Skipping out on both dinner and the Pomona City Council on Monday night, I instead left work and headed directly to Pasadena to see novelist Janet Fitch read from and sign her second novel, “Paint It Black,” at Vroman’s Bookstore.
I interviewed Fitch in 2001 for a Bulletin feature story when she taught creative writing for a semester at Pomona College. She was a good interview subject and nice about everything. “White Oleander” was a bit flowery for my tastes but she’s clearly a good writer, and I wanted to do a good job on the story.
Of course it’s excruciating to write a story about a writer because you know the writer will read it, and the writer is always, always, going to be a much better writer than you.
When you write about a writer, let me tell you, you worry over each sentence, as much as deadline allows. You do your best to write grammatically, to eliminate awkwardness and to not be trite. You show off a little with what you imagine is a literary turn of phrase here and there, but even that little is probably too much. No doubt the writer is reading you with an indulgent smile, interrupted by an occasional wince.
But enough about my problems. Fitch said my story was fine and signed a very nice inscription in my copy of “White Oleander,” as well as drawing a sketch of an oleander, which is a poisonous plant, and writing next to it: “Don’t pick the oleander.”
Her second novel got lavish praise — “Janet Fitch is an artist of the very highest order,” declared the L.A. Times, between drags on a French cigarette — so I forsook our noble Pomona leaders to see her closest local appearance and pick up a copy.
“Paint It Black” is set in L.A. at the end of 1980, after the suicide of Germs singer Darby Crash and the death two days later of ex-Beatle John Lennon. The main character is an artists’ model at the Otis Art Institute, when it was near MacArthur Park, Fitch explained.
At a previous event, “someone said, ‘Oh, it’s a historical novel,’ ” Fitch recounted, to laughter. “Well, I guess to some people it is.”
Of her dark themes, such as the aftermath of suicide, she said: “My writing is all about how people internalize difficult experiences … I’m interested in the times of life when people are pushed to the extreme.”
When it comes to others’ writing, she most enjoys reading, and listening to, poetry; its musicality teaches her to write her own sentences with what seem like the right number of syllables and beats.
(Naturally we do this in the Bulletin newsroom, everyone reading his or her work aloud on deadline: “A man was stabbed at a party in Fontana,” “City leaders in Rancho Cucamonga are mulling a smoking ban,” “After deliberating three days, a jury reached a verdict.”)
Afterward I got in line to have my book signed. Fitch volunteered that she had kept looking at me knowing she knew me from somewhere but unable to place me. Well, it’s been six years, so she gets points for even semi-remembering me. She wrote something nice in my book and thanked me for making the drive.
At this point I thought I could catch the last part of the Pomona meeting, so, dedicated Pomona-ite that I am, I didn’t linger at Vroman’s. When I got to Pomona I lucked out, sailing along down Garey, every light either green or turning green as I approached. But at City Hall, even though it was only 8:55, there was only one car in the parking lot. Must have been a short meeting by Pomona standards. Sometimes by 8:55 they’re still arguing over the consent agenda.
Too bad. I could have hung around Pasadena some more. Maybe even had some dinner.