Francesca Lia Block: All the Light We See
As a writer I always thought I’d need to move to New York to be taken seriously, but I’ve been able to develop my career in my beloved California since 1989. I’ve written more than 25 books, all set on the West Coast, and I’ve watched the literary scene grow richer every year.
In August, Kevin Staniec, executive director of 1888 Center, a literary arts and cultural heritage nonprofit in the city of Orange, invited me to be interviewed for the first “Eichler Session” podcast at a midcentury modern home in the Fairhaven tract in Orange. As I arrived at the tangerine-colored door of the low structure, I was immediately charmed by the indoor/outdoor style of the house, with its open floor plan and floor-to-ceiling windows. I wanted to dine in the garden and sleep on the patio. The rectangular blue swimming pool in the backyard would make a perfect bathtub on a warm night.
The 1888 group, dedicated to the preservation, presentation and promotion of cultural heritage and literary arts in Old Towne Orange, publishes elegant, eclectic, beautifully designed novellas by diverse authors, both emerging and accomplished, as well as an annual short story collection called “The Cost of Paper.” Kevin, the most unpretentious hipster you’ll ever meet, told me, “We believe everyone has a story to tell, and if we can, we would love to inspire everyone to consider writing and reading and feeling more comfortable in this sometimes intimidating medium.” When I asked him how location influenced what he does, he replied, “I think the beach, the weather and the idea of community has contributed to this atmosphere of inclusion.”
That hit me as a deep truth as I reflected on the meaning of it for my own work. So many of my stories rock and roll with the rhythms of the Pacific, surf its waves and play on its beaches. The warm Santa Anas toss palm fronds and shake blossoms through my books. And the eclectic, open-minded vibe of the West Coast is expressed through my characters, who drive long highways to escape their lonely lives and find a place where movies and music, new friends and families are somehow, magically, made. Perhaps this is why many of us come to Southern California, or, as in my case, why we stay.
At the “Eichler” event, Jon-Barrett Ingels, the sweetest LA “actor slash author” you’ll ever meet, interviewed me in the glass living room overlooking the pool, surrounded by the intimate audience. We talked about my first novel, “Weetzie Bat,” a punk fairy tale featuring a bleached-blond pixie and her gay best friend searching for love in 1980s Los Angeles. Jon-Barrett also asked me about the changing face of publishing and how to get published in a constantly shifting industry. When I got started, you didn’t necessarily need an agent and could even send unsolicited manuscripts directly to publishers. My first book sort of flew into the hands of my editor on gossamer wings. Now there are many gatekeepers, and it seems like some of them have been taking steroids. But the independent publishing movement is growing stronger as a result, and Orange County is a hotbed of activity for writers and artists who are doing their own thing and forging their own possibilities outside of the conventional wisdom. This entrepreneurial spirit seems to be a tradition here, a cultural value that creates the character of this particular point of geography.
After the interview we all sipped drinks and took pictures on the lawn. I met Anne Saller, the petite, pink-clad owner of Book Carnival, who seemed like she’d walked out of one of my own books. I got to know the 1888 board and staff, including Kevin’s lovely wife, Janet Kim, and I was reunited with old friends from my 1980s retail days working at Grau, a Gaudi-esque women’s clothing store on Melrose that sold garments made from antique silk kimonos.
It’s hard to imagine anything like this 1888 event happening anywhere else in the world – especially not in New York, the corporate center of publishing. After all, even the iconic character of Don Draper left “Mad Men” New York for California, and, as the series concluded, was inspired to create one of the seminal commercials in the history of advertising there. It’s interesting to me that the series’ creators chose an Eichler-style midcentury modern home in Palm Springs as the set of one of Don’s visits to the West Coast. (Of course the usual Don shenanigans in the pool and the glass-walled bedroom ensued, but that’s another story.) The setting itself spoke of possibility and light, a clear break from the concrete darkness of his New York.
My father, the artist and screenwriter Irving Alexander Block, moved to California from New York in the 1940s because he felt stifled by the atmosphere of the East Coast. He wanted a fresh, new horizon where he could create art unfettered by the weight of history and tradition, or by the latest trends. His small, still-life paintings with their transcendent ambiance and otherworldly palettes were as classical as the work of the old masters, but imbued with a surreal spatial sense and a distinctly Californian light. He was able to work on whatever he wanted without pressure or demands, and somehow this paid off: His paintings now hang in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and in celebrity collections.
I guess I’m following in his footsteps. As I wandered out into the lawn in the warm, starry evening to chat about books, small-press publishing, the history of Orange and the backyard antics of squirrels, I felt perfectly at home. Who needs a publishing industry that lives inside a city skyscraper? Who needs walls that don’t let in the light? I’ll take an atrium and a swimming pool in Orange any day.
Francesca Lia Block is the 2005 recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for her contribution to writing for young adults.