SEPTEMBER 26, 2016
FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK is one of the most prolific, beloved, and, at times, provocative authors of young adult fiction. Her numerous books often remix traditional fairy tales into complex portraits of contemporary life, with young people fighting the toxic poisons of gender, sexual, and racial stereotyping to find their own personal magic in creativity and self-expression.
Her classic short narrative Weetzie Bat, first published in 1989, is a still-striking tale of a free spirit, a young woman determined to live and love on her own terms. Over the course of six subsequent books, we follow Weetzie and her family of choice as they explore gender identifications, different kinds of sexually fluid intimacies, and the challenges of living in the working class of Los Angeles.
I sat down digitally with Ms. Block recently, asking her about her work in YA and discovering the truly multifaceted nature of her engagement with writing for a variety of audiences.
JONATHAN ALEXANDER: Let’s start with some basic questions. How did you get started writing for young adults?
FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK: I didn’t know I was! I wrote Weetzie Bat while in college at UC Berkeley and sent it to a friend who sent it to her editor who happened to be Charlotte Zolotow at Harper, the grand dame of children’s lit. She decided to publish it as YA, although at the time that was a pretty radical decision. But this is the woman who wrote a book about a boy and his doll and one of the first books about death for kids. In my mind, Weetzie was not a book for teens but for oddballs in their 20s like me and my friends. It has queer sex, threesomes, heroin, and AIDS, but the tone makes it feel like a fairy tale. Although I have many YA readers, a lot of my readers are adults.
Indeed, so much of your work involves creative remixing of traditional fairy tales — but always with your particular twists! You’re justly famous for expanding your characters’ gender roles and portraying young queer characters, but you also often emphasize the difficulties they are facing as young people. Abuse and neglect are prominent topics in your work. You recently reworked Homer in Love in the Time of Global Warming (2013), offering readers a poignant and often painful tale of kids creating a makeshift family in the face of ecological devastation and family-of-origin dysfunction. Why work with fairy tales and myths? What do they offer you in terms of both form and content?
I’ve learned a lot about plot from reading and studying these original works. They have perfect story structure — heroes with special gifts, conflict, formidable antagonists, plot twists, crises, climaxes. But I’ve also learned about life from these works. The reason they are timeless is that they continue to teach us so much.
What specifically have you learned from fairy tales? Has a fairy tale every let you down?
In my work, I’m thinking of the original, darker tales, not Disney. I’ve learned to face the monsters, persevere, be honest but kind, but mostly I’ve learned that telling stories is powerful and healing work.
The Weetzie Bat books are among your best-known books, and they really show us your interest in alternative family constructions. How did you come to this as a theme? And how have the characters grown with you? I have to admit that, as a reader of your work and lover of these novels, I so appreciated “growing older” with them, watching them age into Necklace of Kisses (2005), which follows Weetzie into her 40s and midlife struggles with her primary relationship. How do these characters fit into your own life and what do they mean to you?
Well, Weetzie was my alter ego. I made the character up when I was 16 — a girl with bleached hair driving a pink Pinto on the 405. The license read “Weetzie.” Eventually I cut and bleached my hair and drove a turquoise VW Notchback named Jerry because my parents wouldn’t buy me a Pinto! A lot of the first book is directly based on my life — some of the strangest parts, actually! You wouldn’t believe it. I continued to write about my life and my friends through the Weetzie characters as I got older. Many of my readers, like you, started early and have “grown up” with me. I’m very grateful.
I appreciate that Weetzie Bat is your “alter ego”! What a cool one! What has she taught you, and what do you think you’ve taught her?
She’s taught me to be less fearful and I’ve taught her to face her shadow — see Witch Baby (1992).
Watching Weetzie age reminds me that you also write works specifically for adults. Can you tell us about this work? In your creative world, is it an extension of your work for young people or something different?
People are surprised when they learn how many adult books I’ve written: Beyond the Pale Motel (2014), a psychological thriller; The Elementals (2012), a novel (and my favorite book of mine); Necklace of Kisses, with Weetzie grown up; Ruby (2006), co-authored with Carmen Staton; Guarding the Moon (2003), a memoir ; Wood Nymph Seeks Centaur (2009), a dating guide; Nymph (2000), erotica; Quakeland (2008), a novel about Los Angeles; Open Letter to Quiet Light (2009), poems for adults; Fairy Tales in Electri-City (2011), fairy tales for adults; Lay Me Out Softly (2013), short stories. And many of my YA books — The Hanged Man (1994), Rose and Bones (2010), Wasteland (2003), as well as Weetzie — were written with adult readers in mind but published as YA/crossover. I don’t write specifically for teenagers. My core audience is a group of often artistic, sensitive souls with strong humanistic beliefs and a passion for art, music, and alternative culture, an appreciation of love and creativity as a source of magic in the world. I don’t like being boxed in or categorized and so much of publishing is about marketing to a specific audience. My work is often about breaking down boundaries between people, and hopefully also among books.
Genre and audience are so important, as we’ve been discussing. But so too is setting. So many of your books are set in Los Angeles, and they seem as much romances with the City of Angels as anything else. What’s special to you about LA as a place, a setting, a home?
When asked about Los Angeles, I often talk about the contrast between the dark and light, the toxic beauty. But where I live now, in a small city within LA proper, there isn’t a lot of toxicity. The air is warm. The trees are purple. My kids can walk to school, the library, and the park. Their friends live in the neighborhood. There’s diversity, although there could definitely be more. There’s a cute downtown decked out in fairy lights with a magical haunted hotel. I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
And now a kooky question, from a different kind of landscape. I had a dream last night in which I and a group of children were stranded together on a bus, trying to find our way home. Quickly the kids took over and had a strong sense of what to do, where to go. A young kid, worldly-wise beyond her years, took the wheel of the bus and got us to safety. Along the way, she told me about her life and she seemed so adult, so grounded, for one who looked about 10 or 11. I woke up from this dream and thought of you, wondering if it would resonate with you on any level? Do you think children, young people, are possessed of wisdoms we sometimes ignore, or fail to see?
Yes. I think your dream says it all.
Some of our readers wonder what tips established authors have for successful writing. Do you mind sharing a tip that’s important to you?
Ah! Face the monsters, persevere, be honest but kind. Remember that telling stories is powerful and healing work! I’ll have more tips for you in my memoir/writing guide called The Thorn Necklace, coming soon!