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LAist Interview: Janet Fitch

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In 1999, Los Angeles writer Janet Fitch'sfirst novel White Oleander became a national bestseller, aided in part by its selection as a title read by Oprah Winfrey's influential book club. Deemed an "overnight success" at the age of 43, Janet obtained fame and recognition after spending more than 20 years quietly honing her craft as a writer. White Oleander showed readers unique and underexposed aspects of life in the county of Los Angeles as Astrid, the novel's heroine, made her way through the area's foster care system while her mother, Ingrid, served time in prison for murdering a feckless boyfriend.

Janet teaches fiction writing at the University of Southern California’s Masters of Professional Writing program and has just finished the manuscript for her latest novel Paint It Black, which Little, Brown will publish in September 2006.

Age and Occupation:
48, Writer

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How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you
live in?

I was born here. Went to John Burroughs Jr. High, Fairfax High. My mother was also born here. She went to Le Conte Jr. High and both Fairfax and Roosevelt on the east side. (The real East Side, people. East of downtown. Not east of La Brea.) The hospital I was born in is now the International Headquarters of the Church of Scientology, the old Cedars of Lebanon hospital on Fountain. I moved away, lived in Oregon and Colorado, but I always come back to LA. I hate the cold, love the neighborhoods, am scared of plastic places. I live in Silverlake.

Why do you live in Los Angeles?
It’s the capital of the 21st century.

Given the success of White Oleander, how did you approach the creation
of your new novel?

First I was Godzilla, then I was a single celled organism. Somewhere along the line I regained a human form and could work properly again.

What is the new novel about and how long did it take you to write it?
It’s about the aftermath of a suicide. I describe it as the "Fall of the House of Usher" set in 1981 punk rock LA. It’s about an art model whose boyfriend, a student, commits suicide, and she has to figure out what happens when someone shows you a whole different way of living, and then checks out. Are you that new person, or does that die with him? It’s about a whole lot of things, but that’s a central problem.

Your book touches upon the LA punk scene in the '80s.
The girl is in the punk scene.

What are your favorite LA punk bands? Did you ever see them play?
Probably Nina Hagen, does that count? Or maybe Joan Jett. I went to a ton of punk shows in the late seventies in Oregon, and here in the early '80s and in New York. I saw Joan Jett at the Peppermint Lounge in NYC, and the Cramps at Lingerie. Plasmatics at the Paramount in Denver, what a show! She [Wendy O. Williams] threw a 20 pound sledgehammer into a wall of lit TVs. Ramones at the Earth Tavern in Portland, that held about 80 people.

Blondie and Elvis Costello and Devo at the Portland Paramount. Lydia Lunch and the Specials at the O.N Club, a dinky club on Sunset near the Chinese market. I think X played the O.N Club too, I saw them somewhere.

Lots of shows I can't remember who or what at Madame Wong's and the Hong Kong Café, Lingerie, Al's Bar, even the Oarhouse in Venice. Other favorites I only caught up on more recently-Iggy at All Tomorrow's Parties, Nina Hagen at the Palace. Also saw Lou Reed at the Roxy and Nico at the Whiskey, does that count? Anyway, I tended to like the gothier type of band, like Cramps and Lydia Lunch and Nico.

Why did you decide to cover that period? What does it say about Los Angeles at that time?
I think people need to think more about the freedom punk was all about. Not to buy into the consumer culture. DIY-do it yourself. Go ahead and try, and don't listen to people saying why something isn't saleable. Saleable isn't the measure of all things. It was a real seat-of-your pants time, and resisted commericalization more than the hippie thing, because of the rage. I guess I'm in a dark phase myself.

What's your preferred mode of transportation?
Palanquin. Carried by attractive underclad men.

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How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
Not since a friend wanted to go down to the opera on the subway. I parked my car near Beverly and Vermont, on the street, and came back to find it keyed and the door and front quarter panel kicked in. Whatever happened to park and ride? There are no parking lots next to the stations in-town, so how do they expect to get people out of their cars when there's no where to leave them? It's so bullshit.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Angel and Avenging Angel. How can you beat "Honor Student by Day, Hollywood Hooker by night?" It's shot right on the boulevard and surrounding area, and the supporting players are unbelievable — Susan Tyrell, Rory Calhoun. Dick Shawn in the first one. On a more artistic level, Day of the Locust, Chinatown, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Sunset Boulevard.

Best LA-themed book(s)?
Ask the Dust. Play it As it Lays.

Share your best celebrity sighting experience.
Picking up shoes at the shoe repair, Candace Bergman forgot her ticket and the guy said he couldn't get her shoes without a ticket. She just apologized and said she'd go home and find it. Is that class or what?
And as a young waitress working at the Café Four Oaks before it became chi chi, Warren Beatty sat in my area, and I poured coffee right into his lap. Not only missed the cup, missed the table too. He was just too hot for me to cope. Sorry Warren. It didn't seem to set him back, though.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
I don't go north-south on the West Side, I go east-west. Sunset, Beverly, Olympic or Venice blvd. North-south I take Wilton Place/Arlington, or Vine/Rossmore/Crenshaw.

What's the best place to walk in LA?
Sunset Junction.

It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
I'm wrapping up my class at USC, and wondering if anybody can meet me for drinks at the Edendale after 10.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
The Twenties. On Bunker Hill.

What's your beach of choice?
Ocean Park, near Pico.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
Koreatown. That's where I grew up.

If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you
choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.

I'd live in Laguna if I didn't have to go anywhere, ever.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
Bronson above Franklin. That whole neighborhood, Canyon, upper Wilton. Very mysterious old Hollywood.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
You have to be quick. You meet people, but they're gone very fast. You have to get that phone number or e-mail and get on it right away. You have to hang onto people you like, be willing to put yourself out a little.

What is the city's greatest secret?
Paddle boats at Echo Park Lake. Fish tacos at Grand Central.

Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?
I drink early on, then gradually sober up as the night moves along.

Describe your best LA dining experience.
Sitting outside at Patina at the downtown library with a friend who knows the chef.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
Can't take the cold. Only a great love or killer bees would propel me to live in a cold climate ever again.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
New York.