The Rumpus Interview with Francesca Lia Block
Talk to any woman my age, and you’ll likely hear her Francesca Lia Block origin story.We discovered her at fifteen, seventeen, at twelve years old when our older cousin lent us her well-thumbed copy of Weetzie Bat or when our ninth grade BFF passed us Violet & Claire in study hall. Block’s books were catnip for us—eccentric, literary, slightly obsessive girls, girls who gravitated towards bildungsroman fairy tales with a sprinkling of tarot references. They were novels for misfits, the kind who curated thrift store getups and collaged their textbook covers before either were cool. Maybe you fell into the Cult of the Block too. Did you write, “What time are we upon and where do I belong?” in urgent gel-pen at the top of your English notebook? Maybe you referred to things you liked as “slinkster cool;” the things you didn’t, “clutch.”
The Weetzie Bat books frightened me, but I dove into their succulent, lulling lyricism. Block’s sensual, detail-oriented language infected my interior monologue. Did your diary entries also start to sound like the opening paragraph of Weetzie Bat? I breezed through Weetzie‘s eighty-eight pages three days before my fifteenth birthday. By the following year, I had already become a Block completist who snatched up the latest title as soon as the Waldenbooks at our suburban mall stocked it. I’ll admit it, the novels didn’t go down as easy for me as I imagined they did for other readers. I disapproved of the teenage characters having sex. The passages on drug addiction scared me. Accustomed to my straight-edge rural experience, I found the unbounded city life of Los Angeles adolescents wholly unfamiliar: the 3 a.m. ventures to smoky bars with fake I.D.s to hear bewitched hippie rock bands, the solo road trips, the boyfriends, the surfing, the sneaking out. Little Women these books were not.
Francesca Lia Block’s first novel, Weetzie Bat, was released twenty-five years ago. Since then, she has authored more than twenty-five books, including novels, poetry, memoirs, and essay collections. Though she has ventured outside of it, she has remained faithful to the young adult genre; her writing for teens and adolescents has garnered her much critical acclaim. Block has been praised for her unique linguistic style and her themes of love and tolerance. It’s easy to look askance at the hyperbolic nostalgia of readers who claim that Block’s books saved their life, but that’s exactly the effect her writing has had on so many people. Before Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, there was a dearth of young adult literature that straight-up admitted how hard the teenage years are. Block’s novels assured her readers that it was okay to feel like an angry, sad outsider or a bubbly, overenthusiastic late-bloomer. Maybe you learned it was okay to feel alone and weird, that your foolish mistakes would nourish not damn you and that, despite all the danger and fear in the world, love was always stronger.
And so it was a surreal experience to sit down with Ms. Block over dinner at a vegan cafe called Sage in Culver City. After a few decades of so much success, Francesca Lia Block could easily have become an unapproachable literary superstar—all prepared answers and breezy demeanor. Instead, she was humble and sweet, offering up the most heartfelt gratitude to her readers. Throughout our conversation, it was clear that Block is just happy to be able to do what she does for a living.
The Rumpus: You have three books coming out this year: Teen Spirit, Beyond the Pale Motel, and The Island of Excess Love. You also teach at Antioch, UCLA Extension, and Marilyn’s Writing Pad. So my first question is, how do you manage to be so prolific, and is there witchcraft involved?
Francesca Lia Block: There’s definitely hypergraphia involved. Theres’ a book called The Midnight Disease, which I love. Alice Weaver Flaherty was a neurologist who went through a big trauma, and following that she couldn’t stop writing—obsessively, little notes everywhere. She started studying the idea that there’s neurological reasons for the brain to need to communicate, and sometimes it can go crazy. I think I write just to manage my emotions, and luckily I’ve been able to publish, which brings the benefits of making a living at it, so then I do it more. I think it’s a combo of loving writing, having to do it, and needing to do it for some psychological reasons.
Rumpus: Most of your writing incorporates a lot of mythology and fairy tales. You’ve said that that’s what really drives you. Are there certain archetypes or myths that you return to?
Block: The ones I return to are underground journeys—Orpheus, Persephone. I think that’s definitely about going into the subconscious and discovering something. It’s about balancing the journey underground with living in the world. The original fairy tales fascinate me, but there isn’t one that stands out above the rest. It’s more the tropes that go through all of them: the blood, the roses, the snow.
Rumpus: You incorporate the four elements in your work a lot. Sometimes they’re morphed a little bit. I’m thinking Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, or The Elementals.
Block: With some books I’m consciously doing that, and other times it emerges. There’s a certain alchemy where those parts are needed. Maybe I’m trying to balance the elements in myself because I tend to have more of some than others. I think I tend to have more fire and air than water and earth. Astrology! Maybe the artist part of myself is less grounded in reality and tends more toward passion and the heart and the ether and the imagination.
Rumpus: Do you ever keep going back to a myth and think, I can’t believe I’m here again! I want something new?
Block: The struggle of feeling secure with one’s identity. I think my themes are always about love and art and healing. That I never tire of. I believe strongly in it. I want to continue to convey that message, although sometimes the message shifts depending on where I am in my life. But I suppose some of my characters struggle with their sense of self or security, and that’s something that I struggle with. So sometimes in my art I wish, Can’t we just all grow up already? Can’t we just all get over this already?
Sometimes I will consciously make a character who doesn’t struggle with that particular issue. I’m trying to do this in my new novel. I think that’s what happened with Weetzie Bat. Weetzie was like a wish fulfillment for me, whereas Witch Baby reflected more of that struggle that’s very true to me.
Rumpus: A lot of your books are seem to be written for misfits. I think a lot of teens think of themselves as outsiders. I certainly thought of myself that way, but in a lot of ways I was an insider. I was a Weetzie. I had a really loving family, I was pretty privileged, and so as a teenager I was really scared of a lot of your themes. The sexual darkness, neglect, drugs, and trauma. Your books opened my eyes to different ways of being in the world and the different experiences that teenagers have.
Block: Hopefully that’s what reading can do for all of us, give us empathy to the other. Maybe that’s why we write too, to strengthen that ability.
Rumpus:: With regard to writing the Other, I wanted to ask about your interview at The Toast. In that interview, you responded to a piece by Debbie Reese at Racialicious that called your portrayal of Coyote in the Weetzie Bat books stereotypical. You said you might have avoided writing him that way if you knew back then what you know now. In general, how do you feel your social consciousness has changed or evolved since you wrote Weetzie Bat?
Block: It’s a big question. I think that my work still has social and political messages. I believe we’re all equal. I believe in equal rights. That’s just there inherently in all the stories. I don’t think of anyone, really, as the Other. I believe I can identify emotionally with pain in anyone. Now that’s not to be disrespectful of the fact that all of our experiences are going to be different. I can never know what it’s like to be a Native American man, but I do believe that part of my job as a writer is to try to understand. I don’t want us all to stay stuck in our own little stories and only write about what we know from firsthand experience.
Rumpus: So much in this world is about power—who has it and who doesn’t. Issues around writing about people with historically less power than you can cause pain and anger because it feels like adding insult to injury.
Block: I know that every day as a woman. I’m not saying it’s the same thing, but as a woman, you look at any billboard, any magazine, and you’re told this is how you are supposed to be.
Rumpus: The smallest thing can take on great significance.
Block: Right, absolutely. I think that’s why it was painful for me to hear that criticism because I’ve felt that so much myself. As a Jewish person, as a woman, as somebody who’s had various experiences with my health. So I just want to be so sensitive to that. My mom always said to me, “the artist is one who never averts her eyes.” That’s been my mantra.
Rumpus: I want to talk about The Elementals. I was struck by the realism in it.You said you felt differently about it than about your other books. A lot of your books have magical elements, but in The Elementals you take a different turn. In the hands of these eccentric and pretentious grad students, magic seems more sinister and dangerous. Tania, one of the more mysterious characters in the book, struck me as someone who read Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys and took it way too literally.
Block: Most of my books are about the healing power of the imagination. But I actually started writing The Elementals six months before I found out that my mom had cancer, and I finished the book when she died. It was such a horrible time. I wanted to escape life. I didn’t necessarily see the magic as balanced with reality. It’s like there was magic, the imagination, and then there was the reality, which was horrible for me. So I just wanted to live inside the imagination only. The book was about the danger of going too far, which is what ultimately happens for Ariel at the end. The ending was really freaky for a lot of people because it’s not a happy ending. It’s about just diving over the edge.
Rumpus: Your books seem perfect for film adaptations, but it hasn’t ever happened. Would you like to see that happen in the future?
Block: I started working on a screenplay before Weetzie came out, but it just hasn’t happened. I don’t know why. I’ve been optioned many times. Girl Goddess #9 was almost optioned—by David Lynch, surprisingly. So I just keep waiting because I don’t give up easily. I think it would be great.
I think fans will be a little upset if it’s not done right, so I would like to be able to have some say in that. Right now i’m working on t-shirts with images of the characters. I love the artist I’m working with, but it was a very delicate process back and forth because I’ve never really seen them in a literal way. A movie would be even more difficult, but I would definitely watch it. I really want to work in film. I’ve always wanted to do a fairy tale TV show.
Rumpus: Despite having explored all these other genres, like fairy tales, erotica, and memoir, you’ve remained really faithful to the young adult genre. Why?
Block: I joke that I had arrested development at the age of seventeen, so I definitely understand that age in a really deep way. But now I’m fifty-one, and I’ve told that story a lot. I’m also really interested in writing more about my own life now. I’m not giving up on YA because I have an amazing editor that is so supportive and inspiring. It’s so rare to find that in this world, in any field. And the YA genre has expanded so much. The quality of many YA books is so high. I think people are attracted to the escapism too. We don’t want to be in our present situation or our present age or our present body. The stigma went away.
Rumpus: Now that you have a teenage daughter, does she ever say, “Mom, that’s not how teenagers act. You’re writing it wrong”?
Block: I have learned some things from her in that way. There’s the essence of what’s going on for teenagers that I can identify with as an older person. I still remember those feelings. It’s the trappings that have changed, which I find I learn about easily just by communicating with my readers online.
Rumpus: It seems like the adolescent struggle doesn’t really change much.
Block: I think that’s very true. I think the issues they’re struggling with can be bigger in terms of the state of the world, but the internal responses stay very much the same.
Rumpus: So what’s next for you?
Block: I’m definitely going to continue to work with my editor. She’s given me so much support. So I want to do whatever she wants me to do. And then for my own work, my own direction, I’ll end up going into adult fiction. It’s getting very dark. I’m working on a secret book now that is definitely an adult book.
Rumpus: Weetzie Bat came out twenty-five years ago, and that was your first novel. Do you have any reflections on twenty-five years of publishing novels?
Block: It’s amazing that it’s been that long. It’s amazing to me that Weetzie is still as popular as it is, even way more so than in the beginning, that she continues to draws people to her. That fascinates me. I didn’t really expect the universal qualities. It was so personal to me. I didn’t think of it as My Big Book. I thought it was my book for me and my friends, and then it turned into the one that touches the most people.
It’s been really great to be able to evolve in public in that way, to be able to grow up and write these books and have my readers grow with me. I feel very grateful and privileged that I’ve had the opportunity to express myself in this way and connect to these people. That’s the best part. Because I know these are my people. It’s like sending out a message in a bottle.
Feature image © Nicolas Sage. Photograph of Block reading © Lauren Eggert-Crowe.