We chatted with Julia Fierro about her experience writing a novel about race, privilege and class and the inescapable ties of family history.
The Gypsy Moth Summer is about a black man named Jules, his white wife, Leslie, and their children, who move to an affluent entirely white neighbourhood on an island called Avalon. It's also about teenager Maddie, who experiences the excitement of young love as she considers her violent and unstable home life, and Veronica, a woman who finally has a little bit of freedom now that her controlling husband, the Colonel, has dementia. In the background is the understanding that the island's main source of employment, an industrial military company, is poisoning the residents and that this particular summer, there's an invasion of gypsy moths that are breeding at an alarming rate. Here, author Julia Fierro shares her experience writing a story about race, privilege and class while also reminiscing about her own gypsy moth childhood and the inescapable ties of family history.
Canadian Living: How did you get the idea for this story?
Julia Fierro: I grew up on Long Island, N.Y., in the '90s, very much like Maddie did. It was really amazing, we had the woods to run around and play adventure games in, but it was also very isolating—it felt almost wild. I hoped to capture that atmosphere. Also, I had written a sketch featuring the Colonel almost two decades ago in college, and I wanted to come back to that character. Finally, I wanted to write about race and class and the intersection of the two—it's shocking how relevant the topics feel right now.
CL: Why did you decide to weave the gypsy moth invasion into the story?
JF: Gypsy moth invasions were part of my childhood, and it's the weirdest atmospheric experience. It was a pestilence, a scientific occurrence, but, as kids growing up without the Internet, we had no idea what was going on. It was my own personal pest, so I wrote from experience.
CL: Why did you tell the story from so many different points of view?
JF: There's something comforting about characters who experience the same events but interpret them completely differently. I think it must be a reflection of our own anxieties—that we'll never be able to really understand how a person thinks and feels. It's a privilege as a reader to have access to that. As a writer, there's a great responsibility to make every perspective as authentic as possible, and that structure makes it feel like everyone's perspective is important.
CL: I loved the thread of inheritance—both physical and emotional—from our parents that many characters go through in the book.
JF: Where we come from and our parents' stories and struggles are inescapable—as much as we want to believe we can transcend them to rewrite our stories. It should be everyone's responsibility to educate themselves beyond their own very narrow, privileged perspective. And one way you can do that is through reading.
The Gypsy Moth Summer (St. Martin’s Press) by Julia Fierro, $38.