Avisitor to Francesca Lia Block's house might be forgiven for confusing fantasy with reality. Entering through a white picket fence in a well-kept residential Los Angeles neighborhood and looking up the curving brick path lined with roses to a house festooned with tiny white Christmas lights in the middle of July, even the most casual Block reader—and her readers are much more passionate than casual—will be reminded of Grandma Fifi's cottage in the Weetzie Bat series, the haven where the idea of family was forever redefined for teen literature. Under this roof, shaded by a Santa Rosa plum tree, love children might be conceived, witches bring their abandoned babies, and gay lovers find an extended family.
Francesca Lia Block.
Photo: Sonja Bolle.
At the door of the author's house, however, there is a reminder of reality. The UPS man has left a stack of cardboard boxes stamped with the red-and-blue HarperCollins logo. When Block opens the door, she pounces enthusiastically on the packages, which contain some hard-to-find backlist books from her longtime editor, who is leaving HarperCollins and clearing out her office. Block's most popular books have been published and reissued in various editions; the five Weetzie Bat books, which have been called punk fairy tales, have been released individually as slim volumes, collectively (as Dangerous Angels), and in pairs (as Goat Girls and Beautiful Boys); they've appeared both as YA and as adult literature.
Weetzie Bat was recently honored with the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award, given to the author of a children's book that did not win a major award at the time of its publication 20 years earlier. Block has that mingled gratitude and mild annoyance of authors whose first books remain their most popular. “It amazes me that it's touched people for so many years,” she admits as we settle down in a spare living room furnished more with little treasures than with tables or chairs (“so the kids and I can dance here”). “I was an English lit major at Berkeley, doing a thesis on Emily Dickinson and H.D., studying all this great poetry, and out of it came Weetzie Bat, this little book, an intimate, small thing. It's amazing to me that it would be honored after so long.”
Block says that she tries not to get attached to awards, noting a similar distance toward the Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award she won three years ago, at age 43. “I think it's an unconscious protection. I try to stay on the path of what I need to express next.”
She had been feeling “unmoored” at the loss of her editor, Joanna Cotler, until she met the one newly assigned to her, Tara Weikum, at the ALA convention earlier this month. Now she's eager to move forward. “I feel poised at a jumping-off place, just like with Weetzie,” she says.
The first book she and Weikum will work on is a vampire novel, PrettyDead. Her heroine will be a 99-year-old teenager, “but she's different from my others. She's more assertive, a more conventional beauty. She's not like my more outsider characters—of course, she's a vampire, so she's the ultimate outsider,” Block says with a laugh. Her hope is to go in a more commercial direction. Single again after the breakup of her marriage, she has new priorities: “I just bought this house, and I've got two children, so I've had to shift my idea of how to support myself.”
Block is, in fact, very prolific. This year she has three books appearing, the novel-in-stories Quakeland (from San Francisco publisher Manic D Press, April), the story collection Blood Roses (HarperCollins, May) and the forthcoming poetry collection, How to (Un)Cage a Girl (HarperCollins, Sept.). There are other books in various stages of readiness: next year will see the publication of a new novel, The Waters and the Wild, along with Little Pink, a picture book (co-authored with her agent, Lydia Wells). House of Dolls, an illustrated chapter book, is also in the pipeline. And she has a contract with Bloomsbury for a book that started as a “joke idea”: Forest Folk: A MythologicalDating Guide, based on her experience with online dating.
Although she describes herself as “technologically challenged,” Block has discovered the Internet, and it has changed her writing life. She avoided even using e-mail until her friends convinced her that her dating life required a MySpace page. Here she has found a community that answers a great need: she has always found it essential to write, share her writing and receive responses—and the Internet speeds all that up. And because she often writes about pain close to her heart, she finds there is a therapeutic quality to the exchange. “It's healing, but there is a compulsive element to it. It's addictive, to be honest.”
There is fragility about Block, an emotional openness and lack of defenses, both in her writing and in person, that makes people feel protective toward her. All of her Internet postings are public, and she has no qualms about exposing her most intimate thoughts daily. “The young women who know and love my books form a kind of force field around me. It's very powerful.”
In her writing workshops, which she holds at home, Block is more inspirational than critical, believing that everyone can write. “Well, maybe not everyone, but if you have the itch or desire or passion to write, you can. And if you're coming to class, you have it.” Students describe her as a very generous teacher. She often does the writing exercises along with her students, and allows the group to critique her efforts. “It's good for them when I show my weaknesses,” she observes. “Maybe what I'm doing is not as good as what some students are doing. It shows we're all learning.”
Not only do her readers know a lot more about her these days, but she knows a lot more about them. She has always received intimate letters from her fans, but with online profiles, she says, “When I hear from a girl, I see her pictures, what music she listens to, her poetry, her friends' pictures. I start to know who these readers are, and I think, 'They're a lot like me.' Whether they're 14 or 30, we're all feeling a lot of the same stuff.”
She has also gained a more precise idea of her fan base. “My fans are, I would say, 80% female. There are also young gay men who started with Weetzie, even though I haven't written so many gay characters since. They tend to have outsider identity—whether they are actually outsiders or not, they identify that way. They're often artists, very in touch with their emotional lives.” These qualities, she points out, are often the qualities of young people, though she says her audience is defined more by emotional connection than by age or gender. “
Block has never liked being labeled a YA author, and she can't say that she has ever really read teen novels, though many of her favorite novels have young protagonists. “The YA/adult issue has given me the most struggle in my career,” she admits. She puzzles over what differentiates her books that have been published for an adult audience from those that, despite dealing with difficult, dark themes like incest, have been published as YA: the four-letter words, perhaps, and the occasional clear distinction of intense eroticism, as with Nymph. Her more recent books, too, have started to treat what might be called older issues: illness (Quakeland) and mid-life crisis (Necklace of Kisses, about Weetzie Bat's troubles at age 40). Even so, Block's trademark emotional vulnerability, belief in magical rescue and the transforming power of love are still much in evidence.
“The stigma of YA is less now than in 1989 [when Weetzie Bat was published], though it's still there,” she says. “People just do not cross over into the teen section of bookstores,” she laments, although she acknowledges that Amazon.com has started to break down that barrier and that things are changing in the YA field. “The audience is lapping the books up, it's more respected, there's more money, there are more established authors doing it, and there's more risk-taking. I guess the snobbery from older readers is changing, too, when you have Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates writing YA. In fact, my editor does their YA.”
Block quickly adds that it's the limitation of the label she dislikes—“anything that labels or marginalizes you is frustrating!”—not the readership. “The YA audience doesn't put up with any bullshit, and the responses you get? 'You saved my life!' Who else hears that?”
Interestingly, she doesn't mind—even relishes—being labeled a California writer, more precisely, an L.A. writer, a label that many authors have protested fiercely, believing that it connotes a literary lightweight. When her father, Irving Block, a painter, special-effects man and writer (he wrote the story of Forbidden Planet, the classic 1956 science fiction film), moved from New York to Los Angeles, “it was uncharted territory for him. He could do what he wanted, and create something new. There was a freedom as an artist. Out here we don't feel the New York tradition on our shoulders. In New York I might have felt intimidated by all the young women writers, and the intellectual community, and I wouldn't have been able to do what I do.”
“Maybe that's the freedom of being an 'L.A. writer' and the freedom of being a 'YA writer,' ” she concludes with wonder, seeming to arrive at a new appreciation of the label as she speaks. “[It's] a wide-open field. You grow and change when you're not so acknowledged right away. I think that's what is great about L.A. in general—we can all just blossom like these weird little poison weeds that turn into this beautiful thing.”