The Austin Review was honored to get a few moments of Cari Lunaʼs time for an interview. The author of The Revolution of Every Day shared her wealth of knowledge on the New York homesteader movement over drinks in a quiet Portland coffee shop, as she moved skillfully between sending kids to school and stealing a few hours to work on her next great novel.
The Austin Review: The writing in Revolution of Every Day is described in a few reviews as “gritty,” yet it strikes me as amazingly clean. And to an effect—not just the stylistic juxtaposition with the content—but as a big arrow pointing to the fact that the characters whose minds we pass in and out of arenʼt dumb just because their living situation is unorthodox. They aren't uneducated. And they donʼt fit stereotypes of squatters. Can you talk about your influences for the book and your stylistic choices?
Cari Luna: The choice of the word “gritty” has jumped out at me too, because I donʼt necessarily see that. I think [reviewers] are trying to find a way to talk about the squatters and describe them, and itʼs more about the subject matter than the writing.
Inspiration wise, stylistically? I wrote it over a period of six years, and there were a lot of varying influences in that time. In terms of philosophy, the title, 'The Revolution of Every Day,' is a hat-tip to the situationist text, The Revolution of Everyday Life. The situationists were Anarchists in the French uprisings of ʼ68, and [the book] was written by Raoul Vaneigem.
The squatters in New York were a very diverse group with different reasons for squatting. Those who squatted for political reasons, many of them, were inspired by the situationists. At the actual historical eviction of May 1995--the eviction the novel is inspired by--one of the protest signs held up was “long live the revolution of everyday life.” When that came up in my research it gave me goose bumps. I was like, “Yeah, thatʼs it!” and that felt like a major key to understanding the political aspect of the story as well: What are these people doing and what are they looking for? And what the hell is “the revolution of everyday life?" So I read [the book], and it had a huge influence on how I saw the motivations of the characters, so I tried to bring that in, too.
TAR: Was there anything stylistically you had to keep reining in, or is this your natural style?
CL: No, thatʼs just my voice. Thatʼs just how it came out. I tried to vary it from point of view to point of view, so every character would have their own feel, but itʼs just how it comes out. I didnʼt try to shape it too much.
TAR: The emphasis on “homesteading” in contrast with “squatting” is really brilliant marketing language. Did this come out of our current cultureʼs obsession with yoga and urban farming, or does this come out of your research? Not that I think the ideas are new, but rhetoric certainly changes, and Iʼm curious if these movements in the ʻ90s used the same language/buzzwords that weʼre using now?
CL: In the ʻ70s New York was going broke, [there was a] huge fiscal crisis, and landlords were abandoning their buildings left and right because they weren’t able to refinance them. They depended on refinancing for the upkeep of the building. During the fiscal crisis, the working class neighborhoods primarily were redlined by the banks and residents couldnʼt get a mortgage and couldnʼt refinance an existing mortgage. So they started abandoning their buildings and then those buildings were taken over by the city and warehoused vacant... and people started moving into them—this is before the squatters that I write about.
People started taking them over and having real success with rebuilding them, and President Carter was impressed by their success and created a national homesteading program. If groups could lay claim to a building, [they could] apply for a grant to get funding to rehabilitate a building and move in. They would be granted a title for as little as a dollar, be provided with federal money and they would be able to literally homestead a building as homesteading was done in the West. This was in ʻ77 when Carter did that. In 1980 New York established its own local homesteading program, and they would give groups money and deliver building materials. In ʼ81 when Reagan came into office he got rid of the national programs around the same time he ripped the solar panels off the white house and undid everything Carter did. Then ... the city program ended because real estate values started to go up again, and they didnʼt want to give these buildings away any more.
Once the homesteading programs ended there were still abandoned buildings, and people still needed homes. Squatters started moving in with a more DIY approach, following the approach of the homesteaders but moving in right from the beginning and living in the spaces as they were working on them. But it was the same ethic, the same logic behind it. There just wasnʼt the same government support behind it. Because it was now an illegal act, it attracted a more radical population.
TAR: One of the most impressive aspects of the book is how much information you have—how seamlessly you move between languages, cultures, and histories (both national and personal). This goes back to how clean the writing feels—I never found the hard edges of something forced into place, and I think I was halfway through the book when I started to ask myself how you knew all this stuff. Can you talk a little bit about your research for the book—how much, if any, was experiential—and about the editing process. What darlings did you have to kill, especially as pertains to research/facts discovered?
CL: I cut an entire story line, actually. In terms of languages, I speak Spanish fluently. For the Dutch, I had a Dutch consultant who taught me to curse. Brilliant curses. Everything is based on whores and cancer and tuberculosis. Itʼs brilliant, brilliant vulgarity with the Dutch. A lot of the New York squatters were influenced by the Amsterdam squatting scene, and I wanted to bring that in with Gerrit. I did a lot of research, two books in particular, Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side edited by Clayton Patterson—which was fantastic—and a graphic novel called War in the Neighborhood by Seth Tobocman, who was a squatter. I also just made a lot of shit up. I had lived in the neighborhood, too. I wasnʼt a squatter but I lived in the neighborhood, so I was vaguely aware of what was going on. On July 4th, ʼ95, I had stumbled across a huge commotion at the intersection of 13th and A. The street was packed with cops in riot gear—it was really intense. I went to investigate and it turned out to be squatters retaking two of the buildings that had been evicted. I didnʼt see the main eviction, in the actual eviction they did use a tank—the wrecking ball [in the book] isnʼt real. The wrecking ball was taken from what happened in the 5th Street squat, but in the 13th Street squat they really did roll a tank down 13th Street. Tanks, riot police, snipers, helicopters—to take 40 people out of two buildings.
TAR: Does that seem ... a bit extreme?
CL: The city spent a million dollars that day. They spent two million dollars over the course of the following summer. It was absolutely ridiculous. But it made sense in terms of real estate dollars. There were five buildings on 13th Street that were originally targeted. A neo-con democrat city council member targeted these buildings to be cleared and converted to 41 units of low-income housing with a minimum income requirement of $13,800 for a studio apartment—not a family size space. In 1993 $13,800 was more than the median income of the neighborhood, and certainly more than the squatters earned. He wanted to kick out people in need of low-income housing and replace them with people slightly less in need of low-income housing. These buildings would be managed by a nonprofit that he ran, and when he left office he rejoined them as a consultant. Iʼve since become friends with a lot of people who were there, for instance, Peter Spagnuolo, who led the legal battle and then led the actual resistance that day, and he organized the July 4th retaking of the buildings as well. So now I actually know their thinking; their plan was to get the city to spend as much money as possible. After that May 30th eviction they organized actions all throughout that summer. Ultimately the city was forced to, or chose to, shut that block down with check points on either side. 24-hour check points. The total cost—the estimate by the time they got everyone out—was five million total.
In terms of research that I wanted to use that didnʼt work, originally there was a third targeted squat, called X Squat, which now only exists as a burned out shell in the very first chapter, which I left in just to please myself. X Squat in earlier drafts seceded from the court case and started to inform against 13 House and Cat House, working, collaborating with the city to get a deal to keep their building. In real life one of the buildings seceded from the court case and was secretly recording meetings and was informing on other squats and trying to throw them under the bus—and apparently they got a deal where they would be moved into Section 8 housing. There was a character from [X Squat], John, who was a point of view character, and Anne wasnʼt, which seemed like a weird choice at the time ... once I realized that she was really under-observed, and once I wrote her point of view, I loved her. I couldnʼt believe I hadnʼt given her a voice before, but it was a major rewrite to remove [X Squat]. And it wasnʼt working because I couldnʼt find a logic for their actions. So I cut it and burned them out, and I gave Anne a voice.
I was talking to my friend Peter about the court case and he said, “Yeah, there was this building, they were communists and didnʼt agree with how we were going about it as a collective.” And I said, “Yeah, I had it in the book, but I couldnʼt make it work.” He said, “Nobody understood what they were doing. They were crazy.” I was like, “Okay!” It wasnʼt lack of imagination on my part, it was that there was no logical motivation for their choices.
TAR: I love the attention youʼve brought to this topic. At the same time, the scene I found most moving was near the end, when Cat lets Amelia touch her scars. There is a distinct shift in this scene—from class-commentary to gender-commentary, and there are two things happening that I want to ask you about here. First is about the shift in general. In that moment all of the relationships inside the house take on a new feeling. Sexual violence, sexual identity, and the self-esteem that go along with all of the issues that both Cat and Amelia face, are issues many, if not all, woman deal with. Socioeconomic backgrounds aside. That scene changes the way the reader views all the other characters in the house, especially Steve and Gerrit. Was that scene a happy accident that found you, or was it what youʼd been writing toward the whole time?
CL: I donʼt know how deliberate it was. For me the book is just about people and their stories and the squats are the world they move through. [Sexual violence is] an aspect of being a woman that preoccupies me. I didnʼt think about its placement in the book, but I felt like I was moving to it the whole time. Not deliberately, I donʼt outline, I donʼt plan too much. I write blind, and I was surprised when it came up. Not surprised. I didnʼt plan it, but I knew that was part of Ameliaʼs history all along. I didnʼt think about moving it forward. It was there, and I just let it go.
TAR: The second half of my question is in regards to the issue of sexual identity, and in a way, ownership: There seems to be an invisible learning curve where women have to figure out who they donʼt want to sleep with. There is a strange brand of feminism which purports that sexual liberty is sleeping with whoever we want to—which turns easily into convincing ourselves to sleep with whoever wants to sleep with us—rather than not giving in because it was polite, or because theyʼd paid for dinner. Yet I have many friends who agree the fraction of men theyʼve slept with that they wanted to sleep with is dishearteningly small. Perhaps Iʼm projecting, but this feels like what Amelia, especially, is facing at the same age many of my friends and I began to examine our choices and behavior. So, first, thank you and congrats for making this difficult topic so digestible and effecting, for women and men alike. And second, what do you think? Is there an answer? Is there something we can do to make this easier for future generations?
CL: A thing that can be done? Letʼs see. I think itʼs in the culture, itʼs how weʼre raised. Sex is always about power dynamics. Thereʼs always a power dynamic at play, even in the most loving interaction, and thatʼs true of everyone regardless of your housing situation and age and experience. Take someone like Amelia, who is very young and less aware of that and becoming more aware of it, and maybe the older you get the more conscious you are about the decisions youʼre making and what youʼre allowing and why.
Iʼm 40 now, Iʼd like to think—Iʼm also married, and my choices are limited by that—but Iʼd like to think that Iʼve come into my own agency where, say I was still out dating, I wouldnʼt make the same concessions I made at 23, where it was: “I owe you this because Iʼve been trained that I owe you this because my body is some kind of coupon for dinner. Oh how nice.” Iʼm a mother of a daughter, that concerns me. I donʼt know that thereʼs an answer apart from talking about it. I donʼt know.
Being sex-positive doesnʼt mean youʼre open to absolutely anything. It means youʼre aware of what you want and you make those choices accordingly.
TAR: Thatʼs an interesting and important distinction. I like that.
Finally: Whatʼs next? How do you feel about the reception of the book and where are you turning your attentions to next?
CL: The reception's been great, I just wanted people to read it, and thatʼs happening. Itʼs great that the book is out in the world and people are thinking things about it that I canʼt control. Itʼs wonderful. Iʼm working on an essay that is a companion piece to the novel. The novel is fictional, but the essay is more, hereʼs what actually happened. I interviewed Peter Spagnuolo, who I mentioned earlier, and Frank Morales, who is a major housing rights activist, an Episcopal priest, and squatter who was a major organizer of the political squatting activity. And then Fly, who is also a squatter and an artist. I talked to them for the essay. I have no idea where itʼs going to go.
Iʼm also working on my next novel, which is set in contemporary Portland and is about real life versus online identity and sexual obsession. Iʼm having a lot of fun with it. Iʼm probably about a 1/4 of the way into first draft. I did a lot of thinking about it and writing around it, so itʼs still early. Iʼd like Tin House to put it out. I want to be with Tin House forever. Iʼd get the logo tattooed on my ass... I love them.