Interview with Janet Fitch: Why Historical Fiction?

“Every novel is an exploration,” says Janet Fitch, author of The Revolution of Marina M. “People think you get to this magical place where you know what you’re doing and you’re suddenly an author. But every novel is a completely new animal. You’re always a beginner. That makes it interesting!”

This is particularly true for Fitch, who has published two highly successful commercial novel, White Oleander and Paint It Black. She spent more than ten years writing her new novel, which is a coming-of-age story of a poetess during the Russian Revolution. Here’s more from my interview with Janet Fitch:

Jennifer Haupt: Did you consider it a risk writing historical fiction after the success you’ve had with two contemporary novels?

Janet Fitch: Oh my god, there were times I really despaired of the choice I made. It wasn’t just the risk of how the book would be received, but the difficulty of writing historically. I had to learn how.

JH: How did you learn to write this novel?

JF: I kept certain things in mind. One of them is that I love research. I was a history major, and there’s something that’s known among historians as “research rapture”. As a novelist who’s actually trying to create something and not just amuse myself, I had to keep a tight reign on research rapture.

One of the difficulties of being a curious person and someone who loves stories is that you get drawn out of your internal fascinations — the things that compel you to write the novel to begin with, the things that come out of who you are — and you get distracted by interesting stories that really don’t connect with that urgent story that’s inside you. Following those stories takes you farther and farther away from the story you need to write.

The other thing that happens when you do research is that you always think you don’t know enough to write, that there’s something more. You have to remember that it’s not out there. The more you research after a point, you start to actually lose confidence in your own story and your ability to write it. I could feel that happening, and had to remember I wasn’t writing about history — it’s fiction. The inner workings of the story need to be imagined, to be made up.

I believe in writing from the neck down. I like to write about ideas and see what comes up, what comes from the furnace inside. I kept that in mind.

JH: What was at the inner furnace of this novel?

JF: For me it was always staying in the inner life of the character, Marina, and not trying to extricate the different political positions and philosophies that were happening at the time, aspects of history that were interesting to me but not intrinsic to the story.

JH: Where did this story begin for you? Did it begin with Marina?

JF: Well, that’s like asking “Where does a river begin?” A river begins from many different rivulets, creeks and brooks. They come together and build into a broader body of water recognizable as a river; that’s your book. One strand of this novel is my background as a history major in college focusing on Russia. I’ve also long been a little bit in love with everything Russian, especially literature. I have often had Russian characters in my writing. It was only a matter of time until there would be a Russian novel.  

This novel actually began with a failed novel I wrote before “Paint It Black”. A story came out of that novel, about a Russian émigré working in L.A. in the 1920s.  I loved that character and thought maybe I could write a novel about her. But when I tried to write her story in the ‘20s, I realized I didn’t know enough about her. I wanted to know what her life was like during the Russian revolution. What were her memories? Her experiences? Every time I wrote about her past, my writers group said, “Oh, we want to hear more about that!”

You should always write about the story that’s alive. So I chucked the front story and focused on the Russian revolution — which was truly scary because I knew how big that subject is. There’s a reason people haven’t written about it much in fiction. It’s not a situation where there were clear good guys and bad guys. It was a real whirlwind, and things changed very quickly. And, now we live in a time again when things change very quickly.

JH: Everyone is kind of obsessed with Russia right now, so there’s an immediacy to your novel. Do you find that?

JF: I was writing the book for over ten years and I had no idea that people would become as obsessed with Russia as I am. You can’t predict the future — which is another theme of the book. You live inside history. You don’t know what’s going to happen. They didn’t know during the Russian revolution and we don’t know now.

JH: You really don’t know — things could get better! That’s comforting in a way.

JF: It’s a real Russian way of looking at things, that we’re not completely in control. Americans like to be in control. That’s why we’re all so freaked out right now. When we’re not in control, we don’t even know how to think about that. Whereas, the Russians don’t ever expect to be in control of history. They’ve had too much really violent history to ever think, well we should do something about this — write to our congressman and then it will be solved.

JH: How did you discover Marina’s voice, and how is she different than your previous protagonists in White Oleander and Paint It Black?

JF: As I wrote and discovered more about Marina I began to develop the rhythm of her language. She’s very engaged in this rich culture and has a very fiery personality. Astrid and Josie were also engaged in the world, but they were more introverted. They were unable to act in the world for different reasons: Astrid was pretty helpless as a foster child. And Josie was swamped with grief, which doesn’t leave you with much energy to interact with the world.

JH: So, how did you feel about writing a 800-page novel?

JF: (Laughter)

JH: I’m pretty sure that’s not the intention you started out with, or was it?

JF: (More laughter) Actually, it started out as a novel in verse. I wrote the first seventeen chapters in verse.

JH: Wow.

JF: (More laughter) But, ultimately, I decided my tools as a fiction writer are sharper than my tools as a poet. Marina is a poet, I’m not a poet.

JH: I would love to read that!

JF: Maybe I’ll throw some of the verse chapters up on my blog as extras.

Honestly, I had no idea what this would be, and by year four or so I really saw the scope—it scared the daylights out of me! But there’s a wonderful quote by Dorothy Allison that I had on my wall for some time while I was writing this book: Fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage.

JH: I love that.

JF: I kept thinking, I can’t do this. I’m not a historical fiction writer… I’m not this, I’m not that. And then, I would look at that quote and realize it doesn’t matter. Just stay on the horse, just don’t fall off. I really felt sometimes like I was on the back of this huge galloping horse, holding onto the mane. I kept trying to cut it, and I did cut quite a bit, but it all works together. The gears mesh together. You need one part to understand another part.

JH: When I first received the ARC, I was like, wow, 800 pages! But then, I got into it and kept turning page. I was sad when it was over.

JF: One thing I learned from Tolstoy: his books are very long but his chapters are short. So, you always feel like you’re making progress. I took that from him. If a chapter was too long, I’d cut it back. I also like the old-fashioned thing of naming the chapters. Dickens did that. It helps you to remember where you are in the story.

JH: Your publicist told me you’re working on a sequel now?

JF: It’s a continuation, not even a sequel. It’s almost done — within the next six to eight months. I just love Marina, because she’s an aspect of myself that I don’t inhabit much in the external world. She’s more active than I am. She’s a very energetic girl, and when the revolution came she was up for it.

JH: It’s exciting that you don’t have to leave Marina behind. You two must have a strong relationship at this point.

JF: We do! It’s interesting because I’ve never wanted to continue a story before. I don’t know if it’s the nature of the epic, as opposed to the internal stories I’ve told before. There’s a propulsion that’s like revolution itself. Once that wheel starts going, it just doesn’t want to stop. So, I’m still staying on that galloping horse, hanging on.

I was so immersed in Marina’s world, I often wrote 1917 for the date. When I finished this book, I didn’t know what was on TV, I had to learn what Instagram was. It’s like waking up blinking from a dream. I’m not quite ready to wake up, I want to be back in that dream.

JH: You’re lucky you could go back into that world.

JF: I am!

Years ago, I was a research fellow at the Huntington Library while writing the material for this book that takes place in the ‘20s. At lunch, in the lunchroom, all of the historians would come in. I’ll tell you, historians live a tremendously long time. There were people in their eighties, nineties. I think there’s something about breaking out of the tyranny of the present and our specific concerns in our time, and tapping into a larger stream of history that’s helpful in longevity. Maybe you’re age ninety in in 2017, but if you’re researching Shakespeare or Martin Buber or Marcus Aurelius, you’re timeless.

JH: I think we all really do when want to be timeless. When I’m writing a novel, I do feel timeless. I go to appointments on the wrong day…

JF: I do that all the time!

JH: But it gets me out of the house so that’s good. There’s a quality of timeless I really like. It’s good for anxiety and depression.

JF: Right! I think that’s one of the things that people get out of culture — whether it’s literature or dance or music. It’s a way to enter a larger time of human endeavor. That strengthens us internally.

JH: I have one last question for you: what’s the one true thing you learned from Marina?

JF: The truest thing I learned from her was: always weigh what you believe against what you actually experience in the world. If what you believe turns out to be at odds with what you’re seeing with your own eyes, you need to reevaluate your beliefs.

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