having confidence about being published.

"I never wondered if I was good enough," she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, "I just wondered when (the publishing world) would realize that I was good enough."

Fitch considers each book or story she writes to be a problem. The idea is to in some way solve the problem.

"One of the fundamental problems of human existence is your relationship with your mother," said Fitch. "It can't be solved. We puzzle over it our whole lives because we can't solve the clash between the mythical, archetypal mother and reality, the fact that our mothers are just people. It's a dilemma that can't be solved.

"Only in our generation are people addressing this because only now are women writing and accepting their own stories. It took the feminist movement to do that," she said.

"Women readers were ill-served in the decades before the 1970s," she added.

Fitch grew up in Los Angeles but attended Reed College in Portland. She graduated with a degree in history in 1978. She and her husband, an attorney, lived in the Four Corners area of Colorado for three years where she was the editor, reporter and typesetter for a weekly newspaper called the Mancos Times Tribune.

"I was a one-man newspaper," she recalled. When she finally got a break from that difficult job, she wrote 18 short stories in one year. Her creativity flowed and she begged her husband to take the California Bar Exam so they could move back to the Los Angeles area.

"I needed that concentration of lives (in city life), that grit that really inspires me, that keeps me awake," she said.

He agreed, and they returned to California where Fitch went back to free-lancing and writing short stories. "White Oleander" began life as a short story, which she sent to a literary journal. It was rejected along with a note that said: "Your story is good, but what's unique about your sentences?"

That question bothered her endlessly, like a splinter in her finger. She decided to take her writing to the next level; she would look at each sentence word by word.

Then she sent "White Oleander" out again, in short story form, this time to journals that included the Ontario Review where famed writer Joyce Carol Oates took a look at it.

It was rejected, but this time she got a note from Oates that said her submission seemed like the beginning of a novel.

"It's unbelievable what a little tiny bit of encouragement can do," said Fitch. So she turned "White Oleander" into a novel and the rest is history.

As you read this novel, notice the perfumes worn by the characters. Fitch said she assigned special perfumes to fit her characters. The suicidal Claire wore the elusive L'Air du Temps. The jealous alcoholic, Starr, wore Obsession, which Fitch describes as "a 1980s pre-12-step movement" perfume. Ingrid wore a melancholy violet-based perfume. Ma Griffe was assigned to Olivia because Fitch had an aunt who was an actress/artist, spoke French, and traveled to Paris. When Fitch wanted to describe "a really chic French perfume," Ma Griffe came to mind.

And what does Fitch wear?

"I wear Anais, Anais, the only perfume named after a writer, Anais Nin," she said.

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