ABOVE: FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK. IMAGE COURTESY OF NICOLAS SAGE
Francesca Lia Block is a magical creature. With over 30 books to her name, she has the ability to conjure stories like a medium conjures spirits. Starting with her first book Weetzie Bat, which Block wrote while a student at UC Berkeley, she came forward as a breaker of social boundaries, writing about the Mohawk-and-torn-lace teen experience. In Block’s pages, we were not those kids worried about getting our periods for the first time; we were the ones struggling with neglect, eating disorders, and how to come out. No stranger to controversy, in 2009 Block attracted the attention of a Christian group that wanted to set fire to their local library’s copies of Block’s book Baby Be-Bop, a young adult coming-of-age novel with a gay protagonist.
The Elementals is Block’s return to adult fiction. We follow Berkeley-bound Ariel as she travels between the landscapes of northern California and Los Angeles, dealing with her mother’s cancer and the disappearance of her best friend. In a way only Block can deliver, readers are left soaking in haunted scenery, punch-drunk on red potions, and out of breath from dancing with the devil we may know.
We spoke with Block about Orpheus, lost girls, and poetry in utero.
JENNIFER SKY: How does one create the possibility of magic in literature?
FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK: I think that it’s the same way we create the possibility of magic in life—by acknowledging that it is there, exploring and expressing it. The more you acknowledge, explore and express it, the more seems to appear.
Writing is literally transformative. When we read, we are changed. When we write, we are changed. It’s neurological. To me, this is a kind of magic.
On a more practical level, metaphors are an interesting example of creating magic in prose. You can use a simile to say, “It felt like the house was on fire,” or you can actually set the house on fire in the story. You can say, “He made me feel like roses were growing out of my heart,” or you can actually have roses grow out of the character’s heart. As writers we have the opportunity to make magic happen every day.
SKY: You are an incredibly prolific writer; with each new project, how do you begin?
BLOCK: I am constantly thinking ahead to what I want to write about in the future, and when I’m done with one project I give myself a little time and then start the next one. Writing is very cathartic for me. As a teacher, I hear many students say that writing can be painful and exhausting. It can be, but ultimately I believe that if you push through, the process is healing and exhilarating.
SKY: What themes do you seek to show and tell with your work?
BLOCK: The themes are usually the same: love heals, art heals. In The Elementals, I explore the theme of escape into the imagination. It can be a seductive but sometimes dangerous thing. This book is a bit different for me because I was going through the death of my mom when I wrote it, and I wanted to explore the darker side of the imagination.
SKY: Yes, I was very sorry to hear that. And your father, he was the first person to introduce poetry and myth to you, am I correct?
BLOCK: He told me The Odyssey as a bedtime story and showed me paintings and sculptures depicting Greek and Roman mythology. Both he and my mother read poetry to me when I was very young and even before that, in utero. Whitman, Blake, Keats, Yeats, Dylan Thomas.
SKY: Do you have a favorite myth?
BLOCK: I always cite two: Orpheus and Persephone and Demeter. Interesting that both deal with the underworld. I never tire of these stories and they continue to feel relevant to me at different times of my life.
SKY: Like with Orpheus, Ariel must travel an underworld road in her search for Jeni. Was this a purposeful reimagining?
BLOCK: Orpheus always seems to show up in my work, but in this case I was thinking about Tam Lin more than anything else.
SKY: In The Elementals, lost girls and sexuality are looming in the air. How did you accomplish this without it seeming creepy?
BLOCK: I hope it is at least a little creepy! But seriously, I’m writing about a dark world but I’m also writing about magic and beauty in a poetic way, so I hope that comes across as well.
SKY: Can we recover from loss with substitution?
BLOCK: Maybe not with substitution. I think Ariel was trying to recover from the loss of Jeni and the potential loss of her mother by getting involved with the people in the house in the hills, but ultimately I don’t think it works for her, even though she thinks she does. I believe we recover from loss by facing the loss, grieving, going deep inside ourselves (hopefully with a guide) and re-emerging to live and love again.
SKY: Tactile sense, like taste and smell, is something you allow us to experience in this book. That red wine brew, may we have the recipe?
BLOCK: Touch, taste, smell, sound and sight are always prevalent in my style. The wine brew is a secret!
THE ELEMENTALS IS OUT OCTOBER 16.