Francesca Lia Block, MFA, sat down to discuss House of Hearts. It follows Izzy Ames as she works to unravel the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her friend, Cyrus Rivera. Block’s newest novel isn’t afraid to confront sexuality & violence as it uncovers the secrets of the desert.
Block is the author of more than twenty-five books of fiction, non-fiction, short stories and poetry, and has written screenplay adaptations of her work. She received the Spectrum Award, the Phoenix Award, the ALA Rainbow Award and the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as other citations from the American Library Association and from the New York Times Book Review, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly.
Her work has been translated into Italian, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Portuguese. Francesca has also published stories, poems, essays and interviews in The Los Angeles Times, The LA Review of Books, Spin, Nylon, Black Clock, The Fairy Tale Review, and Rattle among others. In addition to writing, Francesca is a beloved and devoted teacher.
She was named Writer-in-Residence at Pasadena City College in 2014 and in 2018-19 became a Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Redlands where she was a finalist for Professor of the Year award. Currently she teaches fiction at UCLA Extension, Antioch University, and privately in Los Angeles where she was born and raised.
Tell us about your history as an author. How did you get started?
In 1984, I wrote a book called Know Bat about the adventures of a punk pixie and her gay best friend finding magic and danger in 1980s LA. I sent it to a friend who sent it to her publisher who picked it up. I remember crying with joy since I wanted this for as long as I can remember.
I’d always written—poetry, short stories—and read a lot and I went to UC Berkeley to study English Lit with a minor in Creative Writing—all with the goal of a career in the field. That little book opened the door like a magic key or spell and I’ve been publishing ever since.
Who were your biggest literary influences growing up?
First it was poetry. Dickinson, Plath, Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, then the Modernists, especially HD After that it was magical realist authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. I hadn’t realized it but most of my favorite novels from my early life are considered Gothic: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heightsthe work of Shirley Jackson.
I studied them (and others) more closely in my MFA program where I wrote my thesis on Gothic conflict: “The Dark House, The Demon Lover and The Secret.” Some of my current favorite authors are Joy Williams, Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, Mona Awad, and Ottessa Moshfegh.
What was the inspiration behind your latest novel, House of Hearts?
One night I had a vision of a young woman with dark hair walking through the desert, on her way to rescue Catt, a character who was murdered in my novel Beyond the Pale Motel. This woman became Izzy Ames in House of Hearts. Although she never rescued Catt, she began to tell me her own story…
I worked on House of Hearts for six years before, during and after completing my MFA program. I had gone back to school to get my MFA in fiction, with classes in screenwriting and poetry, while teaching in another graduate writing program.
The desert setting in House of Hearts came from my own experience of living in Joshua Tree and visiting Desert Hot Springs, Salton City, Bombay Beach, and Palm Desert where my MFA residencies were held. I extensively researched the desert landscape and Egyptian mythology, as well as the Egyptian Book of the Dead in order to write House of Hearts.
Now I realize that I needed to tell this story because, although Izzy appears to be seeking her lost lover, her real journey is to find and love herself.
Do you find that you draw on autobiographical elements when you write?
Yes I always start with personal experience and often layer it with more archetypal or universal stories such as myths or fairy tales.
How important do you think it is to have a personal connection with the protagonist of a given story?
It’s essential in all mediums of story telling. I believe we tell stories in order to help others survive in this complicated world. In order to teach the lesson of our personal survival we need the reader to…read the book! To engage the reader we need a protagonist worthy of 60,000 plus words or two hours or five seasons. The way to create that connection, I believe, is to give the protagonist a gift, a flaw, a want, a need, an arc, an antagonist, a setting that provides conflict, and, perhaps most importantly, a relatable wound.
In what ways does this novel differ from your previous works?
I’ve written many other adult novels (Necklace of Kisses, The Elementals, Beyond the Pale Motel, Quakeland) and House of Hearts fits in with those but I think it’s my strongest because I spent so long finding the poetics of the voice; researching cults, killers, and mythology; reading and studying many inspiring novels; and building what I hope is a compelling plot with the help of screenwriting techniques.
What is the biggest thing you want readers to take away from House of Hearts?
Here’s a quote from the novel and it was inspired by Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead at Normandi Ellis.
“…let the wildflowers grow unfettered….You were born to make beauty in the slaughterhouse of the world. You were born to toil. You were born to love. Offer yourself up to the light of the golden eye of the sun, to the silver mouth of the moon, to the gods and goddesses of love… Loss is inevitable, but do not fear it. Live with hope, with imagination and purpose.”
Is there a genre that you’ve yet to tackle that you want to in the future?
You’ve been a finalist for the Professor of the Year Award. Does teaching satisfy you in ways that writing does not?
Yes, I love to teach. I love the immediate gratification of encouraging people to tell their stories and helping them to shape these stories into work that others want to read.
As a successful novelist, do you feel a responsibility to help the writers of tomorrow?
Always. I try to practice this every single day with my many wonderful students
What has been your greatest professional success?
What about a professional setback? What did you learn?
It took a long time to get House of Hearts published. I learned what I am reminded of again and again: never give up.
Can you tell us about any other upcoming projects?
Luv [sic] is Fight Club with women, dating, and grammar.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Read everything. Write a lot. Get support. Be kind to yourself. Work really, really hard.
Finally, what is your favorite book of all time?
I’m going to say Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I’m sad to admit that I only read it recently. Everyone should read this perfect novel, at least once when they are young and then again later. Powerful and necessary social commentary plus surreally beautiful language. When will someone make a series based on this book?
House of Hearts excerpt: Izzy Ames lives with her high school sweetheart, Cyrus Rivera, in the Salton Sea. They cling to each other and to their close friends Nephy and Seth to cope with the trauma of their pasts. Until the morning Izzy wakes up to find Cyrus has vanished.
When she realizes no one will help, Izzy takes matters into her own hands and decides to search for Cyrus alone. After weeks of looking for him, she discovers a clue that leads her to the House of Hearts retreat center run by the mysterious Sky. At House of Hearts, Izzy meets an intriguing musician named Ever Fontana and for a moment she is able to forget the pain of her past. But when new clues about Cyrus’ disappearance surface, Izzy must go down into the dark to find the truth.
Izzy’s quest will take her into a world of sexuality, madness, and violence, where she will discover life-changing secrets not only about Cyrus but, ultimately, about herself.
“The desert is alive with story, with terror, with myth, with wonder, and Francesca Lia Block has planted a House of Hearts there. Come in if you dare, but you might not make it back out. ~ Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians
“A lushly sensory pageturner that will satisfy Block fans and create new ones— I was swept up in the story but also paused, with pleasure, to savor the way this writer captures, again and again, the overwhelm— gorgeous and frightening— of the Southern California landscape.” ~ Aimee Bender, author of The Butterfly Lampshade
“House of Hearts…is remarkably beautiful, unpredictably strange, and startling in a way that is impossible to anticipate. Her themes tread familiar ground: the traumas that roil through a body in grief; the darkly unsafe sorceries that bedevil a soul into being; and the burden of love’s ancient curse, which is the sacrifice that every god demands. For sometimes delusions aren’t delusions at all and if we think we’re chasing ghosts, we’re wrong. The ghosts are hunting us. The wisdom of this novel is absolute. What hurts is also what heals. The blessing is the wound. It isn’t myth that makes us, it’s the other way around. And the only path past pain cuts straight through hell. You simply must read this book.” ~ Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of Housewife
“House of Hearts is hot, strange, and heartbreaking as the Mojave at high noon. Compulsively readable, with a heroine whose voice we need now, this is a novel that will teach you how to survive.” ~ Lisa Locasio Nighthawk, author of Open Ms
“Francesca Lia Block’s luminescent prose shines in this dark, suspenseful tale that reaches back to ancient myth but reverberates with contemporary themes. Block’s luscious imagery floods the senses and Izzy’s tangled quest to find her missing desert lover will haunt you long after you finish the book. Brava!” ~ Denise Hamilton author of Damage Control
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