‘Hearts in Atlantis’

Author Francesca Lia Block on going to the movies in spite of everything

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

“Until recently,” reveals author Francesca Lia Block, her voice adopting a tone of sincere confession, “I’ve never been able to focus all that much on world events–to a fault, I think. But September 11 turned it around. Now, all I can do is think about world events.” She pauses, then nearly whispers, “I can’t stop watching the news.”

Tell me about it.

I myself am a hopeless movie-addict, the kind of guy who prefers the popcorn-scented insides of a darkened movie theater to almost every other earthly environment. But ever since the events of Terrorist Tuesday, my appetite for TV news and radio talk shows has nearly eclipsed my enthusiasm for the movies.

And apparently, I’m not alone. Box-office revenues, though finally beginning to rebound a bit, are still below average. As a nation, we’re just not in the mood for the movies. Which is why I’m feeling guilty this afternoon, sitting here talking with Francesca Lia Block after forcing her to go see the new Anthony Hopkins tear-jerker, Hearts in Atlantis.

Like me, Block would have rather been home, channel surfing with her loved ones.

“The timing,” she remarks with a gentle laugh, “was definitely not ideal.”

Oh, mea culpa. Mea culpa.

Francesca Lia Block is the best-selling, Los Angeles-based author of Weetzie Bat, Dangerous Angels, The Rose and The Beast, and the brand-new novel Echo (Joanna Cotler Books, $14.95), in which a lonely, emotionally neglected girl grows to adulthood in a world peopled by wandering spirits, mournful angels, and self-mutilating vampires.

It is because of Block’s celebrated knack for modern magical-realism, in fact, that I’ve asked her to discuss Hearts in Atlantis, adapted from a Stephen King tale in which the supernatural mingles easily with the commonplace.

Hearts tells the story of a middle-aged man (David Morse) who learns of the death of a childhood friend. The death propels him into a bittersweet reverie of a certain summer back in 1960, when he was befriended by a stranger (Anthony Hopkins), a haunted, hunted mystery man with psychic powers he’d rather not have been blessed with. The unlikely friendship between these two yielded unexpected rewards and painful losses for each of them.

“I like the line in the movie,” Block recalls, “when Anthony Hopkins says, ‘When you’re a child’–I’m paraphrasing, obviously–‘the world is magic, as if you are living in Atlantis. Then you grow up . . . and your heart breaks in two.’ That really touched me.”

“Do you believe that’s true?” I ask. “Is adulthood the time when our innocent hearts are all irreparably broken?”

“No. No,” Block replies firmly. “I do believe that people have that conception–that childhood is care-free and adulthood is pain-filled–and at times I know I’ve felt that. But I really feel that it works both ways. The division’s not so clear.”

We’ve hit upon an issue she’s deeply familiar with. As an author with broad appeal to, literally, readers of all ages, she’s accustomed to seeing her books be slotted into strict categories that don’t quite fit. Take her new book for instance. Though you’ll most likely find it on the Young Adult shelf of your bookstore, don’t let that fool you: Echo is a work of stunning maturity, gleaming with fierce beauty.

“I’ve got a lot of young readers, but I’ve also got a lot of adult readers,” she says. “I don’t believe you can divide people so easily that way, ‘Young people feel this way. Adults feel this other way.’ Maybe that’s the reason I feel at odds with that ‘broken hearts’ line–because I don’t divide the world up the way some people do.

“Children do perceive the world as a very magical place,” Block continues. “But so do many adults. I know I do. And as an adult, I also see the pain and the darkness around us, but I also know that children carry so much of the pain of the world.”

As evidence, Block describes the daughter of a friend, a two-year-old whose vocabulary, ever since September 11, has included the oft-repeated word, ‘Attack!’ She mentions seeing plenty of children of late drawing pictures of planes going toward buildings.

But unlike certain pundits who’ve suggested that children be completely shielded from knowledge of current events, Block feels that wrestling with sadness is an important part of childhood. Like the grown-up boy in Hearts in Atlantis, Block believes that sadness is as important a part of growing up as joy and wonder.

“I believe in the importance of expressing and acknowledging the darkness inside us,” she explains. “Maybe this also goes back to something about the world events right now, but sadness, the kind of sadness we’ve been collectively experiencing–sadness and horror and just pure grief–is so profound. Because it makes the everyday sadness of life seem–I don’t want to call it trivial, because it’s not. That everyday sadness, if anything, is even more precious to me now.”

“This movie,” I remark, “In many ways is about the loss of innocence. Do you think it somehow touches what we’ve all been feeling as a nation?”

“I think so. Yes,” Block replies. “Through losing, not only our closest ones, but friends of friends of friends–even complete strangers–we’ve lost a kind of innocence. In watching people die, over and over, on TV, we’ve definitely lost an innocence.”

Her words trail off and the conversation lapses into a heavy silence. After a few seconds, Block breaks the silence with an unexpected laugh.

“Actually, I should thank you,” she says. “Maybe it was good to be forced to go to the movies–just so I’d stop watching the news for a few short hours.”

I suppose I agree.

And, Francesca Lia Block–you’re welcome.

From the October 18-24, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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