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
- WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- SF: The image of has-been reality stars circling a bar desperately trying to inject the approval of fans like a drug—well, let’s just say that image has been percolating in my brain for over a decade. By coincidence, from around about the first time I was on Survivor.
- WA: How has your experience as an ex-reality star compared to that of your main character, Kent Duvall?
- SF: Obviously I have only ever behaved perfectly in all venues—but there are of course aspects of myself in Kent. I’m very familiar with the emotional whiplash that comes from being celebrated for six months and then discarded when the next season airs. For years my heart started racing whenever anybody mentioned casting for an All Stars season. And I know firsthand how beguiling that frozen-in-amber quality of fan events is, that sense that the most interesting moment of your life is perennially present, that it’s urgently meaningful today why I voted out Taj at the final 4 over a decade ago. 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.
- WA: I love the scene at the charity event when the ex-reality stars are signing autographs. Have you ever participated in such an event?
- SF: Ha. Many times! And I do want to clarify that these events can be truly inspiring. There’s one event in particular, Hearts of Reality, that has raised over $600,000 to provide dream getaways for terminally ill children and their families. 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.
- WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- SF: One of the biggest challenges was trying to see the reality TV community from the outside, when I’m so deeply enmeshed in it. These events and this world have become so familiar to me that it can be difficult to remember what’s strange or interesting for someone with no context. 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.
- WA: Kent is a pretty flawed character. He lives in the past; he insists on being paid to participate in a charity event; he cheats on his wife with another former reality TV contestant; and at the end of the story, he’s angling to sleep with a fan. Were you ever worried that readers would be too repelled by Kent?
- SF: I was worried and I am worried! I know intellectually that likeability is a sham and a false god, and most of my favorite stories feature complex and flawed protagonists rather than saints. Still, there are a lot of readers who care very deeply about following a likeable hero, and I worried in particular that Kent cheating on his wife might make him too loathsome. But my early readers seemed to like Kent—or at least to be interested in him enough to stay with the story. And I had some great advice from one of my teachers at NYU, Nathan Englander: “Don’t have your hero eat a slice of pizza. Have him eat the whole pie.” 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.
- WA: Why did you choose to tell this story in present tense instead of past tense?
- SF: I wanted to evoke the relentless present tense of a reality television show. In every reality interview, you’re told to speak in the present. It’s never, “Jason was a real jerk.” It’s “Jason is a real jerk.” So the drama never resolves—it’s always ongoing. And I think that encapsulates Kent’s central challenge, allowing his past experience to be in the past.
- WA: This is your first published story. How long have you been writing fiction, and how did you get into fiction writing?
- SF: I always imagined I’d write fiction, and through my twenties I thought if I bought enough tweed jackets that a novel would burst forth from my fingertips. Whenever I sat down at a computer to actually write, however, I was overwhelmed with fear from all the expectation and pressure. 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.
- WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- SF: Looking back over my saved drafts, I wrote it at the tail end of two Novembers — for three weeks in November of 2017, and then two weeks in November 2018. Clearly something about the Thanksgiving season makes me think of reality TV. 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.
- WA: What are you working on now?
- SF: I’ve been revising a novel that follows Kent through more post-reality shenanigans and then back onto television. And my wife and I recently had a baby girl, so I spend a lot of time just trying to keep my daughter alive.
- WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- SF: Can I share two? The first was from Garth Greenwell in a workshop I took with him. He said we need to know a character’s “horizon of possibility,” which I understand to mean the contours of what the character thinks the world can offer them. That was really critical advice for this story. I had the plot pretty early, but it took me a while to get the emotional architecture. 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.