Francesca Lia Block writes fairytales of dreams for people whose hearts also belong to punk music and the tacky delights of a strip mall. Her stories and poetry look like magic smokebombs and smell like sweaty perfume hugs and sound like late summer nights when friends trust one another with hopes and secrets ’cause it suddenly feels safe to. For over 20 years, through her Dangerous Angels series and other projects, she has developed a universe where characters are named “Witch Baby” and crumpled pink Kleenex become roses, and shared it with the rest of us. Weetzie Bat, the first book in the series, is the kind of book I come back to frequently and get something new out of every time. The first time I read it, the first paragraph is what got me; coincidentally, the last time I read it, the last paragraph is what got me. It is written like a fairytale, and it’s barely 100 pages, but it’s living (inanimate) proof that a book can teach you how to live.
You know that Frida Kahlo quote about how she always thought she was the strangest person in the world but then she realized someone else MUST have been as strange as her and if you’re reading this quote she wants you to know that she is just as bizarre and flawed as you are and we are all OK? Well, that’s what reading Francesca Lia Block’s work feels like, at least for me. Not because it’s weird and all over the place, but because it is wonderful when the point-of-view you’re used to feeling isolated because of suddenly becomes the thing that makes you feel connected.
Yesterday I got to speak to Francesca about her love of Los Angeles, first obsessions, and the whole thing about learning how to live, and I sorta wanted to pick her brain for hours. That, however, is inconsiderate and disrespectful of people’s time! So, without further ado…
TAVI: I noticed on your blog that there are a lot of Polyvores of your characters’ outfits, and in your books you’re so descriptive of everyone’s style, and I’m wondering why those details are so important to you in developing a character and telling their story?
FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK: I’m a very visual person—my dad was a painter, so I kinda grew up with that—and I’ve always wanted to design clothes. Even though I like to work on my characters from the inside out, there’s also an element of working from the outside in, trying to understand what the things that inspire me visually mean emotionally about a character—not, like, eye color, hair color, but the things that people create to make a statement about themselves or express themselves.
And you did actually design a collection for Wildfox Couture.
Yeah, Kim and Emily from Wildfox had read my books when they were very young, and they’ve been really supportive of my work. I’ve always wanted to do, as I said, something with fashion, and Kim suggested that we work on something together, so we kind of brainstormed. It’s their designs, but taking inspiration from my books and from an original story that I wrote. I based that story on characters that [Kim and Emily and I] talked about together, and then they designed the clothing around those characters. There’s the gypsy, the witch, and the kind of fairy-ish girl. Gives a bit of a different expression for different types of people.
I know so many of just me and my friends kind of worship Weetzie. Were there any fictional characters or even real people that you idolized as a teenager?
I was really into music at that time, so I think Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens were big for me when I was really young—like 10. And then I got into punk music and I really liked the band X, and Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and a lot of L.A. punk bands. So much music, it’s hard to mention just a couple! As far as writers, I really liked a lot of female poets, like Emily Dickinson, H.D., Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov. And then writers like Anaïs Nin when I was a little older. Frida Kahlo…Sylvia Plath…I’m just looking at my bookshelf now. Women that were maybe doing a little more edgy kind of stuff.
There’s been so much written and recorded and filmed in homage to L.A. As someone who has written so much about that city, what other art about it do you particularly like or would you recommend?
Oh wow, there’s so many, though I do know that growing up I didn’t feel there were a lot. So I kind of wanted to fill that place. I thought, Oh, it’s all about the East Coast, so [writing about L.A.] felt like uncharted territory. Now of course it’s really different. I know Ladies of the Canyon, the Joni Mitchell album, was one of the first things that struck me. I like how Janet Fitch writes about L.A. in White Oleander. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion is a big one.
I used to have a bias against L.A., probably because of the part in Annie Hall when they go there and Woody Allen is extremely cynical—or himself—about it. And then I ended up loving it.
Right, because there was in the past more of this sort of prejudice—East versus West Coast—which has changed because I think L.A. has gotten more and more culturally interesting.
It has so much of its own identity that to me the New York comparison feels like apples and oranges.
Exactly. I always thought that I would fit better in New York because my parents are from there and I thought that’s where the writers go, that’s where the artists go, that’s where the poets are. But as I stayed here, as I said, it kind of grew and became more culturally interesting, and had all the advantages of the weather and freedom and landscapes and space. The light, which I love. And even the Hollywood industry, which is sort of fraught with different questions, at the same time has a mythology of its own that’s pretty interesting.
One thing I like about L.A. is that it has kind of the most pure sort of community—people who, especially hippies in the past, are trying to live in a very sincere way—and at the same time there’s this corrupt, flashy Hollywood.
That’s kind of the dark and light that fascinates me. That’s a very big part of Los Angeles. A book I loved that I read recently is Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, about Marilyn Monroe. I loved how she wrote about L.A.—I thought it was stunning. It expresses that dark side of Hollywood just beautifully. And The Day of the Locust, of course. And Bret Easton Ellis’s first book.
Many of your characters have a moment where they realize that despite how awful the world can be, there’s still love, and that makes it worth living. Do you remember having a moment like that yourself? Or was it more of a gradual realization?
I think it was the moment my dad told me he had cancer, which sort of changed my world overnight. I talk to my writing students all the time about how you have to make a character change in the course of a novel, and how very rarely do we change overnight, but you have to speed up the process of change in a novel because you can’t spend pages and pages talking about the therapy someone did for 20 years. [Laughs] So you need those life-changing moments. For me that was a life-changing moment, but it was also gradual. I think another one was finding out about AIDS for the first time. I mean, could you imagine if you never heard of this thing, and then you’re in your—how old are you, if I may ask?
Oh my god! You’re so young! I didn’t realize you were so young. That’s awesome! Great. OK, so think, at your age, or in a few years, you find out about this disease where you have sex and then you could die. I mean, it was such a world-shaking thing. A lot of the inspiration for Weetzie came from that. So I think it’s both: the gradual disillusionment and the major moment.
What other kind of advice would you give to someone who would like to write?
Reading a lot is really important. Reading a lot, keeping a journal, writing, stream-of-consciousness writing. If you can find a group of friends who are interested in writing, sharing your work, and doing emails back and forth, maybe on a daily or a weekly basis, of little bits of writing, that’s really good—or [meeting] in person. Not being critical of yourself. I find so many of my students [are critical of themselves]—you know, people in their 50s even, to the point where they’ve wanted to write their whole lives and they can’t because there’s part of them that’s been telling them they’re not good enough, and they have to deal with it when they’re that age. So get over that, I would say. Just be brave and just write and don’t worry about it being perfect. Let it be imperfect. Just finish a draft of something. Even if you think it’s bad, it doesn’t matter—you can edit it later.
When you started writing, was it more solitary, the way most writers think of themselves, or did you have that group of friends to share with, a community?
I didn’t have a writing community, although I had, you know, poems in the yearbook, and people knew when I graduated high school that I was gonna be The Writer for some reason. So I did have sort of a little tiny audience, with a little bit of awareness from people that I did that. But it’s a lot of solitary work, obviously, and I think that by this phase I’m kind of tired of being alone so much, so I’m interested in collaborations. But at the time I didn’t mind it. I mean, you definitely have to be OK with being alone to choose the career of being a writer, ’cause you are alone a lot.
If you do anything creative that requires being alone in that way, how do you keep from kind of…
Going crazy? [Laughs]
Yeah! I mean, is there a way to be alone but not lonely, necessarily?
Hmm. I think that there is, because I think that you can entertain and comfort and involve and engage and interest yourself with your story. Your characters keep you company, your story keeps you company.
When I wrote Weetzie Bat, I was really lonely. My dad was sick in L.A., I was in Berkeley. I hardly had any friends I saw regularly. I lived in a house with a group of people who I didn’t know, and I just had a room by myself. To keep myself from feeling lonely I told myself this story, and then I started writing it down, and it was literally in my head as I would walk to school. The reason I think that book is successful—which, it always surprises me that it’s still successful so many years later, ’cause it’s a little book, and it felt even like a shallow book compared to the other stuff I was writing, but I was happy that people found depth in it—is just ’cause of the intensity of my feelings at the time that I wrote it. I wrote it from a place of wanting to keep myself very interested—not worrying about an audience, not worrying what other people thought, not worrying if it would get published. And because of that I think it has an energy that people find interesting.
So I always tell my students, write what you’re obsessed with. Even if you think no one else cares about that. If you really care about it, then just go into it. I have an adult student who’s writing this sci-fi book, and it was almost like a video game the way she was writing it, and I couldn’t connect to it, and it felt a little derivative of all these dystopian things. And I said, “What do you care about, what are you obsessed with?” And she brought in this other story that was based on her life growing up with an abusive parent, this sort of unrequited love story. And it was so painful and so beautiful and so real. You could feel the genuine quality of it. And there’s one scene she just turned in about the girl eating candy. The girl hoards candy in her drawer and takes out each piece of candy and picks which one she’s gonna eat and it’s like this addiction, but it’s written so beautifully, ’cause you really feel this character’s obsession with the colors and the smells and the taste and the variety and the comfort of the candy. So that’s a perfect example of somebody writing what they really want to write, and it translating. I mean, I hate candy, I don’t want to eat candy, but I get it—I feel for this character. It’s really powerful when you delve into that thing that you love. ♦