According to Janet Fitch, the overwhelming success of her previous novel White Oleander, an Oprah pick, was a mixed blessing. On the plus side, there was the fame, there was the fortune, there was the dinner with actress Michelle Pfeiffer, who picked Fitch's brain about the character she would be playing in the movie version of the book.
On the downside, there was the internalized pressure to produce something bigger, better, even more ambitious in her next book. Fitch had been a history major at Reed College until her 21st birthday, the day she decided to become a novelist. So for a follow-up to White Oleander, she determined to write a historical novel. It grew and grew and grew without becoming quite anything, and in the end she had to write off three years of work as a demoralizing disaster.
"When I was finally able to say it was a massive traffic accident and walk away from it," Fitch says, " I started looking through old stories and found this three-person story called Love in the Asylum' and thought I could do something with it."
The result of her expansion and alteration of that early story is Paint It Black, a passionate novel that Fitch likens to Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher - not because it follows Poe's storyline in any way but because it concerns itself, in part, with the internal corruption and destruction of a prominent musical family, and because the novel does cast a Poe-like shadowy spell.
Which is something of a surprise, given the fact that Paint It Black is set in the vividly described 1980s punk rock scene in Los Angeles and its heroine is Josie Tyrell, a runaway from Bakersfield, who earns a living as an artist's model and actress in student films while orbiting at the edges of the scene.
"The punk era was such a good moment for me," Fitch says during a call to her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her 16-year-old daughter. "There was a philosophy in punk - DIY, do it yourself - the idea that things don't have to be perfect, you just do them, you don't need anybody's seal of approval. And that was really good for me. At the time that I was writing this book it was something that I needed to remember. So it seemed very right that the setting should be the punk era. The feel of that period is very sharp for me."
The "persistently defiant" Josie falls in love with Michael Faraday, a well-bred, talented, idealistic art student and the son of an overly controlling mother, Meredith Loewy, who is a wealthy, world-class concert pianist. When Michael commits suicide near the beginning of the novel, Josie's journey becomes a struggle to comprehend Michael's torment and the meaning of her love and loss, which quickly places her in a psychologically fraught relationship with Michael's powerful mother.
"There were a lot of things I was dealing with immediately and critically at the time I was writing Paint It Black," Fitch says, pointing to the emotional wellspring of the book. "Depression, perfectionism, maybe a way out of perfectionism. I like to work on things that are loaded. When you start a novel you want a situation that is really loaded, where there is enough tension in the initial situation that it will power your book. The most personal aspect of Paint It Black is the dialectic between Michael and Josie in terms of knowledge and perfectionism. There is a dance between your level of permissiveness in yourself and the demands your aspirations place on yourself. So Josie is my permissiveness and Michael is my perfectionism. And what happens to perfectionism? On a sliding scale, I think it's better to go with permissiveness."
Fitch varies the mood of Paint It Black with some fine and funny satirical sketches of the student filmmakers who occasionally employ Josie in their productions. " I went to film school, briefly," Fitch says. "The level of self-importance is unbelievable. The harder you're working, the less money you're making, the more grandiose the fantasy. There's definitely a comic element to it. But it is also another way to look at art and ambition, in opposition to Michael's ambition. Michael is as serious as cancer, but other people have ambitions too, although their ambitions are not necessarily as serious or as well thought out."
Fitch also proves adept at exploring the nuances of the class divide that separates the untutored, working-class Josie Tyrell from the cultured, sophisticated Meredith Loewy. Maybe this is not so surprising, since in her long apprenticeship before the publication of White Oleander, Fitch supported herself for years as a typesetter, moving around the West and Northwest as the opportunities presented themselves. "Nobody sees the haves like the have-nots," she says. "Josie was brought up with the kind of people who never expected anything, which is why she is so defiant. She shapes her environment by making boundaries, whereas Michael and Meredith create their world directly. They know what they want from the world and the world just better deliver it."
But where Paint It Black is best is in the sensory detail of the place and time it describes. "One of tragedies of our times is that we're cut off from our senses," Fitch says in what she calls one of her writerly rants. "We're able to control our environment to the point that we don't feel anything. We don't feel, we don't smell, we're not rubbed the wrong way. But as animals we crave sensory stimulation. People work in windowless, air-conditioned environments in beige and gray, stare at the screen all day, go down in the elevator, get in their air-conditioned cars, and go home and watch a flat screen. I think when people read, they read to be reattached to a sensual world. So it's really important for writers to remember to reawaken the reader to the experience of the senses, to put the reader physically in the character and in the story. That makes it vivid for the reader."
In Paint It Black, Fitch practices what she preaches.
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.