Interviews
Interviews

Writing America:

An Interview with

Julia Fierro


In Julia Fierro's new novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, she tells the story of the seemingly-idyllic Avalon Island from an

ensemble narration of richly-drawn characters. The gypsy moths who have invaded the island are just one clue that the environment is not healthy and that the inhabitants will be the ones to suffer the consequences. Our web editor Kristin Henley talked with Fierro about writing her sophomore novel, exploring various viewpoints, and her advice for emerging writers. 


I was interested in how the environment acted like another character in the novel. Was that a part of the novel from the beginning? What was the inspiration behind using it to drive the plot?

 

I knew from the very beginning, many years before I dared to imagine the story turning into a novel, that the setting for The Gypsy Moth Summer would be an island under siege by an infestation. Like Maddie, one of the central characters, I, too, was sixteen in 1992 and we had an epic caterpillar plague that summer. I hoped to recreate that otherworldly and often fairy tale-like mood in the novel. And what an atmospheric luxury for any writer—the opportunity to write about an island being ravaged by insects!

 

The other environmental stressor in the novel, one that is far more permanent and dangerous than the caterpillars, is the pollution caused by the island’s aviation factory—the leaking of toxic chemicals that is rumored to be the cause for the cancer outbreak island-wide. 

 

Both the caterpillars and the pollution are situations that force the island’s residents to make a choice—band together or pull further apart. The Gypsy Moth Summer’s Grudder Aviation is loosely based on Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, a major producer of military aircraft from 1929 to 1994. Grumman was located a half hour east from where I grew up on Long Island and the cancer rate in the towns surrounding the now-closed factory are triple the average for New York State. Although I grew up near the factory, and knew many people who had cancer—family members, neighbors, teachers, even school friends—I hadn’t heard about the alleged pollution until I began researching for The Gypsy Moth Summer.

I was shocked to learn about the toxic plume stretching, and growing, under Long Island south to southeast–4.5-miles long by 3.5-miles wide. Environmental activists claim the plume’s origin is the now-closed Grumman Aviation factory. In 2016, Governor Cuomo demanded an investigation and the results are even more shocking—cleanup could cost as much as $587 million and the process could take up to 100 years.

 

I’d almost say you play with claustrophobia in the novel—environmentally in the isolation of the island and the encroaching caterpillars, even the garden maze; and socially with each character feeling constrained by the role they feel they need to play in society. Can you talk about that?

 

My favorite books to read are those that tell stories in multiple perspectives, and the same goes for TV shows and films. I often go into a bookstore and ask booksellers for their favorite “alternating point-of-view” novels. While I feel most comfortable writing in this structure, it goes beyond a technical choice—it is more of a need to examine a topic or situation from multiple perspectives in order to understand it. I am fascinated by the way in which a group of people can witness the same events, in the same time and place, and have vastly different interpretations depending on what he or she needs to see. I do think that “claustrophobia” could be another description for the existential solitude I am interested in investigating—the fact that we can’t ever know what another is thinking and feeling, even our loved ones. I’ve struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was a child and it is a daily challenge for me to trust my interpretations of life, of others, of situations, particularly when conflicted. Ironically, I find comfort in writing in multiple points-of-view—while there is a sense of “claustrophobia” in their misinterpretations, in fiction the author and the reader have access to the characters’ deepest thoughts and feelings, something we’ll never have the privilege of experiencing in real life. 

 

Is there any POV you wanted to write in that you ended up not including?

 

Instead of leaving out perspectives, I added two I hadn’t originally planned on including. The novel originally had only four points-of-view—Jules, Dom, Veronica and Maddie. When I was midway through the first draft, shortly after I’d described “The Castle” with its bell tower, the Colonel demanded his own chapter. I knew, at once, the bell had to be wrung by the Colonel, and that the scene would be a surprising moment of connection between the elderly matriarch and patriarch of the island, Veronica and the Colonel, and Jules, the compassionate outsider unaware of how much danger he is in.


Much later, in the final revisions of the novel, my editor suggested I add Leslie’s point-of-view and it felt, instantly, as if the brief chapters delivered in what, for me, felt like a spare style, transformed the book. 

 

You wrote in the acknowledgements that the novel started with the character of the Colonel—why were you drawn to him? And why do you think he was a generative character for you?

 

The fictional “Colonel” in The Gypsy Moth Summer, who is a colonel in name only, is based on my maternal grandfather who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He was a tough son of a gun but also quite charming. I imagine every novelist has one or two characters in his or her family history who seem ready-made for a story. For me, those two characters are my father and my maternal grandfather and each embody the story I am most interested in telling, that of the so-called American Dream. My next novel is the one I’ve been waiting most of my adult life to write and I think/hope I’m ready. The storyline will follow both my father and maternal grandfather’s lives from WWII—my father was a child in Southern Italy and my maternal grandfather was in the U.S. Army in Germany—through 1960s New York City where they both worked at the engineering firm that helped build the Twin Towers. My grandfather, called Doc by his friends, had a manic charm that has inspired me to write about him, filtered through various characters, for two decades, including the very first piece of creative writing I wrote—a sketch of “The Colonel” in 1994, which, twenty years later, would inspire The Gypsy Moth Summer

 

You deal with some hot-button topics—environmentalism, race, sexuality—did you have any hesitations about taking these things on? Were they difficult to write about?

 

I get asked this question a lot so I’ve had some time to think about it lately. I can’t imagine wanting to read a book that does not address some or all of the above. All creative writing, in its own way, is an artificial construct—the key is to make the reader feels as if it is real. Is there an island somewhere in America like Avalon, that dealt with issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmental pollution in the ‘90s? I’m sure every American town, no matter how small, has dealt with these issues, and still is today. Novels that focus on the micro of family life, American life, are often dismissed as “domestic” but I can’t think of anything more politically revealing then a tense dysfunctional family luncheon with three generations of Americans squeezed around a table. 

 

I’d love to ask you a few questions about the writing process if you don’t mind. This is your second novel—was it hard to embark on a new book? And what did you learn from writing Cutting Teeth? Was the process different this time?

 

I know there is a lot said about “sophomore novels” and the unique challenges they create, but I felt more confident going into the writing of The Gypsy Moth Summer than I’d ever felt. Also, I must admit that I wrote two-and-a-half unpublished novels before Cutting Teeth, and at least one hundred first chapters of novels that may not ever see a fully realized life.

 

The Gypsy Moth Summer was a story I’d wanted to tell for two decades and I’d been taking notes, rewriting the first chapter, dreaming about the setting, so that when I sat down to write it in earnest, I was ready. I was also still high on the fact, astonishing to me, that I had published a novel (Cutting Teeth), and I’d learned so much about structure, language, characterization, and especially storytelling writing Cutting Teeth. I imagine there are many psychological effects post-debut novel that can distract a writer from feeling secure as he or she launches into the writing of the “next book,” but I wonder if many of those anxieties have more to do with publishing and less to do with the actual writing. As a novelist, I find I have to trick myself into trying, as hard as it may be, not to think about publishing as I write. Of course, this is technically impossible but there are days when I can lose myself in the creation of the world and story and setting, and that is an important reminder I need again and again—I write to escape.  

 

I’m sure with your work at Sackett Street that you deal with a lot of emerging writers. What advice do you give to writers who are just starting out?

 

This is going to sound quite hypocritical coming from a woman who runs a writing workshop that’s been home to more than four-thousand writers (tooting my own horn a bit there) but here it is:

 

1. Don’t take anything anyone says about your work too seriously. Instead, focus on becoming the sharpest, most craft-focused and confident reader you can be—through the analysis of the choices you see in writing you admire. That way, when you are alone in your writing space, you’ll be able to trust yourself to see not only what isn’t working in your work but also what is working. The best craft-readers can see the potential in even the most underdeveloped story.


  1. 2. Seek wonder in everything, even your “guilty pleasures”—the TV shows and so-called trashy novels you love, but won’t admit to. If you look closely, you can learn from everything. Every detail you consume on a walk home, every snippet of conversation you overhear—life is full of material, and it is yours for the taking. 

 

And I always like to ask, what are you reading right now? What are you excited about in fiction?  

 

For the last ten years, I’ve found myself seeking out genre-bending fiction. Novels and story collections that defy category by melding fiction written in a “literary” style (prose that challenges the reader and requires interpretation) and genre, whether it is sci-fi (Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy) or fantasy (Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital) or horror (Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy). It seems harder for women writers to publish what might be considered an “idea” or “concept” novel. Right now, I am reading an exceptional literary “sci-fi” genre-bender—The Wanderers, a novel by Meg Howrey. My friend and former Sackett Street student, Caeli Wolfson Widger, has a novel out next year called Mother of Invention, written in a literary style and with a feminist angle to boot. Hopefully, we’ll see the mainstream publishing world supporting more literary women writers who are experimenting with genre.

 

 

 

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photo by Rubidium Wu

 

Julia Fierro is the author of the novels The Gypsy Moth Summer and Cutting Teeth.

 

Her work has been published in Poets & Writers, Buzzfeed, GlamourThe Millions, Flavorwire, and other publications, and she has been profiled in Brooklyn Magazine, the L Magazine, The Observer and The Economist.

 

A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, which has grown into a creative home to 4,000 writers in NYC, Los Angeles, and Online. SSWW was named “Best Writing Classes” by The Village VoiceTime Out New York, and “Best MFA-Alternative” by Poets & Writers.

 

Julia lives in Brooklyn and Santa Monica with writer Justin Feinstein and their two children.

 


 

 

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