Francesca Lia Block Gets Real
In the final pages of Francesca Lia Block's deftly written new novel, Violet and Claire, one of the main characters wonders to herself: "Maybe there had really been a kind of murder that night." This salient assertion comes from Violet, the whip-smart teen who, along with her friend Claire, wonders loudly about life. Besides forcing her characters to face big questions, this scene illustrates Block's current foray into storytelling in which events reflect a more hard-edged reality -- one where, if people are not physically dying, then, perhaps, their spirits are.
"Instead of genies and fairies, demons and lovers, it's very grounded in reality," Block said during a telephone conversation this past August. "It definitely has that tragic reality, and it's more plot-oriented than my other books." The 36-year-old author, whose widely acclaimed Weetzie Bat series for young adults has catapulted her to the top of the teen books scene, was forthcoming with her current interest in reality-driven storytelling.
Violet and Claire reads almost like a film script, which was originally the projected medium for the story. "I wanted to write a script, and I had a cool idea in my head," Block explains. "I woke up in the middle of the night and I typed 30 pages, and my legs were shaking -- it was really weird." The script-turned-book, however, still retains a scriptlike format ("fade in" and other stage directions are utilized throughout), and Block employs the Faulkneresque literary technique of shifting points of view. Hence, the book is divided into three sections: Part I is narrated in first person with Violet speaking; Part II is narrated in first person with Claire speaking; and Part III is told in third person through both Claire's and Violet's points of view, as well as through the narrator's.
Since her first book, Weetzie Bat, which she has referred to in many interviews as a "love letter to my friends and family," Block has had an intimate alliance with her characters. In Violet and Claire, she takes parts of herself and apportions them between the two main characters; in addition she draws on a real-life encounter to bolster Violet's character. "Violet is a very strong, forceful character, but there's some darkness to her," Block says. "She takes things very far. Claire has this ethereal quality, this sort of innocent, childlike quality, and both of them are seeking something that is missing in themselves." Curiously, toward the end of the story, Violet aptly renames herself Ambition and Claire Innocence. These are tools of the fable trade; both allegory and metaphor strongly inspire Block's work.
When the story begins, Violet, 17, is working on a screenplay she hopes to make into a film. In her first-person narrative, she shares her personal philosophies and practices: "And what else is filmmaking about if not a series of perfect and potent images strung together like the words of a poem?" Later in her monologue, we learn how she went from "wanting to save the world in sixth grade" to her "Goth" phase at 13, all the way up to her screenwriting venture, which came from years of studying storytelling and "renting two movies a night." Claire, on the other hand, is the flower of the two, the peace-loving, poetry-writing child whose fantastic dreams of making a living as a poet contrast with Violet's dreams of a life as a Hollywood screenwriter. Violet, Block says, was drawn mostly from a person she met through her recent encounters in L.A.'s film business, in which she is currently immersing herself.
As the story unfolds, Violet and Claire follow the path of their dreams, and a classic tale of lost innocence emerges; the reader, like the characters, may find herself asking moral questions. On their journey they meet the good and the bad: Richter, a Hollywood mogul; Tinker Bell, a potential character for Violet's screenplay; party girls Esmeralda and Mathilda; rocker Flint Cassady; and various lovers. "In my work I always try to work with dark and light, positive and negative, love and fear, magic and realism," Block says. "I try to include both of those things, not because I want to make a statement, but I believe in both those forces and that they are in this world."
If all this talk of good and evil and scripts and murder sounds like fodder for more adult-oriented novels, then it's correct to assume that Block's moniker as a teen author is somewhat miscalculated. Although she's been on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list and has been given awards by the American Library Association and the New York Times Book Review, her place as a teen writer continues to be a cloudy issue for her. "I didn't write my first book for teenagers," Block says. "A lot of my readers are older because I think these issues are ongoing. I think also a lot of the positive things of being a young person are retained." Her most renowned books, such as Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, Missing Angel Juan, and THe Hanged Man recount adolescent dilemmas while simultaneously addressing many of the same issues that adults encounter.
"When I say I write for young adults, I get people who say, 'When you write an adult book, let me know and I'll read it,'" Block says. "Does an adult book say 20 and up? It just limits it a little, and I try to avoid the label."
Discussing her following, Block refers to her fan mail, which accumulates regularly throughout the year. Many letters, Block says, come from people who may have read only a single novel she has written, but who have found her characters to be faced with many of the problems prevalent in their own lives. "I get letters from mostly young women, and they are so inspired," Block says. "They're incredibly smart, creative, humanistic, conscious, and some of the issues I struggled with, they've learned to deal with through communicating with each other. I'm encouraged by what I see -- they're very sophisticated; they are not jaded."
Of her own books, she feels closest to her first, Weetzie Bat, which she wrote while still an undergrad. But she is also proud of Missing Angel Juan and The Hanged Man for their "language and structure." Block works out of her home, which she shares with her husband and their dog, Vincent Van Go-Go Boots. Afternoons find her writing; in the morning, she exercises. On her reading list now are books by Barbara Gowdy, The White Bones and Mister Sandman. Also Joy Nicholson's The Tribes of Palos Verdes and Aimee Bender's Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Block adds: "I love Salinger. And I was really influenced by the surrealist writers of Latin America, like García Márquez."
If she weren't a writer, Block says, she'd probably be working as a psychologist for young people. And her secret ultimate fantasy is to be a modern dancer. But back in reality, Block is currently involving herself in L.A.'s film community, where she's making contacts and learning the trade of screenwriting so that -- you guessed it -- she can finish a screenplay she's working on. That, as well as thoughts about becoming a mother, has Block thinking about reality in the real world.