We’re All Doomed Fools, a conversation with Cari Luna, author of The Revolution of Every Day

Cari Luna’s novel, The Revolution of Every Day, recently won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. A street’s eye view of life on the margins, Luna reveals a side of Manhattan that won’t ever make the Wall Street Journal.

Court Merrigan: Why this book? Why this story?

Cari Luna: I started the book in 2005, when I was pregnant with my first child and living in Brooklyn. I was preoccupied with what it would be like to raise a kid in New York, and how we would be able to afford it. Ultimately, we couldn’t, which is why we moved to Portland in 2007.

I was born in the Lower East Side in 1973 in a very different version of the city. You could still be middle class in New York back then and get by somewhat comfortably. By 2005, not so much. And so as my pregnancy changed the book and led me to explore questions of motherhood, my thoughts about New York led me to explore gentrification. If I was going to write about gentrification in New York, the squatters of the Lower East Side seemed like a good place to look.

Clearly, at that point, real estate values were more important than the well-being of the people.

The Revolution of Every Day is set in a community of squatted buildings on the Lower East Side. The period that it covers — 1994–1995 — was, to my mind, the tipping point in the neighborhood, the point when money won. The novel draws on the history of the LES squats, in particular the story of a group of squats that formed the East 13th Street Homesteaders Coalition to try to fight off the City’s attempts to evict them. After a year and a half of fighting in court, they lost and were evicted in a massive militaristic siege. That eviction played a big part in my desire to set the novel in the squats. The police brought SWAT teams, snipers, police in riot gear, mounted police, a helicopter and AN ARMORED TANK to evict forty people from two buildings. Clearly, at that point, real estate values were more important than the well-being of the people. That merited telling.

That said, this is truly a novel, truly fiction, and the characters are pure invention. I wrote about the actual history of the LES squats in Jacobin.

CM: I think there’s a tendency to think heavy-handed government tactics like we saw recently in Ferguson and Baltimore are a new phenomenon, when in fact around the time that an armored NYPD tank was evicting squatters in the Lower East Side, the ATF was massacring women and children in Waco, Texas. Is there a pattern here?

CL: My recollection of what happened in Waco in the 90s is shaky at best, but neither the squatters in the Lower East Side, nor the protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore were bunkered down with a large cache of weapons. The squatters had no weapons, yet were met with militaristic force. The protestors had no weapons, yet were met with militaristic force. It isn’t new, but it is increasingly common. The tank that the NYPD rolled down East Thirteenth Street in 1995 was shocking. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be shocking today.

CM: So you had direct experience with squatters in New York in the 90s?

CL: I lived in the neighborhood at the time, but I was never a squatter. I was witness to a pretty key action in July 1995, but remained an onlooker. I went to college with a couple of former squatters, but never asked them much about their experiences. The squatting community was something that only caught my attention in hindsight. Since the book came out, I’ve become friends with a number of former squatters who were involved in the historical events that inspired the book. I’m so grateful that I didn’t get to know them until after the book was written, because I would have felt beholden to their versions of the story, and the book would have suffered. And even though they wouldn’t have expected it, I would have been unconsciously tempted to make them more heroic and less flawed — less human.

CM: How are the folks your characters are loosely based on faring these days? What happens to a squatter twenty years down the road?

CL: My characters are wholly invented. They aren’t based on any real people, even loosely. I’ve heard there’s some speculation in the neighborhood about which characters are based on which real squatters, and I’d like to officially go on the record as saying NONE. Honestly, none.

But the actual former squatters of the Lower East Side? They were a very varied group, so they’ve gone on to do all kinds of things. Some are still in the few remaining, now legalized squats. Some are teachers; some are working artists; some are scientists; many are parents. Some stayed in the city, others moved away. And life being life, quite a few have died. You can read about three of them in that Jacobin article I mentioned earlier.

CM: Is squatting still happening today? Are squatters still scrounging a living in buildings abandoned by New York City?

The New York I wrote about in the book no longer exists, which was a big part of what moved me to write it.

CL: The time when it was possible to take over an abandoned, city-owned building in New York and make a home in it — however fleetingly — is long, long gone. The real estate is now too valuable for landlords to walk away from, and so any empty properties are much more likely to be bank-owned as a result of foreclosure than titled to the city due to unpaid taxes, as happened in the 1970s and 80s. It’s a completely different proposition now. There have always been squatters in New York, by necessity, and I’m sure there are still people squatting very quietly in various corners of the city, but the time of squatting as a form of radical protest, as a community action to establish low-income housing in the city, is over. The New York I wrote about in the book no longer exists, which was a big part of what moved me to write it.

CM: I’m a dog-earing reader, always chasing perfectly-turned phrases and slashes of insight. I dog-eared a shit ton of pages in The Revolution of Every Day. Chasing a phrase like this one: “There are no half-measures at twenty-one, when time stretches out full and limitless, the momentum of the teen years still pushing like an insistent hand at your back.”

How many drafts did this book go through to get it to that pitch? How long have you been working on this book in one form or another?

CL: Oh, I love that! Thank you. Would you hate me if I said that line just came out like that and I didn’t touch it at all?

CM: A little.

CL: I’m very lucky in that language and voice come to me readily in first draft. It takes me many drafts to finish a book, but my revisions are never about language. Revising always seems to come down to plot and character development for me. Especially plot. That’s what comes the least naturally. Getting the words out in a way that sounds good is the easy part for me; it’s making them add up to something logical and well-supported that comes as a challenge. That’s why I always freewrite my first drafts. I let my brain do its language thing in first draft, without logic getting in the way. Then I go back in revisions and try to make it all take a coherent shape. A professor in grad school said I was an intuitive writer rather than an analytical one. I’m not entirely sure he didn’t mean it as an insult, but I’ll take it. I think it’s true.

CM: So, nitty-gritty: how many of these drafts did Revolution go through? Do you have beta readers, or are you a solo artist?

CL: Thirteen drafts from the beginning in 2005 to the final manuscript in 2012. Mind you, I had two babies in that time period, which slowed the process down considerably. No one can do it entirely alone, I don’t think. I’d be very distrustful of anyone who said they do. I have great, trusted draft readers who I rely on to call me on my shit. And Meg Storey, my editor at Tin House, was an incredible reader for me. She played a huge part in getting Revolution to where it is in the final version. She bought draft eleven and we went through two more rounds of revision before it was done.

CM: A line that in some respects sums up the “political” stance of your novel: “We don’t live in a police state, as long as you do what you’re told.” Care to expand on that? Is New York City a police state? Is America?

The main political stance, if I were to boil it down, would be PEOPLE OVER PROFITS.

CL: I disagree that it sums up the political stance of the novel. The novel is concerned with the rights and well-being of the people vs a government that increasingly functions in service of corporations. The main political stance, if I were to boil it down, would be PEOPLE OVER PROFITS. That said, I do stand by the statement in general, particularly because our increasingly militarized police forces have repeatedly demonstrated that property is valued over human life. Particularly if that human is a person of color.

CM: Two of the main characters run a bike shop where they set out tools where people can tune their own bikes, for free. Seems like they’d be getting ripped off all the time, but no mention is made of that. Most of the characters live like this, getting by on gettin’ by, as Jerry Jeff Walker would say. This insouciance in the teeth of the most capitalist town on the planet seems so brave as to be reckless. Are these folks, squatters among the ruins of Manhattan’s glamour, ultimately foolish and doomed?

CL: Manhattan wasn’t particularly glamorous back then, nor is it really all that glamorous now when you’re actually down in it rather than reading its press releases, and we’re all doomed fools. And yeah, the bike shop probably would have been ripped off occasionally, but not all the time. Because it was part of a community, providing a useful service to the people who lived there. The squatters weren’t foolish, though they were doomed. Idealistic, maybe. Gentrification destroys communities, changing them to cater to the desires of a more affluent population. The squatters, for the most part, fit themselves into the existing fabric of the neighborhood, respecting the culture that was already there. So yeah, they could teach the neighborhood kids to fix bikes, and they could set some basic tools out. The bike shop wasn’t about profit, it was about building community. So if a few tools were lost occasionally? So be it.

CM: Care tell us about the long process of getting The Revolution of Every Day into the world? You had an agent, and then you didn’t, and then you got in with the good folks at Tin House. I’m betting there were more steps along the way.

CL: Oof. Yeah. The Revolution of Every Day isn’t my first novel. I wrote another one first, and got a great agent for it, and she was shopping it around while I wrote Revolution. She shopped it for two years and couldn’t sell it and it went into the drawer. We went through a round or two of revisions on Revolution, but she just couldn’t get comfortable with it. She didn’t really get the squatters or what I was trying to do with the book. She’s a terrific agent and a wonderful person — she just wasn’t the right fit for the project. So we parted ways and I spent a year trying to get a new agent, with no luck. I came close a few times, but no one wanted to take a chance on it. It often came down to “Who cares about a bunch of squatters?”

Well, I did. I decided to submit it to independent presses on my own, and was lucky enough to sell it to Tin House Books rather quickly. Tin House turned out to be exactly the right home for it, so there’s a happy ending there. I’ve since signed with a new agent who’s a much better editorial fit for me.

CM: A reviewer on Amazon got under your skin recently when he used the label “Women’s Fiction” (whatever that means) as a pejorative to describe The Revolution of Every Day. How about a blow-by-blow rundown why.

CL: Ach. Okay. I usually privately kvell over the good reviews, because they feel good, and do my best to disregard the bad reviews, because they don’t help me and weren’t written for my eyes anyway. Honestly, it was probably a mistake to vent on Twitter and I hesitate to revisit it now. I’m breaking all kinds of rules of decorum by doing so. (Fuck rules of decorum.) There was one Amazon review recently. (Should we call them reader reviews? Civilian reviews? Anyway…) This guy on Amazon got to me because he said my book didn’t deserve the Ken Kesey Award because it, in his estimation, “bordered on Women’s Fiction.” By this, I can only assume that he means “considers women’s stories as central to the narrative.”

Women’s Fiction, when used as a marketing category, generally refers to commercial fiction written by women, where the main protagonist is a woman. The themes may or may not be domestic. It can be said fairly that commercial fiction seeks to do different things than literary fiction, and that it makes different promises to the reader, but the line can be hazy. “Women’s Fiction” (damn, I hate that term) sells better than literary fiction, so publishers are often eager to squeeze a novel written by a woman into the Women’s Fiction category by slapping a pink cover on it and tweaking the jacket copy. But when they do so, the literary merit of the book is instantly devalued, which means that a woman writer might sell more copies, but she will earn less respect for her work. A man can explore the same themes of family and domesticity with impunity.

What got to me about that review was that he used the term “Women’s Fiction” as a means of denigrating my work.

I don’t want to wade too deeply into the way books are marketed, and I don’t have anything to say on the topic that hasn’t been argued many times before. What got to me about that review was that he used the term “Women’s Fiction” as a means of denigrating my work. No marketer or publicist would call The Revolution of Every Day Women’s Fiction. He was using it as an insult, as a way of explaining why my book didn’t deserve the prize it had won. It didn’t deserve the prize, in his eyes, because three of the main characters are women, and they have stories and concerns of their own. He can’t, apparently, see the literary merit in that.

Of the five finalists for the award, two of us were women, and three were men. When the reviewer said he preferred other finalists’ books to mine, I have a strong guess as to which of those books he meant.

CM: I found the storyline of Cat, a former Manhattan wild child legend living on the last scraps of faded glory, to be incredibly sad. Is she in any sense a metaphor for the last rockin’ days of the city before the suits took over for good? I suspect Cat herself wouldn’t like the idea of being someone else’s allegory.

CL: No metaphor. Cat is Cat. She was the hardest character to write — she kept slipping away from me. But once I finally got a handle on her, I fell for her hard. I think she’s my favorite of the five main characters.

CM: It has come to my attention that, unlike me, you somehow don’t love the shredding artistry of Dire Straits. Fine, fine. Different strokes and all that. Who *do* you love, then? The Hold Steady, I hear? And do you listen to them when you work, or do you prefer silence?

CL: I do not love Dire Straits. I actively dislike Dire Straits. It’s true. I can’t work to music; I find it too distracting. But I listen to music in most every moment when I’m not writing, reading, or sleeping. It’s hugely important to me, and influences my work quite a bit. My favorite band of all time, if I have to choose, is The Velvet Underground, but yes, my favorite contemporary band is The Hold Steady. Full disclosure: Tad Kubler, the lead guitarist of The Hold Steady, is an old friend, and I sang backup on a song for their third album. (Okay, that sounds more glamorous than it was. I shouted on a shouting chorus for a song that got cut from their third album. But it was a B-side in the UK! And I get bonus points for waddling into the studio 8 months pregnant.) That said, if Tad weren’t a friend I would still love The Hold Steady. You’ve got some of the best guitar of our generation paired with Craig Finn’s often brilliant, novelistic lyrics and a delivery that you either love or hate. And there’s a fantastic tension between Craig’s lyrics and delivery and Tad’s composition… It’s just great, great stuff. Lyrics are very important to me. If I don’t like the lyrics, I find it hard to even tolerate the song, no matter how good the music might be. I also love Van Morrison, Neko Case, Neutral Milk Hotel, Joni Mitchell, The Long Winters, Aimee Mann, Laura Gibson, Jolie Holland…

CM: Speaking of music, Revolution is being made into an opera?!!? How did that come about?

CL: Crazy, right? I’ve known Anne Midgette, the classical music critic for the Washington Post, for years. She loved Revolution and passed it along to Daniel Felsenfeld, a composer she’s friends with who’s worked with prose writers before. He loved it and passed it along to Alexis Rodda, a soprano he’s worked with before, who he says is “fearless.” Alexis loved it (I had no idea this was all going on, by the way) and applied for a grant to commission and perform in an original opera based on the book. After she won the grant, she and Daniel approached me about writing the libretto.

CM: I’m picturing the barricade from Les Mis. Is that what this opera is going to be like? When and where will it run?

CL: Confession: I’ve never seen Les Mis on stage or screen, and have never managed to get very far into the book. The opera is going to run in New York at the end of the year, at Elebash Hall. We’re waiting on final confirmation of the date, but it’s looking like early December of this year.

CM: You’re writing the libretto. I imagine that’s something like writing a screenplay. Or a totally different beast?

CL: The libretto was really tough. I had one singer to work with — Alexis will be the only performer. So I had to adapt a novel told in third person, with lots of interiority and dialogue, into first-person monologue. No exposition, no dialogue. I decided to focus on the three female characters: Cat, Amelia, and Anne. It’s going to be up to Daniel and Alexis to figure out how to indicate point-of-view shifts. I can’t wait to see how they handle it. It’s not the whole novel, but sections of it put together to give the overall story arc, as well as tastes of the stories of each of the women.

CM: So what’s next?

CL: I just finished my next novel. It’s with my agent, soon to go out to editors. It’s very different from The Revolution of Every Day. It’s a (fictional!) first-person confession by a woman who creates a fake persona on Twitter, and uses it to lure in an ex-boyfriend. There’s a very strong erotica element. I’ll be very curious to see how fans of Revolution react to it.