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Midwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Julia Fierro about her new book The Gypsy Moth Summer, cultural appropriation in writing, having empathy for characters, and more.
Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Julia Fierro: I lived in Iowa City while I was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop from 2000-2002. Although it was just two years, my experience in the Midwest changed me, and I try to get back to Iowa City every chance I get. In fact, I have a trip planned in fall of 2017 for a reading in Chicago, to teach a workshop at the Iowa Writers House in Iowa City and participate in the Iowa City Book Festival.
In many ways, my time in the Midwest taught me to be a better person. I am a natural cynic—maybe because I was raised in New York, but I suspect it has more to do with my growing up with a father who was raised in Southern Italy before and after World War II. When you experience such extreme poverty, as my father did, it makes trusting people extra challenging. So when I arrived in Iowa City, twenty-two and somewhat terrified that I’d been accepted into this prestigious graduate program, I had quite a chip on my shoulder, and the kindness of the Iowans overwhelmed me. The first time a stranger said hello as they passed me on the street, I almost jumped at him to ask What do you want from me? As much as it is a cliché, the Midwesterners were the friendliest people I had ever encountered, and definitely the friendliest I’d ever lived among.
The postmaster at the local post office beamed when I walked in the door. Asked how my day was going and was insistent on a response. In New York and Boston and Washington, D.C., the cities I’d lived in before Iowa, a trip to the post office was well…different.
It took me about six months to adjust (to stop flinching when strangers said hi to me on the street) and now I love talking to strangers. In fact, as a closeted introvert, a person who appears extroverted but who needs a lot of time alone, some of my best conversations during the day are with strangers—the checkout guy at the convenience store, a Lyft driver, or a person admiring the same magnolia in full bloom on a street corner. Living in the Midwest taught me how to let go, allow myself to be a bit vulnerable in my daily interactions. To say hello and smile back.
Iowa was also important to my husband, writer Justin Feinstein. I met him when I was just twenty-one. I knew he was the one when he agreed to pack up his life, and give up his professional music gigs (he was a Berklee-trained drummer) and move to Iowa with me where he had an assortment of jobs—from secretary at the University of Iowa Biochemical Engineering Dept. to waiting tables at a restaurant that made fried cheese curds to holding an ad sign outside the Iowa City mall in the dead of winter—all while I attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Spending all that time among writers inspired him to become the great writer he is today.
MC: How did your time in Iowa at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop influence your writing?
JF: There are only a few moments in your life that you can look back on and see how your path, so to speak, shifted. For me, it was receiving that acceptance letter to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I don’t believe a graduate degree in creative writing is for everyone, and writers can find what they need outside of academia, whether that is community, craft, publication or simply inspiration. That said, being accepted into an MFA program (and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop no less) changed the course of my life. I often wonder if I’d be a published writer if it wasn’t for the Workshop, or if I’d be writing at all. As I mentioned above, although my parents are intelligent and inquisitive (despite a lack of education), artistic creativity wasn’t valued as work in my house growing up. Work created financial stability, and when I was accepted into Iowa, my parents were concerned. They had hoped I’d be a lawyer, my brother a doctor—the stereotypical wish many immigrants have for their first-generation American children. Now, my parents are proud of what I’ve accomplished, and the most emotional moment of each of my publications is handing them that first bound copy. The Gypsy Moth Summer is dedicated to them both.
It wasn’t an easy two years at the Workshop—the students were incredibly competitive, tensions high, the threat of negative judgment lurked around every corner—but I hadn’t even known any writers before Iowa, other than my undergrad creative writing professor. Two years surrounded by writers was an incredible comfort and showed me that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, a fear I’d harbored most of my life—there were other obsessive, hyper analytical, word and story-obsessed people out there. Books had always been a haven for me but I hadn’t dared to imagine that I could create my own world, one that readers would escape into. The two years I spent surrounded by writers in Iowa—talking, breathing, living, thinking of nothing but the craft of writing and books and story and language—gave me the permission I needed to take myself seriously. Many writers do not need that permission but I did.
MC: Leslie Day Marshall, the daughter of the most affluent family in Avalon Island, returns to the island with her black husband, Jules, causing divisions and dissent to spread through the community as people take sides over the controversy of interracial marriage. As a white-passing woman, how did you research racial prejudices and oppression for The Gypsy Moth Summer in order to have an authentic voice?
JF: I read memoirs by African American writers, specifically books that focused on the experiences of young Black men, including Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped and the recent essay anthology she edited, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir The Beautiful Struggle; D. Watkins’ The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America; and James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. One of my favorite autobiographical novels is Mitchell Jackson’s The Residue Years, set in the ‘90s in Portland, Oregon, one of America’s whitest cities, and so I reread that along with novels by Colson Whitehead (Sag Harbor), and Paul Beatty’s recent The Sellout.
I also reread books that had shattered, and then rearranged, my limited and privileged perspective as a young reader (the most important books in a reader’s life), novels like Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. I also reread James Baldwin’s nonfiction, especially his book of letters, The Fire Next Time, which is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, and I wish I’d been assigned it in high school, and then again in college, and when I was a professor at predominantly white universities in Iowa and NYC, I assigned the book every semester. The New York Times Book Review said it best, The Fire Next Time is “sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle…all presented in searing, brilliant prose.”
I listened to many of the above books on audio, which I often do so I can knit and “read” at the same time, and I’ve found that a book performed by a talented audio narrator can capture the emotional intensity as the author intended it to be experienced.
Social media, with its infinite voices, is always informative. Scrolling through Twitter, reading the observations of brilliant writers like Roxane Gay, Kiese Laymon, Victor LaValle, Emily Raboteau, Saeed Jones, and many others, and witnessing their reactions to current political events in real time is an education I’d never imagined I’d have the opportunity to experience.
MC: There has been much discussion about whether or not writers should write from the perspective of another race, particularly a minority character written by a white author. You did a brilliant job representing the voices of Brooks, a bi-racial teenager, and Jules, a black man. How did you tread the line between telling an important story and not exploiting the struggles of another race?
JF: When I first began writing The Gypsy Moth Summer, I thought of it as “historical fiction.” 1992 seemed so distant—the culture, the fads, the uninformed pre-Internet consciousness, the racial prejudice and sexism and homophobia. Perhaps, I wanted to believe these were issues of the past and that I was raising my children in a better and greater America, not a larger version of the novel’s fictional Avalon Island—racist, sexist, greedy.
Then the 2016 election revealed to us the America many people, many white and privileged like myself, did not want to see. Who hears “Make America Great Again” and does not think of the crimes in our recent past committed against African Americans, gays, immigrants, women—crimes that are committed again and again every day? Perhaps, the only good thing about the election result is that we cannot lie to ourselves any longer but must accept that we live in a country that chose hate over inclusion.
The debate concerning cultural appropriation is an important and necessary discussion and writers, like me, writing outside our privileged perspective and experience must be open to criticism. And fully aware of the great responsibility placed on us when we use a minority character’s story—because, as much as a writer can try to convince herself that she is not using her characters to show the world as he or she sees it, or the world she wishes existed, she is. Our characters are the filters through which we make sense of life. I’ve read many insightful essays on the topic of cultural appropriation and writers often preach empathy as the key. Yes, empathy is essential in writing in a perspective that is not your own but is it enough? I don’t know.
To write only from within my narrow experience seems impossible, and somewhat cowardly. I write for the same reason I read, the page is where I practice my humanity, where I shatter my preconceived notions and reassemble them, all in the hope that I’ll learn something, become a better person. Reading and writing is my checks and balances, so to speak, where I go when my limited perspective clouds my vision, my privilege allows me to grow too comfortable, and I lose sight of the infinite multiplicity of experiences that Americans have. We cannot afford to feel comfortable right now but need to remain alert, disturbed, because disturbing things are happening on our streets, in our government, our schools, every day.
Jules is the character I feel the most deeply for. Maybe because he is the dreamer, the believer. Maybe because he loses the most. I will worry about his loss always, and wonder if it was necessary. Because the most important part of your question is the possibility of “exploiting the struggles of another race” and this responsibility was with me every chapter, and I think that is necessary. It was in the Midwest, at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, that I learned possibly the most important writing lesson (and life lesson). Marilynne Robinson taught us that the highest priority is having compassion for your characters. I think about this nearly every time I sit down to write because bad things do happen to my characters, and I owe it to them to make sure their pain is meaningful.
MC: Maddie Pencott LaRosa understands life on both sides of town and falls madly in love with Leslie’s and Jules’ son, Brooks. How does the romance between Maddie and Brooks parallel and contrast that of Leslie and Jules?
JF: Ah, young love… I can still conjure that feeling from so many years ago, when, for the very first time, I was mad in love. When the person you love pales in comparison to who you imagine your lover is. I think it is a bit unfair to compare Maddie and Brooks to the weathered love of Jules and Leslie because what has ever, in the history of humanity, trumped pure first love?
I wrote an essay for The Millions on the topic of writing about sex in literary fiction, and, specifically, the fear and avoidance I’d witnessed, and experienced myself, in writing about sex and emotion in creative writing workshops at Iowa as a student, and later as a teacher at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, the writing school I founded in 2002 after Iowa. It was the first critical essay I’d published and I was shocked when it was read widely. I began receiving invitations to speak on panels at writers’ conferences on the topic, and I learned so much from my more experienced co-panelists (writers Gina Frangello, Elissa Schappell, Wendy Ortiz, Pamela Erens and more) about the challenges and rewards of writing about sex and love.
I realized there should be an infinite variety of “literary sex” just as there is in real life—passionate, awkward, violent, tender, disappointing, epiphany-inducing and plain mediocre. Before The Gypsy Moth Summer, most of the sex scenes I’d written were negative in that they highlighted a flaw or conflict in the characters’ relationships. I wanted Maddie and Brooks’ sexual relationship to be positive—tender, supportive and free from guilt or shame. The kind of relationship many of us, myself included, wished we’d had as a teenager. Add to that idealization innate to young love—first love—where a young man or woman can look at another and believe he or she embodies all that is good, and Maddie and Brooks are a modern-day Romeo Juliet. They believe their love is the only good on the poisoned island that is their prison.
The writer Elissa Schappell, who was on many of those panels about sex in literary fiction, claims sex, in life and in fiction, is about power, and this dynamic rules Jules’s and Leslie’s relationship. There is a line in one of Jules’s early chapters in The Gypsy Moth Summer where he is thinking about the role sex has always played in his and Leslie’s relationship. “He’d learned this about her when they first met in Cambridge years ago: She was a woman who understood that men needed sex.”
It was one of the first lines I wrote from Jules’s consciousness and I can see now that I knew early on sex would play a significant role in the power balance, or imbalance, in their marriage.
MC: The arrival of caterpillars and the gypsy moth that fly out of their cocoons play a central imagery throughout The Gypsy Moth Summer. What metaphor did you craft between the gypsy moth and the drama unfolding in Avalon Island?
JF: Hmm, metaphors… I have to admit that my intent is purely emotional when I write. I’m focused on creating a certain psychological experience for the reader through the characters, the setting, and through detail (and ravenous caterpillars make quite the atmosphere). The caterpillars and moths create an otherworldly mood that I wanted the reader to feel trapped in, just as the characters are trapped. After many drafts, once I have structure and character and story refined, only then can I see any kind of metaphorical meaning. I do believe that kind of thematic meaning has to reveal itself organically to the author or the reader will feel the “hand of the writer” so to speak, the author manipulating too heavy-handedly.
Frank Conroy was the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop during my time there and I studied with him. He had this pyramid he would draw on the blackboard. The base of the pyramid was LANGUAGE and he would scrawl across the base “Meaning, Sense, Clarity” and explained that without clear language no story was going to have a stable foundation. Then came the smaller upper sections of the pyramid—CHARACTER, STORY, and at the very top, SYMBOL. A writer couldn’t start from the top down, he explained, or the pyramid would tumble over.
The metaphorical meaning of the gypsy moths became clearer to me on who-knows-what # revision, when I added a line to one of Veronica’s chapters. The plotting matriarch of Avalon Island is inside her estate, White Eagle, looking out the window and watching the caterpillars crawl across the glass, and she thinks, “Perhaps a plague was just what the island needed.”
This felt like a revelation for me. It is impossible not to see the plague as a sort of punishment for the crimes Avalon Island–and its Grudder Aviation military factory, its bread-and-butter—has committed. This is an island where bombers are made, machines that have killed countless lives from WWII and on. How can that kind of destruction go unpunished?
MC: What’s next for you?
JF: I’m ready to write the BIG book. The one every novelist waits (or should wait) to write when she is more grown up, a bit wiser, and has learned to write a story. This next book is based on the convergence of two very different “American Dream” stories. The first is my father’s childhood during and after WWII in Southern Italy (his entire village hid in a cave for weeks during the Allied liberation bombing), and his immigration to the U.S. in the early ‘70s. The second is based on my maternal first generation Irish-American grandfather’s life–he was the inspiration for the Colonel in The Gypsy Moth Summer, although unlike the fictional colonel, my grandfather was a bona fide colonel and served in the U.S. Army during and after WWII. Although he had no college education, and had grown up working class, the son of a Brooklyn firefighter, he had an uncanny understanding of business and politics and charmed his way into the real estate boom of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He founded an electrical engineering company, despite his total ignorance of engineering, and the company helped build the Twin Towers, an endless source of pride for my family. Eventually, his mania (the same that was responsible for his charm) caught up with him and the fortune he made lasted only a single generation.
Before I throw myself into this next project—and it is hard not to when inspiration bites and I already have pages of notes—I need to spend some time with my kids. When they heard I was almost ready to start another book, they may have cried a little…. It isn’t easy having a mother who writes books and runs her own business (running Sackett Street Writers is a full-time job plus). I often have to “steal time” from my family to work. The concept of motherhood work-family balance that we hear parroted in mainstream media again and again (and, yes, I am thinking of Ivanka Trump) is a myth, and perpetuating it is a disservice to women.
So I’ll take a few months off from writing to play Legos and read graphic novels with the kids, including many trips to the library (they are both book worms, thank goodness), all the time responding to the many Sackett Street Writers applications we receive daily, and then it is back to writing.
Julia Fierro is the author of the novels The Gypsy Moth Summer (out now) and Cutting Teeth (2014). Her work has been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Buzzfeed, 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 Voice, Time 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.