In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Rachel Finn-Lohmann
Your short story “Squeaky” in Volume 25 is about a teacher who torments a sixth-grade student in his classroom. What was the inspiration behind this story? How did it come to be?
The story is based on a real experience I had when I was a sixth-grader. It’s something I tried to forget for a long time, but then I started writing about it the summer after I graduated from college. A couple things happened that made me start thinking about the experience again. I coincidentally met another woman who was bullied by the same teacher, in the same way that I was, several years before me. Realizing my experience was part of a larger pattern helped me look back on the situation differently. I also happened to read the short story “Bettering Myself” by Ottessa Moshfegh around that same time. It’s also written from the perspective of a teacher, and it gave me the idea to write a story from the point of view of the teacher who had bullied me.
There’s such a delicate balance of style and content in your story, with particular regards to its tone. Early on, “Squeaky” feels light and seems a little funny, but there’s an uncomfortable shift that occurs when it becomes clear how caustic and inappropriate this teacher is. Did you always have this story written from his point of view?
I never thought about writing the story from any other perspective. During that school year, and afterward, I spent a lot of time thinking about things from my teacher’s point of view. I wondered what made him treat me the way he did, why he hated me so much. I tried to see myself through his eyes. I spent much more time thinking about what he was thinking than I did reflecting on my own feelings. So by the time I started writing the story, his perspective felt more accessible to me than my own. As soon as I started writing in his voice, I found unexpected humor in it, and it was cathartic to be able to laugh at something that had once been so scary. But towards the end of the story I felt the humor slipping away, and I knew that I needed to let it go, to let it not be funny again. I do see the humor in it now, but the fear and discomfort are still there too.
It certainly seems that “Squeaky” would be a different story if it had been told from a different POV. Do you consider the teacher to be an unreliable narrator?
He’s definitely unreliable, but he’s such a bad liar that the unreliability becomes pretty transparent pretty quickly. For a while I played with making him seem more likable at first, to keep the truth of him more of a surprise, but it never rang true.
We really get a sense of buzzing tension building from descriptions of and reactions from characters like Mr. Yancey or the high-ponytail girls who mime what the reader feels or should feel about this teacher. What is your process for writing these extraneous characters who are crucial to the tension in a story but are not as prominent as main characters are?
There was actually a lot more attention placed on those types of secondary characters in my earliest drafts. As I started turning my memories of that school year into a story, everything that stuck out strongly in my recollections felt important to include. Then I had to prune back everything that didn’t directly shed light on the relationship between Squeaky and Mr. H. The other students in the room, and Mr. Yancey, became most important as voices who could challenge Mr. H’s perspective at crucial moments. Readers never really hear from Squeaky directly about the way Mr. H is treating her, but those other witnesses give her a kind of voice in the narrative. They see what’s happening to her, and through their dialogue, they speak directly to the reader about it in a way that she isn’t really able to.
An aspect of literary fiction that can feel unnerving to a reader is how real these types of stories seem, like how a prototype or aspects of a character like this teacher really exists out there in the world. Do you enjoy building these types of bad characters? Is any part of it that’s challenging to write because of how authentic and accurate these characters appear?
Several times when I was workshopping this story, I got feedback from readers that it just didn’t seem realistic that a teacher would act this way, and they couldn’t buy into the story because of that. At first, I didn’t really know what to make of that, because the story was so closely based on my real experiences. And there were always other readers who spoke up to say that it didn’t surprise them at all that a teacher would act this way. I think to a certain degree, the experiences people have will influence how real the story seems to them. People who’ve had horrible teachers know that they’re out there, and others are lucky enough to be surprised that a teacher like this could even exist. But the feedback from the disbelievers ultimately helped me work on building the world around Squeaky and Mr. H more precisely, to help readers see how a teacher might end up abusing their power in this way.
Let’s talk about Squeaky! In a move that threw me and delighted me, you name yourself in the story as this character. Tell us about your choice for that. What did it feel like to include yourself, or even just your real name, as a part of this story? Do you consider any bit of it to be autofiction?
I went back and forth on this choice a lot, and got a lot of mixed feedback about it. Ultimately, I felt like including my name added an additional layer to the story that I didn’t want to lose. I think Squeaky would be a flatter character if I didn’t tie her to my present/writer self in some way, and I wanted to give readers a little hint that the whole narrative has an additional layer to it: future Squeaky, or a version of her, is speaking about what happened to her, in her teacher’s voice. I do consider the story to be autofiction, although since I’m not writing from my own perspective, I had to lean heavily into the fiction and let myself make my teacher into a character I could speak for. Of course, his thoughts and narration are all made up, but so much of the action and dialogue are based on things I remember him doing or saying to me. Acknowledging that in some way felt important, so I kept my name in.
Can you recall any of your favorite books or writers from when you were a young reader? Who are some writers that you love now?
I’ve always been drawn to stories that include elements of metafictionality, stories within stories, autofiction: anything that breaks the fourth wall and blurs the lines between real world and story world. When I was younger I remember loving books by Louis Sachar and Eleanor Estes, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and the series Inkheart and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Also, like most of my generation, I was a big Harry Potter fan. Some writers I love now are E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Maggie Nelson, and George Saunders. If I start making a longer list I’ll go forever, so I’ll stop there. My favorite book about a teacher is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a collection of linked short stories, and a middle grade historical fantasy novel. When my adult project gets too heavy, I work on the middle grade one, and it’s kind of my writing comfort blanket.
I’m also midway through my first year as an eighth grade English teacher right now, so my biggest project at the moment is being the best teacher I can be for my students. I definitely think that responsibility weighs a little heavier on my shoulders because of what I went through as a middle schooler; I know what a big impact a teacher can have, good or bad.
Rachel Finn-Lohmann is a writer and middle school English teacher. She recently graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Plum Creek Review, Plain China, and The Charles Carter. She lives in Pasadena, California, with her partner, Isabel, and their dog, Arlo.