With its ensemble cast, Julia Fierro’s first novel, Cutting Teeth, was a wonder of group-dynamic analysis. Her new book, The Gypsy Moth Summer, continues in this vein with greater authority and a tender, restrained yearning. In the novel, set in 1992, a gypsy moth infestation has blanketed white, elitist Avalon Island, threatening the inhabitants’ summer pleasure in much the same way the pollution from the island’s Grudder Aviation factory threatens their health. Into this cloistered unrest, Leslie Day Marshall—the daughter of Avalon’s wealthiest family—returns with her black husband, Jules, and their biracial children in tow. Their eldest, sixteen-year-old Brooks, soon falls in love with Maddie, the white granddaughter of the Colonel, CEO of Grudder and one of the island’s most prominent racists.
Fierro’s prose is radiant, bursting with a passion for our troubled world and all its troubled inhabitants. Cocooned in racism, classism, misogyny, and greed, her characters have often unwittingly engineered the troubles they face. Yet Fierro knows how to sift through these troubles without the need to be punitive. In writing about Leslie’s lost babies, Maddie’s lost innocence, the island’s lost gardens, Fierro—with suspense-thriller pacing and the sort of precision MFA programs form classes around—seeks to ease her characters’ pain. But in the end, Avalon’s natural and unnatural burdens rule the day.
In certain ways, The Gypsy Moth Summer makes for a bittersweet read. The year 1992 delivered some of the same sort of gut-wrenching events we face today: the acquittal of police for beating Rodney King, the Ruby Ridge siege, and US boots on the ground in Somalia. Yet that fall’s election of Bill Clinton inspired widespread hope. With today’s president, it’s hard not to wonder if the arc of history has ceased to bend toward justice.
Known for her bighearted support of fellow writers, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers Workshop in 2002. Home to four thousand creative writers with classes in NYC, Los Angeles, and now online, it’s been dubbed a top alternative to MFA programs by Poets & Writers and “Best of NYC classes” by Time Out New York. We conducted our interview over email.
—Jane Ratcliffe for Guernica
Guernica: Why did you choose to set your novel in 1992? Many of the issues that your characters face—racism, classism, misogyny, war profiteering, pollution, gun control, sexual orientation, and familial abuse—remain in the forefront of today’s news. What about this particular year stood out for you?
Julia Fierro: I wanted to write about a pre-Internet age when information (“alternative” facts included) wasn’t instantly available with a Google search. As a kid, I rode my bike to the town library every weekend. I read the World Book Encyclopedias my parents bought (no joke, through a door-to-door salesman) from A to Z. Coming of age in a pre-Internet world, and searching for answers beyond my small town community, felt like fumbling in a dark room for the light switch. Children in 1992, like those in the novel—Dom, struggling to accept his homosexuality that labels him as other; and Maddie and Brooks, hiding their biracial relationship—did not have access to infinite information simply by pressing “search,” but had to work to find answers. They eavesdropped on adults, combed through encyclopedias and magazines, or, as many of the kids in the novel do, created their own meaning, for better or worse.
Guernica: Can you talk a little about the impetus for this book? For instance, what made you want to address racism and classism?
Julia Fierro: Growing up on Long Island in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was impossible not to see the divides between class and race. Although Long Island is only a short train ride to New York City, it is, like all NYC suburbs, segregated by race and class, and the intersection of the two. Even as a child, it was easy to recognize, or overhear adults’ conversation, labeling certain towns as “white” or “black” or “Hispanic” or “Jewish,” and further division according to class—“old money towns” that were predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and “new money towns” that were predominantly Jewish or Catholic and filled with first- or second-generation Americans.
In 2006, a shooting took place in the eastern Long Island town of Miller Place, not far from where I grew up. John White, an African American homeowner, shot and killed an Italian American teenager, Daniel Cicciaro, Jr., who had come to White’s home with several friends, baseball bats in hand, to threaten White’s teenage son. I read all the articles in our local newspaper that followed the arrest, the trial, and John White’s eventual release after serving five months in prison. It was Calvin Trillin’s piece in the March 3, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, “The Color of Blood: Race, Memory and A Killing in the Suburbs,” that would stay with me, specifically what John White said to his wife after the shooting, “We lost the house. We lost it all.”
Later, Daniel Cicciaro’s mother would criticize John White for thinking of his home right after he shot her son, but it was the detail I carried with me for years as I jotted down notes, sketched characters, and slowly realized the world that would become The Gypsy Moth Summer. The Whites had moved to the suburban town for a better life and a better future for their son. John White was a passionate gardener and kept “his castle” meticulously manicured. While the similarities between John White and the character Jules in The Gypsy Moth Summer end there, the tragedy of that 2006 shooting was one of many inspirations for the story line in the novel.
Guernica: While you were writing about one Clinton, another was running for office. Did you imagine your novel would be released into this vastly different political milieu? What role do you think writers need to play in today’s political climate?
Julia Fierro: While my initial motivation for setting the book in 1992 was personal, the more I researched 1992, specifically the political climate, the more I was interested the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. After nearly a decade of note-taking and character sketches and attempts at first chapters, which I’d put away only to revisit a year or two later, I began writing The Gypsy Moth Summer in earnest, and considered it more “historical fiction” than political.
Then the 2016 election was underway, and writing about one Clinton campaigning in 1992 as another Clinton campaigned in 2016 was fascinating. Like many Americans, I hoped Hillary Clinton would win, and watching Donald Trump’s racist and misogynistic campaign, as well as his use of classism to pit Americans against each other, made me wonder if the novel was actually “historical.” Now, post-election, the themes of racism, military greed, classism, and misled patriotism, feel more relevant than ever.
Is there any novel that is not political? I’d love to see someone write an essay revealing how political so-called “domestic fiction” is. The results of the 2016 election seem to prove this—it’s the conversations around the dinner table, those which polls do not have access to, and the personal grievances and prejudices of families and communities that dictate the politics of our country. “Domestic fiction,” often labeled as “women’s fiction,” is regularly dismissed as politically insignificant, but the micro is just as important as the macro–the specific details of familial and community life, of personal desires and fears, that have proven, over many hundreds of years, to alter the course of history.
Guernica: How does each of the characters connect with some piece of you? Was it challenging to write from, say, the perspective of Jules, the only black man living on the island? Or the Colonel, the Clinton-hating war enthusiast?
Julia Fierro: Surprisingly, I often feel most comfortable writing from the perspectives of male characters. When I am writing about a character more like myself, like sixteen-year-old Maddie (I was sixteen in 1992), I find it challenging to separate myself from the character.
My favorite characters to spend time with in the novel are the men. The Colonel is vaguely based on my maternal grandfather, “Doc” Doherty, a colonel in the Army who gave my childhood bedroom a “white glove inspection” once a year. My grandfather was a kitten compared to the maniacal colonel in The Gypsy Moth Summer.
Jules, an African American landscape architect, is the character I care about most. Writing so far outside my own experience and privilege, I spent the most time on Jules, and I enjoyed every minute I spent with him in his garden. While Jules and I share a lot—our obsession with botany, our naïve faith in the good of people—writing outside my own experience, I knew that my empathy could only take me so far. I read many memoirs and autobiographical novels by African American men such as The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and The Residue Years, a novel by Mitchell Jackson, as well as the essays collection by D. Watkins, Living and Dying While Black, and Jesmyn Ward’s important new anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. I read and reread James Baldwin’s essays, specifically “The Fire Next Time.”
I knew I needed to make sure their suffering was necessary to the story, and that my characters weren’t sacrificed or used solely to elicit a reaction. Back in 2002, I studied with Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where she taught us to have compassion for your characters. I think about this nearly every time I sit down to write, because bad things happen to my characters, and I owe it to them to make sure their pain is meaningful.
Guernica: I was particularly taken with Jules’ profound love of nature—especially as many of the island’s inhabitants are either disdainful of or disconnected from it. When Jules first sees the neglected but magnificent garden that is about to become his obsession “he buzzed with faith.” What was your intent in making nature a focal point of Jules’ struggle to fit in? And did it ultimately let him down?
Julia Fierro: Like so many revelations in the long and mysterious process of novel writing, Jules’ love of plants came as a surprise. I was writing the opening chapters set at the East Avalon summer fair, a “coming out” party for all the islanders after the brutal winter of ’92, and I knew that even the ancient naval officers (founders of the island’s military aviation factory) would be at the fair, escorting their wives.
I knew those wives had to wear elaborate corsages. Orchids. My research of orchids led me to Jules’ background as a landscape architect. I was in the middle of writing Jules’ first chapter at the fair, where he is the only person of color, and knew he had to have an awkward conversation with a dismissive islander. It was one of those rare moments that feel like a tiny miracle, when your characters seem to act on their own. As Jules talked to the judgmental fairgoer, spotting her orchid corsage, his character was revealed to me. His passion for botany and landscape architecture had led him, in his youth, to the Harvard School of Design, which opened the doors to a world of wealthy white elitists and Leslie Marshall, his wife, and the woman who would urge him to move to Avalon Island in that momentous summer of 1992.
I believe only people can let us down, and that includes ourselves. I am a plant lover to the point that, as touchy-feely as it sounds, I feel gratitude toward plants. They give us so much beauty and ask for so little in return. My life dream is to own a small house with a big garden.
Guernica: In her first chapter, Veronica, the Colonel’s terminally ill wife and Maddie’s grandmother, ruminates about a health aide whom her husband has inadvertently offended: “The offended aide had been another reminder of how sensitive people were these days. So many feelings…” There is a trend these days to label people mindful of being politically correct as overly sensitive or “snowflakes.” Are Avalon’s denizens too sensitive? And have we as a society become too sensitive?
Julia Fierro: My father is almost eighty-two, and his life experience growing up poor in post-WWII Southern Italy makes me feel as if there are two generations between us. Setting The Gypsy Moth Summer in 1992 allowed me to explore the cultural shift that occurred in the ’90s between the Baby Boomers and the MTV generation.
Of course, nothing compares to the huge gap between those who grew up with the Internet, my children included, and those, like me, who did not. I am fascinated by the world they are coming of age in—the era of “me,” of “Emotional IQ,” and “personal best.” Their expectations for instant gratification are mind-boggling. They are living in a time where you can stream nearly any TV show or movie you desire, order something online, and receive it that very same day. Waiting is a foreign concept.
When I look at my father and his brothers and sisters, all of whom were working on their family’s leased plot of land starting at age seven, I do feel incredibly fortunate, and privileged, to live in a time where my own children can speak openly about their “feelings.” But, sometimes, I think we could think less about our own “feelings” and more often about the feelings of others.
Guernica: You’ve often shared that you struggle with anxiety, insomnia, and OCD. What challenges do these present for your writing? And what sort of benefits might they bring?
Julia Fierro: I’m trying to be more honest about my struggles with all of the above now that I’ve been “healthy” for more than seven years, ever since my pediatrician prescribed me an antidepressant after my second child’s birth. Without medication, I was struggling to function—as a writer (I took an eight-year break from writing), a teacher, a mother, wife, and friend. Shortly after I began taking medication for the obsessive-compulsive disorder I’d struggled with since I was a child, I found focus for the first time and wrote my first novel, Cutting Teeth, in nine months. Obviously, medication is not for everyone, but I cannot, and will not, live without medication.
This does not mean I am a different person—in fact, I feel more like myself than ever on medication. The small relief I feel from constant perseverating fears allows me to tap into my creativity in deeper and more nuanced ways. I am still obsessive, of course, and that does come with a few benefits for my writing. When I am working on a novel, I am consumed by the world, characters, and details. I think of little else and take copious notes. Then, when I am ready to sit down and write the book, desperate to release all the information I’ve accumulated, I am already informed in some ways—I can smell the salty breeze of the island’s shores, hear the cack-cacking of the gypsy moth caterpillars feeding on the lush island forest, understand each character’s needs and fears, which, ultimately, carve out the narrative shape of the story.