Author Squared: Janet Fitch and Adrienne Sharp
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everything in between
I'm excited to bring the third Author Squared to On the Bookcase. Janet Fitch (White Oleander, Paint It Black) and Adrienne Sharp (The True Memoirs of Little K.)
Adrienne and Janet, paint your true colors!
Adrienne: I know that both of us like to look at images for inspiration while we write. While I was working on The True Memoirs of Little K, I stared at a sepia photo of the soft-faced young Nicholas II before he grew out his trademark beard and inherited a throne full of trouble. You can see in his face the dreamy young man who liked to sketch and paint, which he did very well, who liked days’ long chestnut-throwing battles with his cousins, and who liked to attend the French and English theaters. His dreamy softness overlay a stubbornness that led him to pursue what he probably should not have—his marriage to the high-strung Alexandra and his belief in absolute autocracy. I also loved a photograph of the tsar’s well-appointed bathroom, complete with tiled stove, exercise bar, Faberge cigarette cases, and the parrot he inherited from his father and who outlived them both. Janet, what images did you use when you wrote Paint It Black?
Janet: I have a number of photo books from that era, and one I used a lot was Making Tracks, The Rise of Blondie. It inundated me with memories of being a girl at that time, the toughness and the fragility. A photo I pulled off the internet I found very evocative was of Blondie talking to Joan Jett backstage--Joan is obviously upset, her head lowered, that shiny black hair, and Blondie's sitting with her, clearly talking her down. A lot of kindness in that picture, a human moment. For this book, music was very important, a huge theme. It was a tough book to write, you know, books take a very long time, and over the five years of writing it, funny enough, things improved a great deal in my life. But I still had to go back to the tone and the mood of the book. So I made a tape, "The Saddest Songs in the World" and if I was feeling too cheerful, I'd listen to it. Lots of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and of course, the saddest song of all--Janis Joplin singing "Summertime." The way the world crushes the romantic. Adrienne, did you have anyone in mind when you wrote the character of Little K, anyone you'd known, actors or dancers you were familiar with?
Adrienne: Well, Mathilde Kschessinska is the Little K of my novel, a real life five foot tall prima ballerina of the Russian Imperial Ballet who used her position on the stage as a vantage point from which to leap into the arms of various and sundry Romanovs. She shamed her parents by becoming the mistress of Nicholas II when she was not quite twenty years old. When Nicholas broke off his relationship with Mathilde at his engagement to Alexandra, the unhappy Mathilde took up with the Grand Dukes Sergei Mikhailovich and Andrei Vladimirich simultaneously. Their menage a trois was the scandal of Petersburg.
She used their money to build herself a palace (she installed the Romanov double-headed eagle on her gates), and this became the site of many lively parties at which the actors, dancers, and singers of the era mingled with members of the court--the men of the court, actually, as none of the aristocratic women would attend a party thrown by a dancer. So Mathilde was only able to be part of a part of the court, but she took full advantage of this, using her beauty and her vivacity to cement her position in the shadows. And when she had a son, her bond with the Romanovs was complete. In fact, there were rumors that her son’s father was Nicholas himself—and that she may, as well, have had a daughter by him, adopted at birth by her brother Joseph.
Her ambition comes through loud and clear in her letters and journal entries. Of her performances she always wrote, "I had my usual triumph." Of Nicholas, after she met him for the first time, she scrawled, "He will be mine!" So for me, capturing her voice was paramount--and as soon as I wrote the line "I have always admired an opportunist, being one myself," I felt I had my character--her drive, her sly self-knowledge, her liveliness and humor. But it took a number of drafts over the years before that voice fully emerged. Janet, how did you find your way into the striking voice of Josie in Paint It Black?
Janet: For the first sixty pages or so of the first draft I wrote the book in the voices and points of view of all three of the major characters--Josie, a punk rocker and high school dropout from Bakersfield, California, working as an art model in Los Angeles; her boyfriend Michael back at Harvard, a brilliant and troubled young man, very introverted; and Michael's mother Meredith, a concert pianist, entitled and demanding and extremely sure of herself. Josie was stronger than Michael, a more staccato sound, rougher and yet, she is delicate too, a certain degree of innate elegance, a bit dreamy.
When I decided to tell the entire story through her point of view, I switched to third person, which gave me a little more room to see her as others saw her, and use a wider vocabulary to describe her thoughts than what a high school dropout would actually use--but Josie's so very observant, a philosophical, intuitive person with a nimble mind, the voice had to deliver her thoughtfulness and the weird elegant/punk combination reflecting her contradictory character.
Girls of that era emulated Edie Sedgwick, Warhol's superstar in the mid-sixties, a very famous debutante and style-setter, so there often cropped up strange upper-class usages in LA punk circles, used ironically-- like calling vodka 'voddy' and so on. It's funny, class is not much discussed in American fiction these days, but class has everything to do with Josie's story and Michael's--working class Josie seeks the security and enduring qualities of cultured upper class she sees in Michael, while Michael seeks the security of the realism and permission of the working class in Josie. Class plays a huge part in the story of Little K.
Adrienne: Yes--even though Russia of the late 1890s the classes were much more fluid than, say, England, at that time, class still made an insuperable barrier when it came to the imperial family. Barons, counts, and princes could and did marry dancers, but this was unthinkable for a tsar. Even grand dukes, if they wanted to keep their titles and the income that came to them from crown lands, were not allowed to make morganatic marriages. So while Mathilde's sister Julia could marry her baron, Mathilde's somewhat more advanced social climbing meant she could never marry her lovers--either Nicholas or her grand dukes. Mathilde's father warned her of this before she became Nicholas's mistress, but she said she didn't care, that all she wanted was her immediate happiness, no matter how brief it would be. She was a teenager. I think she believed that despite all evidence to the contrary he might marry her. She had to use her dancing to convey to him her rage and betrayal, which is why the role of Esmeralda--the gypsy betrayed by her lover Phoebus in the ballet based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame--became her favorite, her signature, role. In fact, describing Mathilde's powerful presence on the stage was one of the great challenges of the novel. I had to draw on my own background as a ballet girl to conjure up the heat and the flurry. Paint It Black is all about music. That must have been a challenge to put on the page.
Janet: Paint It Black uses music to express ideas, personality. I was especially interested in the value-laden dichotomies of the two types of music--the permission of punk rock and the rigor, the perfectionism of classical music. Most artists fall somewhere on that scale--often moving closer to one pole or the other... Josie is essentially a punk rocker--ie, don't worry so much about getting it perfect, just go out and make some noise. Michael, son of a classical pianist and grandson of a composer, was looking for someone to give him permission to be an artist, to not worry so much about whether it comes up to someone's standards, but just express himself, and he found that in Josie. His mother, the pianist, raised him in the environment of perfection--and in classical music, there's no upper end as to how perfect one should strive to be. when he tells her he wants to be a painter, she calls him a dilettante, telling him at one point, "there's no room for a good-enough classical pianist. There are too many geniuses." Michael needs permission, that's why he's attracted to Josie. Although ultimately, he holds himself to his mother's standard, and finds himself wanting. But each character has music that expresses his or her internal state. There's a lot of art in this book, too, and poetry--I'm very interested in the struggle of the artist, the artists' world and its challenges. You write a lot about dancers, coming out of that world. That's a perfectionist's field.
Adrienne: The most difficult thing about being a dancer is that the career is so short--a dancer has to begin training by ten years of age and then she's retired by thirty, maybe forty if she is very famous. And then it's over. So from the start a dancer is racing against time and debilitation. When I moved to New York at seventeen as a trainee for Harkness Ballet, I was already considered a bit old. Balanchine made ballerinas of girls that age! After ten years of staring at myself in the mirror I was exhausted--all you look for are flaws--how are my arms, my legs, my feet, my face--who's jumping higher, turning faster, sustaining a pose longer. There are days when you love what you see and days when you hate everything about yourself--and the dressing room after class is always awash with emotion, whether it's glee or despair. I still feel those same emotions today when reading over a manuscript I'm working on--what I love one day, I hate the next. And it can be the same exact page I'm loving and then hating!
Janet: That's interesting. I generally hate it unless it really sings. Until I feel it's good enough and my stomach stops hurting. Often that's when I have a whole draft, and realize it's not as bad as I thought it was. Then, by the time I hand it in, I go through another round of "who's going to care about this? It's just a bunch of words." You forget how much effort you put into every phrase, every sentence. I'm the Michael in the story, you see--the perfectionist who constantly needs permission just to make a noise. Paint It Black is about my own struggle as an artist.
Adrienne: It's a little scary how much you expose of yourself when you write, often without even knowing. I once read an interview with an actress who talked about filming sex scenes and the level of exposure that comes with that. And she wasn't talking about skin. She was talking about how she might find herself uttering a sound or making a facial expression or using a gesture that she used when she was alone with her husband in her own bedroom and how something private was then made public. So the artist exposes herself to create real characters and to get at real truths. And that's what readers read for--at least, that's what I read for--to see played out before me the human experience and all its secrets. I've always been interested in secrets--which may be why Little K fascinated me--she kept so many of them.
Janet: People always ask me if my fiction is autobiographical. Most writers deny it, but a book is generally a perfect blueprint of a writer's psyche, isn't it.Our obsessions, our anxieties, our fascinations. But it's never what people think--the external events aren't the 'real' part. It's the concerns, the issues that a book deals with, where you really expose yourself. But it's hidden too, you have the freedom to couch your concerns in events and people who aren't you-- unlike in memoir. I would never want to write memoir, I write fiction so it's all in code. But it's there, nevertheless. So--I've just spilled it all.
Historical research, music, and the artist's struggle -- great reading group topics for discussion. Thanks so much, Adrienne and Janet.
Janet Fitch is the author of the novels White Oleander, an Oprah Book Club selection, which was made into a feature film starring Michelle Pfeiffer, and Paint It Black, about which the Chicago Sun-Times said, "In dysfunctional family narratives, Fitch is to fiction what Eugene O'Neill is to drama."
Adrienne Sharp is the author of White Swan, Black Swan, The Sleeping Beauty, and The True Memoirs of Little K, which was named a California Book Award finalist and one of Oprah Book Club’s Ten Fantastic Books for Fall 2010. It has been translated into six languages.