Natasha Trethewey, United States Poet Laureate

It was a hot muggy Monday evening in my studio on the North shore of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchatrain, just about an hour’s drive from Gulfport, Mississippi, Natasha Trethewey’s birthplace. Ms. Trethewey had just finished a hard day’s work in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson when I phoned her.

Natasha Trethewey, photo Crampton

Natasha Trethewey, photo Crampton

Daniel Reinhold: Why don’t we start with the obvious?  What are you doing with the archives? 

Natasha Trethaway: Well, I’m just beginning to gather some information for a particular history I’ve become interested in recently. I was looking for records of all of the men executed in Mississippi’s traveling electric chair for a 15-year period from 1940 to about 1955. I’m trying to find out not only their names, but also the locations that the chair traveled to around the state.

DR: Are you able to find any photographs of these men?

NT: I did.  I found just today a photograph of the first man executed in the chair, three photographs of him being strapped into the chair, his bare feet, the executioner leaning over before giving him another jolt of electricity.  It was pretty harrowing to look at.  I didn’t expect to see those today.

DR:   In Bellocq’s’s Ophelia and Domestic Work you also work with photographs.  I was curious what you might say about how that called you, or if it just happened.

NT:   I think that photographs always called to me. I’m always drawn to what Roland Barthes called “punctums” in photographs, those things that are little sparks, drawing your attention.  In a particular photograph I was looking at today, it was a dog, someone was holding a small dog in his arms while looking at the electric chair, and the dog was looking at the electric chair.  I was struck by that.  It’s seeing that kind of thing that draws me toward writing a poem even more than some of the other things that might have been going on in the photograph.  I’ve always been drawn to photographs because I’m such a visual person. Having an image to begin with when I’m writing a poem always seems to lead me in some interesting direction.

DR: When you work with images, do you tend to seek out images like with Bellocq, or do you find random images moving you?

NT: Both.  I think now, today, I was seeking out some of those images, but there have been times when I haven’t been looking for them that I’ve come across them and felt compelled to write.

DR: I was fascinated by a detail in Bellocq’s Ophelia, which was that the subject that was being photographed, the photographer’s model, also eventually took up photography herself and there’s sort of a recursion, or a sort of circle: she was becoming the photographer after being photographed.

I’m drawn to form in that way because of the possibilities that the poems suggest that I might follow—not the other way around.

NT: Right.  Well, I think it was necessary for her to find a way to take some kind of agency and to reverse the lens in a sense, not to always be the one on the end of the lens being looked at, but someone instead who had the kind of subjectivity to look outward at the world.  I think, perhaps, that some of the idea for handing her the camera and making her an apprentice came from my reading about Victorine Meurent who was the model for Manet’s Olympia—a painter herself who even exhibited a painting at a salon in Paris. But then the trail that might lead us to her, show us more about who she was and where else she went, goes cold. I liked the idea of her also being an artist and trying to forge her way as an artist while working as an artist’s model.

DR: In Native Guard, you’re writing about your mother and the racial climate of the Deep South. How did that process work, what kind of struggle was there or what kind of a release? And in correlation with that, there are a lot of forms in your work (the sonnets, etc.) so while writing Native Guard how did those two things work together and affect you?

NT:  Well, in Native Guard in particular, I learned early on (while working on that unrhymed crown of sonnets in the voice of the soldier) that repetition was an important element of what I was trying to do.  That is, in trying to inscribe or re-inscribe those narratives and stories—histories that had been erased or forgotten or not recorded fully—it was important not to just say a thing, but to say it again.  And so repetition became the formal element that I turned to most, which is why there’s the crown of sonnets. There’s the blues sonnet which requires repetition, there’s a ghazal which has a refrain, there’s a pantoum, a villanelle with repetition, as well as the repetition of certain words and motifs throughout the entire collection.  To me that was the main scaffolding of form – the idea of repetition. It underscores my handling of those difficulties you mentioned.

DR: Are there any forms that you’d like to still tackle? The canzone, or something farfetched…

NT: You know, I don’t think of it like that. I don’t think of tackling a form just because it’s there.  I think of using form only when something formal suggests itself in a poem I’m beginning to work on. I’m drawn to form in that way because of the possibilities that the poems suggest that I might follow—not the other way around.

DR: Are there any people – name the top three that come to your head, who have influenced or informed your work.

NT: The top three?  [laughing]

DR: Or five or as many as you want.

NT: Well, I should name my father because he’s a poet and my first poetry teacher – that’s Eric Trethewey.  Toni Morrison is always a big influence for me—her elegant language but also her themes and the fierce way that she approaches the work she has to do. Working on Native Guard I turned to some Irish poets: Seamus Heaney, Yeats, Eavan Boland, to help make sense of my South, my history, my sense of psychological exile.  When I was first starting out I loved two books, and carried them around with me in graduate school.  One, by Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah, and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City because they took me both to my material and to my landscapes.  You know, his Bogalusa landscape is similar to my Mississippi landscape.

DR: As this is an Antioch journal and we’re focused on social justice, do you see poetry and politics as…well, exactly how do you see them?

NT: You know I’m really impressed with Antioch’s focus on social justice and I’d like to model what we’re doing on an undergraduate level at Emory on Antioch’s graduate social justice component because I’m interested in that, in poetry—beyond aesthetics—for what it can do and show us about our lives and the history that we’re wrapped up in, the ongoing challenges that we face.  I gave a lecture called (borrowing from George Orwell’s title) “’Why I write’:  Poetry, History, and Social Justice.” It is my argument that those things that compel me to write—the idea that poetry might not just be beautiful, but that it also might do something is very important to effect what Seamus Heaney calls “the redress of poetry.” It might help change the way we think about the world we live in, or the world that we’d like to live in. That is, it might help us make it better.

DR: That leads me to think of Beyond Katrina, obviously a lot happened to a lot of people and you spoke in your lecture about the difference between the New Orleans disaster and the Gulf Coast disaster, but also your sense of coming home and your sense of being distanced from that.  And do you want to say anything about Katrina or the book or that whole thing?

NT: [Laughs] That whole big thing…well, I saw this on the side of the road: it was a politician’s political campaign slogan, and the sign read “Katrina isn’t over.”  And I think that’s true – it isn’t over.  I think it will be awhile before we’re distanced enough from it to really understand its impact on the region and people.

DR: Thank you.  And now, the final question:  I asked this of Kevin Young when he was at Antioch and I’ll ask it of you:  How do you like your grits?

NT: [Laughs] That’s pretty good.  I happen to really like cheese, so some good cheese mixed into my grits and salt and pepper is good.  As a child, they gave me grits and sugar, but I grew out of that, so either plain or with a lot of cheese.

Natasha Trethewey is the newly appointed United States Poet Laureate.  She also holds the distinction of being a professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta.  She has authored three poetry collections: Domestic Work (2000) which Rita Dove selected as the winner of the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book by an African American poet, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2006) about the imagined life of a mixed-race prostitute who lived in the red-light district of New Orleans in the 1900’s, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006) comprised of poems about the Civil War as well as moving elegies to her mother.  In addition, she authored the non-fiction book Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010).  Her forthcoming collection Thrall, which is said to focus on her relationship with her Canadian poet-father, is due out this year.  Ms. Trethewey suffuses her oftentimes historical work with her intense personal background as a bi-racial woman from the South born to a black mother and white father.  Her quietly powerful poems draw us in with their intimacy, emotional knowledge and beautifully saturated close-ups into the lives of those who would not otherwise be seen.

Gregory Boyle, Author and Activist

Father Greg Boyle, photo Barbara Davidson

Father Greg Boyle, photo Barbara Davidson

Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Father Greg worked with Christian Base Communities in Bolivia, was chaplain of the Islas Marias Penal Colony in Mexico and at Folsom Prison in California. He was appointed pastor of the Dolores Mission in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986. In 1988, he worked with the parish to create Jobs for a Future (JFF), a program to help meet the needs of young people involved with area gangs. JFF has already established a school, a daycare center, and an office to help young people find meaningful employment.

In 1992, Father Greg began his first community business, Homeboy Bakery. The company provided training and work experience for gang members. In 2001, the ministry was transformed into an independent, non-profit organization called Homeboy Industries. Today, Homeboy includes a number of different business enterprises. 2010 saw the release of Father Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, recounting twenty years of experience working with young people growing up in a world of poverty and violence.

John Paulett spoke to Father Boyle by phone. During the conversation, Boyle spoke about some of the influences on his work, including Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement), Cesar Chavez (co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association), and Father Pedro Arrupe (a major figure in the growth of the social gospel in Latin America). He also reacted to the Vatican’s recent criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its emphasis on social justice over doctrinal issues such as contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage.

John Paulett:  I was struck by the subtitle of your book Tattoos on the Heart, which is “The Power of Boundless Compassion.” Why do you think compassion is the power we need in order to address problems of violence and poverty?

If Jesus were to compile his top ten grave moral concerns in the United States, most assuredly on that list would be the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Fr. Gregory Boyle:  First, I need to make a full disclosure. That was not the subtitle I had originally planned. My editor added that because she didn’t like my first suggestion. She came up with “The Power of Boundless Compassion.” I remember I was in New York City when she told me this, and then I couldn’t sleep that night. I emailed her in the middle of the night and said, “Please don’t do this.” Because I thought it sounded like I embodied this power of compassion—that, in some way, I knew how to pull this off on my own. So all she wrote me back was “Relax!” Hence was born the subtitle so I don’t want to take too much credit for it. Having said that, I think it’s good. In the end, it’s about a certain kind of compassion that is not just about our service of those on the margins but rather about our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. So it is more connective than distant and it stands in awe of what the poor have to carry rather than in judgment of how they carry it. It is a whole kind of sense, even though there is only one chapter on compassion. The whole book tries to lead us to a different place of connection and to bridge the distance that separates others.

JP:  You mention early in the book that you watched eight young people be buried in just three weeks. What ideas have you developed about how we might address the problem of violence in our cities?

GB:  Gang violence is a language. It is not about anything. It points beyond itself. It is not about conflict. That is important. Gang violence in particular, but I suspect all violence is a language. It is not about behavior. It is about the lethal absence of hope and hope that cannot be imagined tomorrow. It is about folks who are so traumatized that they cannot see their way clear to transform their pain so they continue to transmit it. And the big elephant in the room is that it is about mental illness. We never think it is about that. So a seventeen-year-old can gun down eight students. Or, in Afghanistan, a soldier can just wipe out men, women and children and yet no one talks about mental illness. They try to find a motive because everybody wants violence to be rational action, perpetrated by rational actors. I would say it never is—never. So it is a little bit like in the gospel when Jesus would heal somebody possessed by a devil. That is how anachronistic this is when we bring the moral overlay into the area of violence. I think we need to understand what language violence is speaking before we can begin to figure out what to do about it.

JP:  Who were some of the people who were important to you in forming your ideas about justice and social activism?

GB:  Well, definitely Dorothy Day is a hero of mine. I have read everything and I am, right now, reading, with great care, her whole unedited diary, which is pretty mundane but there are certain gems that leap out. So Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, who was a friend, Martin Luther King, Pedro Arrupe, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus. I was privileged to meet him.

JP:  As you have observed the Occupy Movement and the protests of The 99 Percent who feel more and more excluded from the economic life of the nation, what reactions have you had?

GB:  I was sort of alarmed to hear Cardinal Dolan talk about the grave moral concern of Obamacare and the hubbub about that. I thought that if Jesus were to compile his top ten list of things that were of grave moral concern in the United States, most assuredly on that list would be the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots and the huge disparity that grows all the time. That would be on there as well as the death penalty and the fact that we still sentence children to die in prison. The list is long but it wouldn’t include the things that some people get excited about. Certainly, high up on the list would be this distance between the rich and the poor. It seems to me as bad as it has ever been.

JP:  The United States Bishops and the Vatican have recently criticized the leadership of American Catholic religious sisters for their emphasis on social justice instead of issues such as contraception, abortion and gay marriage. Have the Sisters been involved with your work at Homeboy Industries?

GB:  Over the years, we have had a couple [of religious nuns] teach in our schools and, right now, we have a Sister working as an intern with us [at Homeboy Industries]. That move [by the Vatican] is an alarming development. I was at a talk yesterday and some very old woman said, “I felt hopeful for the Church for one very brief, fleeting moment when the bishops said that a budget is a moral document and spoke against the cuts for the poor.” And I agree with her. It was a fleeting moment. Those are moments that you wish there were more of, as opposed to attacking the religious women in this country. You would be hard-pressed to find an entity or a body of Catholics who have lived the gospel with more integrity than religious women.

JP:  I heard you speak in December [at Antioch] and wrote down this line from your talk: “We are all so much more than the stupidest things we ever did.”

GB: I am stealing [that line] from Sister Helen Prejean. “Everyone is a whole lot more than the worst thing we ever did.” That is her line. I put in “stupid,” but the line is really due to her. No one would want to be defined by the worst thing he has ever done. You wouldn’t want to say that one moment, that split-second, when you did that one thing…that somehow defines the entirety of who you are. Which is what we do in our society. You can’t do anything wrong, and you can’t make a mistake, and you can’t have anything wrong with you. It is one of the rules of society.

JP:  The title of your book is Tattoos on the Heart. Does that refer to the way people are sometimes defined by things such as tattoos, or as we saw in the Trayvon Martin case, by clothing such as hoodies?

GB:  Tattoos on the Heart came from a story about a kid. I had praised him, rather unexpectedly. He got all choked up and said, “I am going to tattoo that on my heart.” I remember, when he said it, in my head I said, “That would be a good title for a book.” The title really preceded the book’s arrival by about ten years. Homies often tattoo their kids’ names or sometimes even, quite elaborately, a baby picture of their kid and I’ve always said, “No, no, no. Your kid wants you to tattoo him on your heart—not on your skin.” That should convey how deep the love goes.

John Paulett is a writer and teacher in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a Master’s Degree in Theology along with degrees in Classical Languages and Theater. He is currently completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. John is the author of four books, including Lost Chicago, which will be published in November 2012. He teaches Moral Theology, Writing and Film at Fenwick High School. John blogs at www.micah6.blogspot.com

Rick Moody, Author

Rick Moody, photo Thatcher Keats

Rick Moody, photo Thatcher Keats

Rick Moody is a counterculture writer who once got to throw a pie in the face of his biggest critic. A New York City native, Rick Moody studied under Angela Carter and John Hawkes at Brown University and received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 1986. His first novel, Garden State, received the Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award in 1991. His latest work, On Celestial Music, is a collection of essays that delves deeply into music. The title essay was included in Best American Essays, 2008. In the time span between these two works, Moody has been prolific as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist while still finding the time to play in The Wingdale Community Singers band. He also co-founded the Young Lions Book Award at New York Public library, which recognizes young authors.

His memoir The Black Veil won the PEN/Martha Albrand award as well as the NAMI/Ken Book award. Moody’s novel The Ice Storm has been published in 20 countries, introducing more readers to his dark comedy and lyrical, evolving prose. His works, with their artful digressions and playful vocabulary, explore themes of addiction, family tensions, the inexorable pull of history, the limitations of language, and love’s failures. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his career is his willingness to engage wholeheartedly in literary experimentation; having already enjoyed success, Moody does not grow stagnant; each of his works are distinct and speak to a writer not content to remain in familiar territory.

In his interview with Lunch Ticket, Rick Moody tells us about taking risks and his adaptive approach to storytelling. He also gives details about his forthcoming novel and talks about surviving and growing as a writer.

Robert Egan:  How do you take risks as a writer? It’s as if, in addition to writing what you know, you’re writing to know. Would you elaborate on this exploration?

Rick Moody:  I do, I guess, write to know, or to find out what I know. Or out of intellectual curiosity. It’s hard for me to imagine doing otherwise these days.

The reductive, conservative, story-heavy version of the novel, the English 19thcentury model, would seem hard for me to do now. I don’t believe in it. There’s no risk at all for me there. If I’m not discovering something in the process of writing, I get a little bored. So my recent tendencies are also somewhat about trying to avoid boredom. I don’t want to repeat myself. Even if that might mean a little bit more in the department of accessibility. I don’t know if that involves reinvention of self so much as a recognition that there is no one self there in the first place. That’s a loaded issue: self. I think we are probably more a society of tendencies than we are society of selves.

RE:  Are there any rules or traditions that you won’t break? Or do you have a rule about breaking rules?

I haven’t met a rule yet that I didn’t want to break. Rules get their value from people breaking them.

RM:  I haven’t met a rule yet that I didn’t want to break. Rules get their value from people breaking them. Without a certain amount of scofflaw activity, the rules wouldn’t exist in the first place. So go ahead: break them all. That’s how you learn which are valuable. However, here are two I like: stick to a minimum number of tenses, and avoid sentimentality.

RE:  The notion that rules get their value from breaking them is intriguing, since we have to recognize these rules to be consciously subversive. There also seems to be a subtler subset of rules, camouflaged as habits. How do you uncover habits that you wish to break or redirect?

RM:  I think what you say about habits is very interesting. At least in my case habits arise out of a tendency to want to avoid improvising new responses and solutions to the world on a daily basis: it would just take too long. Responding to the world as though new (I guess the Buddhists would refer to it as Beginner’s Mind) would just take too long. However, there is no art without Beginner’s Mind, without trying to create new pathways, new neural connections, each with its improvised narrative structure, all of them without or apart from routine. So: a habit is a logical and pragmatic way to approach life and literature, and probably essential in part, but also totally deadening. In a writing sense, I therefore try to root them out, these habits, and kill them. I want to be educable, no matter that I am rapidly becoming and old dog, a mid-career artist, a survivor. I want to be willing to grow despite this.

RE:  How does your heightened sense of setting shape your stories. Also, for aspiring writers, do you have any suggestion on how they can let setting shape their work?

RM:  I love landscapes, and they are important to me. The work shouldn’t only be about the people. It should be about their landscape as well. (And maybe ideas, too.) And to do so, to make use of landscape: just pay closer attention. Be a person, as I believe others have said, on whom nothing is lost. What does the city of Los Angeles feel like? I guarantee you it has real impact on the characters of the stories written there. Why not try to describe that fully? Car culture, and tanning salons, and breast implants, and hispanic people, and beaches, and mud slides, and water wars, and The Business.

RE:  Your landscapes, from American Suburbia to Mars, are as diverse as your subject matter. What does traveling to new places do for people, their thought patterns and tendencies?

RM:  I think travel broadens. There is a wealth of literature to support the idea. America is a straitjacket. When the opportunity arises, go elsewhere.

RE:  If the place exists, is it essential to visit it or live there before writing about it?

RM:  No, but it can help. I believe in imagination, so I believe some of the places to which we might travel are imaginary (see, e.g., Calvino’s Invisible Cities), but when they are not it sometimes helps to visit them.

RE: What’s next for Rick Moody?

RM:  A new novel!

RE:  Any hint as to what type of landscape we might encounter in this new novel?

RM:  The new novel is in its infancy, but it concerns a radio producer who is badly injured in a roadside bombing in a certain Middle Eastern city, and who comes home to attempt to put the pieces back together. It is mostly realistic, though his memory is full of holes. It is, I hope, a bit dramatic. It is unfilmable. It is about the clashing of certain points of view. It has fewer jokes than the other books I have written recently.

RE:  When you speak of trying to create new pathways and neural connections, the premise of your new novel sounds like it’s geared wonderfully to do just that. Does music play a role in trying to navigate a memory that is full of holes?

RM:  I don’t know that music is going to play much of a role in the new novel. In fact, the character, Joshua Burns, has sort of bad taste in music. He’s from the Midwest, and has kind of a Farm-Aid sensibility with regard to music: John Cougar Mellencamp, and contemporary country, etc. But there is a music in radio, to radio, which is why he works there. The novel, in a way, is meant to be mostly aural. He doesn’t describe visual things, after a while just the way things sound. Or that is the idea. I don’t know if it will work or not. And a novel is what happens after you give up on all your original ideas.

RE:  How has your long love affair with music shaped your writing career?

RM:  Music gets me out of the house sometimes, into the world, and it also makes me a better listener, and that is good for my language, my craft. Music makes me think more carefully about language, about melody and rhythm. So it has shaped me a great deal, probably as much as literature has.

RE:  How intentional is the use of brand names in your work? Are they used to subvert or evoke rather than directly advertise – is it branding used in an ironic sense?

RM:  Right: the product placement is parodistic, spasmodic. And intentional. Literature is not supposed to have such things in it. But that rarified version of literature is something worth thumbing your nose at occasionally. If only because it makes you feel alive to do so. I bet there aren’t too many brand names in Thomas Mann. But I like them, and they feel as though they refer to a world I know well, and that is reason enough. Brands, though they are post-modern and dreadful are also, in the run-amok capitalism of now, totally realistic.

RE:  During your visit to Antioch Los Angeles in December, you discussed imagination and revision and mentioned a scientific approach to writing. How do you view the relationship between this scientific approach to writing and the art of it?

RM:  I don’t really think my approach is scientific so much as it is about boiling down the ineffable part of writing into some steps that may prove useful to anyone. I would use the word pragmatic. There are certain pragmatic steps you can take today to improve. I think that doesn’t de-romanticize craft entirely. There’s still a lot of room for creativity, as long as you agree to revise as well. So there are these two steps, the ineffable part (which involves imagination), and the pragmatic part, which involves rewriting. You should try to make use of each.

RE:  Do you see your work as affecting any type of social change? What is your greatest hope for your readers? What’s your greatest hope as a writer?

RM:  I believe in social change, and I believe that literature can serve that function, but I also think that social change, as an aesthetic agenda, can sometimes slow down the work, make it a bit sludgy, because social change, if you lean on it too much, can be a bit preachy in a novelistic context. For me, therefore, the goal is to find a way to get to that material without being heavy handed about it. One way to do that is: formal innovation. If you can change how people think, maybe you can change how they act.
To answer your other two enormous questions: a) I have no hope for my readers except that they are quixotic types who are willing to go to a new place with me, b) I am somewhat hopeless as a writer now, at least as regards my own fortunes. I guess I still want to save lives and change the world, but I would be satisfied with avoiding total obscurity.

RE:  How does formal innovation play a part in not being too heavy-handed when it comes to presenting material related to social change?

RM:  What I mean is a variation on the George Clinton line: “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” New ways of thinking about story change the way people think. And changing the way they think changes the way they act. In my view, then, Ulysses, by James Joyce, is a revolutionary novel, because it brings humanity to marginalized peoples, particularly a Jewish-Irish protagonist, for whom Anti-Semitism is a daily part of his life. It doesn’t bring about this revolution by saying “Leopold Bloom was going to have to deal with Anti-Semites again that day.” It brings about the revolution by making him a completely verifiable and true character, one with whom anyone could sympathize, even an Anti-Semite. And he is made true by all the experimenting with point of view and permeability of consciousness that is essential to Joyce’s project. You don’t need to free your mind with propaganda, you need to free your mind by casting off all the shackles, of which a rigid naturalist formula for storytelling is one.

RE:  If we can change the way we think to change the way we act, can this find its roots in memory? If we can change the way we remember, then can we change the way we think and so on?

RM:  Ideally, memory is accurate, but in a practical setting, not so much. So it may be that you can re-imagine your relationship with memory. You can understand memory as a faulty system. And you can plan for your future that way. You can “remember” that your memories are more wish fulfillment than accurate depiction of what happened.

RE:  I see wishing to avoid total obscurity as wanting to connect with readers and be remembered. Say your new novel will connect so fully with one reader’s mind and soul that his or her way of thinking will be irrevocably changed.  Whose mind do you change?

RM:  It doesn’t matter who the reader is. It only matters that they get it, that they care. It could be anyone.

Francesca Lia Block, Author

Francesca Lia Block

Francesca Lia Block

During the December 2011 residency at Antioch, I had the pleasure of introducing Francesca Lia Block, who graciously read a selection from her young adult fiction. Before writing the introduction, I read a variety of her work and found a kindred spirit there. So when the opportunity to interview Ms. Block for Lunch Ticket arose, I was happy to oblige.

Yolanda Bridges: You have been quoted as stating that your writing is “contemporary fairy tales with an edge.” What is it that gives your stories that edge?

Francesca Lia Block: Sex, drugs and rock and roll? No, seriously, these are usually present in some form. The line “Any love that is love is right” from Baby Be Bop exemplifies my attitude toward love, including sexual love, in my books. It goes without saying that I define love as consensual and non-exploitative, when I say any love that is love is right. This has been considered radical by some people, including the Christian organization that tried to ban the book–a gay male coming of age story–in libraries a few years ago and then wanted to burn it! I write about drug use because it is part of the reality of this world and many people use it as a means of escape. I write about music, and all art forms, because I consider art a healing force and a positive means of escape.

YB: In which of your works, if any, do you address issues of social justice or activism? When you are creating the story are these themes that you consciously consider?

FLB: I never start writing with a moral message but I hope my beliefs about social justice and equality (that everyone is entitled to these) come through in the stories themselves.

YB: What made you decide to draw on mythology to your write stories?

FLB: My father used to tell me The Odyssey as a bedtime story and I grew up looking at art depicting the Greek and Roman myths. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of my favorite books. These universal themes are so inspiring to me.

YB: Fairytales reflect our collective nighttime dreaming where archetypes, such as monsters, show up. Have you ever incorporated your own dreams in your stories? If so, in which stories do your dreams show up?

The inner voice should ALWAYS come first. After it has had the chance to speak, the writer can evaluate the market and come up with strategies.

FLB: I had a recurring dream about giants that is in a few of my books including my new one, which is a take on the Odyssey with a female heroine. I feel that writing is often like dreaming for me, where images and dialogue show up of their own accord.

YB: What is your opinion regarding the changing face of the publishing industry? Is it harder than ever to break into this industry or have recent developments, such as self-publishing, made it easier to become a published author?

FLB: It is harder than ever to be published by a mainstream publisher but self-publishing is a blessing and can give writers a chance to reach wide audiences and make some money.

YB: How do you think that electronic media–Kindle, the Nook, etc.–has affected the publishing industry or book writing on a whole? Has it made it better or encouraged the book to go the way of the dinosaur?

FLB: All I know is that since this development my books are not selling as well as they did before and they are not as available in bookstores, however, my new publishers are working to address this issue and ultimately I think it can be a good thing as long as people are still reading. I also believe that real books will never go away altogether because many people still love the smell and feel of them.

YB: With the type of stories that you write, do you think that you would ever incorporate experimentation into your writing, e.g. links that open, and books that have to be read electronically in order for readers to follow the storyline?

FLB: I am open to all new media. For instance, I am fascinated with making collages of my character’s clothing on Polyvore, doing song lists on Spotify, etc.

YB: Do you think that it is wiser for writers to follow their own muse when it comes to the stories/genres they write or should what is publishable/trendy supersede the author’s inner voice?

FLB: The inner voice should ALWAYS come first. After it has had the chance to speak, the writer can evaluate the market and come up with strategies. Conversely, you can sometimes assess the market and see if your inner voice loves any of the trends and can find a way to create something of integrity from them.

YB: What is your opinion on writer retreats? Do you think that they are worth the investment for new authors?

FLB: I think they can be wonderful if you find the right group leader.

YB: Out of all the stories and characters you’ve created, do you find that you have a favorite? If so, what makes that story or character so special for you?

FLB: Witch Baby is close to my heart because she expresses my frustration and sadness with the state of the world, and also the ferocity of my love. Echo’s life is the most like mine. My new favorite character may be Ariel from The Elementals, my adult novel coming from St. Martin’s Press in October because I have been trying to write this book for almost twenty years and I am very proud of it.

YB: What are your words of advice to anyone trying to find their way in the publishing industry?

FLB: Read what you love, write what you love, find a mentor and a writing group, work hard, be able to handle constructive criticism, avoid destructive criticism and people, don’t be a perfectionist on the first draft–just get it done, be enthusiastic about rewriting or do it anyway, develop connections with people in the industry you admire, self-publish if you can’t find an established publisher, build an audience with social media, don’t give up, write because your heart requires it.