Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Centerfold

Shontelle3.jpgThough her music is of the variety likely to be blasting out of the car window on any given girl’s night, Shontelle is not your typical pop princess. This twenty-three-year-old Bajan songstress is not afraid to get her hands dirty (she was an Army cadet after all), or break a sweat achieving her dreams. Her second album, No Gravity, which released in 2010, garnered her most successful single to date, “Impossible,” and only drove her ambitions higher. Shontelle recently discussed her past in Barbados, what the future looks like for her career, and what it was like to go from being Rhianna's drill sergeant to co-writing "Man Down."
 
BlakeThree.jpgLike everyone else “in the know” in high school, I looked to Blake Nelson’s Girl like it was my bible. All the confusing feelings and twisted emotions I was having as a nonconformist teenager were documented perfectly in this book. My friends and I passed around our one collective copy, each signing it like it was a sacred artifact.   There’s something about Blake Nelson enthusiasts, but Girl and now Dream School fans in particular—you can spot them from a mile away. Like there's an underground code, a secret handshake, a fight club without the fighting. I ran into my old friend Tyler the other day on the subway and I held up my book for him to see, wondering if it meant anything to him. He seemed like a would-be fan. He held up his own copy of Dream School and we laughed. I wasn’t surprised.   I recently got the chance to interview Blake Nelson over email and his responses were yet another reminder of how much I love his work, his decisions, and his characters. Warning: If you haven’t read the book yet, this interview may contain a few spoiler alerts. And, uh, what are you waiting for?

Jesse: Andrea left Wellington on a pretty abrupt and dramatic note. Did you have a similar experience at Wesleyan?

Blake: Yeah, I left Wesleyan kind of hastily. My situation was more based around the band I was in. We were always getting into trouble. It reached a point where we needed to not be there. So we left.

Jesse: In general, how similar was your Wesleyan experience to Andrea’s at Wellington? Did you have a Vanessa, a Carol, an Andrew, a Paul?

Blake: It’s somewhat similar, not those actual people though. The thing about her not finding her own people at first—that did happen. When I first arrived at Wesleyan I thought it was going to be all these East Coast hipsters. But most people had, like, Bob Marley posters in their rooms. It was, like, this prep school time warp. It took until my sophomore year to find ONE person who was into the same stuff I was. He was wearing a Bad Brains button. What a relief that was . . .

Jesse: When you first started writing the book, did you know Andrea was going to wind up leaving college early, or more importantly, that she was going to leave feeling “unchanged” to a certain degree? Like, changed, but not changed in the end-all-be-all way she had anticipated?

Blake: No, I just started the book and let it flow and take me to wherever it was going to go. I didn’t even know she was going to be a writer! As for being unchanged, I think she was changed a lot actually. I’m not sure, if she’d gone to Oregon State, that she could have ever taken herself seriously as a writer. That was the secret benefit of Wellington. Because people at places like that take themselves so seriously. They think they could be writers. It makes it easier for someone like Andrea to do so well.

Jesse: Andrea is pretty comfortable with herself, confident in her decisions, and able to “go with the flow.” She doesn’t seem to sweat the small stuff or obsess over everything the way some girls her age might. Where did the idea for Andrea’s character, her sophisticated and wise attitude in particular, come from?

Blake: You think of her as wise? Ha ha. Well, that’s a compliment I guess! I think of her as . . . well, she’s from a small city, Portland, so she has that small town common sense thing. I don’t know if she’s sophisticated. She does feel grounded to me. But also naïve. She’s obviously some composite of me and other people I’ve known and the kind of people I enjoy meeting. But I don’t really make decisions about her personality. She just is.

Jesse: Another thought about Andrea’s character . . . I always thought (in Girl first, and now in Dream School) it was really interesting how she straddles both the punk and mainstream worlds so seamlessly. It seems like a very conscious decision on your part; why did you make it? Were you like that at all growing up?

Blake: Yeah I was like that. I’ve got the classic writer personality of being able to blend in and sort of exist in different worlds. I think for Andrea it’s more part of the process of becoming herself. She starts off being this totally normal person, on the surface, at least. And then slowly she makes the transition to something less mainstream. I love remembering people I knew in high school who made dramatic shifts. Guys who would show up at shows and be, like, the most normal nerdy types. And then they’d come back the next week and be totally punk or whatever. They would totally change in one week.

Jesse: This is kind of a predictable question, but . . . Why did you wait so long before writing the sequel to Girl? And had you always known there would be a sequel?

Blake: I wrote the sequel around 1998-2000. Then I couldn’t get my original Girl publisher to publish it, (it was a little late in their eyes). Over the next couple years, I brought it up with different publishers, but could never get the right fit. Then in 2008 I met Lauren Cerand who was this really smart media person and a Girl fan and she helped me find Figment, which is an online writing community for teens mostly but older people too. Figment was just starting and they were looking for something fun and interesting to help launch their site. They had the idea of serializing it, like we did originally in Sassy. When Figment saw the numbers of people who were reading it on their site, they decided to publish it. It was really a good fit, especially in that Figment is all about helping young writers find their voice and Dream School is essentially about Andrea finding her writer’s voice.

Jesse: Another popular question, I would imagine, but I still don’t know the answer . . . How do you, as an adult male, get inside the head of a teenage girl sooo well?

Blake: I don’t know. One thing: I don’t think it’s so much about gender. I think gender is overrated. I think boys and girls think most of the same thoughts . . . In my case, maybe I’m confident enough in my belief that gender is not that profound, that I can let Andrea be, and not try to make her overly “female.” I let her be a person first, then I sprinkle a little girl-ness on top.

Jesse: Todd Sparrow, ABlakeOne.jpgndrea’s hot rock star boyfriend in Girl, was obviously a hugely integral part to the book. Did you think about putting him in Dream School, or was it always clear there was no place for Todd Sparrow there?

Blake: Going off to college, she is pretty removed from Todd Sparrow’s world. So it seems natural that they wouldn’t bump into each other. Maybe he’ll show up in a future book. Todd Sparrow was always an enigmatic figure for me. I had trouble getting him clear in my mind as I wrote Girl. I solved the problem by remembering Courtney Love—a fellow Portland scene person. She could be so charming and funny even though she seemed like a borderline street person. So when I struggled with Todd, like, “Why would Andrea like him so much?” I would think of Courtney at her best, being brilliant and magnetic and having this quality of sweeping you away into [her] world, which was so much more interesting than the ordinary world.

Jesse: How did the movie adaptation of Girl come about, and what did you think of it?

Blake: A production company called Muse Productions—they had done Buffalo 66, which I had loved so I was hopeful. Some interesting people were involved at different times. Sarah Jacobson—who has since passed away but was this amazing figure in the indie film world at the time—was going to direct at one point. But they kept changing people. When they finally finished it, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for. It was nobody’s fault; that just happens with movies sometimes. But it was shown endlessly on cable, and got the book a ton of publicity, so I was happy.

Jesse: Have you thought at all about further continuing Andrea’s story line still? Even if you never write about Andrea Marr again, do you feel like you have a sense of what happens to her after the book ends?

Blake: Yeah, I’ve thought about doing another book. I don’t know where she’ll end up or what will happen to her. I’m not sure that matters to me that much. I feel like her youth, like with most people, is probably the most interesting part of her. After that, she’ll get older. She’ll be like an old person. She’ll still be who she is but in a more sedate manner.

Jesse: Cheers to that.
 

Yelle: It’s Addictive

Written by Ryan Willard
Active Image
“It never starts the same way,” says Julie Budet, lead singer of the French electro-pop band Yelle. Budet explains how she creates music with her band members GrandMarnier (Jean-François Perrier) and Teper (Tanguy Destable): “It could be a melody, a sentence, a beat—no rules.”
 
Active Image  The Bambi Killers play music, but don’t call it a band. It's a group of artists, musicians, activists, magicians, pyrotechnicians, dimensional travelers, and vaudeville circus performers. The list goes on. But what’s more important than what you call these three women is their message: anti-brainwashing, pro-individual freedom, and tapping into the human potential. Whether they’re drinking fake blood out of coke cans, smashing TV sets, or singing about UFOs and quantum physics, the Bambi Killers aren’t afraid to say what they think, even if you’re afraid of hearing it.
 

Duck Hunting With Francesca Lia Block

Written by Jesse Sposato|Photo by Nicolas Sage
When I was a junior in high school, my friend Liz Deull, a wise and mature senior, told me it was time to grow up. She handed me a pack of Camel Lights to swap out my Marlboro Reds for, and young adult novel Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block. Things would soon start to change.

After reading that first book, getting a hold of the rest of Ms. Block’s collection became my mission—from Violet and Claire to I Was a Teenage Fairy to Wasteland. Lending out my used, chunky copy of Dangerous Angels, the entire Weetzie Bat series rolled into one, was like a rite of passage to becoming my friend in the late nineties.

Francesca Lia Block influenced and helped shape my own writing. My first visit to LA began with a tour of Weetzie Bat and her best friend Dirk’s favorite landmarks. Trips to Canter’s, Oki Dog, and the Hollywood Wax Museum made it easy to understand why Weetzie and Dirk—and, in turn, their creator—loved their magical city so much. So, when the opportunity to interview Ms. Block came up, well, I took it.

Meeting our heroes can basically be awesome or weird; but at their best, these experiences have the power to remind us that our heroes and heroines are real people. They are too busy to read magazines, they have children to take care of, and they cry while reading their favorite books.

Jesse: I’m going to start with a question I’ve pretty much wanted to ask you since I read Necklace of Kisses. It was kind of hard to come to terms with Weetzie Bat growing up. Did you toy with the idea of keeping her eternally young, or in what ways did you struggle with aging her yourself?

Francesca: I didn’t because I was, at that point in my life, sort of returning to the magic that I hadn’t been as in touch with for a while, so for me, it was kind of a natural evolution of what happens as you get older. But you don’t have to lose those things that you love when you’re young.

Jesse: Yeah, totally. It did seem like exactly who she would be.
 
Francesca: I remember one girl [approaching] me at a reading [and being] like, “It was hard because she didn’t wear vintage clothes.” And I had this whole long talk with her about how as you get older [you need] to feel fresh and new and not weighted down by history; when you’re younger, that feels really good. . . . So, it was interesting, but to me, [Weetzie’s] my alter ego so I don’t really think about her as an iconic figure, or [in terms of] what other people will think of her. It’s more like she’s an expression for me, and that’s how I always write about her. I think that helps me stay in touch with what I really want to be saying rather than what I think my audience wants me to say. And I kind of have to do it that way or I think it would lose some of the integrity even though . . . it can raise questions for people, which I think is fine. I love that people care enough about the character to [even think about it] . . .

Jesse: Ultimately, do you feel like you’re writing for yourself and your audience, or . . . ?

Francesca: I’m writing for myself and for people I love, and more and more that includes my audience because more and more I get to know my readers through Facebook and through readings, and they’re becoming my friends—many of them are my dear friends. But I never write thinking, “OK, these are young people and I would like to reach them with my words.” People . . . take my young adult novel writing class and they’re like, “Well, how do you write for young people? Like, do you try to imagine what they would be like?” And I’m like, “But don’t you knowww? Weren’t you one once? And don’t you know any?” But I always go back to the story that I need to tell for myself because I just feel like otherwise the book is not going to work.

Jesse: That actually leads me to my next question. I’ve read that your work is autobiographical, as you just mentioned. How much of Weetzie is you as a teenager? Did you have a Dirk?

Francesca: Yes! There’s actually a lot of it that’s very autobiographical, even weird stuff that you wouldn’t think. Like, the Jayne Mansfield Fan Club is based on something real that happened when we went to this weird, old house and they were watching Jayne Mansfield movies. . . . Dirk is based on somebody, and Duck is based on somebody that I actually met after I wrote the character of Duck, named Fred Drake.

Jesse: Weird!

Francesca: So, there’s been a lot of that, but I definitely wrote the character and then more and more evolved into the character a little bit later. In high school, there was Dirk and there was the music and there were the clothes and a lot of the words that I used, and then as I got older, there were some other things I added to that that I had already written, so, it was kind of a mixture.

Jesse: I always find with my writing, it will be kind of based on me and kind of based on who I maybe wish I was . . .

Francesca: Yeah, absolutely! I mean, you can see from [Weetzie Bat], it’s all about wish fulfillment. She makes three wishes—it’s all the things that I have been looking for my whole life. I found most of them now finally . . .

Jesse: Awesome! That’s hopeful. Do you have an author that influenced you in the same way that you’ve influenced so many people?

Francesca: I didn’t have . . . one [specific] person . . . but there are quite a few; a lot of women writers that I admire, and a lot of poets. I really love Angela Carter’s stories, I think she’s great; Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, H.D., [the] Latin American magical realist writers. So, there wasn’t just one [writer] that specifically inspired me, it was sort of a mixture. Colette was another, kind of a mixture of all that.

Jesse: That’s awesome. I recently interviewed young adult author Steve Brezenoff, and he cited you as an influence to his own work, which I thought was really cool. I was wondering, do you get that a lot—established authors writing you or contacting you to say that you’ve influenced their work?

Francesca: I definitely get it a lot from young women that are writing, that [are] not necessarily published yet. But there’s sort of this new generation of young adult writers that have mentioned to me that I’ve been an influence in some way, and I think that was really only because my editor at the time published a book that would not have been considered young adult, and was not even intended [to be young adult] originally; and that sort of opened the doors for this new thing that happened. So, I think the genre came—when I was writing, that was really unusual, and now a lot of the themes and the style even, we’re seeing more of it. . . . But I give credit to my editor and publisher more than to myself in that way because I was just doing what I wanted to do for fun, and she saw that it filled something and created a space for more.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s awesome. I can’t even picture what the young adult world was without you! You mentioned that you correspond with your readers on Facebook. How do you find the time to communicate with fans, and why do you feel it’s so important?

Francesca: Well, there are of lot of things—one is I’m on the computer a lot working and it’s kind of my break in some ways, where I’m still on but I need to get away from my story, and there are messages. I don’t respond to every one in depth, or even at all, but I try to as much as I can, and I end up really feeling like I know a lot of these people fairly well just from that. I got an email yesterday from somebody really in need of help, and every so often I’ll get one of those, and those are the ones I always respond to for obvious reasons. You know, I remember what it was like, and is still like sometimes. So, if I can provide that, I really want to do that. I feel like that’s a part of my career that’s really important, not only writing stories, but encouraging people to pursue their creativity, to take care of themselves, and not to harm themselves. There are so many things that we’re all struggling with, and if I can use [my writing] as some kind of a way to [talk about] that stuff, I want to.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s awesome. Speaking of time, you’re obviously a super prolific writer. Do you work every day on a schedule, or do you wait until you feel inspired?

Francesca: I don’t work on a schedule and I don’t wait until I am inspired. I kind of just work randomly all the time—every day, at different times, and whenever I have time, and on different projects. I’ll take breaks between projects and just do correspondence and research and business, and then I’ll start another; but usually I have one big project going, at least, and then probably a smaller one that I’m editing. Quite honestly, I manage anxiety and stress through my work; it really helps me stay focused on positive things. We joke about it being an illness, hypergraphia—writing too much—but I think it’s how I manage my emotions, and it works! And it’s productive luckily, so it’s not harmful!

Jesse: That’s awesome. What are you doing when you’re not writing?

Francesca: I don’t do a lot; my life is quite quiet right now. I do take care of my kids though and that takes a lot. I have a nine-year-old and an eleven-year-old, so I’m pretty much with them a great percentage of the time, and that’s the biggest thing before my writing. And then my writing, and then when I have any spare time, it would be yoga, running, seeing my friends, movies, trying to read when my eyes aren’t really hurting, and I’m teaching a lot too so that takes up a good chunk of time. But that’s about it [laughs].

Jesse: That’s a lot! Where are you teaching?

Francesca: I’m teaching at UCLA Extensions regularly, every quarter pretty much; and then I am teaching at Antioch, I’m doing a one-day seminar, which hopefully will lead into more there, and then I teach privately, both online and in my home, so I’m actually teaching three classes right now, and preparing for two other classes.

Jesse: Oh, wow!

WeetzieBat.jpgFrancesca: Yeah. Which is fairly new compared to the writing. I’ve been doing it for about five years now, maybe a little more. I really love it and I feel like it’s helped my writing actually, to be that specific about the craft.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s cool . . .

Francesca: And it gets me connected to people too. I spend a lot of time alone at the computer, so it’s good for me to get out and have that interaction around something that, to me, is the most interesting because you really get to the meat of what people are dealing with in their lives and what’s important to them when you’re writing on the level that I hope my students can write on. So, I feel like the connections I make through teaching go pretty deep.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s really awesome and probably, like you said, nice to have that kind of a balance. And how did you get into teaching?

Francesca: I knew I wanted to do it. And then I moved into this new house and it really was time to supplement my income. I thought, “This is the one thing I know how to do besides writing . . . ” so, it was just kind of natural and started taking on a life of its own.

Jesse: That’s awesome. Your parents were both artists—I’m sure you get this question a lot—did you always sort of know that you would have a less traditional career?

Francesca: Yes. I was really encouraged in that direction, to the point where sometimes I wish I had pursued something a little more stable too, just as a backup, but I didn’t and it worked out and I’ve been really fortunate. I had a lot of support, which I try to give—I think that’s one reason I like to teach because it’s a way I can give that back to people who didn’t get it at home necessarily.

Jesse: Yeah, totally. There are probably a lot of people who didn’t get that kind of support, I would think.

Francesca: Yeah, partly because their parents were just being practical and worried that they wouldn’t be able to support themselves. And some people just didn’t get it at all, but I feel like we can all use some of that support, for sure.

Jesse: What kind of a writer was your mom?

Francesca: She wrote poetry, mostly.

Jesse: Did you ever feel like it was weird to be a writer, like you were being a writer in her shadow or anything like that, or are you just totally different kinds of writers?

Francesca: My mom was really more, her role was like the muse and the caretaker, and her art really came second, third, fourth, whatever. I didn’t want that. I wanted to do that too, but I didn’t want to let my work take second place to someone else’s work. And I modeled myself more after my dad, but he was a visual artist and he was very successful and held in high esteem. I dabbled a little bit in visual arts so in that way I understand what you’re saying about feeling overshadowed, like I couldn’t even touch what he was doing.

Jesse: Right . . .

Francesca: But with the writing, because my mom wasn’t particularly forceful with it, I thought she was more supporting me than anything.

Jesse: Right, totally.

Francesca: And then my grandmother was a screenwriter and wrote for radio and wrote a novel, so it definitely was in the genes there.

Jesse: Wow, that’s great. What did you think of your grandmother’s novel?

Francesca: You know, I hardly know it. I read it when I was really young and it wasn’t something I immediately responded to, but I have seen some poetry she’s written, and she was a very strong force! And she was coming to work in Hollywood in the forties when no women were doing that, so she’s amazing. I really admire what she [did], but I only knew her a little and I wasn’t particularly close to her.

Jesse: Music often plays a big part in your books. I was wondering if you played any instruments, or if you had ever dabbled in music playing?

Francesca: I love it, but it’s so beyond me. I think it’s the greatest art form and I admire it, but that’s all [laughs]! I am not musical at all. My daughter is luckily—she’s a beautiful singer—and my son was playing drums for a while, which was really cute, but I can’t do anything like that. I just admire it.

Jesse: And I read that you are currently writing the screenplay for Weetzie Bat . . .

Francesca: I’ve been working on the screenplay since 1986, literally—rewriting hundreds and hundreds of versions. It’s been optioned, and other people have optioned the book and tried to do their own version, and I’m still trying to make it happen, and it still hasn’t happened. But we did a reading of my screenplay—you can find that online—that was really fun.

Jesse: Yeah! I watched it actually . . . at Book Soup. It was so good. I felt like Weetzie was sooo Weetzie.

Francesca: It was interesting because she was not [who] I would have imagined at first . . . she wasn’t how I saw Weetzie, but I lovvved her. I [had] imagined a little bit more of an ethereal sort of girl, but I almost preferred the way Chelsea did it cuz there was something about it that just made you love her no matter who you were. She felt more accessible, and I loved it. That was a great moment for me, having that come to life, because even if there’s never a movie, I got to hear my words [read aloud] and it was really moving.

Jesse: Yeah, it was awesome! I really loved the genie—you know, I watched this all on YouTube [laughs] . . .

Francesca: We put it together literally in three weeks. We just grabbed actors that we could find, and we were sooo lucky. It’s crazy—we didn’t even audition or look at anybody [twice]; we were just able to find the people on pretty much the first try.

Jesse: Wow!

Francesca: There might be some things I would tweak a little, but overall, I felt like it was meant to be, it really came together.

Jesse: OK, this is totally random, but I remember that you wrote Zine Scene: The Do It Yourself Guide to Zines forever ago. And it’s funny, because I feel like zines exist now, like, everywhere, but you wrote it before I ever saw a book about zines, or anything like that. I was wondering, did you write zines before you wrote the first Weetzie Bat?

Francesca: I didn’t really. I mean, my friends and I [had] like little notebooks that we put together for ourselves at school, but we never published zines. That was more my friend Hilary Carlip who worked with girls that were [making] zines, and I did it with her, but what I was bringing to it was more the “writing your story” aspect of it. I liked the little music fanzines that I would read when I was a teenager. I think if I had been born a little later [laughs], I might have done it more. I didn’t really know you could do that! And that’s one reason I wanted to write the book with her—because I want everybody to do it, it’s so great!

Jesse: Lastly, I was wondering what magazines you read, or what Web sites you go to?

Francesca: Unfortunately, I don’t because I have enough trouble getting to the books that I want to read. I’ve pretty much just decided that’s something I have to give up. I rarely even watch films anymore. I’ve been really consumed trying to get so many projects done. But honestly, what I would do if I had more time [is] read all the novels that I missed, and all the new novels that I want to read. I will mention one novel that I read recently that I loved, The Great Night by Chris Adrian—it’s based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but contemporary San Francisco, and it’s sooo great! I mean, I was freaking out while I was reading it, calling all my friends, like, “I can’t believe this book.” Crying every page, like, “I love it so much!” [laughs]

Jesse: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to add?

Francesca: Well, I have two books I’d like to mention—one is Pink Smog, which is the Weetzie Bat prequel about her at thirteen in the seventies in LA. [It takes place] right when her parents break up and [focuses on] her experiences around that, and how she became Weetzie Bat.

Jesse: Nice.

Francesca: So, that’s coming out in January, and then the other book is—we still don’t know the title yet—but it’s an adult murder mystery, kind of a psychological fantasy. There are some subtle fairy references, and that’s with St. Martin’s Press. It probably won’t be out till 2013, but that’s the thing that I’m the most excited about. That’s the book I’ve been trying to write for twenty, thirty years.

Jesse: Awesome!

Francesca: And it has young protagonists so I think it will appeal to some of my hardcore fans, for sure [laughs], and then hopefully it will reach the older audience, as well.

Jesse: So, that’s what you’ve been working on recently besides the teaching?

Francesca: Yes. I’ve been editing those, and then I have one other young adult book that kind of goes more in the genre with Pretty Dead and The Frenzy. And that one is—I don’t know the [publication] date yet—but I just finished editing that too.

Jesse: Wow! So, you have a lot going on at once!

Francesca: Yeah [laughs].

Jesse: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me. It was really great!

Francesca: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much.
 

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