An American Weakness

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Julia Fierro writes: “Weakness or, to be more specific, showing or admitting to weakness, seemed both un-Italian and un-American.” Fierro is writing here about the impact of Zoloft on her life, and more specifically, her writing career. Before Zoloft, her anxiety and OCD made it impossible to create. Since, she’s written two books.

She hits on something deeper than her personal experience with that line. Afraid of appearing weak, she hid her struggle. All of us do this. We hide parts of ourselves to protect ourselves from the consequences (anticipated or actual) of not fitting in with the American ideals of strength, individuality, and self-reliance.

This is certainly true for the characters in Fierro’s second novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, out this month from St. Martins. With this book, Fierro encapsulates the life cycle of Avalon Island’s inhabitants, and shows that every person hides their secret self, their quiet worries, the voices they hear. Rife with thinly-veiled racism and class struggles, the tensions on Avalon come to a head as gypsy moths take over.

Fierro sees the world, she says, “through a very intense filter.” She describes her first book, Cutting Teeth, this way: “Modern parenting in the over-saturated information age.” The adults in this book about family, privilege, and paranoia are intense. They are each the center of a very small world, working to mask their weakness.

Cutting Teeth was so controversial,” Fierro said when we spoke a few days before Gypsy Moth came out. “Sometimes I wonder if writing about moms is more controversial than writing about race.” The mothers in Cutting Teeth are well-off, bored, anxious. These are not the struggles that endear readers; many will probably relate to the characters too much for comfort. We expect that the rich or well-positioned will lose their weakness, that they’ve “made it” and have thus given up their right to hardship. Fierro demonstrates the fallacy of this thinking.

No matter how connected or moneyed or put-upon or abused her characters are, they’re petty. They remain worried. They lust inconveniently and love without knowing how. And Fierro sticks with them, lending sympathy to their causes, however flimsy those causes are.

The child of street-smart, working class people, Fierro was expected to become a lawyer. Then, at American University where she completed her undergraduate work, she became an English major — her parents were “very sad.”

After graduating, she heard about MFA programs and thought attending one would be “a good way to go to graduate school and have time to write.” At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Fierro began writing seriously. Before then, she says, she didn’t realize or believe she could “be a Writer with a capital W.”

While she got the impression that most of the other writers at Iowa had dreamed of writing since they were children, Fierro wanted to be “an actress, or something fun!” It’s perhaps for this reason that she says the biggest part of her MFA experience was learning to act like a writer. “It really was Iowa that gave me the permission — not everyone needs that permission, but I did — to take myself seriously. My thoughts, my ideas, my reading.” She’s still an insecure reader, she says, which she feels makes her a good writing instructor because she’s “not going to interpret meaning out of something” unless she’s sure.

After Iowa, she “had no sense of what success was.” Her first novel didn’t sell, and she didn’t write for about seven years after that initial rejection. She began running writing workshops out of her kitchen because she “was lonely and wanted to hang out with writers who weren’t necessarily on the New York scene.”

She filled the classes through Craigslist advertising. Many of these writers were just as skilled as those at Iowa, she says, but were stay-at-home parents, MTA workers, lawyers, and accountants. Fierro was working as an adjunct “all over,” teaching at home almost every night, and raising her children. “I was being so cruel to myself,” she says.

Something had to change. Once her finances were stable enough, she hired a babysitter for 20 hours a week and joined a writers’ space in Brooklyn that was open 24-hours. She wrote Cutting Teeth “in about nine or ten months.” Though she wanted it to be published, she wrote Cutting Teeth to regain her confidence.

“I realized that I’d learned how to write during all those years teaching novel writing workshops. Nobody else at Sackett Street wanted to teach them because they’re so much work. So, I taught all of them. It really worked out in the end because I was working with the same novelists over and over again and watching them have their revelations concerning character, and structure, and story — that’s how I learned how to write a novel.”

Fierro was diagnosed in her twenties with OCD. “My obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious challenge,” she says, but also unexpectedly helpful. “[I]t allows me to do things like binge-write. I can write a first draft very quickly…The obsessing over the characters and the story is so annoying. It’s fascinating, but I need to get it out.”

Fierro would often pull out the first chapter of what would become Gypsy Moth and rewrite it. She did a lot of thinking and note-taking about it. By the time she sat down to write, she knew the plot, which was “very exciting.”

Though incomplete, Gypsy Moth sold shortly after Cutting Teeth came out, and so Fierro had about a year and a half to write it. She completed the first draft in four or five months, and then did a couple of “Marriot residencies” during which she would spend three or four days locked in a hotel room doing nothing but writing. These sessions allowed her to learn how to write longer dramatized scenes and dialogue. “It starts to feel almost as if they’re making their own choices, which is when you know it’s really working,” she said. She spent another five months revising, with her editor’s help. “When I revise, because of my OCD, it’s really intense.”

As with Cutting Teeth, The Gypsy Moth Summer switches perspectives often. We hear from adolescent Maddie and Dom, middle-aged Jules, and elderly Veronica. Fierro’s characters are Black and white, rich and poor, learned and naïve. Through their eyes, we get to know Avalon Island. It’s a place of extravagant wealth and primitive politics, propelled by its role inside the military industrial complex.

Of course, military industrialism is out of vogue, and so is inherent to the clash that’s happening between old and young in Gypsy Moth. But it’s just one of many drivers of division — race, sexual orientation, physical and mental abuse, drugs. All this as gypsy moths descend on the island to feed (and devastate the island greenery), reproduce, and die off. The moths function as an apt metaphor for many of the book’s subtexts: the inordinate consumption of the rich, the plight of femininity, the misuse of resources, the inevitability of destruction. Fierro conveys through her characters that perhaps the biggest weakness is believing strength prohibits vulnerability.

SH: You set up such believable characters that you don’t need to explain it when they lie or change their minds. It sounds like this wasn’t something you had to work at because you believe in them so much. They are real people to you.

JF: It’s amazing how we can write and not be aware of so much that we’re writing in that sort of analytical way… In real life, I don’t know if I believe that people change. But fiction is not real life. It’s either a version of reality we want to see, or a version of reality that we see and maybe want to investigate, so we make it hyper-real in some way. So, the fact that some of the characters in the book change, I’m proud of that in a way because it did happen very organically. At the end of the book, I wanted to show the incredible power of denial, and how the island keeps going. It’s so easy for us to forget things. It really only takes a generation for people to forget.

SH: A trap that a lot of novelists fall into is that they don’t do a great job of showing incremental changes, but they try to get away with these sweeping ones that hardly ever happen in real life. That was what convinced me with your characters — it wasn’t that they across-the-board changed who they were, it was that we were seeing inside their minds enough that we could really believe a little part of Veronica was softening, for example.

JF: It’s true. When I was at Iowa, for our MFA thesis part of the project was to write an essay. Mine was a craft essay called, “Against Epiphanies,” because I don’t believe we have epiphanies. I think we have epiphanies in life, but then you wake up the next morning and you’re like, ‘Yeah, no, that was crazy.’

Those moments when there’s a subtle shift, like a skipping of a record, that feel real, and maybe eventually lead to a larger epiphany… I think that it’s a very American notion, that we’re obsessed with this idea of self-actualization, and reinventing oneself, and change, and maybe it comes from the Puritans. I don’t know if it’s always a healthy thing. It’s good to want to be a better person.

SH: You write about firsts in a way that details both their awkwardness and their joy or pain, as with Maddie and Spencer, when he asks her, “Can’t you do something hot?” and she is berating herself internally for not knowing how to please him. This is true with Dom, too, and with Veronica. How do you cultivate such deep sympathy for your characters, while also maintaining enough distance to let them be hurt?

JF: Maybe I have no distance? It hurts! It does hurt. Actually, when it’s hurting, I know that I’m hopefully doing it right. Maybe this little anecdote will explain it.

When I was at Iowa, in the middle of the first year, [I had] to reapply for financial aid… I sat down and I wrote this story [for the application]. It was so dark and upsetting, and part of it was autobiographical. My father grew up during the war, no electricity, no medicine; he witnessed a lot of domestic abuse. Even though my parents did their best, they both came from abusive homes… part of that scene in the [The Gypsy Moth Summer] where Maddie hits her father back is autobiographical. When I was at Iowa, I was 23 or 24, I wrote a story that had a similar scene. But when I wrote it, I didn’t feel it. It was very distant. That story got so much attention and praise, and it helped me get this great fellowship. I remember thinking, ‘Ok, so, basically, people want you to write about dark, violent things, but with emotional distance so that it feels safe, because, god forbid, you fall over the edge into melodrama or sentimentality.’ But, I felt kind of guilty! I put my character, who was a young woman, like Maddie, through a lot, and I didn’t feel the pain that she was feeling.

So, with The Gypsy Moth Summer, when I rewrote the scene when her father hits her with the broom, I really felt it. And I knew that that was right. [B]ecause I write about very dramatic events, I have to be aware of sentimentality and melodrama. I’m sure there are many moments in The Gypsy Moth Summer when readers will feel like it’s overly dramatic, but I feel like I have to go there because it would be worse to not go there. [I]t would be sort of dishonest and then I would be in the territory where I would not be feeling compassion for my characters because I wouldn’t be feeling the suffering that they’re feeling.

SH: Writing a cast of characters so diverse in age gives you the opportunity to take on many different issues — euthanasia; fatal disease; first love; coming out in a heteronormative, abusive environment, etc. — but it must be a lot of work to go from thinking like a woman in her eighties to thinking like a young boy. What does this part of the creative process look like for you?

JF: Cutting Teeth was also in the alternating third person point of view. […] It’s really, I don’t want to use the word ‘easy’ for me, but it must have something to do with the way I walk around every day. I am so hyper-imaginative, in terms of thinking about what people are thinking about. They’re thinking about other people and what they’re thinking about! So, I feel like I’m always seeing the world in terms of that filter. It’s actually very comfortable for me. It feels more challenging for me when I think about writing a book through one point of view. Like, how would I deal with the limitations of only having one perspective? I love the multiple points of view. […] It is more work in some ways, but I’m really interested in this idea that we can all experience the same events in the same place, at the same time, but interpret them completely differently based on how we need to see them, or how we need to attach meaning to them. It creates this sort of accumulated meaning where the reader gets to do this fun subconscious work where you’re absorbing all these different perspectives and then they’re kind of mixed up in your head and it creates the larger meaning of the book.

The hardest character to write was Maddie because I am the closest to her in life experience. I worried a lot about writing through Jules [a black male] perspective because I’m coming from a very privileged white woman perspective, and I really wanted to do his perspective justice. I’m sure there will be readers who feel like his perspective is lacking. Veronica was also challenging. […] I’m only 40 but, there are issues in her perspective that I wanted to write about because they’re things that I struggle with or experience. I wanted to write about an intelligent woman who’s not allowed to have any kind of work, or purpose, outside of her husband’s purpose. Not that that’s something that I experience, but I think that every woman, no matter who you are, what class, what race, there are moments when you feel like you’re the second sex.

SH: Playwright Sarah Jones said in a recent episode of her podcast, “Playdate,” that Lily Tomlin’s portrayal of a black man helped her give herself permission to portray people from other cultures because she had spent time with those people. “In this moment,” Jones said, “we need a revolutionary message like that, that says, these are our neighbors, these are our friends, and we feel connected to them, not separate from them.” She said that if she could trust the people from those other cultures and backgrounds who said she was genuinely capturing the sense of a person, she could trust herself. Were you nervous about inhabiting a black voice, especially a black male voice?

JF: Of course. And I think that extra sensitivity, nervousness as you put it, awareness that I was writing outside my limited and privileged perspective was necessary. Particularly since bad things happen to Jules, some a consequence of his choices, others out of his control. I also think a writer who is writing outside her or his culture and experience needs to do so with extra compassion and be open to and accepting of criticism. But I think it would be, in many ways, cowardly for me to only write through my narrow perspective and experience. I practice my humanity on the page — as a reader and a writer — and then hope that translates to real life by making me a better and more understanding person. I read for the same reason. And we all know how essential it is to read books with characters and narrators whose lives are vastly different from our own. This is how we learn, and, I hope, broaden our perspectives.

SH: Did you have black writers, readers, and friends look at your book to see how you were doing with the voice and life details?

JF: Yes, I had readers who were incredibly helpful in pointing out my ignorance. I also 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 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. 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.”

SH: Lastly, do you have plans for a next book?

I’m ready to write the BIG book. The one I’ve been waiting to write my whole adult life. It is a novel whose scope is much bigger than any I’ve written before — spanning WWII in Southern Italy, right before and during the Allied liberation, which is my father’s story, moving through the building of the Twin Towers in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s (my maternal grandfather’s story) and the frame focuses on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. It is my family’s American Dream story told through the women who watched these men chase the American Dream.

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