Weetzie Bat, the heroine of my first novel, was born full-grown, L.A.-love-goddess-style, but the sea she came out of was a cement road cut through a cool green canyon, an ocean of ruined palaces, overgrown gardens of amaryllis and oleander and legends about rock stars and magicians.
When I was 17 years old, my friends and I used to drive through Laurel Canyon after school in a shiny blue vintage Mustang convertible. We couldn't wait to leave the smoggy Valley we found so stifling, plunge into the canyon and come out the other side. On one of these trips, a punk princess with spiky bleached hair, a very pink '50s prom dress and cowboy boots seemed to appear out of nowhere, her thumb in the air. We didn't pick her up. But her image stayed in my mind: the pixie spirit of Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles.
The short distance of the canyon separating us from Hollywood made that city a little enchanted. There was the Schwab's soda fountain where stars had been discovered and where we discovered strawberry sundaes with marshmallow topping, discarding our maraschino cherries in the ash tray, the "cherry-catcher," we called it. There was Melrose, still relatively unexplored, with just a few stores that fulfilled our fantasies of becoming punks in kilts and engineer boots, British rockers in pink leather creepers, mod maidens in pointy vintage tennies or dreaming bohemians in Grau depression wear. And finally we would arrive at Farmer's Market, which seemed like some kind of mirage--an oasis (they even had date shakes) where we could wander among the little bungalows looking at Gargantuan fruits, foods from all over the world and necessities like vinyl daisy bags and Indian tomahawks. At Farmer's we would buy an entire banana cream pie, grab five forks and a dig right in to the sweet, melty peaks, sometimes not even waiting for a table.
Our nighttime excursions were even more filled with decadent wonder. Under the gaze of billboard deities on the Sunset Strip we ate hot dogs inside the Carney's train, skulked down the aisles of Tower Records and slammed to bands like the Go-Go's, the Weirdos and the Cramps at the Whiskey and the Roxy. The music was intoxicating. I watched X play one night--Exene and John Doe swooning and darkly beautiful like roses inked on white flesh--and wished I could write stories that made people react the way they do to music--sweating, dancing, crying.
Weetzie was born in this Hollywood but she was named on a San Fernando Valley freeway. A friend and I were rocking to KROQ, when we saw a pink Pinto with the license plates "WEETZIE." My friend, a rambunctious surf-skank-go-go girl who is now a highway- patrol officer, sped up and expertly maneuvered her Bug to catch up with the Pinto. There behind the wheel was the spiky-haired, blonde pixie wearing big pink Harlequin glasses. Well, maybe she was a different girl. Or maybe we never really saw who was driving the Pinto. But as soon as I had the name, the character just evolved by herself. I made up stories about her and drew cartoon sketches of her for years.
While Los Angeles was full of fairy-tale magic and possibility for me, there was also a sense of encroaching darkness. My friends and I found ourselves confronted with punks wearing swastikas as fashion statements. People were beaten at concerts. There was the personal pain I was experiencing due to my father's illness. And there were the first terrifying signs of the disease that would later be named AIDS.
I wrote "Weetzie Bat" as a celebration of the beauty and sparkle I had seen and as a way to deal with the suffering. It is about a group of friends--Weetzie; her love, My Secret Agent Lover Man; her best friend, Dirk, and his boyfriend, Duck--who survive pain by using their imaginations, setting up house and becoming a family.
The sequel, "Witch Baby," is about the tangled, angry changeling child left on Weetzie's doorstep whose wildness makes it so hard for her to belong. "Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys" is a coming-of-age rock fairy tale in which Weetzie's daughter and her friends learn about the power of sexuality. All these characters live in a world where adults are not a source of protection, or are altogether absent.
Some people are surprised that my books with their non-judgmental exploration of themes like sex, drugs and AIDS are published for teen-agers. I did not have a particular audience in mind when I wrote "Weetzie Bat," and sometimes I also wonder about the Young Adult label, although I don't think it is inappropriate. I deal with young people, with their passions, fascinations, obsessions, longings. I use simple dialogue, often full of slang. I write in detail about flat-tops and dreadlocks, cowboy boots and Doc Marten's, jammin' cars, slammin' slinkster bands. I use a light, fairy-tale tone. But my intense themes have attracted adult readers and caused "Weetzie" to be attacked as unsuitable for children.
According to Frances V. Sedney, coordinator of children's services at the Harford, Md., County Library, a member of the children's department had warned against acquiring "Weetzie," saying that it "should not even be in the library, much less in the middle school." When she picked the book up, the coordinator expected " at least pornographic content." After reading it, she wrote a letter in its defense. "This short novel," she suggested, "epitomizes the 'innocent' books where the reader's mind and experience make all the crucial difference."
An irate New York librarian, Barbara Nosanchuk, responded to a positive review of "Weetzie Bat" in the New York Times with a letter condemning the book as a "glorification of pathological neurotics." At about the same time, Michael Cart, director of the Beverly Hills Public Library, nominated "Weetzie" for the American Library Assn. Best Book of the Year list; in the end, the book was voted to the list with the support of all the ALA committee members except Nosanchuk.
Even my very open-minded editors, Charlotte Zolotow and Joanna Cotler, were originally concerned about negative reactions and considered putting a short disclaimer at the front of the book to explain that we were not advocating this lifestyle. They changed their minds, deciding to preserve the book's integrity.
Maybe my form of pop-magic realism--where there are genies and witches as well as real-life love and loss--makes my books especially appealing to teen-agers or to those of us who still identify with that time of life. I believe that during adolescence we are powerfully in touch with two realms: Still close to our childhood, we are innocent enough to perceive the fantastic all around us--in the music we hear, the movies we see, the books we read, even the foods we eat and in our relationships with others, mostly when we fall in love for the first time. But we are also almost adults and very aware of the harsh world we are about to enter, a world that has become increasingly volatile, where the young are exposed to ever-greater dangers.
In the effort to conquer our fear, we may thrust ourselves alone into a smaller version of that world--a violent concert, a threatening sexual encounter, a riot--and feel that having survived we are more in control of our destiny. Or we may choose to make a family with our friends and face fear together through communication and art.