What the Hell Happened to New York: A Conversation with Writer Cari Luna

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Cari Luna reads from her book "The Revolution of Every Day," about squatters in the mid-nineties, this Thursday at Pete's Candy Store

Cari Luna reads from her book, The Revolution of Every Day, about squatters in the mid-nineties, this Thursday at Pete’s Candy Store

There are so many reasons to admire Cari Luna’s debut novel The Revolution of Every Day (Tin House, September 2013), the story of a group of radical “homesteaders” who transformed a collection of abandoned tenements in the Lower East Side into a thriving squat community in the mid-nineties. First, there is the smooth, rhythmic beauty of Luna’s sentences, which steadily lull you in like waves lapping at the shore. Then there’s Luna’s holographic resurrection of the squats themselves, which despite being destroyed more than a decade ago, still figure heavily in the mythology of a certain class of New Yorker. And then there’s her utter lack of cynicism—the belief at the heart of the book that redemption is a choice we can all make no matter how far we’ve strayed from our best selves. But the thing that really had me pinned to the page while reading The Revolution of Every Day was Luna’s New York, a city she renders with such loving, careful specificity that it becomes a character in its own right. As a recent expat, her reverent evocation of the city’s grimy, cigarette studded sidewalks, its cat-calling neighborhood boys and death defying delivery men, halogen lit bodegas and swelling crosswalks, had me choking with nostalgia.

Those who’ve already read Revolution will not be surprised to learn that Luna was born in Manhattan and cut a fast trail back there from New Jersey when she left home. Nor will they be shocked to learn that she started off a poet and honed her fiction writing skills at Brooklyn College under the tutelage of Michael Cunningham. In anticipation of her upcoming reading with Brendan Kiely at Pete’s Candy Store on February 6, I talked to Luna about the parallels between her own life and her characters’, her research process, and her decision to let go of the New York of her youth and set off for the greener pastures of Portland, Oregon.

Orli Van Mourik: The Revolution of Every Day is often described as a political book, because it deals with the fallout of the “Disneyfication” of a city that was once a subcultural hotbed. But I really read the book as a love letter to a lost New York. Did you set out to write an overtly political book?

Cari Luna: There’s definitely a political aspect to it, but politics aren’t its primary concern. What I’m most interested in are individuals and their stories. The Revolution of Every Day is character-driven, and the squats are the world the characters move through. But yes, it’s a love letter to the New York I felt I’d lost, and a Dear John letter to the version of New York I’d found myself in in the fall of 2005 as I began writing the book. I started writing the book very early in my pregnancy with my first child, and because of that I was preoccupied with the idea of home, and what it would mean to raise a child in New York—particularly a New York that was drastically different from the one I was born in in 1973. And so it started out as me trying to understand how New York had changed, trying to understand gentrification and what it had done to the city. And that led me to set it in the squats. 

By the time my son was a year old, my husband, Billy, and I realized we couldn’t afford to stay in New York. It was simply too expensive for us once we had a kid to consider. After much handwringing we decided to move to Portland, Oregon. Billy was born and raised in Manhattan, but had gone to college in Portland and stayed ten years, so it was like a second hometown, and we would have a support system already in place, friends he was still close with. But it was a heartbreaking decision, to leave home. It meant leaving our friends and family behind, moving 3,000 miles away from our kids’ grandparents and aunts and uncles. And so I was working through all that as I wrote early drafts—the sense of loss and anger, a feeling of rootlessness.

OVM: I’m really fascinated by the intersection between writers’ real lives and their fictional universes. What are the most personal aspects of the book for you? What did you have the hardest time relating to?

LUNA: I was born in Manhattan and lived there until I was five. Then we moved to New Jersey because my dad got a job there. We would go back to the city all the time to visit my dad’s parents and friends of the family, and so I was still there often enough to feel a connection to it (and to be angry about having been moved to the suburbs). I went to Bard College in upstate New York, but my boyfriend lived in the Lower East Side, on 11th between B and C, and I was with him most weekends and for school vacations. When I graduated in 1995 I got my own place on St. Marks and 1st. It was when I began living part time at my boyfriend’s in 1991 that I first became aware of the squats, because his building was right in the thick of it. But I was never a squatter.

The book began as an exploration of gentrification, and the story of a very specific time and place that I was deeply nostalgic for, but over the six years that it took to write it, it also became the medium through which I made sense of having had to leave home and start over. And in that way it’s very personal for me, though it isn’t at all autobiographical. It’s funny—though maybe not all that surprising—how many people assume that the story of the novel…well, there are five point-of-view characters, so there are five stories, really…how many people assume that the story of Amelia, the pregnant 23-year-old, is my personal story. It’s not, though. Not at all. None of the stories are mine. The book is a combination of the history of the Lower East Side and pure imagination. I mean…it’s autobiographical to the extent that all art is autobiography. The characters are all me, because they came from me. But their experiences aren’t mine. Their thoughts aren’t necessarily mine, though obviously I’m capable of conceiving of them.

OVM: The best works of fiction in my experience set out to answer (or shed light on) a question that’s tugging at the author. What is the question at the heart of The Revolution, if you had to boil it down?

LUNA: What the hell happened to New York?

OVM: How much research did you do for the book before you got down to the actual writing? Do you have ground rules for yourself when it comes to research?

LUNA: I did the research and the writing concurrently. I relied on old newspaper articles and list serv posts, and the few (though excellent) books that are available about the squats at that time. Beyond that, I relied on my own memories of the neighborhood and on imagination. I decided, after seeking advice from my friend Susan Choi who had written two novels based in recent history, to not speak with anyone who had been a squatter at that time, or who had been involved in the historical events that inspired the book. I knew that I would feel beholden to those individuals, would want to “get it right” for them, and so would be constrained or even paralyzed by that pressure. I was afraid it would limit the story, would keep me from getting at something more universal. After I completed the book, I did meet and in fact become friends with several people who had been squatters and key players in the action. And yeah, I’ve since gotten some juicy details from them, but I’m still very glad I didn’t meet them while I was still writing the book.

(Yes, they’ve read it, and have been wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic about it. That’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole experience of publishing the book.)

Revolution Cover-rgbOVM: What are the themes that most fascinate you as a reader and a writer?

LUNA: They say we write the same story over and over again in different iterations, yeah? That we’ve each got our few hangups and we chew them to death over the course of our careers. I think there’s some truth in that. I’ve written three novels so far. The first, which came before Revolution, will never see the light of day. (That one is my thinly-veiled autobiographical first novel and no one needs to read that shit.) The third is a completed first draft, back-burnered because I’m obsessed with a different book right now. They’ve all been very different in fundamental ways, and yet there are themes that keep coming up: anxiety, adultery, sexual obsession, loss. They aren’t limited to those themes, but those seem to be my baselines. I suppose that’s where most of the issues I personally need to work through lie.

As a reader? Any theme can capture my imagination if it’s tackled with honesty and vigor. I want sincerity. Talk to me about anything you want, if you do it without   gimmicks or detached irony. I want to see your blood and sweat and fear on the page, damnit. Which isn’t to say that my appetite is limited to realism, though that is what I love best. You’d be hard pressed to find realism in Blake Butler’s work, for example, but you will find heat and an honesty of intention, and the sense of a human heart at work. You feel like Blake’s wide open for you as he writes. There’s a generosity to what he does. That’s what I look for as a reader.

OVM: On a different topic, you are well known in certain circles for the ‘Writer, with Kids’ column, a regular feature on your blog in which writers of every stripe talk about how parenting has influenced their process. How did this start and how does being the parent of two little people feed into your own writing?

LUNA: The ‘Writer, with Kids’ series grew out of me struggling to find the balance between being a parent and a working artist in my own life. I asked other artist-parents around me how they were managing it, or failing to manage it, and those conversations helped me a great deal. I thought that other writers with kids would likely find the conversations useful as well, and so I began the series, first asking writers I knew personally, and then branching out.

I’m sure being a mother feeds my work in some fundamental ways that I will see very clearly over time. Right now, I just feel really, really tired. I’m finishing this interview up at 2am, after having spent all day with the two kids. (There was no   school today! Because Portland Public School kids are never in school! Because the school system doesn’t have enough money! Because of shitty Oregon politics! But that’s a story for another time.) I spent the day playing board games, making meals, and holding a Nerf sword up at precisely the right level for each of them to jump over about 65,000 times. I’ll go to sleep soon, hopefully, and will wake up at 6:45 to drop them both off at school. And then I’ll write for a few hours and sort through way too many emails and plan an upcoming book tour and then it will be pickup time all too quickly. Yeah. It’s hard to see the more esoteric impact of family life on the work when you’re in the trenches. For that I find the ‘Writer, with Kids’ posts like Jane Smiley’s especially helpful. She managed to produce great work when her kids were young, and has come out the other side with grown kids and continues to produce great work. That’s tremendously encouraging to me. I got to hang out with her at the Wordstock literary festival this fall and she assured me I would survive, that all would be well.

I’m making it all sound much more dire than it actually is. Truth is, Jane and I spent most of that time talking about knitting and eating Trader Joe’s cookies in the VIP room.

4 Responses

  1. Jocelyn -

    This is a fascinating and great interview! I can’t wait to read this book…as a native New Yorker, and one who of course is horrified by how it’s changed over the last 40 years, as a person fascinated by the squat community, and, and, and.

    Reply

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