Novelist Julia Fierro has an eye for spoiled paradises. In her first novel, Cutting Teeth, a satirical look at parenting customs in Brownstone Brooklyn, a group of angst-ridden, citified parents spend a fraught Labor Day Weekend in a shabby Long Island beach house ironically named Eden. Fierro’s second novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, a darker, more ambitious book, is set on Avalon Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Long Island beset by an infestation of gypsy moths and, more troublingly, by toxic waste from an aviation plant that may be poisoning the local water supply.
The Gypsy Moth Summer, which came out in June, is at heart a tale of two women: Maddie LaRosa, whose family straddles the class divide between tony East Avalon and working-class West Avalon; and Leslie Marshall, scion of the town’s most prominent family, who returns to the island with her African-American husband, Jules, and their two biracial children. Maddie falls in love with Leslie’s son Brooks, upsetting the delicate balance of race, class, and deeply held secrets that have held Avalon together while poisoning its culture—and its children.
Fierro and I recently exchanged emails about the real-life inspirations for her novel, the intersection of race and class in America, and the growing toxic plume spreading underneath her native Long Island.
The Millions: Writers often start a book with a line of prose or a visual image. Was that the case for you with The Gypsy Moth Summer? What started you writing this story? What sustained you once you got started?
Julia Fierro: The Gypsy Moth Summer’s first seed, so to speak, was planted many years ago with the character of the Colonel, based on my maternal grandfather who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Like the Colonel in the novel, my grandpa was a tough son-of-gun and inspected our bedrooms wearing his white military gloves once a year (we got a dollar if we passed and a talking-to if we failed), but my grandfather was not as tyrannical as the Colonel in The Gypsy Moth Summer.
In my first creative writing class at college, I wrote a sketch of the Colonel who, two decades later, became the patriarch of Avalon Island in The Gypsy Moth Summer. That sketch sat ignored for years until I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I tried to turn the sketch into a story titled “The Gypsy Moth Summer.” I rewrote that story many times over the next decade—from the Colonel’s perspective, from teen Maddie’s perspective, even, I am ashamed to admit, from the caterpillars’ omniscient point-of-view (I’m laughing at myself). Eventually, I realized this was no story but the opening chapter of a novel.
After my first novel, Cutting Teeth, was published, I looked at that pile of pages (hundreds of pages of various opening chapters all for the same book) and tried again. This time, all those details and characters, and, most importantly, the story, fell into place. It would be easy to look at all those pages as a waste of time, but I was fully informed when I sat down and wrote the novel.
TM: You speak of the Colonel, and of your granddad on whom he is based, as tyrannical, but as a reader, I found him more pathetic than frightening. He’s slipping into dementia, he yells at the TV every time Bill Clinton appears, and his worldview seems almost comically out of date. I read him as a symbol of the broader rot that you seem to be saying existed at the heart of the Reagan-Bush-era U.S. war machine, which in the novel is producing bombs that kill American women and children by spreading carcinogenic toxins. Was that your intention?
JF: I was raised by two devout Roman Catholics, and although I’m an atheist now (the doubt which makes me a decent fiction writer makes me a bad believer), and I don’t necessarily believe in “karma” (if only the universe was so just), I wanted to write about an island’s sins catching up with its sinners.
It was my intention to expose what you call “the rot” at the heart of an island whose bread-and-butter is the making of killing machines. But I thought of it as a poison, similar to the real-life toxic plume that is growing under Long Island.
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, when it was acquired by Northrop. Grumman was a half hour east from where I grew up. Many of my cousins, aunts and uncles lived near the factory, and several of my school teachers. The breast cancer rate in this area is triple that of New York State. Throughout my childhood, at any time, I knew multiple people who had cancer—family members, neighbors, teachers, even school friends. Most survived with treatment.
I knew I wanted to address the cancer rates on an island that, like Long Island, gets its drinking water from wells. I grew up on an idyllic islet (like Avalon) but my parents forbade us from drinking well water. We made weekly trips to my grandparents’ home “in town” where they received water from the town supply. We filled plastic gallon bottles—my father called it “Holy Water.”
When I first began researching cancer on Long Island, I read about the toxic plume under the island stretching south to southeast—4.5 miles long by 3.5 miles wide. This plume is growing. Its origin is the now-closed Grumman Aviation factory in Bethpage.
Why didn’t I know about this plume of Trichloroethylene, classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA, that had been growing, thriving, under the island I’d believed so beautiful? Why hadn’t I been paying better attention?
TM: Wow. So, many of your friends and family from near where you grew up have had cancer? What’s happening in the real-life counterpart of the fictional town of Avalon? Have people turned against the factory?
JF: Avalon Island is an amalgamation of different parts of Long Island. The east side of Avalon Island is modeled on the wealthier towns of Cold Spring Harbor, Laurel Hollow, and Lloyd Neck. When I was eight, my parents moved from a working class town mid-island to a wealthier town on the North Shore. They found a house that had been abandoned by its previous owners. My father fixed up the house as best as he could. My parents moved so my brother and I could attend the prestigious public school. They wanted us to grow up around wealthy kids in the hope, I imagine, that pedigree would rub off. They worked multiple jobs to pay the astronomical taxes.
The west side of Avalon Island, where the fictional Grudder factory churns out aircraft, is based on towns further east, like Bethpage, former home to Grumman and most affected by the toxic plume.
Why hasn’t the toxic plume and its connection to Grumman been covered in national news? Perhaps it is due to geographic isolation. Or is it an issue of class? The pollution affects working class and middle class towns stuck between the tony western towns of Nassau County closer to the city and the summer vacation areas out east in the Hamptons. Still, the demographics of these towns are mixed—there are working-class families, but also white collar professionals. Perhaps, the answer is the close ties Grumman has to the military.
It wasn’t until 2012 that the issue was fully covered in the press and only in 2016 did Governor Andrew Cuomo order the Navy and Northrop Grumman to provide the state and a local water district access to test for toxicity. The resulting numbers are abysmal—drinking water at risk for 250,000 people; clean-up costs “between $269 million and $587 million,” which could take “up to 100 years to clean.”
When my younger brother graduated from high school, my parents moved further east—closer to the pollution but with a fraction of the taxes. They noticed immediately the unusual number of people with cancer. Out of 50 homes on their road, 10 had one or more family members who had cancer, had died from it, or who were in recovery or in treatment.
TM: Some writers find it hard—and risky—to write characters from outside their own culture and experience. In the case of Jules, he’s male, black, and from a working-class background. Then there are his biracial kids, who are figuring out their own place in the world. Did you ever find it tricky to write these characters? What experiences did you draw on as you were writing their chapters?
JF: Writing outside my perspective often feels far more rewarding. Maybe this is why I write fiction. I find myself feeling more comfortable writing from a male point-of-view, and I imagine it’s the distance that allows me to escape into another person’s consciousness. Jules is the character I care most for in the novel. Perhaps, because I felt a great responsibility to do his story justice, aware that his story is not my own. It’s essential for writers writing outside their narrow perspective to be mindful that it is a great privilege to do so, and he or she must be open to and accepting of criticism. Writing and reading is how I practice my humanity and to write (and/or read) only within my limited experience seems counterproductive, and cowardly.
I read many memoirs by African-American writers, specifically books focusing on the experiences of young black men, like 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’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle; D. Watkins’s The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America.
I reread books that had shattered, and then rearranged, my limited perspective as a young reader, the most important books in a reader’s life—Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Sula, and Beloved; and James Baldwin’s nonfiction, especially his book of letters, The Fire Next Time.
TM: One of the central relationships in the novel is the marriage between, Leslie Marshall, the white daughter of one of the factory’s founding families, and Jules. Why did you decide to add that layer of racial and class complexity to the novel?
JF: I do not think one can, or should, write about class without also writing about race and the intersection of the two. The Gypsy Moth Summer is very much an “anti-revenge” revenge story and I knew Jules had to be black in order for both sides of Avalon Island, the wealthy white easterners and the working class white westerners, to unite in their need to make him the scapegoat for their own crimes, ultimately absolving themselves (only in their bigoted minds) of their racism, and their responsibility for the terrible tragedies of that summer.
As the child of an immigrant, I’ll always be interested in the competition among Americans to advance in status. There is a vast difference in privilege in my life versus that of my father who spent the first 18 years of his life in poverty in Southern Italy. He was eight years old when the Allies liberated his region from the Germans and he hid with his village in a cave for weeks as the bombs fell. Only recently, after becoming a mother, was I able to accept the reality of his early life. The poverty, the disease (they had no access to healthcare—his sister died at four because of a cut on her foot), the lack of education. No running water or electricity.
My life is so privileged in comparison—it often feels as if there are two or three generations between my experience and my father’s. Yet, because my parents moved us to an affluent area for the good schools, I often felt like an outsider next to my wealthier classmates. I need to write about this impulse to look “above” and “below,” to aspire to rise in status, even if (as those on Avalon Island do) it means stepping on the backs of those “below.”
My father’s favorite show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and we’d watch it together every week. I can’t remember if there was an episode focused on Donald Trump—but how could there not have been? I grew up watching my father worship, envy, and, sometimes, detest the rich. Is this juxtaposition of idolizing and loathing the elite intrinsically linked to the American Dream? I write to examine that question.