If you miss HBO’s Big Little Lies, Julia Fierro’s new novel The Gypsy Moth Summer might scratch your itch. But instead of California, it’s set on an affluent island off the coast of New York. And instead of Michael Kiwanuka’s soul ballads, there are lots of bugs.
In the summer of 1992, when the island’s prodigal daughter Leslie Day Marshall comes home with her bi-racial family, the village feels threatened by the prospect of change —especially since Bill Clinton is a few months away from winning the White House.
Soon after, local teen queen Maddie falls in love with Marshall’s son, and Big Little Lies-style inter-family drama ensues. Secrets start to spill out, and the island’s patriarch may be responsible for giving everyone cancer. There’s also the whole bug thing to worry about, a near-apocalyptic infestation of gypsy moths.
Julia Fierro is the founder of the Sackett Street Writers Workshop, a salon-esque writing workshop in Brooklyn, LA and online, and an alumna of the Iowa Writers Workshop. I recently spoke with her over the phone about moths, the ’90s, and whether writers should read reviews of their own work.
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Adam Morgan: So let’s talk about these gypsy moths. What drew you to them? How did they become part of the book?
Julia Fierro: The gypsy moths are probably the most autobiographical element of the book, because I grew up on Long Island, and Avalon Island is an amalgamation of all the different areas on the East Coast that I wanted to write about.
Like Maddie, I was 16 in the summer of 1992, and every couple of years we would have a gypsy moth invasion. It was a fascinating natural event, but also when you’re a teenager living in a rural area, you hang out in two places: the beach or in woods. And it just became this impossible thing. You walked outside and there were caterpillars falling on you, and their poop was everywhere. That’s not a very classy way to say poop, but — their excrement.
It was such a brief but otherworldly occurrence. After a couple of weeks, they just vanished and then there would be a week or two where it was super quiet. They stopped feeding because they went in their cocoons, and then this massive release of moths would occur. Then you were running from the moths — like at night when they would be coating the porch lights.
As a writer I feel like atmosphere is a huge part of every piece, so I’d wanted to write about the gypsy moths for years. In college I took a literature class wrote a sketch of the Colonel, and I knew he was in the middle of a gypsy moth infestation.
I put it away, then I rewrote it at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. After I graduated, I would take it out maybe like once a year and rewrite the first chapter from a different character’s point of view. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I once wrote the first chapter from a caterpillar’s point of view. I know.
Adam Morgan: One of my favorite books a couple of years ago was the one written from the perspective of bees. Laline Paull, I think.
Julia Fierro: Laline Paull, yeah. I think it’s because when I was at Iowa, there were couple of people who wrote from the perspective of animals, and the teachers were like, NOOO.
Adam Morgan: Why set the story in 1992?
Julia Fierro: I wanted to write about the political shift, and about the gap in generations. There’s this gap between the people who are now the baby boomers and their parents who fought in World War Two. Then there’s a huge gap between the Baby Boomers and the MTV generation, Gen-X, Gen-Y.
I also wanted to write about a time before the internet where the only access to information was through television. And trusting that your elders would give you the right information.
I think that it’s fascinating situation to write about, not having access to information. You have to eavesdrop, and also come up with your own meaning and information, which in the novel often has disastrous results.
I handed in the book before the election, but now some bloggers are like, “Wow, it’s like everything’s just ripped from the headlines.” I’m like, “Well, no, I handed it in before the election was rolling.”
Adam Morgan: Do you like to read what bloggers and critics are saying about your books?
Julia Fierro: I would definitely suggest to people that they don’t. I do let myself read Goodreads reviews before the book comes out. Every reader is like a miracle. I’m just amazed. I’m also obsessive compulsive, technology-wise, so it’s very hard not to check. Not a lot of self restraint there.
I’m pretty sensitive. People say, “you have to develop a thicker skin.” I’m like, “Okay, do you have ointment or something?”
I’m always going to write disturbing books. I see the world in a very intense way. So when I read a negative review that says, “There was too much edge, too much drama,” I have say, “Okay, well, that’s who I am.”
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro
St. Martins Press
Published June 6, 2017
Julia Fierro is the author of the novels The Gypsy Moth Summer and Cutting Teeth. Her work has been published in Buzzfeed, Glamour, The Millions, Poets & Writers, Time Out New York, and other publications. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, a creative home to more than 3,500 writers in NYC, Los Angeles and Online.
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Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.