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IT’S A MEMOIR, IT’S A WRITING GUIDE, IT’S THE THORN NECKLACE: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK

interview by Michael McCarthy

When I first interviewed Francesca Lia Block during August of 2016, she was hard at work on a memoir, which I was very excited about. Since that 2016 interview, I’ve taken one of Francesca’s popular online courses. It was a lot of fun and quite educational, especially when it came to receiving Francesca’s notes on my work, which were very helpful when I was writing Book of Shadows 2. Suffice to say, I highly recommend that you take one of her classes if the opportunity ever arises. She’s an excellent writing teacher. To that end, her new book, The Thorn Necklace, is a combination writing guide and memoir.

Perhaps you might think the two wouldn’t fit so well together, but I find them to be inseparable in all of my favorite books about writing. Look at Stephen King’s On Writing, one of the most beloved writing books of the past 30 years. Stephen wrote plenty about writing, but he also delved into his creative process and the circumstances under which he’d written his books, like when he was swallowing entire bottles of cough syrup and snorting cocaine faster than Charlie Sheen in the ’80s. Likewise, you learn a lot about author Anne Lamott when you read her critically acclaimed writing guide, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Life. Now you can add Amy Tan’s wonderful, recently-released memoir/writing guide Where the Past Begins to this group.  (I just finished it and it’s a treasure trove of rich memories and in-depth thoughts about writing.)  The only writing guide/memoir book that I can think of that tops all of these is Francesca’s new release, The Thorn Necklace. Learning about how her own life has informed much of her fiction is fascinating, not to mention eye-opening. Just like her novels, you sense that every word in the beautifully-written book has been carefully contemplated. Furthermore, as anyone who’s read her fiction knows, there’s also certain kind of magic to her writing, which often flows like the best poetry, something she also writes. The book is about more than her life and her writing style, however, as it also focuses on her famous 12 Questions that she asks herself before starting a new book, questions that are sure to enrich your own writing dramatically. So, whether you want to know more about the woman behind books like The Elementals and Dangerous Angels, or you simply want to learn about her writing method, you should find The Thorn Necklace equal parts intriguing and informative. I certainly did.

MM: One of the first things you talk about in The Thorn Necklace is doing music journalism, which I had no idea you had done. What publications did you do journalism for and what time period was that during?

FLB: It was in the ’90s and it was not a lot, but they were really cool opportunities. One was Tori Amos in Spin. One was Perry Farrell and Porno for Pyros in Spin and the other was not music it was Joseph Gordon Levitt in Blonde, but that was in the 2000s.

MM: You also met David Lynch, right?

FLB: Yes. He had read Girl Goddess Number 9 and I think he’d read Weetzie, too, but he was interested in Girl Goddess Number 9. So, I met with him about that. I wasn’t officially interviewing him, but, yes, I did meet him.

MM: He hasn’t done anything with that yet, but is that still a remote possibility?

FLB: No, there was a complication, but it was so great to meet him. I enjoyed it so much and it was very inspiring.

MM: When you met Tori Amos were you nervous?

FLB: Yes, I was nervous. But she made me feel quite comfortable. I got to spend an extended period of time with her. For a few days, I’d come every day and hang out with her while she was mixing. Because of the sort of set up, I felt like we were walking down a country lane talking, so it just felt very natural and enjoyable. But I was nervous at first for sure.

MM: How did you get the journalism gigs with some of the bigger publications?

FLB: You know, those were the days. The editor at Spin at the time, Craig Marks, contacted me, actually, and suggested it and then it was sold. It was different times, but he eventually said to me, who would you like to interview? I said, I’d love Tori Amos. And he said, “Great. Where would you like to do it? Here or in London?” I said London and he said, “Great.” So, it was pretty dreamy.

MM: What is your favorite Tori Amos album nowadays?

FLB: Oh, wow. Well, I’ll tell you, I’m not keeping up on my music properly, but I will tell you that someone sent me a link to “The Reindeer King,” that song, and I couldn’t stop playing it and weeping and I felt the way I did when I listened to her early records. So, at the moment that’s my favorite song of hers but I still love her older stuff.

MM: Well, if you have Spotify, they have everything on there so you could spend an afternoon listening to her five latest albums in a row.

FLB: Yeah, exactly. It’s amazing.

MM: Do you prefer to listen to new music or music that makes you feel nostalgic?

FLB: I do a mix, I would say. Probably more nostalgic music just because I’m a little behind the times, and I still just have stuff on my computer rather than a service, so that’s terrible to admit. My kids introduce me to some more current stuff but I’m more knowledgeable about that older music. But I really enjoy a mix.

MM: Do your kids take you out to any concerts?

FLB: [Laughs] No. They don’t. I took my mom to see X when I was I was their age, but they haven’t done that for me. My son and I go to the movies a lot.

MM: That’s cool. I used to have my father take me to all sorts of heavy metal concerts back in the day in the late ’80s.

FLB: Did he like it?

MM: No, he just sat there with ear plugs reading a book.

FLB: But he did it. That’s awesome.

MM: One of the things you wrote that I found interesting was “I’d been stuck for almost a year, trying to churn out bad romance ebooks to make a living, but with Bowie’s death came a new burst of creativity.” At that point, it sounded like you’d been unable to complete such a book, but later in The Thorn Necklace you wrote something that made it sound like you actually succeeded and did quite a bit of that. So, did you or didn’t you?

FLB: I spent a year working on a more serious novel that I never did anything with. And then I also wrote this erotic romance e-book that I did self-publish under a pseudonym and then my agent at the time guided me through the process and I published it as an e-book myself. I hired some people to do some of the things, the technical stuff. It was out and I promoted it and it sold. I still sell some. It wasn’t hugely successful but it was out there and it did sell.

Francesca’s Bowie Playlist:

MM: What was the pseudonym?

FLB: You can tell people it’s an anagram of my name missing a few letters and it’s a first name, a middle initial and a last name.

MM: So, was The Thorn Necklace the book you decided to write following Bowie’s death?

FLB: Yes, yes.

MM: You wrote about writing as a way of dealing with pain. How soon after something traumatic happens do you usually find that you’re able to start writing about it?

FLB: I usually write about it fairly soon after, but I don’t write about it for other people’s consumption until later. I think it takes some time to gain perspective to shape the material, but to get it out on paper, that happens fairly soon for me.

MM: Do you journal?

FLB: I’m in school now again – I think you might know that – and I had a poetry teacher who was keeping a journal that was just one line a day so I’ve been doing that, but I usually don’t journal because I’m usually processing my emotions pretty quickly into my material now. Into fiction or essay.

Los Angeles photographed by Francesca Lia Block

MM: When your dad died, you and your mother kept seeing white horses. Has anything like that happened since your mother passed away?

FLB: After my mom passed away I didn’t have that, but I heard her voice in my head very clearly. Not just the idea of what she was saying but her actual voice in my head quite a bit. Saying kind of reassuring things. Right after she died I had a few incidents where I would lose something and ask her where it was and I’d find it. I also had the experience of a light going on when I was talking about her in a room and it just kind of went on by itself. So, I didn’t have anything as dramatic as the white horse with my dad.

MM: Well, I would say hearing her in your head was probably even more so than the white horses.

FLB: Yeah, right. It was so, so real that I didn’t even question it as being surreal. It was pretty powerful.

MM: I was praying for a sign that Mister White, my cat that just passed away, was in a better place and I was in the kitchen Tuesday morning, and it was completely silent, and I heard him meow as if he was standing right beside me. Just one meow, but it was definitely him.

FLB: Isn’t it crazy? That’s wild. Interesting.

MM: Frida Kahlo’s painting Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, inspired the name for your book. Do you have any other favorite works of hers?

FLB: I would say almost all her paintings. I love her self-portraits in particular but then there are many others that are larger tableaux that I also love. I think all of her imagery – that one in particular because it speaks to me symbolically – but I think each one is like a dream. Literally. Every one.

MM: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf all took their own lives and you mentioned over a dozen writers and artists who struggled with depression. Is that something you continue to struggle with?

FLB: I would say I have more anxiety than depression. They’re pretty closely connected, but I would say for me it’s anxiety and I definitely struggle with it and I manage it partly through my writing.

MM: You mentioned Jaedon [an ex] when you wrote about suicide. Which one of your books is about him? Beyond the Pale Motel?

FLB: No, not Beyond the Pale Motel. Actually, that’s in Quakeland.

MM: I like how you wrote “Some artists survive their pain, some do not. But all channel it into art.” Do you feel like the best writers have been those who’ve struggled with depression or some other hardship?

FLB: I think all humans do on some level, and I think it is usually the inspiration for art, so I would say yes, but also would say that I don’t want to give the impression that someone has to suffer profoundly to be creative. I think there’s enough pain to draw on in the world in general and I think it’s a good goal to try to be at peace with oneself, but I do feel that if you have suffered it can be a really great tool for creativity.

MM: You posted the 12 questions you ask yourself before writing a book online before, but now they’ll even be available in print. Do you fear that people will be less likely to take your courses now that they’ll have the tool you teach from?

FLB: Because it’s in the book, you mean?

MM: Yeah.

FLB: No, because, for me, well, like you say, it’s been online for a long time. But what you can’t get from the book, of course, is the one on one reading of someone’s work that I do – you know because you took a class – but I literally will look at every word and every sentence and also the macro picture. So, those are the things that I will continue to teach in workshop environments and also extend them to teaching seminars where I’m analyzing literature with people. I hope that more people are able to learn from me through this book and will continue to work privately with me to get the more in depth instruction.

MM: I think the person whose name came up in your book the most was David Bowie’s. Would you say he’s among your top muses?

FLB: Yes, I would. It’s funny, I know that I wouldn’t have said that off the top of my head if you’d asked me before he passed away. There was something about his death that struck me very profoundly. He had been very much a part of my life, but I don’t think I’d realized it. It’s like something that’s always there so you stop thinking about it. And then when he was gone I was struck when I looked back at all these parts of my life and I realized his influence. And, obviously, he’s shown up in my work. He popped out or exploded out into the universe when he died. I feel like I got a little fragment of that. Or channeled that. Or tried to. Interestingly, a lot of my friends had a similar response where they were stuck or they hadn’t been working and then he died and they had a similar kind of hit of energy. It’s seriously interesting.

MM: Plus, it was so interesting, the way that he did things, having music videos that hinted at it and made more sense once he’d passed.

FLB: He made such a work of art out of his own life and death. And I think that is what struck people.

MM: You stated that there’s one Bowie song that you always put at the top of your make out lists. Which song is that?

FLB: Oh, I think it’s “Heroes,” yeah.

MM: Have you read Amy Tan’s Where the Past Begins?

FLB: No, I haven’t read that.

MM: You should because your books are similar in that you write about writing, but you also do memoir within that, and the way you went through your big cleaning project and talked about all your clothes and stuff, she goes through boxes of stuff as she’s writing her book, too.

FLB: That’s interesting. I haven’t read it. I know her work, of course. But thank you for that recommendation.

Francesca Lia Block, photographed by Nicolas Sage 2018

MM: Before your big cleaning project, you mentioned that your house had ghosts. Were you referring to spirits or things that haunted you because of the memories associated with them?

FLB: I think in that line I’m talking about memories. I’d like to think this house is pretty ghost free. But I have been in other houses that feel haunted for sure. And in the memoir, I talk about someone who says to me that he sees some kind of a dark spirit in my house, which is one of the reasons that I ended that relationship. Because I did not feel that. Not that I don’t believe that that can exist. I didn’t feel that in my home. I just feel there are some real challenges that I struggle through and those are sort of projected into that for him. But, yes, I have been in places where I’ve experienced that.

MM: Me, too.

FLB: What have you experienced? I love those stories.

MM: Well, when I was a kid my father and I would take my elderly uncle grocery shopping. And one time when we got back I was the first one at the door and I looked through the window and there was a guy dressed like a lumberjack putting wood in the stove. And I ran down, yelling to my father and my uncle, “Someone’s in the house! Someone’s in the house!” They hurried to the door. There was nobody there. We went in and the oven wasn’t hot. But I know what I saw. And, here’s the thing, I came home and told my mother and she said, “You know what, that’s really strange because when we were staying there a lot when my grandparents were sick and we were helping them, my father would not stay overnight in the house because he saw that same ghost.”

FLB: Do you know the history of the house? If someone was a lumberjack or who built the house?

MM: No, but it was a really old house. Because you know how back during one of the wars they did quartering and people had to let a soldier live with them? Well, this house had an add on to the house from when they had to let a soldier live there.

FLB: When you saw him he looked like completely temporal? Did he look like solid or did he look sort of ghostly?

Beautiful flowers from Los Angeles photographed by Francesca Lia Block

MM: He looked like a normal person, plain as day.

FLB: Wow. Because I remember seeing that where I asked for a ghost that manifested in human form. And, also, I’ve always seen stuff [like] the white horses. But I touched the white horse so I don’t think that’s the case. But I find that absolutely fascinating that that was actually a body. That’s wild.

MM: So, your books are filled with magic of all sorts. To what degree do you believe in magic?

FLB: I do believe in it. My definition, as hokey as it sounds, is love. I absolutely believe that they’re one in the same and, also, art in a way is that, as I say in the book. There’s all that transformation. I think that they’re very real. So, I see magic as just another part of that.

MM: As I read The Thorn Necklace, I was constantly amazed by how you could remember what you were wearing on any given date or event. Did you make it a point to memorize these things or do you have a photographic memory?

FLB: I have a very selective photographic memory. I remember the clothes, yeah. I know exactly why. But I do see them in my head.

MM: You brought up anorexia a few times in your book. How old were you when you were anorexic?  I’m just curious because I’ve been.

FLB: Yeah, I remember you mentioned that to me. I was 19. How old were you?

MM: The first time I was 18 or 19, and I had just became a vegetarian, but I also wanted desperately to lose all kinds of weight so I became a vegetarian and just didn’t each much and then my doctor tells me one day, you’re anorexic. The other time was when I was living in California my girlfriend was anorexic and we just made each other more anorexic.

FLB: Yup. It is a contagious thing in that way.

MM: And it became like a competitive thing, too.

FLB: Yes, yes. That’s an aspect to it. The control. That heightened control with someone else. It makes sense.

The 2006 issue of SPIN Magazine featuring Francesca’s cover story on Tori Amos. Link to the interview at the end of this post.

MM: I know you’re a vegan. How long have you been one?

FLB: I’m actually not anymore. For health reasons, I now eat fish and I eat eggs. I’ve generally eaten a certain way since my 20s. I try to expand now because I have some health concerns so I needed to change that. Not that I don’t think that’s a healthy diet. But, for me, I couldn’t keep doing that.

MM: I’m a vegetarian and have been for years and years but I could never go vegan because I do like eggs and I would miss dairy too much. I’m a big Ben & Jerry’s person.

FLB: Ah, I got it. Well, I’ll tell you, with eggs it’s really interesting because over a year now I went off anxiety medication and I found that one thing that really helped me was fats, the healthy fats, from olive oil and nuts and also protein from eggs. I could feel my brain sort of recovering. So, for me, that’s been important.

MM: Booksellers will charge you 26 bucks for a new hardcover but then if you decide you want the book on your Kindle they want you to pay another 13.99. I was wondering, as a writer, what you think of that policy? Because my thinking is that when you buy vinyl records they all come with download cards now to download the music. So, if the music industry can give you free downloads of the records you buy then why can’t the publishing industry give people a free e-book when they buy the hardcover?

FLB: Well, I think from the point of view of the reader your point is valid. From the point of view of the writer, and in light of how artists are suffering in the music industry, I think that there is a reason and it does have to do with keeping the industry afloat because it’s taken a huge hit. My policy now, what I say to people is, if you can and you’re interested in writing, support other writers. Pay the money, buy their work. But it’s different for everybody. Some people the promotion is what you’re doing, putting up an interview, a post, tweeting about it, putting up a review. There’s a lot of ways to do it. But where I sit it becomes very hard to make a living. And I don’t expect to anymore, which is why I do other things. It is something that we’re all kind of figuring out and struggling with.

MM: When did the shift happen where you had to start teaching and doing other stuff to make a decent income? Was there a certain time period?

FLB: Well, the ’90s were very different. I started [then] but I had other sort of circumstances until about 2007. So, yeah, I guess about 2007. That’s when for me it changed. But I would say 2000 in general is when it changed.

MM: You mentioned that one time you were at your friend Elodie’s salon when Prince was there. Did you say hi to him or anything?

FLB: No, I was shocked. I kind of leave my body in those situations. Yeah, so, no.

MM: Were you effected at all by Prince’s passing?

FLB: I was. Not to the extent I was with David Bowie for some reason. Even though I listen to his music a lot, but not maybe through so many phases of my life. More just in one period. So, it didn’t have quite an impact with me, but I know it had a strong impact on a lot of people similar to what I had with Bowie for sure. Did you feel that?

MM: I think so, yeah. But I definitely felt it more with Bowie, too. I already had all of his albums digitally and I have a lot of them on vinyl as well, whereas I only own a few Prince CDs. Now I’m finding that Prince did put out a lot of good music back when he was using a symbol for a name.

FLB: Yeah. I was thrown by that, but you’re right – the work was really good, too.

MM: A psychic on the Santa Monica pier warned, you “There’s a big project of yours. It’s your life’s work. But it will never happen until you give up believing that it will.” What big project was she referring to?

FLB: Weetzie Bat.

MM: Making a movie?

FLB: Yeah.

MM: You know, I was thinking – with Thirteen Reasons Why being such a hit for Netflix – I was thinking they could do a show – do you watch This is Us?

FLB: I don’t, but I know about it, yeah.

MM: Well, they have characters and you see them in different time periods. So, I was thinking they could do a show where they’d have Weetzie as a kid and all of that stuff happening and then also have stuff going on in her adult life years later. So, you’d kind of have two parallel storylines.

FLB: I pitched it as a television show as being chronological, but I think it’s a really cool idea to mix it up like that. I think that would be really interesting. I’m open to that. The screenplay I have now is a screenplay for a movie so I would definitely like to sell that and that’s what we’re working on right now. But it would be a great opportunity, of course, to do the other.

Order The Thorn Necklace from Amazon.

Visit Francesca’s official website.

Visit Francesca on Facebook.

Click here to read Francesca Lia Block’s cover feature on Tori Amos from 1996.

Listen/watch Francesca’s Bowie Playlist on Youtube:

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBuwC4VJi50 David Bowie “Heroes”
2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U16Xg_rQZkA David Bowie “Rebel Rebel”
3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUOjT_ALOh8 David Bowie “Be My Wife”
4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYYRH4apXDo David Bowie “Space Oddity”
5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMThz7eQ6K0 David Bowie “Ashes to Ashes”
6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGQo6zpVzt8 David Bowie “Jean Genie”
7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLnPd7lzT4g David Bowie “Suffragette City” 
8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLl1MeOCeKI David Bowie “Golden Years”
9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMQ0Ryy01yE David Bowie “Changes”
10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScVi_L817ec David Bowie “Young Americans”
11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTYvjrM6djo David Bowie “Blue Jean”
12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_8IXx4tsus David Bowie “China Girl”
13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgPUxjQOk-w David Bowie “DJ”
14. https://www.google.com/search?q=I%27m+afraid+of+the+americans&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-1-ab David Bowie “I’m Afraid of Americans”
15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLl1MeOCeKI David Bowie “TVC 15”
16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwH1g2fW6Pc David Bowie “New Killer Star”
17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LaT6oZOW0vo David Bowie “Breaking Glass”
18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH7dMBcg-gE&has_verified=1 David Bowie “The Stars Are Out Tonight” 
19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgPUxjQOk-w David Bowie “Kooks”
20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8 David Bowie “Lazarus”

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Paris365

An entertainment journalist for 20 years, Michael McCarthy was a columnist and contributing editor for the magazines Lollipop and LiveWire. He co-created and wrote for Cinezine, one of the '90's most popular movie E-zines. The only time he's not listening to music is when he's watching television shows and movies or reading, usually music magazines.

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