Francesca Lia Block: Turning Pain into Magic

Throughout her career, Francesca Lia Block has maintained a primary magic. She shows her readers how full of agony this world is, and yet how beautiful it can be at the same time: while the world appears riddled with war and tragedy and pain and heartbreak, it’s also brimming with friendship and love and delicious food and art and magic. I have always wondered about this trick of hers, this singular talent to make her readers feel how simultaneously painful and gorgeous life can be. Her creativity and prolific output over the last 30 years are both undeniable — ever since her debut novel Weetzie Bat hit the scene in 1989, Block has published over 25 books. In her recent literary memoir, The Thorn Necklace, Block gives an intimate glimpse into her life and creative process. Throughout this work, she explains how she has consistently taken the suffering that she has experienced and used it to fuel her writing.

The Thorn Necklace is a “grimoire,” a meditation on turning agony into art, at the same time that it functions as a guide to being creative. It’s an LA-based, punk rock sister to Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling Big Magic. Each chapter contains stories from Block’s own life, along with encouraging creative advice and a short lesson on the craft of writing. Throughout The Thorn Necklace, Block viscerally shows how she has taken the setbacks of her own life — an eating disorder, the death of both her parents from cancer, her failed marriage, two miscarriages, her loss of sight in half of one eye — and transformed them into literature that has ultimately inspired and sustained her readers.

In the opening scene of the introduction, a teenaged Block in her UC Berkeley dormitory cries into the phone as her father, who is dying of cancer, tells her, “You are a writer!” Here, she shows how even at that young age she used art to comfort herself. Her dorm room is hung with posters that include “…Monet’s water lilies, David Bowie as Aladdin Sane, Frida Kahlo in her thorn necklace, The Sex Pistols, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and his lookalike, Picasso’s Blue Period Saltimbanque,” all of which “were indeed talismans against the loneliness and homesickness.” During her time at UC Berkeley, Block wrote Weetzie Bat — the first in her Dangerous Angels series — a “magic realist LA family saga” that tells the story of an eponymous heroine who delights in her hometown, cruising the city with her gay-best-friend Dirk while both of them look for love, which they eventually find with the help of a genie in a lamp.

I first read a galley copy of Weetzie Bat when I was 13, when a friend whose mom owned a bookstore slipped the book to me. I knew as soon as I finished the first chapter that I would follow Block wherever she might lead me. I devoured her books as they came out, which luckily one did most every year.

When I was in late high school, I found out that my first and most adored cousin Fred was a friend of Block’s. He gave my sister and me signed copies of a new Block book every year, which was always my favorite present. Weetzie Bat’s search for her My Secret Agent Lover Man shaped my romantic ideal. Witch Baby showed me that a person could feel great pain while experiencing beauty through art. Throughout the Dangerous Angels series, Witch Baby is obsessed with the injustice and hurts of the world as she collects news clippings of tragic events. But she also skates through a fairy-tale LA in her cowboy boot roller skates, lives with a sprawling artistic family, and plays in a band with her beautiful friends. Inspired by Witch Baby, I rollerbladed through the streets of Austin in a t-shirt HarperCollins had made to promote Block’s book Girl Goddess #9. The shirt read “In Every Girl is a Goddess.”

Having grown up on Block’s novels, I always dreamed of running away to live in the enchanting Los Angeles of her imagination. In Block’s fiction, Los Angeles is a character of its own — a beautiful, glittering, smoggy, dangerous lover who will bring you jacaranda and buttery sunlight in the afternoons, and then stalk you in the night. In Zan Romanoff’s 2017 New Republic essay, “Eve Babitz and Francesca Lia Block Made Los Angeles Literary,” Romanoff writes, “The city serves as muse to both writers, who loved it long before the current vogue for its dusty vistas, strip-mall restaurants, and New Age lifestyles took hold […] For Babitz and Block both, Los Angeles contains a complete, entire universe: other continents, other times, all of the imaginable world.” In The Thorn Necklace, Block reveals that her LA roots run deep. Her father had an early career in movie studios, co-writing the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, before he was blacklisted during McCarthyism for attending socialist meetings. Block — like her parents — has lived most of her life in the city.

In my 30s, I fell in love and moved to Southern California to be with the man who became my husband. The first book I ever gave him was Weetzie Bat. After a couple of years living in California, I finally drummed up the nerve to ask Block to lunch to talk about her recent psycho-sexual thriller Beyond the Pale Motel. At a macrobiotic restaurant in Culver City, I sat across from Block, who for 25 years had shaped my worldview — my ideas about beauty, grief, and romantic love. She was even kinder and more loving than I imagined, and she had the ethereal beauty of a fairy. As we chatted, I felt that we would become friends. It was surreal to realize that this woman — who has taught thousands of women that in every girl is a goddess and that a search for true love is a worthy endeavor — had recently been through a series of terrible dates with men who certainly didn’t understand her body of work or its impact.

Block reveals in The Thorn Necklace that the romantic ideal she writes about in her novels is inspired by the love her parents felt for each other. She also explores some of her own romantic horror stories in grim detail, recounting tales of dating-gone-wrong that would make even the protagonist of “Cat Person” shudder. In one of the most arresting passages in the book, Block writes of the fact that she began a relationship with a decidedly sinister man who lived in his mother’s closet while her own beloved mother was dying. During this time, as if literally blinded by grief, Block’s retina tore and she lost sight in half of one eye. The sinister man took advantage of this literal and metaphorical blinding until Block was finally able to lift the veil and break up with him.

The Thorn Necklace is a mesmerizing and often painful book, one that is laced with both gorgeous imagery and language — as well as an ultimately hopeful message. Life on this earth is difficult. Each of us will experience romantic and artistic disappointments, the limitations of our physical bodies, and the deaths of people we love. Block shows by example that we may be sensitive and in some ways fragile, but at the same time we are also resilient. Block may sometimes suffer, but she is in no way helpless. She takes the raw materials of her world — the dazzling LA sunlight, its vintage clothes, the lancing wounds caused by others or by her own sometimes failed efforts at self-love — and like a delicate sylph version of Rumpelstiltskin she weaves this dirty straw into the gold she gives to her readers to help us on our way.

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