5 min

Technicolor fairy tales

In the darkness & light of Los Angeles

Credit: Ingrid Vellekoop

The novels, SHORTstories and poems of LA-based writer Francesca Lia Block look unflinchingly at life’s shadowy underbelly to expose a magic that inspires – if one can survive the darkness.

Perhaps her most recognized work, Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books, is a series of short novels following the adventures of Weetzie Bat and her search for true love embodied by the fantasy image of “My Secret Agent Lover Man.” The novels follow the trials of love and acceptance of Weetzie, her best friend Dirk (a gay punk surfer), his lover Duck (also a term used for cute gay men) and their children Witch Baby and Cherokee. The novels are a Technicolor fairy tale, with more raw truth than the average reality-based writing.

The series was born following a chance encounter. “I was driving on the freeway when I was 16,” says 42-year-old Block. “And I saw a pink Pinto with a girl with bleached hair inside. The licence plate read ‘Weetzie.’ Where is she now? If you’re reading this Weetzie, please contact me!

“The character evolved out of that image. She is also my alter ego. I had bleached hair, wore prom dresses with combat boots, slammed at clubs, searched for My Secret Agent Lover Man, had gay best friends and dreamed of having babies.”

Block grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just beyond the canyon separating her from tinsel town. “Hollywood had a mystical aura,” says Block, “partly because of that slight separation.” Raised in an artistic home Block’s earliest memories invoke the arts. “My father was a painter and I drew and painted watercolours with him.” Block’s father took her on frequent museum visits to discuss art or watch mimes in the courtyard. “He had been an artist in the film industry so film was appreciated, especially foreign films,” she says. “My mother was a poet, played guitar and sang to me, danced with me and read to me constantly.”

Memories of growing up under the glow of LA left a powerful mark on Block and on the urban existence she details in her writing. “As a teenager I became involved in the punk music scene and the contrast of that harshness with the romanticism of my home environment was inspiring.

“Oleander bushes and smog sunsets are my favourite LA metaphors because they are beautiful and poisonous. Again, it’s the contrast that makes me love this city.”

Block tackles subjects like teen pregnancy, homosexuality, incest, abuse, affairs – all the tortures of love – without judging or moralizing. “I don’t try to teach lessons,” Block says. “I try to tell a good story. My natural philo-sophy just comes through, I think. I believe in the healing power of love and art, confronting your darkness, listening to your heart, honouring nature, having respect for the differences of others. I believe that creative self-expression can be powerful enough to save lives.”

Taking such dark and often taboo subjects, Block then blends them within magic realism, mixing mysticism with the power of modern pop culture. “My parents believed in the magic of love and art, the magic of fairy tales. Myths dominated my childhood and I wrote many fantasy stories as a child and made up mystical games. When I discovered the Latin American magical realist authors I began to define magic as a focus of my work, rather than just something I was intrigued by. I try to write what is relevant, real, true and what interests me. I think that the ethereal and the magical are intensified when contrasted with dark, gritty reality.”

Block’s name is synonymous with painfully beautiful tales of self-discovery, of finding one’s place in the world, rendered with a voice that rings clear and true to every reader. She was in town last summer, teaching at the Humber School For Writers.

The first novella, Weetzie Bat published in 1989, made it onto the American Library Association’s best books for young adults list, and it’s been reprinted numerous times. “She is my first-born book, so I feel tenderly toward her,” says Block. “I am proud she is still in print and has been translated into many languages. I am still amazed that such a personal, small book can have touched such a diverse audience.”

Its eccentric personalities face stoically conformist pressures. Society’s outcasts come together as a solid family. There’s Witch Baby, the child of a love accident, who feels the world rejects her and relishes it, and Cherokee Bat, the child of Weetzie, sired with Dirk, Duck and MSALM (the acronym by which is known the secret agent lover) who carries features of each, a child touched by heaven’s love.

The series, too, was unplanned. But after finishing each book, Block says, the next, “kept coming and demanding to be written.” All five share a unifying message about “the healing power of love and art.” One major theme is the lives of gay men, which climaxes in the final book Baby BeBop, reflecting back on a sad moment from the first novel. “I have always identified with gay men,” says Block. “I’ve been very close to gay men. Maybe I was one in another life, who knows?”

The Weetzie books were ori-ginally published for young adult audiences, remarkable given their subject matter. “I never wrote Weetzie for young adults,” says Block. “It was published that way and I loved my editors so I kept writing for them. After a while Joanna Cotler decided to re-package the books in one volume for adult readers. I’d been wanting that all along… luckily, my books are crossing over more and more.

Block’s next novel returns to the Weetzie mythos with The Necklace Of Kisses, to be published by HarperCollins next summer. Weetzie, now 40, runs off to stay at a pink hotel and share adventures with an angel, ghost, spider lady and a mutilated mermaid whom she saves. The novel will be marketed directly at adults this time.

Block is now a mother and a respected, established writer. She says returning to Weetzie after 15 years, “feels different, even though the characters are the same. Having children has given me more confidence and insight and I don’t feel as stuck in my past anymore. In the new book Weetzie is an active heroine. For a while she lost touch with the magic of her youth but now she is seeing the numinous qualities in everything around her in an even more profound way than before. She is not so focussed on herself but can look to others.”

Block’s latest novel Wasteland, published in the fall, is a sad tale of love and loss, written while living in Santa Monica. “I had started to see the strange magic of the valley by that time. I never saw it when I was growing up there,” says Block. “It is actually a revisiting of my teenage years and the deep sadness I felt at that time. By writing Wasteland I think I was saying goodbye to my childhood in some ways. I gave birth to my daughter, and then my son, after I wrote it. It was an important book for me symbolically. The end of an era.”

Block’s writings brim with liberation, the freedom from society’s limiting pressures. At the close of Weetzie Bat, Block wrote: “I don’t know about happily ever after… but I know about happily.”