Francesca Lia Block is a Lot More than Weetzie Bat
The Beloved Writer on Defying Expectations and Trying New Things
I can’t help myself: I dress up to go see her. It’s 9 am on a Thursday morning when I leave my house, 50-some degrees in Los Angeles and so windy that palm trees are curved and swaying, my car trembling with exertion on the freeway.
It’s the wrong day, hour, and weather for a white lace minidress and a long, bone-colored shearling vest, but the memory of my 12-year-old-self, clutching a paperback and dazed with visions of girls in vintage silk kimonos, combat boots, fairy wings, and Gaultier sunglasses, is insistent. You don’t go to Francesca Lia Block’s house in jeans and a t-shirt. You just don’t.
Like many women of my generation, I first encountered Block via the books in her Weetzie Bat series: a collection of novellas about a girl—at first teenaged, eventually a twentysomething mother of two—navigating the wilds of 1980s Los Angeles, which Block figures as a punk wonderland of kitsch and glamour, “a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter’s, and . . . Venice, with columns, and canals, even, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers.”
Those books remain her most famous, but she’s continued publishing steadily in the nearly 30 years since, amassing 40-some titles, which include everything from fiction to poetry to Wood Nymph Seeks Centaur: A Mythological Dating Guide.
Her latest, The Thorn Necklace, which came out from Seal Press last week, is a hybrid: equal parts a book of creative advice and a memoir. In it, Block writes intimately about growing up in the shadow of her artist father and his muse, her mother. Her father, Irving, helped create special effects for 50s B-movies, and eventually worked as a professor at California State University Northridge; he was well-known enough to merit an LA Times obituary when he died.
But the book isn’t strictly autobiographical: it also offers itself as something of a creative guide, structured by the twelve questions Block has developed to help get herself and her writing students through the wilds of their work.
“With this one, more than any novel, it’s so personal,” Block tells me. “So I’m more nervous than I’ve been before with a book coming out. I feel like everything’s right out there; there’s not even any scrim.” We’re sitting the couch in her living room, facing in towards one another; only my phone, recording between us, punctures the illusion that this is merely a conversation between friends.
The thing is, we are friends, sort of—or at least, we are certainly colleagues. Block and I both teach at a local private writing school called Writing Workshops LA, so we’ve met before, at a faculty holiday party where we ate tacos and drank mescal cocktails under a hundred thousand tiny red firefly lights. She knew my name already that night, because I’d written about her: an essay about how she and Eve Babitz are the only people I trust to write about our hometown of Los Angeles.
Now, she says, she is trusting me to write about her, and her book.
Writing it was not an obvious decision. As you might guess from her prolific output, Block doesn’t struggle much with (sorry) being blocked: “My struggle hasn’t been with creativity,” she says. “It’s been with everything else.”
That struggle is woven throughout The Thorn Necklace, which covers not just Block’s relationship to her glamorous parents, but also a divorce from the father of her children, her frustration with earning money as a writer in the modern economy, and dating on an off the internet. “I moved into this house in 2007, and everything crashed right after it,” Block says of her luck. “My friends joke that it was the last straw, like my house tipped the whole thing.”
Part of the reason she wrote the memoir was to try to marry the very mundane circumstances of her actual life with the dreamy myth-laden worlds of her beloved prose. When she started teaching private writing classes at her home in the late 2000s, the first people to take them were fans, who were often overwhelmed to find themselves in the presence of their idol.
“I think there’s a de-mystification that’s really important,” she says. “I remember a couple of women [coming in for class], saying ‘oh god, you’re so different than I expected. You’re just such a real person.’ I’m like . . . what does that mean? It was sweet, but I also felt like, am I disappointing? I’m just this lady with wet hair sitting on her couch.”
Block hopes that she can do double duty in The Thorn Necklace: that she can make both the act of writing and her own self more approachable.“I’m so grateful for Weetzie, but Weetzie is a character I came up with when I was 16. There’s so much more that I want to say to the world, and sometimes that can be a little daunting.”
She’s still figuring out how to deal with the public perception of both. People are notoriously bad at separating authors from characters, especially when the author is female. “I’ve walked into rooms and literally, people say, ‘Weetzie is here!’” Block reports.
“I’m so grateful for Weetzie, but Weetzie is a character I came up with when I was 16,” she continues. “There’s so much more that I want to say to the world, and sometimes that can be a little daunting.”
To that end, she’s hoping that “the memoir is the bridge, because it’s the dark and the light. Hopefully it will give a broader perspective. This book is saying, yes there’s magic, and this is the reality of life, and they’re both there and true. Trying to integrate it somewhat more for myself, and my readers, too.”
In the mean time, Block has dealt with her particular, narrow slice of fame largely by compartmentalizing. “My writing identity does feel somewhat separate,” she says, when I ask what it’s like to meet women like me, for whom her house feels like a pilgrimage site.
“Every time I hear that I’m so grateful,” Block tells me. “I’m very touched by it every time. I never feel like oh, some person is bothering me with that. Because it almost seems like someone else, that creative part that went out in the world.”
In other words, there’s the Francesca who lives in her books, some preserved version of her that’s available to hundreds of thousands of us whenever we need her. Then there is the real Francesca, who is human and limited, and sometimes needs to pay attention to her biological children, instead of the girls who claim her as our spiritual mother.
These days, she’s especially busy. Block recently started studying towards an MFA through UC Riverside’s low residency program in Palm Desert. She enrolled at first in order to make herself more marketable as a writing teacher, but has found that it has helped ground her in her writing and in a community of writers.
Before that, “my main profession was writing,” she says, “not teaching, not anything else, for many years. So I was in a vacuum.” Now, between the MFA and her gigs at WWLA, with a one-year Visiting Assistant Professor job in the creative writing department at University of Redlands coming up, “I feel much less lonely and less vulnerable.”
Though it wasn’t easy going back to the other side of the classroom after thirty years in publishing, or accepting criticism from her workshop peers (“some ego stuff came up,” Block admits), she’s found a renewed creative energy and commitment through her studies.
Block is working on a new novel in the program, and her mentor, Stephen Graham Jones, has helped her push it towards new territory: “What I feel from him is, be yourself more fully,” Block says. “And that’s not being afraid of the dark, and the violent, and the sexual, and my obsessions with myth, and my obsessions with clothes, and my obsessions with sensuality.”
Writing the memoir has actually made fiction feel “safer,” Block says. “It’s less exposing, so I can go all out with the fiction and it’s not so intense.”
In a culture that likes women best when they’re young and heroes most when they reach a state of perfection and then remain there, unchanging and static, it can be difficult to be a person who has kept living and working, whose life is messy and complicated, whose output is always evolving along new and sometimes divergent lines.
“I won this library award in my early forties, and it was a lifetime achievement award,” she says. “It made me kind of go, really? Am I supposed to stop now? I’m not even close to what I want to be doing. Not even close.”
“You can get caught up in, oh, I won this thing, or I got this accomplishment, and now I can rest on my laurels,” Block says. “But who wants to? How boring! What would I do?”
Sitting with Francesca on her couch, with her wet hair and my inappropriate outfit and her dog barking occasionally in the next room, all I can think is how lucky I am that she’s still working, and talking—that she didn’t just write Weetzie and disappear. Here is a person who has weathered storms, and kept working through them; here is a person who is willing to sit still for a while and answer questions about how, exactly, she did it.“In a culture that likes women best when they’re young and heroes most when they reach a state of perfection, it can be difficult to be a person who has kept living and working.”
Alongside The Thorn Necklace, I’d been reading Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, a several hundred-page meditation on whether a woman can have children and also keep making her art the way that she wants to. So I was particularly struck by the way Block writes about motherhood in her book: with an unabashed desire. Not to say that she finds the experience easy or effortless—but it made me wonder about the different ways that women experience cravings for parenthood, and for their art and themselves.
“I wanted both,” Block says—she has two children, a sixteen-year-old son and an eighteen-year-old daughter. “I won’t say I wanted them the same, because my specific children are the most important thing in the whole world to me. But I had a strong drive to be a writer and a strong drive to be a mom, and I was fortunate to be able to do both at what felt like the last minute.” (Before her daughter was born, she’d had a series of miscarriages.)
“My desk is there,” she says, indicating a corner of the room where we’re sitting, “and it’s always been in the middle of the living room, wherever I’ve lived. So my kids were running—they still do. Calling ‘Mom, mom, mom!’ while I’m working.”
There are sacrifices, of course—for her and for her children. “I do think I paid a toll physically for all that, and still do, every day,” Block says. It’s not easy on the body to write and mother and date, to worry about money and work and love. “My kids have had advantages and disadvantages. There are strangers in their house! And there’s me being really, really busy all the time. But overall I’m glad I’ve been able to model for them that I’m doing what I love.”
This is the blessing of living in a moment where an unprecedented number of women get to tell their stories and live these long weird lives. All kinds! It feels rich, and I find myself hopeful that my writing can someday do what these women’s has done for me: to reach out and suggest a breadth of possibility, an opening, a series of questions asked to make space.
“It keeps me sane,” Block tells me when we talk about what it means to write. “My poetry teacher says: it’s all we have. It’s all we have, in the face of all of this chaos. You sit down at your computer and you work. What else can we do?”