I’m a factory geek. Yup. I’ve been obsessed with spooky, spidery warehouses ever since I lived in a defunct shoe factory in Boston while I was in my twenties in art school. It was a mecca for creative souls, and we formed a funky-utopian tribe with a dance bar in the basement and a veggie garden on the roof. The place still had barrels of shoe soles in the halls and mildewed promo flyers in the basement from 1920, announcing they’d utilized the latest trend in production line speed: workers flying around on roller-skates! My very first novel was set there.
The Boston shoe plant was awesome (Until it burned down. Thankfully, no one got hurt). But my favorite factory ever is the Domino Sugar warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I moved around the corner from it, before Williamsburg grew into the mega-hipster paradise it is today. In the sketchy days when my car battery would get stolen and I’d buy it back from the local gas station for $25.
I recall strolling by the place, ever eager to see which magnificent vessel was docked on its East River port. Sometimes they sailed in from Cuba, sometimes from Brazil or Thailand. I thrilled to the colorful flags flapping on the rigs, and the idea that the boats came from such exotic, faraway places.
One afternoon, I took my camera and notebook over and interviewed the night watchman. My senses infused with its distinct burnt sugar scent, its walls covered in a skim of blackened sugar. He told me stories of workers falling into vats and boiling alive, tales of hearing their subsequent ghostly sounds as their spirits floated around at odd hours.
Oh, man, was I hooked! I wrote a story outline with the intention of penning a freaky urban fantasy. Then, in a stroke of bad luck, my bundle of notes and photos were lost when I went out drinking with friends and left them in a bar. No doubt, some fool thief got a handful of strange scratchings. Yet, the setting stayed firmly embedded in my mind after I moved to Manhattan where I began to write novels in earnest. In 2013 I finally thought up the perfect plot line for the fictional sugar factory.
Private Internship is my forthcoming new adult romance novel, out this fall with Inkspell. In it, artist Sienna Karr lands an interview for a high-level internship with bad-boy sculptor Casper Mason, or Caz. Guess where he lives and works? In the Domino Sugar Factory, which I renamed the Schneitryn Sugar Factory (You have to read the novel to learn why. There’s a specific reason) “Sugar, no shit!” as the newly hired Sienna remarks. Rich, famous Caz has bought the entire factory, and uses the hundreds of existing sugar bags for his sculptures.
Sienna’s bestie, Harper warned her not to intern for famous bad boy artist, Casper Mason. After all, he just fired Harper who helped Sienna get the interview. But the moment Sienna sees Casper—or Caz—sweaty and practically shirtless and swinging from chains while he works on his sculpture, she’s hooked. He’s the richest, hottest artist in New York, and he lives in the fabulous Williamsburg Sugar Factory. But he’s also an incorrigible game-player, who seems to relish testing Sienna’s loyalty with a string of unsettling tests.
She knows she should get away fast. But by the time Sienna sneaks into his locked storage room and begins to unearth his dark and terrifying secret, she’s fallen way too hard for the handsome, charismatic Caz.
Little did I know that in 2014 the Domino Sugar Factory would be a fixture in the news; that the neighborhood landmarks committee would be in an uproar about its demise and redevelopment, and that well-known sculptress Kara Walker would set up her sugar sphinx mama in that doomed place. Yes, reality is as strange as fiction.
Kara explains through her little sugar slave boys who are literally melting—an arm dropping off here, a nose there, that the sugar trade was a very nasty business, fueled by oppressed slaves hauled in from Africa to the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Ditto the mood from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a September, 2007 statement: “Raw sugar was supplied from America’s deep south, mainly Louisiana, and the Caribbean, where it was primarily harvested by slaves. Though slavery ended in the United States in 1865, it continued in Cuba, the world’s largest exporter of raw sugar, until 1886.”
Coincidentally, in Private Internship the sculptor, Caz quotes from Voltaire’s Candide. A horrified Candide comes across a slave boy in what is now Guyana who has lost an arm and leg. The boy explains: “When we work in the sugar mills and get a finger caught in the machinery, they cut off the hand; but if we try to run away, they cut off a leg … it is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe.”
Caz is no fool; he’s aware of the dark side of his spun-sugar art medium. Ironically, as he tears three sugar packets and pours one after the other into his gourmet blend coffee, he says to Sienna in all seriousness, “Sugar, it’s delicious yet deadly, sweet yet bitter to the arteries. It’s no good for anyone.”
Sugar might not be a sunny trade, but the infamous factory is good for a sweet game of tag. In Sienna’s words: “In two of the corners Caz has deposited huge piles of sugar packets--ones tediously counted by spurned interns? My attention is drawn to the larger of the piles. Its packets are shifting ever so slightly. Ah! The jig’s up; Caz is hiding under it. Sugary mosh pit here I come! I tiptoe forward, ever so slowly and pounce, landing with a shockingly loud crunch. Burrowing down into the packets, my hand hits a leathery cowboy boot. I grip onto the top lip for all its worth. “Tag!” I shriek. “Gotcha.”
Caz explodes upward, like a giant cake surprise, his hair all at wild angles. Grabbing me by the waist he pulls me down. We wrestle like kids, sending packets flying in all directions. He’s stronger than me, so it’s not long before his corded arms circle around me and pin me there, some big kid winning one over on his little brother or sister.
But Caz is not like a big brother, not at all. Not sure what we are now, as he gazes at me with his deep brown eyes, animated, sparkly and questioning, wide, as if he’s seeing me clearly for the very first time. “You’re fun,” he whispers, his sculptural, perfect mouth so near mine.”
It’s also great for blustery roof walks, mounting large-scale sculpture, and for a terrifying turn of events, when, in a storm of Sandy-esque proportions, the power and lights blow out and Sienna finds herself utterly lost in an unheated wing of the inky-dark behemoth.
“I remember fumbling and falling. Unsteadily, I stand and graze my palms along the tapered sides. No corners. I’m stuck in one of Caz’s sugar cauldrons! Except this one is massive. Reaching up, it dawns on me that the rim of this stinking vat is way beyond my reach—even ten feet tall. The fact that I can’t see a thing makes it all the scarier.” You see? It’s even the perfect setting for a horrible accident. Will Sienna escape the cauldron? Will they get to play another game of tag?
Private Internship launches on September 29. What kinds of settings inspire you to write?