by Ben Stroud
Issue #119 • April 20, 2009•Buy Now!
Two Deadly Fish
I lift up the lid of the livewell and look inside. A couple fish—bass, largemouth—sit in place, not really swimming.
“What’s up, fish?” I say.
The fish open their mouths and close them, which is about all they do. You can’t tell by looking at them, but they’re poisoned—like, if you eat too many, you go blind, or crazy, or you become sterile or someshit. They’ve got signs at the pier and boat ramp, no more than two fish a week. It’s their revenge, I guess, even though it’s really the big power plant that sits on the side of the lake that does it.
“Fish don’t need hassling,” my stepfather says to no one, meaning me.
I close the lid.
Usually, whenever my stepfather wants to tell me something, he’ll make some general comment or filter what he’s got to say through my mom instead of just talk to me. Not that I’m complaining.
I go sit behind the steering wheel and look at the screen mounted there. It shows how deep the lake is below the boat, and the size of any fish passing below. I wonder if it would show a dead body, if there’s a picture programmed in it for that. See, son, a dad’ll say, tapping on the screen, that’s a child. We only need the small net.
Originally from East Texas, Ben Stroud recently received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan . His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Pindeldyboz, Subtropics, Fiction, and Gigantic. In February he was a resident at the MacDowell Colony, where he won the colony’s first annual knife-throwing competition.
Where did the idea for this story come from?
Many, many fishing trips with my parents. But I didn’t get the idea for the story until a few years ago, when I went to a reading by Jim Shepard. I was really inspired by the energy of his voice. This happens a lot to me at readings. Something about hearing other people read their work makes me think about my own. In this case, it all came at once: the fishing trips, the landscape of that lake, the kid’s voice. By the end of the reading I more or less had the story blocked out—though it took me several years to get it right.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Getting the stepfather right. He needed to be mean enough for us not to think the kid was just whiny, but not so mean that he becomes a monster (and I should add this was especially difficult as my own stepfather is in fact a very nice man!). Only toward the end did I figure out that the stepfather isn’t so much cruel as perplexed by the kid. He comes off as mean to him, but the problem is that they don’t get each other and all their efforts at connection are stunted. Through the kid’s eyes, it all seems just horrible. But I think/hope the more you look at it, the more you see that’s not the case—that it’s more a matter of frustrated attempts to find a balance, an understanding, if that makes sense.
Why did you have your narrator erase numbers from his math textbooks? Have you ever done it?
I have (though only a couple of times!). It seemed right for him. A way to be noticed without being noticed.
The character of Corporal Edwards lends an interesting undercurrent of adult regret to the story. What role did you want him to play?
Corporal Edwards came very late in the story, as I worked on filling out the father. My own dad (who never ran off to the Shreveport) is a historian. Growing up I often went with him to meetings of the local history club, and Corporal Edwards grew naturally out of that world. At first he was just the guy the father was writing about, but then he took on a significance to the landscape. I’m fascinated by landscapes, and I thought of Corporal Edwards as another connection to the pre-fake lake landscape—to a lost time when the landscape was natural rather than artificial. And then he took on a little more meaning. One of the things that always surprises me about writing is how some mundane detail that you fetch to fill in a gap can, in a few drafts, become a linchpin to the story.
Your writing is sparse but here and there contains laugh-out-loud lines such as “which I suppose will be comforting to us as we starve to death.” Who are your influences in style and voice, and is it difficult to balance humor with pathos?
For this story, I’d say the two main influences were Charles Baxter and, of course, Jim Shepard. The first writing I applied myself to in any serious way was comedy—in high school I wanted to write for Saturday Night Live or David Letterman. When I turned to fiction, I guess I kept some of that sensibility. As for the second part of the question—I’m not sure how to answer. I think it is difficult, but it’s hard to separate it out from the general difficulty of writing. That is, for humor to work, I think pathos pretty much always needs to be right alongside it, and so part of figuring this story out was figuring out that balance. But I feel like that’s no different from figuring any story out.
Why did you choose to structure the story with subtitles?
The story had subtitled sections right from the beginning. It’s a structure I really like as a reader, and I use it a good bit as a writer. I feel like it allows you to do certain things you can’t otherwise do—it lets you play with pacing and how you deliver information to the reader. And it makes every section important, making both the writer and reader focus on why each section is there.
The father and stepfather in “Eraser” seem to represent different ideas of manhood, what were you going for with each type of man? What type of man do you think the narrator will grow into?
That’s another one of those things, like with Corporal Edwards, that I didn’t quite realize was there in the story until very late. I didn’t want to play it up too much—otherwise it’d start coming across like a bad movie. But I felt it should be there, and I think we and the kid know what kind of man he’ll grow up into. Part of what’s going on here is him figuring out that he’s not going to be able to change.
What do you think will happen to the narrator after your story leaves him? Will he succeed in ‘erasing’ himself?
For some reason, it’s always been hard for me to figure out what will happen in that next moment. But I don’t think much will change for him. That is, the change for him is realizing that things aren’t really going to change. His various efforts at erasing are efforts at getting attention—and in that way he’ll keep failing too, because nothing will ever come to him as he imagines it, just as that final jump doesn’t work out how he’d like. If there’s anything else he learns, it’s the inevitability of disappointment, that nothing ever happens quite the way you plan (which I don’t think is as bad as it sounds).
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
Some days I feel like there’s a motivational speaker living in my head, shouting all the advice I’ve heard over the years, which pretty much boils down to: keep going. There’s so much we can’t control as writers, no matter what stage we’re at. We can’t control book publishers and magazine editors, prizes and fellowships, mfa applications and teaching jobs. But we can control our own industry. We can sit down, we can work, we can write our stories. If we remember that, and remember why we started doing this in the first place—not for all those other things but for that magical feeling of stringing words together into a story—then the rest will take care of itself. At least, I hope that’s true. Anyway, that’s what my internal motivational speaker has been saying lately.
What are you working on now?
Right now, more stories. In a month, who knows.