In Julia Fierro’s captivating new novel, “The Gypsy Moth Summer” (St. Martin’s Press, 400 pp., $26.99), the pesky insects of the title infest a fictional Long Island islet called Avalon Island. Two families become intertwined there when Leslie Day Marshall moves back to her childhood home with her African-American husband and their son, Brooks, and daughter. Their neighbors include teenager Maddie Pencott LaRosa and her grandfather, president of Grudder Aviation factory, “the island’s livelihood.” The love story between Brooks and Maddie is only one component of a novel that deals with racial tensions, pollution, cancer, dementia and sexuality. Fierro, a Long Island native who lives in Santa Monica, California, and Brooklyn, is the founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop (full disclosure: I’m an instructor there) and the author of a previous novel, “Cutting Teeth.” I recently spoke with Fierro by phone; our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You grew up on Long Island. Where did you live, and how did that setting inspire your work?
When I was in third grade, we moved to Huntington because my parents opened a gift shop on Main Street. My parents really lucked out — they found a house in Lloyd Neck. We had a full acre, and our house was surrounded by trees, so it really felt like you were alone. The back of our property led to Caumsett State Park — we spent our entire childhood in that park. It was a really idyllic place to be a kid.
And then as a teenager, it was a little too isolated. I wanted to write about people who are culturally isolated. And in the ’90s, without the internet, this concept of growing up sheltered is even 10 times as sheltered. I wanted to write about a town that had diverse classes, and I also wanted to write about this sense of isolation. In many ways, it’s a love letter to the natural beauty of Long Island.
You write from the points of view of multiple characters. Was that tricky?
The reason I read and the reason I write is to experience other perspectives and to feel less alone and less ignorant in my own sort of narrow perspective. I think part of our existential crisis is the insecurity of not even knowing if your loved ones are thinking what you think they are thinking. I love the structure where characters are experiencing the same events in the same time and same place but are interpreting them so differently. It creates this accumulated meaning for the book, all these different perspectives and the way that they contrast with each other.
The book is set in 1992, and there are lots of references to pop culture and products: from Oprah Winfrey to Love’s Baby Soft. Did you enjoy revisiting that time period?
I did, and actually I just want you to know that at my book events I’m bringing a bottle of Love’s Baby Soft and Drakkar Noir. Because even if one person spritzes, the air will feel like the ’90s. I have all this ’90s candy that I’m bringing. The air is going to be very sweet.
You include a lot of scientific details about gypsy moths and plants. What’s your favorite fact you learned while researching the novel?
The fact that the female moth is born and hatches with fully-formed wings, but never uses them!
The novel’s gypsy moth infestation feels biblical, in some ways. You describe “something titanic rushing toward the island, gathering steam like a nor’easter barreling toward shore.” Why did you settle on gypsy moths as the main event and metaphor in this book?
I went through a summer when I was a teenager where there was a gypsy moth plague and it was just awful. They were all over you; it was really crazy and this surreal atmosphere. For years, I wanted to write about the gypsy moths. That was one of the first inspirations for the book. I wanted the readers to feel trapped in that gypsy moth plague. I think the symbolic meaning or metaphorical meaning of writing comes later. I think if you start with the symbol, the whole thing might topple over. You start with the basics.
LI events for ‘The Gypsy Moth Summer’
Julia Fierro in conversation with novelists Julie Buntin (“Marlena”) and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (“June”).
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday, June 14, at 7 p.m., Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com
Julia Fierro in conversation with novelist Kristopher Jansma (“Why We Came to the City”).
WHEN | WHERE Saturday, June 17, at 5 p.m., BookHampton, 41 Main St., East Hampton
INFO Register in advance; 631-324-4939, bookhampton.com