IN 1999, WHEN OPRAH WINFREY BESTOWED HER book-club honors upon Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, eyebrows went up all across literary Los Angeles. One branch of local opinion held, despite a spate of positive reviews, that the book wasn't good enough, that it was too histrionic and burdened by its Joycean ambitions. Another considered it too good, too dense and poetic for consumption by a mass-market audience. Not even Fitch's own mother, who remained resolutely non-judgmental as her daughter strove for 20 years to perfect her craft, had been all that optimistic. "I remember the night she read at Book Soup, and her name was on the marquee," says Alma Fitch. "And I took a picture of it, because I was thinking, 'This is your 15 minutes -- let's make the most of it.' But now that 15 minutes has turned into two or three years."
It is the one sure thing about Janet Fitch's career: Everything is unexpected. This is so true, and has been true for so long, that she has learned along the way not to even guess. "I feel like the most valuable quality a writer can cultivate is the ability to control anxiety. For years you live with not knowing whether you're ever going to sell anything. Ever. For months you live with the anxiety of not knowing where the work you're putting so much effort into is going to end up.
"Writing," she concludes, "is all about how much anxiety can you live with. The people who need to know can't do this kind of work. It's just too stressful."
White Oleander, a story about a girl cast adrift in the foster-care system after her mother is jailed for murder, has now been made into a movie, directed by Peter Kosminsky and starring Michelle Pfeiffer as the dangerously beautiful Ingrid, mother of Astrid. It's a movie that remains as faithful as any movie can be to a sweeping novel packed with exuberantly exaggerated characters and stories filigreed with metaphor, and Fitch, a former filmmaking student who describes her directorial efforts as "disasters," loves it. Which means she can't be induced to dish about how blond Pfeiffer beams brighter with every moment spent in jail.
"You know," says Fitch decisively, echoing once again her philosophy of non-predictability, "when somebody says they're going to make a piece of art out of your piece of art, you never know what's going to happen. When they took the book to make a film, I was aware of the huge difference between writing a line and actually having to manifest that in physical reality. And I'd rather have what they did than a ploddingly faithful adaptation."
SITTING WITH HER MOTHER IN THE HOLLYwood Hills Coffee Shop, Fitch comes off as all wholesomeness and goodwill. The peculiar afternoon light that defines an L.A. fall settles across the table onto her pretty farm-girl's face, and for a 45-year-old Silver Lake resident demonstrably in love with her native Los Angeles (she grew up in mid-Wilshire; her mother still lives in the same house), she bears a striking resemblance to a Midwesterner 10 years younger. I detect in her little of the loudmouth child she says she once was, the girl who earned the lowest marks on the "plays well with others" portion of every report card. "I was very confrontational," she admits, "always pushing to see where people would break." If there is still an edge to her, it's one cut on having come through a broody childhood and the world's ungenerous response to it.
The payoff for her determined isolation was a long time coming, and Fitch worked as hard at becoming an artist as anyone alive. "Janet wanted to be a writer more than anyone I ever knew," says her friend and fellow writer Susan Ricketts. "She went to every workshop, always showed up, and wrote through everything -- kids, rejections, everything." She published in literary journals, covered parties for Us magazine in the '80s, and performed a stint as writer, editor and art director of a newspaper in the small Colorado town where her husband, Scott Strauss, scored his first job out of law school. "The only thing I couldn't do," she says, "was sell the ads, because when you're turning over rocks in City Hall, you can't go out and sell your paper." She began writing White Oleander when her daughter, Allison, was just past toddler-hood, and persisted for four years, writing through the commotion and fighting her way back from many false paths.
"By the time my daughter was 5," says Fitch, "she could be right there at my knee going mommy mommy mommy mommy, and I'd be saying, 'One more minute, just one more minute' -- you know, 'Why don't you go draw with my lipstick on the couch or something? Do something fun.' She knows what it means to be a writer's kid."
She did not ignore her daughter, she says, but she did call upon the demons she battled while raising her to imagine Ingrid's bad-mother tantrums. "Ingrid's the part of me that wishes just to be able to do what she wants, when she wants, with whom she wants, 100 percent of the time -- the part of me that's jealous when writer friends say to me, 'Oh, I just wrote for three days straight! I haven't slept at all.'" While she talks, her own eminently sensible mother -- who at 78 is still working full-time as a corporate lobbyist -- regards her slightly zany daughter with benevolent patience. Both mother and daughter say that, despite rumors to the contrary fueled by White Oleander's plot, their relationship has rarely been strained.
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"I never had any reason to be critical of her," Alma Fitch insists. "First of all, I wasn't a writer. Second, I could see the determination in her; I could see that writing wasn't a hobby. It was a calling. All I could do," she says, "was stand back and watch her dedication in awe."
IN 1995, FITCH HAD A PARTY AT HER HOUSE TO celebrate the sale of her first book, a young-adult novel called Kicks. "It never went anywhere. But I did sell it, and I had a party and put up all my rejection notices on the wall. They reached from the baseboard to over my head, on all four walls of the living room.
"When you're used to that," she says, "success is a shock. You have to look at yourself totally differently. Your whole strategy of life is a defense against failure, and suddenly there's success -- you don't know how to deal with that." She was answering phones at her mother's office when Oprah called to congratulate her; a few days later, Warner Bros. called with a film deal. The book had been out a month. ("I thought, 'What's next? A date with Bigfoot?'") The endorsement put her on the best-seller list, but not without reservations: Fitch worried whether people who don't read literary fiction, "who are sometimes more literal in their reading," would react to a book that "deals with such gray areas of what is moral and what is real." The day she watched on television as Oprah handed out the book to her studio audience, "I had this surreal vision that when people went to open it, it just might explode. Like, Pow!"
Fitch is now hard at work on her next book, but it is not the next book she was talking about a few months ago, the one about L.A. in the 1920s. "It would be so nice to say, 'Oh yes, I'm almost done with this second book, and it's going well.' But I basically don't know what is happening. I was working on one book for three years, and then this other one just came out of nowhere, totally turned over the apple cart." This time, she'd rather not talk about it. "The apples are still rolling on the floor," she says. "I still don't know where they're going to land."