Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

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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