In a conversation with AFLW Fiction Editor Shilpa Agarwal, Julia Fierro reveals how her new coming-of-age novel, THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER, is an “anti-revenge revenge story” and more.
Shilpa Agarwal: Leslie Day Marshall, who’s grown up on the island, unexpectedly returns with a covert mission to undermine the island’s economic and social powerhouse, Grudder Aviation. “You’ll never know,” she says to her husband, Jules, “how vengeance heals the soul.” Her desire, however, breaks her marriage and family apart. Does it also somehow heal her? How?
Julia Fierro: I knew, early on, that THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER was a revenge story but only after several drafts, did I realize that it is actually an “anti-revenge revenge story.” I have an index card taped above my desk with that phrase, and under it, in capital letters, VONNEGUT. I was a 23-year-old graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when Kurt Vonnegut, in Iowa City to promote a new book, gave a brief talk for the Workshop. It was life-changing as I’d admired his work since I was a teen. He talked about how women were writing the best fiction in America, which, of course, made me smile. He also critiqued the glut of revenge stories in American culture, especially in Hollywood. I love a good revenge story and grew up watching old war movies with my mom. My father is Southern Italian and the vendetta played a disturbing role in post-WWII life when my father was coming of age (one of the subjects of my novel-in-progress). My Netflix recommendations are filled with “gritty revenge thrillers.” But I knew Vonnegut was right. Vengeance is too simplistic a solution.
Sadly, there is no redemption in Leslie’s vengeance. Her plan fails in every way, and destroys all she loves.
SA: In the beginning, teenager Maddie Pencott La Rosa, wants nothing more than to fit in with the affluent West Avalon girls, even if it means enduring their humiliations, and the sexual advances and violence of the boys they’re meant to like. Once Maddie meets Brooks, Leslie and Jules’ son, however, she finds a sense of belonging in being with him, and this fundamentally changes something in her. Later, she finds belonging with her grandmother Veronica. Can you speak to the impact of these two relationships in Maddie’s life?
JF: I was nervous about writing the teenage love story in THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER, aware that the affection between Maddie and Brooks had to feel genuine. I just turned 40 and so my own teenage years are quite distant. I asked myself, what if I couldn’t conjure that first unique love? But as soon as Maddie and Brooks were alone in their first scene together–the late night walk across Avalon Island–I felt the electricity between them. I’m proud of their relationship, which turned out tender and authentic, and, surprisingly, felt quite redemptive for me, a middle-aged woman looking back on her teenage years. Their relationship is the kind I wish I had known in my teens, and which, I am happy to say, I found in my 20s with my husband.
One of the most exciting (and a little nerve-wracking) aspects of launching a book is waiting to hear what readers think and feel. I just finished a four-week book tour up and down both coasts, and the responses that surprised me most from readers I chatted with at book events was their connection to Veronica. At least six readers told me Veronica became their favorite character–a surprise to them as well. Veronica is the character who changes the most over the course of that summer of 1992, through her relationship with her granddaughter, 16-year-old Maddie. Their bond begins artificially, as part of a Veronica’s scheme to gather information on the island’s newest arrivals, Brooks’s family, but ends up inspiring Veronica to make the ultimate sacrifice to “save” Maddie.
I think writers often forget one of the most important reasons as to why we write–to be surprised. Watching Veronica’s character evolve both surprised and comforted me.
SA:Just as the moths go through a cycle of birth and breeding and dying, the inhabitants of the island too, undergo their own various cycles of living, transformation, and dying. Is there, in this mercilessly endless cycle, a place for redemption? Where do we see it for characters such as Leslie, Brooks, Maddie and others?
JF: This question of redemption is such an important one, particularly in a novel like THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER where tragic events occur. And I really admire how each of your questions reflects on the significance of redemption in the characters, the storyline, and the reader’s experience. That question kept me up many nights–was there was enough redemption in the story of THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER, enough to balance the suffering and loss the characters experience? I worried most about Jules, the character most distant to my own limited and privileged perspective. Jules, an African American man who’d grown up working class, and who rewrote his life story through hard work and dedication to his craft, landscape architecture, loses so much. I wanted to be certain that his loss was essential to the book. As a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop many years ago, I learned an important lesson from my teacher Marilynne Robinson–writers must have compassion for their characters. I still worry that there isn’t enough redemption in Jules’ story. I care for him deeply and, as I mentioned above, took great pleasure in giving him the beautiful gardens he’d hoped for. In the end, it is his sacrifice that completed the novel.
But since the story of THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER is, ultimately, a tragedy, as well as a reflection of what happens when lust for power drowns the significance of individual life, I knew the story could not have a happy ending. In the epilogue, I wanted to show how the lives of most of Avalon Island’s residents went on without interruption. The power of denial is astounding–we see it in the news every day–and the islanders, despite the destruction and loss during that gypsy moth summer, move forward, playing “make believe,” pretending they are not responsible for the terrible events that destroyed two families. Pretending they are innocent of racism, environmental pollution and greed. But they are not innocent. No one is. We are all responsible for the evils in our society, and until we acknowledge that how can there be lasting change?
SA:You write in third person but from several different characters’ points of view. Which character was your favorite to inhabit, and why? Which story was the most difficult to tell?
JF:Surprisingly, it is the male characters in the novel I enjoyed inhabiting most. Perhaps this is because of the emotional distance created when slipping under the skin of a character who is, seemingly, unlike me. I write for the same reason I’m a compulsive reader–to escape. So it makes sense that the characters who provide the deepest escape from my own limited life experience and perspective are my favorites. Dom’s brimming anger and dangerous naivete allows me to view Avalon Island through the confused eyes of a child on the verge of becoming a man, a boy who wants so desperately to be loved. I still ache for him and his sad and destructive choices. The Colonel is a character I’d been thinking of for years and a sketch of The Colonel written in a college course two decades back was one of the first pieces of creative writing I wrote. Writing through his haze of paranoia and dementia was a fascinating exercise. But Jules is my favorite character. His love for plants mirrors my own. Like Jules, I dream of having my own secret garden someday–giving him the exquisite gardens of The Castle was also giving me the chance to write about the lush woods of my childhood growing up on the North Shore of Long Island. Like Jules, I worship plants–they give so much and ask for so little in return. Humanity pales in comparison to the resilience of plants. After the tragic events of that summer have been almost forgotten, the leaves of the trees, shredded by the gypsy moth caterpillars, will grow back stronger.
READ a riveting excerpt from the prelude of THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER by Julia Fierro here.
JOIN US for our final salon of the summer, featuring Julia Fierro (THE GYPSY MOTH SUMMER) in reading and conversation with Anthony Breznican (BRUTAL YOUTH), plus guest readers, including Elizabeth L. Silver (THE TINCTURE OF TIME), THIS SUNDAY, July 30, 4-6 p.m. at Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles. SEE YOU THERE! RSVP!
Her work has been published in The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Glamour, The Millions, Poets & Writers, Time Out New York, Flavorwire and other publications, and she has been profiled in The Observer and The Economist.
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, which has grown into a creative home to 4,000 writers in NYC, Los Angeles, San Francisco and online. SSWW was named among the “Best Writing Classes” by The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Brooklyn Magazine and the L Magazine, and “Best MFA-Alternative” by Poets & Writers.