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The Writer's Life

Francesca Lia Block and her post-apocalyptic year

Francesca Lia Block channeled some of the strife of her personal life into 'Love in the Time of Global Warming,' including destruction of her beloved Los Angeles. She discusses that and more.

August 22, 2013|By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Author Francesca Lia Block.
Author Francesca Lia Block. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

When Francesca Lia Block sat down to write her latest young adult novel, "Love in the Time of Global Warming" (Holt Books for Young Readers: 240 pp., $16.99), she took her beloved hometown of Los Angeles and destroyed it.

But she didn't just destroy it. She burned it to the ground in the lyrical, hallucinogenic way in which she once elevated the very same city to celestial heights in her first novel, "Weetzie Bat," and all the adult and young adult fiction she's written since.

We meet 17-year old Penelope, the book's protagonist, briefly during the catastrophic environmental event that she calls the "earth shaker," and then in earnest two weeks later, adjusting to a new reality. "I forget that I am alone here in this house, with the sea roiling squid-ink purple-black, dark like a witch's brew, just outside my window, where once there existed the rest of my city, now lost as far as I can see."

The "earth shaker" is a quake that's left L.A. — and who knows how much farther beyond — in ruins. Her parents and brother are presumed dead. Her dog is gone. Her home, a pink house in Venice that she hated leaving even for the hours of school and socializing, is halfway under water. She's been living on her father's hoarded supply of emergency provisions. When some menacing men enter the home, Penelope escapes in their van, and her journey for survival begins.

By now, we're all familiar with the literary post-apocalyptic world's metaphors. The zombies are our anxieties. The vampires are our greed. Our fairies are hope. Our werewolves are … what again? Something. But in writing "Global Warming," the 50-year-old Block was doing something a little more personal than merely summing up our neuroses. She was trying to metabolize and indeed survive the state she found her own life in: chaos and uncertainty.

"Somebody asked me if it was cathartic to write about destroying Los Angeles," says Block, sitting on a patio at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where some of the action in her book takes place. She has an angular face softened by brown hair that falls in waves around her rhinestone-collared shirt. "I said, no, it wasn't cathartic at all. I love Los Angeles. That's kind of what I'm known for in my writing. I was going through a lot of pain at that time in my life."

In 2010, Block, who has two school-age children, found herself financially under water on her home in Culver City. At about the same time, her mother, who lived with Block and her kids and whose name was also on the title, was diagnosed with cancer. To make matters worse, Block says she was in danger of going blind. (One of her retinas spontaneously detached, while the other eye had developed a cataract.)

These were dark times for Block and her family, and so when she began writing the book she set it in a city that like her surroundings had been upended.

Block has been writing magical realist fiction for teens and adults since "Weetzie Bat" was published in 1989. That novel is about a teen girl who finds a genie in 1980s L.A. "Weetzie Bat" dealt with issues such as AIDS, premarital sex and homosexuality in a way that avoided the wholesome public service announcement style so often then seen in the genre — and it did so in what would become Block's signature fantastical style, long before fantasy became de rigueur in YA literature.

She's received the American Library Assn.'s Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement award and been the subject of book-banning discussions. But speaking with Block, it's clear that she balks at terms such as "pioneer" and the restrictions of genre. She's published poetry and erotic fiction and even a mythological dating guide called "Wood Nymph Seeks Centaur." Her 2012 adult novel "The Elementals" follows a college student whose friend is missing. Another one, "Wasteland," published in 2003, deals with incest and suicide. In total, she has published seven adult novels, 11 for young adults and three collections of poetry. She has more than 1 million books in print.

Block is dedicated to following her heart, despite the temptation to go slightly more commercial. It's hard to pretend that "Love in the Time of Global Warming" doesn't come at a time of blockbuster teen trilogies that are ready-made for the movies.

"I don't know if I've resisted it because I've tried all kinds of different things," says Block, whose next book is an adult novel about a serial killer. "I just really have been fortunate to write sort of whatever I am dreaming about at the time."

Reality's role

In "Global Warming," although she borrows heavily and openly from Homer's "The Odyssey," much of her own recent struggle is on display too: There's a journey from a state of peace to a state of precariousness and insecurity, a giant that has its eye poked out, a house no one can live in, a mother who is suddenly gone.

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