Happy Fish, Plus Coin
by Scott Snyder
Issue #14 • December 30, 2002•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
I once lived next to a man who was indestructible. His name was Gay Isbelle and he cheated death three times—twice before I’d met him, and then, once, in my company. It was important for me to be around someone like Gay at that point in my life, someone invulnerable, as I was scared and lonely and hiding from my family, which was, and still is, one of the wealthiest in the country. Their money goes back to the days of gas and steam. The root of the family name means both “vision” and “light” in a language that will not be revealed here. They had detectives out looking for me, detectives with real means, but in Florida at this time, for a short, wonderful period not too long ago, it was easy to find employment without identification of any shape or sort.
Scott Snyder recently completed his MFA in fiction at Columbia University. He teaches high school creative writing in NYC and has just finished his first collection of short fiction. His fiction has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story. His story “About Face” is forthcoming in Epoch.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
SS: Happy Fish really started with Gay. I lived for a year in Florida right after college and one morning, while getting ready for work, I caught an episode of a talk show featuring survivors of all kinds of horrific accidents, everything from shark attacks to earth quakes. Most of the guests, while grateful to have survived, were justifiably bitter about what had happened to them. But there was one man on the panel—the man who in my opinion had been dealt the worst hand of any of them—who seemed genuinely ecstatic about his ordeals. As a child he’d nearly burned to death in a house fire, and then, as a young adult, he’d been in a car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. But all he could talk about was how lucky he felt to have gone through these events because they’d given him a purpose in life. The other panelists seemed a little bewildered by him. I knew right away that I wanted to build a story in which I could pair him with someone who to the rest of the world would seem to have been born with an amazingly lucky lot, but who doesn’t see himself that way.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
SS: The most challenging aspect of the story was trying to strike a productive balance between realism and fantasy. I wanted Gay to be a bit of a fairy tale character, a kind of fairy godfather for the main character, but I was afraid of being reductive with him. I didn’t want him to be cartoonish at all. I still worry about having walked that line adequately.
HT: How did you come up with the title?
SS: One night my fiancée and I were trying to remember the name of a bad Chinese restaurant we’d stopped at while driving back from the mid-west. We both knew it had the kind of name that seemed to have lost something in the translation. We were joking around and she came up with “Happy Fish, Plus Coin.” I didn’t think anything of it until I was working on the story later that night and I realized that to my mind at least it was the perfect title.
HT: Have you ever worked someplace similar to the Home Wrecker?
SS: I was actually working at Disney World in Orlando when I first came up with the story. I was there for about seven months, first as a janitor, then a roller-skating janitor, and finally as a character (I was Pluto, Eyeore, and Buzz Lightyear). The experience is very surreal, especially when you first emerge from the tunnels into the park itself. It’s like stepping into a bubble of aggressive fantasy. I tried to make the Florida of the story something along those lines. A kind of magical bubble.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
SS: The first draft came quickly, in a matter of a few weeks, but the final version only came after a good five or six drafts written over the course of a few months.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
SS: I don’t know what the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten was. I’ve been lucky enough to have some great teachers over the years and I don’t know if I can winnow all the good advice down to a single suggestion. I do have a quote tacked to my computer, though, and I can offer that up to people in hopes that it’s helpful. I’m a die-hard Elvis fan so the quote belongs to him. It’s what he said when he first poked his head into Sun Studios, the day he made his first recording. To set the scene, this is before he’s famous, before he’s anyone; he’s just a teenager, pimple-faced and scrawny. He drives a truck for a living. So he opens the door to the studio a crack, and tells the receptionist he wants to pay to make a recording for his mother. When she asks him who he sounds like, Elvis responds by saying, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Which is the quote tacked to my computer. What I find so inspiring about it, corny as it might sound, is the inherent confidence. Here’s someone who’s got no reason to believe in himself, and yet, if only in his own mind at that particular moment, he’s already the king. So if I have any advice to give, it’s to be confident. Nobody can write the story you’re about to write because you don’t sound like nobody.
HT: What are you working on now?
SS: I just finished a collection of stories and have begun my first novel.