Mothers and Daughters

White Oleander

By Janet Fitch

Little, Brown, $24..

When author Janet Fitch was 9, her longtime friend disappeared into the netherworld of the Los Angeles foster care system.

The girl’s mother had died, then her father and an elderly aunt. When her older brother, a junkie, was arrested, the terrified child was whisked away to parts unknown and Fitch never saw her again. “That haunted me,” the author says. “To know on a gut level that things could happen, through no fault of your own, and you could just disappear.”

Fitch’s acclaimed, best-selling debut novel, “White Oleander” (Little, Brown $24), explores her childhood concern. The book examines how an adolescent’s life disintegrates after her mother, Ingrid, a coldly beautiful, self-absorbed poet, murders her faithless lover and goes to prison. Twelve-year-old Astrid roams from foster home to foster home in every corner of Los Angeles, struggling to fashion an identity in the company of strangers.

The book’s protagonists are Nordic and non-Jewish, but Fitch says the novel reflects her own Jewish concerns. “White Oleander” began as Fitch was attending a 12-step program and searching for spirituality seven years ago. It was a turning point in her life, she says. Raised in an “overly-assimilated” family in Los Angeles, she wanted her young daughter to have the solid Jewish identity she lacked. She purchased her first menorah and attempted to celebrate Chanukah, though she didn’t know anything about the Festival of Lights. “We sang ‘Light My Fire’ and anything that had the word ‘candle’ in it,” laughs Fitch, who went on to light Shabbat candles and attend High Holiday services.

She also began to think about one of her favorite books, “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,” which describes a moral system that was anything but Jewish. Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the Heian Empress Teishi in 11th-century Japan, lived in a cruel, beautiful world where the sensibility was strictly aesthetic. “I began to wonder, ‘What if a person like that were forced to live in a crummy apartment and work a crummy job at the end of the 20th century?'” says Fitch, who promptly created Ingrid, the monster. “I thought Ingrid was funny, but no one else did. So I gave her a daughter, and then it wasn’t funny anymore. It was a crime against nature.”

Fitch, like the fictional Astrid, is a survivor. A shy, intense child, she once sought to win the favor of a third-grade teacher with a lovingly-rendered short story. “I wanted her to like me,” the Silver Lake author recalls. But the paper came back with nary a remark, save spelling and grammar corrections. “I did not write again until I was 21,” Fitch says.

She cobbled together a living by working as a typesetter and an entertainment journalist, a discipline she loathed. She didn’t sell her first short story for 12 years. During a nursery school exercise, Fitch’s daughter was once asked, “What kind of mail do you receive?” “We get rejection letters,” she replied.

One of them was encouraging, however. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote Fitch that her short story was too long for the Ontario Review, but might make a strong first chapter for a novel. “I kept that Post-It on my computer for years,” says Fitch, who turned the chapter into “White Oleander.”

When the book hit the stores this year, the author was thrilled just to have a publisher. Then Oprah called. The famed talk show host loved the novel and picked it to join her book club. “White Oleander” shot to the top of the best-seller lists and a Warner Bros. movie is in the works.

All the attention has been “surreal,” Fitch says. But, like Astrid, she knows that “anything can happen,” so she has matter-of-factly gone back to work, this time on a novel inspired by her Jewish grandmother’s experience as an exiled New Yorker in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, she is looking forward to appearing on a panel about mothers and daughters at the People of the Book, the Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 16. “The act of considering moral questions is Jewish,” she says of Astrid’s journey in “White Oleander.” “The active, personal involvement with developing an ethical system is one of the major components of Judaism.”

Janet Fitch will appear Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. at the West Valley JCC in West Hills. For information, call (818) 464-3300.