Re-Read: Meeting My Muse: Francesca Lia Block

Kerri’s Pick: Tomas Mournian’s essay

Last summer, I received an email from Tomas Mournian asking if YARN would cover his new novel “hidden.”  Being the scrupulous editor that I am, I did a little checking up on Mr. Mournian, and discovered that not only was he a hot-s–t journalist in LA, and “hidden” his first buzz-worthy novel, he’d also graduated from Berkeley, just like moi!  So we exchanged a few emails about Cal, and generally got to know each other as we e-chatted about what he might offer YARN so we could help plug his novel.  I asked for an essay, and boy did he deliver!

“Meeting My Muse: Francesca Lia Block,” is exactly the kind of personal essay we want to see more of here at YARN (so yeah, if you’re a writer wanting to get published, pay attention!!).  It’s funny and moving with an absorbing narrative and insightful reflection and exposition.  Not that every essay has to be funny….I think you get my drift.  “Meeting My Muse” shows that essays can be as exciting and revelatory as fiction.  Enjoy, and get writing!

 

By Tomas Mournian

My interest in seeking out Francesca Lia Block happened the same week I moved to Los Angeles. I sat on the floor of an empty studio apartment above Hollywood Boulevard & Vine, reading “Weetzie Bat” by the outside neon light. Immediately, I knew two things: “I love this book” and “I need to meet my muse.” Later, I would never felt that way about Robert Pattinson, Matt Damon, or Taylor Lautner. (Okay, I felt it a little bit about James Franco, but who doesn’t want to meet him, with or without his left arm?)

It took me a long time to learn that meeting heroes and heroines in Hollywood is a dicey proposition. Almost two years after I made my wish, I had been schooled in the problems with meeting one’s muses.

During the seven years I worked in Hollywood as a reporter (for “In Style,” “US,” “E! Online” and “Los Angeles Magazine,” among others), I successfully avoided the I’m-star-struck sand trap that tended to come with interviewing actors. I viewed Hollywood celebrities as the means to an end (specifically, making money so that I could fund my other work, investigating safe houses). Unlike other celebrity journalists who tried cozying up to famous people, there was no risk of my wanting to befriend Natalie Portman, Kristen Stewart, or Blake Lively. The only danger I risked from being near to a movie star or television actress was the crows feet that came from squinting in the face of their brightly glowing super humanosity close up.

Meeting Francesca Lia Block, however, was a different matter. She possessed a luminosity that was different (and more intense) than media celebrities. Or rather, I experienced her fabulousness differently that I did others. Seated at the World Famous Formosa Cafe across from the author of “Weetzie Bat” triggered all my wanna-be author aspirations. I didn’t just want to interview her, I wanted to be her—or  my version of her—a  published novelist.

Five years into my season of dancing with the stars, I had enough clout to summon pretty much anyone I wanted to meet. This wasn’t because I’d become a wonderful person living and working in Hollywood; in fact, I was a lot less nice than when I’d sat in that Hollywood Boulevard studio apartment. But I’d become an insider who could offer celebrities the sort of coverage that’s the coin of the realm in Los Angeles. Few refused, and I can’t remember anyone actually saying no.

“Los Angeles Magazine” was what I’d offered Francesca. And, like everyone else in LA, she was eager for press and agreed to meet for an interview over Shirley Temples and Diet Coke. Sitting in the red vinyl booth I walked the line between fan and dispassionate observer. Muting my bouncing-in-the-red vinyl admiration for her was difficult: Francesca’s writing had never let go of my heart. In fact, her writing—and now her, in person—reminded me of all my faded or forgotten Hollywood Dreams.


Block’s exquisitely written novels were elusive, neat, and poetic. Unlike other writers (Libba Bray, Jonathan Franzen, and Stephanie Meyer come to mind) who write long books that give the reader a sense of accomplishment (and relief—“I finished it!”), Block’s novels are marvels of economy and inspiration.

 

Because they are deceptively slim, some might read Block’s books as short stories or novellas. Except they aren’t short stories or novellas. Francesca creates unique worlds that are deftly composed yet fully realized works, novelistic in scope.

I’ve reread Block’s novels dozens of times, yet I’m always amazed by the works’ subtle seduction. Francesca works colorful language within the confines of precise form. And though the stories feature characters who feel like best friends and are intensely appealing to straight girls and young women, they are, in fact, cast with a range of characters who make them more broadly relatable. To queer boys, for example.

For me, “Baby Be-Bop,” about Dirk McDonald and his future boyfriend Pup exemplifies Francesca’s ability to write a story that’s both specific, yet general. Block taps into the most glorious—and precarious—moment of a young man’s life, when everything is dusted with angst and insecurity and power. When I read “Baby Be-Bop,” I recognized this male naiveté, but—more so—the feeling young men, gay or straight, have: the world is theirs to explore. In fact, everyone – male or female – must, to some extent, leave home and explore it if they’re ever to step into their own hero’s journey.

Yet, reading “Baby Be-Bop,” I never thought about the author’s gender. Francesca Lia Block had transcended gender because she so perfectly observes and tells a boy’s own story—my story. And this isn’t genre writing either. All of Block’s work resists categorization. “Baby Be-Bop” could be fantasy, a utopia/dystopia, or romantic love story. Francesca glossed “Baby Be-Bop” with the painful truth of being young and queer (the latter being different from “gay,” more Addams Family strange) in America. Francesca so perfectly captured that specific truth –my truth—with all its possibility and pain, that after I finish reading “Baby Be-Bop,” all I could do was lay on the sofa, and sob.


After our interview at the Formosa Cafe, my path crossed with Francesca’s several times.  Over the next five years, I’d either see her from a distance, or speak to her in passing.
formosa cafe looking toward original sectionphoto © 2009 Steven Damron | more info (via: Wylio)

 

In 2008, Francesca presented the PEN/USA award for Best YA novel. She stood on stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall dressed in a miniskirt, one long leg cocked off to the side, and read the nominees in an impatient voice that barely registered interest. She radiated the aura of an outsider who had, with only great reluctance, agreed to step into view. I read her stance as both defense, and posture. The “I’m too cool for this” attitude was belied by the fact that she stood on stage, in front of a large audience. I loved it.

The next year, we met at the “Los Angeles Times” Festival of Books. She stepped out from the shaded Manic D press tent, dressed in a white head-to-toe outfit, noon sunlight turning her into a chimera part Easter Bunny and part yoga sylph. Two years ago, I wandered into Book Soup for a reading-in-progress (“Damage Control,” a collection of essays about women writing about beauty, an evergreen topic that resonates with particular intensity in Los Angeles). I stood in the back, near the home design and celebrity entertaining books. I sensed her presence, but before I saw Francesca, I saw her purse. Enormous, its soft, gold material shone under the fluorescent lights. I looked up at its owner, and that’s when I saw her, standing by the French post cards and Hollywood movie/screenplay/biography section. For a moment, we eyed one another, our mutual wariness giving way to, “Oh, I know you.” We swapped silent smiles and then she stepped forward, and read her essay, the longest, and best written in the collection.

During the past decade, I bought Francesca Lia Block’s books by the dozen and gifted them to initiates. I gave away hundreds of those small individual books: “Weetzie Bat,” “Witch Baby,” “Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys.” When the stories were collected as “Dangerous Angels,” I started gifting the five “Weetzie Bat” stories bound in a single volume with an ethereal fairy figure on the cover.

Some part of me—the part that couldn’t really be friends with, or ever really know Francesca except as a fan—read her work and gave it away because I needed, even in an unconscious way, to stay in touch with the inspiration she radiated.

Partly, her writing was an excellent model of craft, but also of possibility. If Francesca could do it (become a published novelist), I knew I could, too. We had both attended UC Berkeley, after all, and read the same magical realist and Modernist writers (Gabriel Marquez, H.D., Gertrude Stein). I just needed to get on with it.

Problem was, I had an addiction to quell, and that was easier said than done. While I imagined myself as the perennial outsider, the truth was, I had been co-opted by Hollywood’s promise of proximity to fame, beauty, and money. I couldn’t stop writing interviews with and gossip about Hollywood celebrities. Perez Hilton and I both needed celebrity journalist rehab, quick.

Yet somehow, even as my heart turned black from dishing scoops and bloopers, I wrote a first novel. The first chapter featured a boy, asleep, who dreams about being visited in the pre-dawn hours by a fairy boy figure who hovers over the sleeping boy’s consciousness until sunlight breaks. Then, dawn hits the fairy, and he explodes into a billion colored fragments. This fracture defined the book’s core problem, and my inability to fix it. Despite endless revisions, the story never gelled.

Eventually, I wrote another novel, “hidden,” and it was published last week. Told in short chapters with near staccato language somewhat like Francesca’s economic yet poetic style, once I finished “hidden,” I stopped compulsively buying/reading/gifting “Dangerous Angels.” This isn’t to say that I stopped following Francesca Lia Block’s writing or stopped buying her work. If anything, through the alchemical process of becoming a novelist, I returned to Francesca’s books with the same pleasure, and love, I felt the first time I sat in that empty studio apartment overlooking Hollywood Boulevard and read by blinking neon light.

When I wrote “hidden,” my Francesca muse sat on my shoulder, offering if not exactly spoken encouragement, then an ever-present reminder that love, however remote seeming was still a subject worth my attention. For, world weary as I’d become in my Hollywood life and style, an original copy of “Baby Be-Bop” always sat nearby. Its tattered pages served to remind me of what I’d loved—and maybe lost (or just misplaced)–and might possibly, someday, regain, if only through the gesture of writing fiction.

Copyright Tomas Mournian, 2011

Tomas Mournian is the author of “hidden,” out last week.  “Publisher’s Weekly” dubbed “hidden” an “exquisitely written and impossibly sad fiction debut,” about fifteen year old Ahmed who escapes from a “rehab” center for gay teens.   In San Francisco, he meets others like him with similarly heartbreaking stories, but he soon learns that the safe house is “never entirely safe.”  A unique YA story and an intimate look at a world few of us knew existed before–a must-read for 2011!

“hidden” is based on an article Mournian wrote for the “San Francisco Bay Guardian” about an underground network of safehouses for gay teens.  Titled “Hiding Out,” it won Peninsula Press Club, East Bay Press Club and GLAAD Media Awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer.

Mournian’s journalism career began when he  worked for Lance Loud interviewing musicians, singers and other personalities for a “Details” piece about Max’s Kansas City. This lead to working for Kevin Koffler (then “OUT”’s West Coast Editor).  Working as a freelance journalist, he has been published in a wide range of consumer titles: “Marie Claire,” “Los Angeles,” “YM,” “US,” and “In Style,” among others.  In 2009, he held the Eli Cantor Chair at Yaddo.  For more of Tomas Mournian, visit his blog.

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  1. Sarah S says:

    hi all, I’m new on here and looking forward to being a part of the discussion.

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