Interviewed by Rachel Wild
Read Emily Flouton’s fiction piece, Old Man Gogol
Rachel: Old man Gogol is in my opinion a perfect short story. What was the starting point for it?
Emily: That’s very kind. I wanted to render a place I had in my head, a place modelled on the heavily Polish town in Massachusetts where my father grew up. But I saw it drier, dustier, more oppressive. And there was actually an Old Man Gogol who lived there in the fifties and sixties, down the street from my father, a man I really know nothing about except that apparently the local kids used to prank him on Halloween, which always struck me as vaguely sad. I figured I’d change Gogol’s name after the story was done, but then I couldn’t do it, I just like the way it sounds too much. So the story had a fairly literal starting point, and I think that rootedness allowed me to get creative with other elements.
I love how this story takes you in one direction and then changes rapidly into something else. Did you know the ending when you started to write it?
Definitely not. When I began writing, I was pretty sure the story was going to go in the direction it appears to be going—towards Gogol befriending the narrator—and I took it in that direction, but the narrative petered out. I couldn’t resolve it and it languished in my drafts folder. It wasn’t until I picked the story up at a residency, months later, that something clicked. At that point, I had a lot of real-world resentments swirling in my head—the escalating Russian invasion of Ukraine, and, most notably, the Supreme Court having just overturned Roe v. Wade—and I suddenly knew that justice should not be served in this story, that this narrator would be failed. It hurt and it felt right. I deleted the last half of the story and rewrote it, leaving most of the first half intact, and I liked the sort of misdirect this set up.
The relationship between the narrator and her brother is really well drawn. When you write fiction, how do you go about creating characters?
With this story, I started with a set of character dynamics I felt I understood—brother/sister, bully/bullied—and pushed them to an exaggerated place, using specific details I’d observed or experienced or felt would fit. I could picture the narrator’s world-weary sigh, her quiet acceptance at too young of an age that things would likely not get better, and her brother’s outraged facial expression, and that was enough for me to find a way into them. I think often when creating characters, there’s one gesture I can see first, and that’s a gateway for me to get to know everything else about them.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a novel about a sexual assault scandal at a boarding school, which also uses a real-life jumping-off point as a way into an invented narrative.
Thanks very much, and congratulations for being published in The Forge!