by Stephen Fishbach
Issue #273 • January 21st, 2021•Buy Now!
When the phone rings, Kent Duvall is in the Memorabilia Room watching himself on the reality show Endure. On days when he is feeling his age and the slab of gut hangs like an anchor at his waist, he often finds himself popping the disc into his DVD player, which clicks and snaps like an arthritic joint. He doesn’t need much. The show’s intro features a three-second, slow-motion shot of him pounding his chest in the tropical light, hair billowing around his face. God, he had epic hair, long blond locks that in the island’s unreasonable humidity looked like they belonged to the lead singer of an eighties glam band. Last year, Margaret insisted he shave his head. “You’re starting to look like you have a comb over,” she said, walking her conversational tightrope between loving joke and withering insult. He’ll watch that three-second clip again and again, rewinding and replaying, rewinding and replaying, and think to himself, That is me.
Stephen Fishbach is a former television executive and now professional writer from Los Angeles. He’s written speeches for Stevie Wonder, ads for MTV, and blogs for People and Entertainment Weekly. In 2009 and 2015, he was on the TV show Survivor. He is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction through NYU’s low residency program and hosts the Paraphrase podcast about writers’ craft choices. He recently completed a novel. This is his first published story. Find him at stephenfishbach.com.
Will Allison on To Sharks
Two months ago, while introducing a story involving the former San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, my colleague Patrick Ryan used this space to confess his ignorance of sports in general and baseball in particular. “I had no idea Tim Lincecum was a real person who used to pitch for the San Francisco Giants,” he wrote. “I didn’t even know there were San Francisco Giants.”
Now it’s my turn: Though I do know of the TV show Survivor, I have never watched an episode—despite the fact that it’s been around for 30+ seasons, despite the fact that it has come to define the reality TV genre, despite the fact that some of my friends are fans. It’s a gap in my cultural literacy that I just haven’t gotten around to filling, perhaps because I’m often watching baseball instead.
So when this month’s story crossed my desk, I was mostly clueless but intrigued. “To Sharks” follows the misadventures of Kent Duvall, a former contestant on a fictional reality TV show called Endure. Furthermore, the story’s author, Stephen Fishbach, competed in two seasons of Survivor.
Since his last appearance on the show, in 2015, it turns out Mr. Fishbach has dedicated himself to the art of writing fiction. By contrast, his protagonist has struggled to move on from his brief time in the limelight. Twelve years after winning $100,000 on Endure, Kent finds himself out of shape, unemployed, and still clinging to his long-ago fifteen minutes of fame, but he gets to relive his former glory when he is invited to a charity event where worshipful, diehard fans mix and mingle with former reality TV contestants. Kent sees the event as a chance to jumpstart his life, and he angles to land a job working for a wealthy fellow Endure alum. Suffice it to say, things do not go as planned, and the ensuing events are as hilarious as they are sad.
Kent Duvall is a character I won’t soon forget, and I was also fascinated by the reality-TV fan subculture depicted in “To Sharks,” a world that Mr. Fishbach renders with ironic distance but also with insight and genuine compassion. We’re excited to be kicking off 2021 with his first published story, and we hope you enjoy it too.
Q&A by Will Allison
That said, one of my biggest fears for this story is that anybody would conflate my opinion with Kent’s. This story was meant to satirize a particular type of reality TV contestant. I’ve found that the people who think they’re the most above-it-all, the ones who look down on the fans with the most condescension, are typically the most desperately in need of approval. And for what it’s worth, I am definitely not above it all. I podcast about Survivor; I co-host Survivor events. I’m right in the scrum.
One of the joys of my life has been meeting both past players and fans. We all live in our bubbles, and prior to going on reality television, most of my friends were people just like me. Now I’m close with an Alabama cattle rancher and a Boston firefighter and an R&B star, people whose orbits likely never would have intersected my own enough to form truly deep bonds. I’ve also made incredible friends from among the fandom, and I hope everyone has the opportunity to watch an episode of Survivor with a room crowded full of hundreds of fans.
But then of course there’s the other side of those events that’s just unabashed narcissism and neediness, and I wanted to write about that aspect, because that part is much funnier.
The more pragmatic challenge was the story’s pacing. I wanted this story to move quickly, to be fun. In my earliest drafts I had a long drive from the airport, Kent musing along the way. I realized—in a story about screw-up reality TV contestants, nobody wants to read about the drive from the airport! But I also needed to expand time enough to give the side characters humanity, and not let the speed of the story steamroll over them.
My hope is what keeps Kent compelling is the tension between his bad behavior and the TV-crafted heroic narrative through which other people judge him, through which he desperately wants to be judged. I think part of Kent’s appeal is that he’s suffering from an exaggerated version of what we’re all going through—the widening gulf between our private and public selves. I think lots of people can relate to the tension between the lives we project through media and our messy selves at home.
Five years ago, when I was on Survivor the second time, I got violently ill in the middle of a monsoon. Not to get too graphic, but about every ten minutes, I had to strip off my clothes so they’d stay (relatively) dry and then walk out into the rainstorm naked to be sick outside our shelter. I had a real epiphany—if I was willing to suffer through so much for a reality TV show, how could I not muster the willpower for something I really cared about? When I got home, I left my job and have focused on fiction writing ever since.
Five weeks doesn’t sound very long, but as I said, it’s a story I’ve been playing around with in my head for years. And then of course there were months of revisions.
The other was from Teddy Wayne, whom I interviewed for my writing podcast Paraphrase. (Shameless plug!) He said, “Write around your weaknesses. Don’t try to compensate for them. Avoid them.” I think he was specifically talking about how he doesn’t like to write scenery description. That was very liberating—that I could just do the stuff that I found fun and was good at, rather than try to craft some idealized story.