Beyond the Pale Motel is the type of story you want to end well. You want Catt, the protagonist, to work through her issues and to find peace. You want someone to tell her she’s beautiful and worthwhile. You want her to realize she doesn’t need to chase society’s narrow view of beauty—an unattainable goal, because of her more voluptuous frame. When Catt finally does realize her body is perfect, her revelation is so simply stated, and with such regret, it moves the reader to ponder how any woman can suffer from body dysmorphic disorder.
Francesca Lia Block, author of Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books and The Rose and The Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, is known for her dreamy prose and for her shimmering version of Los Angeles. Her characters feel like real people; they address myriad real world problems, as they navigate an otherworldly cityscape. In Beyond the Pale Motel, Block uses parts of the body to convey how disconnected and incomplete Catt feels. Catt and her best friend, Bree, cut and style hair at a salon called Head Hunters. Catt works out at a gym called Body Farm, in an attempt to inspire desire in her husband, who ultimately leaves her for another woman. The serial killer stalking the city slices his victims into parts: one woman’s legs, another woman’s arms. When Catt explores sex with random men, she physically separates from her body. Catt only becomes whole after she pursues the Hollywood Killer to an abandoned motel in the desert, where she realizes there is more to life than the pursuit of perfection. There is friendship. There is love.
And through this epiphany, Catt achieves a kind of peace.
Francesca Lia Block, novelist and expert in everyday magic, was kind enough to answer our questions about her new book, Beyond the Pale Motel, as well as her love of fairy tales and mythology. We’re incredibly excited to share this interview with you and to spread the word about this brutally beautiful book. (Your humble editor is also a bit nervous, as she’s new to book reviews and interviews.)
1. Many of your books are inspired by mythology and fairy tales. What draws you to these stories? Why do you think such stories endure?
The timeless truths of myths and fairy tales move me deeply. I feel profoundly understood and connected to humanity when I read them. The imagery symbolizes things that we may be afraid to look at or write about directly and the stories themselves teach us how to navigate in a dangerous world and connect us to others who understand us and can help us survive both spiritually and in the physical sense.
2. Do you have a favorite myth? Fairy tale? Urban legend? Which heroine/hero do you identify with the most? Which monster or mythical creature?
I love Orpheus and Eurydice and Persephone and Demeter. I am very drawn to many, many fairy tales. “Beauty and the Beast”, “Rose White and Rose Red”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “The Handless Maiden”, “The Three Heads in the Well”, which inspired the story “Lay Me Out Softly” in my e-book of the same name. In Love in the Time of Global Warming I create a female “Odysseus” named Pen. Whenever I write about monsters (The Frenzy, Pretty Dead) I find the part of myself that is like them.
3. Urban legends comprise America’s oral tradition. We use stories of monsters and bogeymen to keep our children from wandering into the woods at night. Children intuit real danger doesn’t come from a man with a hook for a hand, and the stories then become fodder for the campfire. We delight in these stories. Do you think our enjoyment of these stories is a collective coping mechanism—one that has persisted since oral tradition began?
I love the craft book Wired for Story. It’s about how stories helped us survive. I deeply believe in this idea. If we can understand our world better by imagining and sharing worst case scenarios we are more equipped for survival. The gathering together of people (either by a campfire, in a book group, at a reading or online) around a story strengthens us even more. We need the imagination and we need community. Without these things we are lost.
4. Your latest book, Beyond the Pale Motel, was released in September. In it, one of the characters says it seems as though the serial killer stalking the Hollywood Hills is collecting body parts. I’m reminded of Frankenstein’s monster—how the doctor piecing together his creation is the real monster. Is body dysmorphia the real monster in Beyond the Pale Motel?
I love that you say this! So well said. Yes!
5. If it were possible for the wealthiest of women to elect to be reanimated after death, in a body cobbled together from certain specified donor parts (e.g. “hourglass torso; lips like Angelina Jolie”), do you think society would revolt, as it did following the discovery of Frankenstein’s monster? Or, do you think society would embrace the practice, as a step toward eternal life?
Interesting question. I think most of us would be horrified but some people would definitely want this and perhaps it would catch on. You should write about this, Larissa! *(I’ll give it a whirl!)
6. The epiphany Catt experiences at the end of Beyond the Pale Motel feels like a punch to the gut. I identify with her so much in this moment. Many of your books concern what I like to call everyday magic—the sense that life is a gift and there is beauty even in darkness. What advice do you have for readers who suffer from depression/an eating disorder/anxiety and are in search of this everyday magic?
Meditate, even a little, do yoga or other gentle exercise, share meals with friends, cook together, light your house with tiny twinkle lights and candles, take baths, use bath salts, breathe lavender, drink smoothies with fruits and vegetables and good quality protein powders, eat healthy foods you love, start a writing group (or book group or cooking group, whatever you love), read poetry, take photographs of beautiful things you see in your everyday life (a spiderweb sparkling with dew, the innards of a flower, animals, shoes), dance, listen to music, see a good therapist, don’t stay online too long.
7. The title, Beyond the Pale Motel, reminds me of “Doughnut Song” by Tori Amos. Were you inspired by this song? If so, is Beyond the Pale Motel a reference to what Catt says about her favorite bands being portals to other worlds (the motel in the novel being Catt’s literal portal to another world)?
I love Tori but wasn’t thinking of that song. I love this idea though! Especially that the motel is the portal! I hadn’t articulated that. Fantastic!
8. Most of your novels and short stories are set in Los Angeles. Your City of Angels is a magical dreamscape. What role do you think sense of place has to play in fairy tales and fairy tale retellings?
I’m doing a short film with filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy based on my story “Bones” from The Rose and The Beast: Fairy Tales Retold. In order to qualify for a certain program she has to shoot it in Canada, which is great, but Los Angeles is my city and I think it has a lot of magic too. I think we’ll do our next film here. Most of my stories are set in L.A. I love the toxic beauty of Los Angeles which reflects the dark fairy tale world, a mix of wonder and fear. The poison flowers. The poison air that makes the sky pink. The freeways that connect you to mountains, desert and sea in short periods of time but can also be lethal. Hollywood’s creativity vs. its commerciality, the emphasis on youth and beauty that can become harmful when people are judged on appearances alone.
9. Cassandra Lyons asks: “Would you consider writing another non-fiction book? A book on writing, perhaps?”
Yes, I can’t wait. I have an idea for a craft book that I plan to write as soon as I have a little time. It will be based on the twelve questions about writing on my blog. *(I’m super-stoked for this craft book!)
10. Which of your characters (apart from those in Love in the Time of Global Warming and The Island of Excess Love) would you want on your side during an apocalyptic event?
None of them are very practical. I think I need to write one.
11. If you were trapped in a haunted house, which of your characters would you not want as a companion?
Cake from “Missing Angel Juan” in Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books.
12. Your novels often include little details and facts that simultaneously ground a work of magical realism and enhance its magic. (For example, in Beyond the Pale Motel, you write about a tiny Egyptian statue that moves by itself in a perfect circle.) Where do you find these facts?
I found that one on NPR. They are all around us. We just have to keep looking! And listening: Cursed? Museum’s Egyptian Artifact Spinning On Its Own.
13. If you could gift a historical figure or a literary character with one of your books, who would it be, and which book would you choose? Why?
I’d like to give Atticus Finch one of my books, maybe Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books, and have him fall in love with me and we’d get married and I’d adopt Scout and Jem! I think my kids would be okay with that. I’d like to give Dangerous Angels to Fellini to make a movie out of it. Or I’d like to give Anne Sexton The Rose and The Beast. I’d like Frida Kahlo to do the cover for the book I’m going to write about Witch Baby and Angel Juan called Lily and Angel. What a fun question! I could go on and on.