Is Everyone a Writer? A Conversation with Julia Fierro

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Julia Fierro used her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop as the basis for small writing groups she started leading in Brooklyn back in 2002. Since then, the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop has become the writing home to more than 4,000 writers, and classes are offered in Brooklyn, Santa Monica, and online.

What would surprise many of her students is that Fierro didn’t write for many years after earning her MFA, the reasons for which she discussed with me on the telephone in early June, the same week that her sophomore novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, was released.

The novel is set in a fictionalized version of Long Island in the summer of 1992, when a gypsy moth invasion covers the island. That year is also when prodigal daughter Leslie Day Marshall returns to the island, along with her husband, Jules, who is black, and their two children. Their return is greeted with tremendous suspicion by the wealthy elite of the island, and the family’s relationships with various community members play out against the background of a society that hates the changes Leslie represents.

SIGNATURE: I just finished The Gypsy Moth Summer today on the beach and I loved it, although parts of it made me really sad.

JULIA FIERRO: Thank you. I know. I’m sorry about that. I wrote an essay back in graduate school and it was against epiphanies. Sometimes, in a book when a character changes dramatically, I get angry because that’s not how life works. But it’s really hard, because I really cared about the characters and I wanted to do them justice, particularly Jules, because I’m writing outside my narrow perspective. I really tried not to use him, but to be compassionate. My old teacher at Iowa, Marilyn Robinson, she talked about that so much, about having compassion for your characters. I don’t know. Is that enough if you’re writing in somebody else’s perspective and appropriating somebody else’s culture? I don’t know. Maybe it’s not.

SIG: I thought you were incredibly brave to do this. And, obviously, I was thinking about these issues as I was reading. I kept looking for you to make a false move, and you didn’t. You handled it beautifully. It’s a minefield right now to be writing from other people’s perspectives and I certainly understand why writers of color are telling white writers to “back off.” I get that.

JF: Me too. And that was the problem. I thought, “Here I am doing it.” And so. I gave a reading at Housing Works the other day, and one of my former students, Chiwoniso Kaitano-Price, was the moderator, and she asked us all the most amazing questions. So when it came to my turn, she said, “Okay Julia. Let’s talk about race.” She’s from Zimbabwe, and she mentioned that one of her characters in her novel is a white male, so she was having some of the same problems writing from his perspective and the same things to think about. I’ve been looking for someone to ask me that question. I think it’s important to be questioned. She brought up Lionel Shriver, who is just not worrying what other people think.

I think writers need to be aware, that okay: We need to write what we need to write, but we should be aware that we are going to be criticized for it and be open to the criticism. Be aware, you know?

SIG: Did you think it was integral to the story that Jules was black and that his children were biracial? Is that essential to the story that you were telling?

JF: I really did. I think if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have done it. I think there have been so many great books that have been written about class over the last fifty years, but often the topic of race is completely ignored. I don’t think that we can talk about class without talking about race and the intersection of the two. And so I felt it was necessary. I asked myself that question so many times because I knew that it was a risk and what if I didn’t do Jules justice? I really did feel that there was just no way around it and I wanted to write about racism.

I grew up on Long Island, and there were so many wonderful things about growing up on Long Island. My parents worked so hard so that we could go to a good public school, and it had beautiful nature. But the suburbs of New York City are incredibly segregated. Shockingly. And they still are. And even New York City itself. Often when we think about the Northeast, we think it’s progressive. But there are towns that are segregated by race, towns that are segregated by religion, and then it’s all relative to class. I felt that I couldn’t write about this region, even though it’s a fictionalized version of Long Island, and it’s not even geographically the same. I actually had to fictionalize the town because there’s not that many towns on Long Island that have the super-upper-class and working-class living next door to each other.

SIG: When I was teaching creative nonfiction at the college, I had a ton of Long Island kids in my class. We would read memoirs and when we would get into discussions about race, bless those Long Island white kids, but they used to argue with me until they were blue in the face: “We don’t have racism on Long Island.” And I would ask them, “Where do the black people in your town live?” And they would tell me, “They live over in the other cities.” And I would ask them, “Why is your town white and this town black?”

JF: Right now, I really felt like the results of the election were reflected in that. It’s the result of people – myself included – who grew up very sheltered, and allowed to stay as one of my characters said, “innocent,” which is really “ignorant.” “Oh, we’re not racist. We just don’t know any black people.” It’s really frustrating.

SIG: Now that the book is coming out at the time that it is, do you feel prescient? It does seem to be a way of looking at how that stuff never went away. After the election, there’s been a lot of light cast on racial conflict. All of the sudden, your novel is here, but obviously you started working on it a long time ago.

JF: I handed it in before the election. It’s the book I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Decades. My grandfather was a colonel in the army. Very Irish-American. First generation. That’s how he rose in class. My father was an Italian immigrant. The fictional colonel in the book is not my grandfather, although he did do white glove inspections, but he wasn’t that tyrannical.

But the point is, when I first started writing the book, I thought, “Oh. This is historical fiction.” I was sixteen in 1992, so I knew it was a period of change. I remember Clinton at the beginning, and kids whose fathers were investment bankers and the like, coming to school after the election and telling us that their dads were so upset about Clinton winning. I actually had to research. I thought, “Wow. This really is an amazing time in American history.” But then this past presidential campaign started, and every week another African American is shot, unarmed. And when the rallies started taking place, the open-air ranting. And Trump was out there saying things – it was pure racism. And then I handed in the draft and there was attention from the publisher because it was timely. I was sad because the book is set in 1992 in a fictional white island. It’s just jaw-dropping to think that this stuff is present-day.

I feel naïve because I was pretty certain Clinton was going to win, and I think if anything is good that came out of this election, which is difficult to say, it was the fact that we really have to look in the mirror and acknowledge that this is who we are.

I do think that there were a lot of vengeful voters, because even the phrase “make America great again” – there’s vengeance in that, right? I wish it wasn’t true.

SIG: I was really struck by your use of the gypsy moth as framing for the novel. For you, does the gypsy moth have a particular symbolic meaning?

JF: A couple of people have asked me about the meaning of the gypsy moth. I think, for the kind of writer that I am – I write to escape, to experience the world and the characters and go somewhere else, so for me they were really more atmospheric.

SIG: And that’s brilliantly done throughout the book. I was definitely conscious of the caterpillars and I thought it was great.

julia-fierro-c-rubidium-wuJF: I wish I could have taken out a couple of the gypsy moths. But the story of the gypsy moths has been in my mind since I was first writing. I didn’t write until college, because I didn’t know that anyone could just sit down and write. For my parents, work had a different meaning. It wasn’t like creative work. So when I went to college, I think I was in a composition class, the teacher gave us a creative assignment, so I wrote the sketch of the colonel, it was like a one-page sketch. And I knew early on that the gypsy moths were in that. And then I put it away. And then when I got to Iowa, which was such a shock, I actually called them to ask, “Are you sure there’s not a mistake?” And they said, “Don’t worry. A lot of people do that.”

SIG: Getting into Iowa is such an affirmation.

JF: I think for me it was triple the affirmation. It’s sad to say that I needed external permission to write, but I did. I hadn’t really written that much. My creative writing instructor told me I should.

SIG: Did you just apply to Iowa on a lark? Why did you apply to Iowa?

JF: He gave me a list. This was 1998. It was before the internet was the tool that it is now. You sent away for this plain AWP book that just had the addresses of the programs. And he gave me this handout, it had been photocopied like a thousand times and it had the old US News and World Report ranking for programs so I just applied to the top fifteen. My parents said, “I don’t understand. You’re going to a writing school? You’re supposed to be a lawyer.” And I told them, “No, it’s really good.” And I made my boyfriend, who is now my husband, come with me. And we went to the Prairie Lights bookstore and I looked and there was a whole shelf of books by Iowa writers and I said, “Oh my God, this place is really special!” I was a blank slate. So of course, I was the most annoying person in class.

SIG: I hope you’ve written about that. It’s a charming story: The naif goes to Iowa.

JF: What was hard about it was that I was surrounded by these really accomplished readers and writers and so I just kind of adopted their expectations. “Okay. Graduate from Iowa, get published in The New Yorker, you get a book deal.” But I wasn’t ready for so much of that. And so after that, my first book didn’t sell and I didn’t write for seven years because I just hadn’t created that internal confidence.

And it was through Sackett Street, through teaching those amazing writers who were working full-time jobs and writing. I did write about it. It’s about how Sackett Writers really saved me.

I was teaching as an adjunct, then I had kids. I really tried to blame those things, but it really was that I needed to grow up. I needed to create the confidence that was internal and was not just based on external things – going to Iowa, and having a great workshop, and people telling me that I was a good writer. That was a challenge for me. I am insecure. Everyone is always talking about “thicker skin,” and I would ask them, “Do you have a lotion? Because my skin is not growing thicker.” I needed more perspective.

SIG: Tell me about Sackett Street.

JF: I knew I wanted to make workshops that were moderated by the teachers and also translated: advanced writers need to have their opinions translated into the English language [from jargon] because you just forget. And so I took the best of what I learned at Iowa – a lot of my workshop structure is what I learned from Ethan Canin who was a really great workshop leader.

I worry about writers in MFA programs. Especially because they are so young and it gets younger and younger, a lot of them are going right from college. I wasn’t a prodigy. There are some writers who can write novels at twenty-four that are good and meaningful. I was not one of those people. I think that writing is so hard. You don’t need someone to remind you that you’re not doing everything perfectly. I think your work can be read critically, but that should mean in a craft-focused, analytical way and not a negative way. And when I hire people to work for Sackett, the one thing I make sure they have to do is that they have a section in every workshop where they’re talking about what works in the writing. Because I think it’s actually harder for writers to see that in their work. And it’s important that you be able to see when you’re working alone that you are accomplishing something that’s actually working.

SIG: Back to the book, what kinds of research did you do to re-create teen culture from that time period? I have to tell you that those kids felt so lost. Unguided. What kind of research did you do to place yourself in that kind of subject position in order to write from it?

JF: Now that I’m forty, I can confess that even though I was somewhat of a good girl and appeared that way to my parents and my teachers, I did drama. I was running with – I don’t even know what the word would be, we were going to raves. I wasn’t really experimenting with drugs as much as my friends were, mostly because I have OCD. I don’t trust my interpretation to begin with. But I was part of a crew of kids that were very wealthy, had a lot of money, spent it on drugs and raves. I think a lot of teenagers are doing those things. Most of the writers that I know were more bookish. And even though I love to read, no one I was hanging out with was reading. It was an issue and I don’t know if it was because I didn’t think I deserved to be with more ambitious people.

Even in college, the people I hung out with more who were more creative were also doing a lot of drinking and drugs, partying. I met my husband very young. I was twenty-one. And one of the first things he said to me, he sat down, and he said, “I’m surprised you hang out with these people because they don’t appreciate you.” I really did feel like I had to hide my intellectual and analytical self. So a lot of that was not research. Some of that is autobiographical. But even though I am hanging out with kids who are listening to alternative rock and heavy metal and the rave, electronic music, when I was alone, secretly I listened to classical music. I was a nerd in hiding. I wasn’t the kid with straight As. I had a very hard time with math. A couple of times I asked if I could be in the AP English class but because I wasn’t doing that well in math, I wasn’t part of the AP clique, the teacher said “no.” Even though I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the class who was reading all of the books.

SIG: You should send that teacher a copy of your book now.

JF: I do feel as if the guidance counselor told me not to aim too high with colleges.

SIG: It’s the low expectations for working-class kids.

JF: Maybe they knew my parents were working class. But we were living in an area that was wealthy so we could go to that school. My parents found a house that had been abandoned. I feel like my parents were very naïve. They thought it was great. My dad fixed it up because he could fix anything because he grew up in Italy during the war and then a year later, my mom met a neighbor who told her that she was so surprised that we had bought that house because the woman who had lived in it before us had killed herself. So that’s why it was such a good deal. It had been almost like a squatter home. It was a really beautiful place to live. I knew when about the time I was in Iowa that someday I was going to write about rich people. Because I grew up around a lot of wealthy people. I was amazed that they knew that florals and plaids go together. It was just crazy. But it was really fascinating. I do feel as if I wasn’t one of the kids who was going to go to Harvard, and there were a lot of very smart Ivy League-bound generation of their family and so I think I got kind of lost in the middle. I feel grateful that I got to go to such a great public school and my parents sacrificed so much to pay the taxes to live in that district. I feel like I owe them a lot.

I always wanted to write about kids around an abandoned mansion. I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island. It used to be called the Gold Coast, and there are all these amazing mansions and a lot of them had been abandoned. We would go hang out in these old houses and we could have fallen through the old floors, but that’s where we would go hang out.

SIG: I want to compliment you – so many writers, especially male writers, get this wrong. Your sex scenes are handled so well. They are so well-written.

JF: I want to cry from just you saying that. It’s scary.

SIG: Why is it scary to write a sex scene? And how did you approach it?

JF: One of the only literary essays I ever wrote, because I used to be very insecure about writing anything that’s not fiction, was for The Millions. It’s about how when I got my first book offer, before the contract was signed, I had one editor say, “I want to talk about one thing. There’s no sex in this book. Even though all the romantic relationships are leading up to that, there’s no sex.” And so I started writing dramatized sex scenes for the first time. I think many writers are okay with summarizing, like an exposition of sex, and the scene ends with the curtain being drawn right before sex. Also, teaching so many advanced writers at Sackett, all these literary writers and everybody’s avoiding writing about sex. I think it’s a fear of not only writing about sex itself, but also about sentimentality and melodrama. We’re so hit over the head constantly in writing classes that the worst thing you can do is be sentimental, even though people are reading more romance novels than any other kind of book. It’s not readers who are worried about it. It’s an avoidance of emotion. Everyone will use James Salter for writing about sex, so I went and read those scenes, but there’s no emotion, it’s so distant. And that’s not what sex feels like. Even if it’s good sex. Even if it’s bad sex. It’s going to be emotional in some way. It’s the emotion of the act that makes it mean something. So it’s tricky but I do feel that it’s better to fall over the edge into melodrama than to not even touch it.

But also, it was Maddie. I had only ever written about bad-feeling sex. So I wrote that essay. So many people read it, which was shocking. I was asked to be on panels at the Romance Writers Convention. And I just thought, “Oh my god. People think I’m an expert about writing about sex.” I got invited to be on five panels on writing about sex. I would be on these panels with all these amazing, famous writers, like Gina Frangello and Elissa Schappell, I’m the beginner, I wrote an essay about how I didn’t know how to write about sex, but I learned a lot from the panelists. And what I learned from these other writers is that it’s okay for sex to be tender, and good sometimes. So with Maddie and Brooks, I really wanted to show the positive experience that I wished that I had had. I was pretty happy with it even though I was worried about it.

SIG: I think what’s brilliant about it is that almost every woman who lost her virginity as a teenager is going to relate to the fact that they were with boys who had never heard of a clitoris. One of the things that is destroying sex between teenagers is that so many school districts now don’t teach sex education because of the return of “abstinence-only” education. What’s happening with these girls and what I find so distressing is that boys are getting sex education from internet porn, which is increasingly violent. Girls talk about the fact that guys are really, really violent with them because they think that’s what girls like. I was reminded of that when you have the guys watching the porn in your novel.

JF: That was from experience. It was one of the most affecting experiences of my teenaged life – it wasn’t like we watched it regularly, it was only one or two times. But as girls, we had to pretend that we were into it because we just weren’t confident enough to leave the room. Part of setting the novel in 1992 was that I wanted to write in the pre-information age. We didn’t have the internet. You got information mostly from TV. I guess from magazines, right. Eavesdropping on adults or you just made up your own. I wanted to write about that. But I don’t know teenagers at this time in my life because my kids are younger, so I really wanted to believe that everything is better.

SIG: No, unfortunately, it’s not. It’s actually much worse.

Can you talk about what it means to have “permission” to be a writer, about what it feels like to choose to go to college and to do something creative when the creative arts were not treasured in your own background? How do you give yourself permission to be a writer?

JF: It’s such a great question. When I’m at readings and no one in the audience asks a question, that’s the question that I will ask: “When did you give yourself permission to think of yourself as a Writer with a capital W?” For me, as ridiculous as this sounds, the second book definitely makes me feel more of a writer. But it wasn’t until I got published. For some writers, they say that they don’t need to get their book published, and I say, “I wish I was you.” I do think it’s hard not to look for it outside yourself. There are writers who are lucky and they have people in their lives who say, “Yes.” They’re either teachers or mentors, but that is really a privileged thing. They were either at MFA programs or colleges, but these are places that require money or time. So I think that – and this was a very unpopular opinion when I was at Iowa because writers want to believe that they were born to write – they are something like innately special. But because I didn’t come from educated people, I didn’t come from people who believed they were better in some way, but were probably actually worried about not being good enough. I mean, Iowa was huge. It was a life-changing thing. It was like my big “yes.” But I really do believe that anyone can be a writer, and people disagree with me because they want to know “what about talent?” Yes. You have to have the ability to observe humans. You have to be inquisitive. But it comes out of need. Every single person tells stories every day, all day, whether it’s in your head or where you work or online. Now, people who never really had the opportunity are writing, even if it’s just like a text or a Facebook update or an email. I think we’re living in a writing culture. And I know texts are not the epitome of literature, but it’s something. I think it becomes more out of need. For some people, that’s how we need to make sense of ourselves in the world or our place in the world. And I do really think if you need it enough and you work hard enough and you read enough and you read with that focused perspective of a writer where you are seeing that the writer is making technical choices and is making you feel something and think something. But people don’t like it when I say that. They say that I’m wrong that everyone’s a writer.

Julia Fierro/Photo © Rubidium Wu