Stacy Wakefield’s debut novel, The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory, just out from Akashic Books, brings the reader deep inside New York’s mid-nineties squat scene. Her protagonist, a keenly observant young woman named Sid, arrives in New York City in 1995, at a time when the established squatting community is struggling to maintain a foothold in the face of overwhelming gentrification. Sid makes her way from the overcrowded, besieged squats of the Lower East Side to a Williamsburg that the brunch-eaters of this decade would neither recognize nor rush to call home. I recently had the chance to talk with Wakefield about her novel.
You chose an interesting time to explore in Sunshine Crust Baking Factory. It’s set in the summer of 1995, at a time when the gentrification that crept up steadily for years had fully taken hold, and the squatting community on the Lower East Side was going through a major transition, having lost several long-standing squats on Ea. 13th Street in a massive eviction a few months earlier. What about that time interested you?
I moved to New York myself in 1996 and lived in squats for about a year, so that is the era I know. The characters in the book are fictional, but the buildings are all based on real places I lived. 1995 was a little late in the squatting era, but that works perfectly with the main emotional story that intrigued me: Sid’s struggle to fit into a semi-closed society. That part of Sid’s story is universal—a lot of people feel like they don’t belong where they grew up, are drawn to a big cities and to elite communities they strive to be part of. The fact that the squats were overpopulated in this time period, and that it had become very hard to squat new places, creates extra pressure and drama for that story line.
Can you talk a bit about your own experiences as a squatter?
I learned what squatting was when I moved to Amsterdam, originally as an exchange student. I was studying at Rhode Island School of Design and I was only supposed to spend a semester in Amsterdam. Discovering squatting made me stay, I’d found my people, I was so happy. I lived for five years in the Netherlands in squats. I visited squats in Germany, France, Italy and England when I traveled.
When I graduated from college in 1994 I went with a friend named Grrrt to England and we traveled around doing interviews with squatters for a book that became Not for Rent. That was intended to be a series; we were going to travel all over investigating the squatting cultures in different countries. It was a hit when it came out. There was nothing else like it at the time. It went into a second printing within the year.
Before we did the next book we went on tour with a band from England around America in 1996. I was driver and merch girl, Grrrt was sound engineer and booker. The tour ended in New York. We both knew a few squatters there, Fly for one. I had written her fan letters when I read her zines and comics in the early 90s.
I had to get a job to make some money, and I fell in love with New York and saw a lot of opportunity. I stayed at a few different squats in New York and got a job at the Knitting Factory where practically the whole bar staff lived at 5th Street squat. We all came to work early to use the shower in the VIP dressing room, since no one had running water.
I started doing interviews for a second book that winter. I was talking in depth with women who squatted in New York. But that project got derailed when Fifth Street squat, where I was living at the time, got evicted. I had to start working two jobs to save up money to rent. And I got distracted by other things, work and playing in a band in the growing Williamsburg music scene, among other things. Those interviews I’d done in 1996 were really useful when I started writing this book though. They were full of details I wouldn’t have remembered and really had the tone of that time.
Fly is the woman on the cover of The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory, in a photo taken by Ash Thayer in…I’m guessing 1995 or 1996…in Fly’s squatted space where she still lives today. It’s fascinating to look at that photo and think of all the work she’d already done before it was taken–her apartment had no floors or windows when she started, as there’d been a fire in the building–and to then compare that photo to her apartment as it is now. I’ve sat and had tea in her finished, comfortable apartment in the very spot where the ladder stands in the photo. It’s such a perfect cover for this book, because your protagonist, Sid, is a young woman who, over the course of the novel, grows to be exactly the kind of self-reliant, badass woman who could take a space with no floors or windows and build herself a home.
Sid is a terrific character: complex and flawed and honest. She’s a pleasure to spend time with. I’m wondering, though, about your experience of writing from Sid’s point of view in the first person. So often, particularly if the author is a woman, readers will conflate the character’s identity with the author’s. There’s an assumption that the writing is autobiographical. This is especially true if the book is written in first person. My new novel is written in first person, and I found myself really struggling with that in early drafts. Even though the book is not autobiographical, I felt exposed by that first-person voice. I felt more vulnerable, because I knew many readers would assume I was telling my own story. I had to fight against the urge to protect myself, so I could be as open on the page as I needed to be. Because you and Sid share a history of squatting in the era depicted in the book, it’s going to be a natural leap for many readers to assume that Sid is a stand-in for you. Was that a concern as you wrote the book? And did that affect your choices in any way?
I always wanted to write in the first person. As a reader, I enjoy that vulnerability and exposure you’re talking about! That’s what I want to read. Whether its a memoir or novel first person stories seem more intimate and honest to me.
When I first started trying to write my own stories I got stuck. There are too many threads in real life, I couldn’t figure out where to start or stop or what was important to the story. It was going back to the interviews I’d done in 1996 and inhabiting the voice of an old friend that got me going.
Sid started out based on a woman I lived with at the real Bakery squat and became her own person as I worked. I tried having a character based on me show up in the summer of 1996, when the real me moved into the building. But I was too self-conscious. The “me” character was uptight and humorless and got deleted! Instead I had the characters Raven and Abby, who were based on multiple people I knew, move into the Bakery squat. They created the disruptive feminine energy in the building that I wanted to move the story forward.
Now that I’ve learned more about crafting fiction, I’m writing a more autobiographical novel that is set in Amsterdam. It’s about squatters again. The main character/narrator of this new story is her own person but she’s having a lot of my experiences. Some of it does feel exposing and I struggle with that, too. But still I feel an urgency to tell these stories and I trust that because I love it as a reader.
There are a lot of reasons humans tell each other stories. When I read, I want to learn real things about people and ideas and history and relationships. I don’t want to write or read anything that feels made up.
What’s inspired you to write a second novel about squatters? Is it purely from a personal impulse–to look deeply at that part of your own past? Or is there a more universal story you’re hoping to explore? What resonance does squatting have now, in this moment we find ourselves in culturally and politically?
I think I am writing about squatters because I’m trying to figure out all the reasons that they fascinate me! I loved the outlaw anarchist freedom of it. And in Amsterdam more than New York, the severe cultural strictures within that.
I worried at first that it didn’t make sense to write a second book about squatters, but my writing teacher and mentor, Mermer Blakeslee, said you don’t get to choose what obsesses you, you just have to go with it. I found that helpful.
I’ve also been inspired by reading Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard this past year. In different ways they make obsessively detailed explorations into personal material seem like a great idea.
I totally get that. You can’t discount the power of obsession in creative work.
The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory is your first novel, but not your first published book. Earlier you mentioned Not for Rent, which is a nonfiction collection of interviews. What moved you to switch to fiction, and how was it to approach your topic with that different lens?
Not for Rent is all interviews and we covered a lot of ground fast, from London to Scotland, talking to people about squatted venues and projects. We ended up documenting factual information and details. I’m proud that I wrote that book at age 24, but I had some frustrations with it. It wasn’t the kind of book I would read myself. I loved novels and memoirs, my interviews didn’t go deep enough into personal back stories. The kinds of people who squat are collectivist in general, they don’t tend to want to be the center of attention or to expose themselves. So I felt like we were only scratching the surface. I think fiction is really the best way to do that. Novels can get at much deeper truths about people than really any other art form.
Your novel is set in a very different Williamsburg than the one we know twenty years later in 2015. What do you think your protagonist, Sid, would make of it now? And where do you imagine she might be today?
Sid’s too scrappy for Williamsburg now! She’d hate all the yuppies and NYU students and boutiques. She wouldn’t be able to afford it, of course. But also the sense of space and possibility in Williamsburg is gone, it used to feel very wild and empty and to a certain type, that is inspiring. I think the Sid types have gone elsewhere… to smaller cities, to the country, or further out in Brooklyn.
Stacy Wakefield published her first nonfiction book about squatting, the underground classic Not for Rent, in 1994. Her debut novel is The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory. Wakefield is cocreator of the photo/essay book Please Take Me Off the Guest List with Nick Zinner and Zachary Lipez. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest and lives in Brooklyn and the Catskills with her husband, musician Nick Forte.
Cari Luna is the author of The Revolution of Every Day, which won the 2015 Oregon Book Award for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Jacobin, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere.