Claire Cameron and I have something in common: we both like books about the struggle between humans and the natural world, especially when nature has the upper hand (see her list of "The Best Books About Getting Eaten" as proof). Her 2014 novel, The Bear, is the tale of camping trip gone wrong: a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness. Told through the voice of the young girl, it made the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which you may know by its former name, the Orange Prize.
So when I saw Man V. Nature--a collection of short stories about humans in peril, and particularly the ways they deal with it--passing it along to Claire seemed the obvious choice. And she liked it, enough to suggest an interview with author Diane Cook. Their conversation follows.
I was immediately intrigued by the title of Diane Cook’s new collection of stories, Man V. Nature. My intrigue doubled when I found that the title story is set on a raft.
I make a grand claim that I’ve read every "stranded on a raft" story in print. It’s probably not true, but maybe I’m close? Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an introduction to another Richard Parker in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. From there I’ve spent 76 days lost at sea in Adrift with Steven Callahan and 117 days Staying Alive with Maurice and Maralyn Bailey.
I won’t go on forever, but my point is that "stranded on a raft" is almost like its own established genre. There is pressure on the writer who takes it on. She must bring something new.
When I saw that Cook had her own "stranded on a raft" story all I could think was, "Oh yeah? Surprise me." She did so, in spades. The title story in Man V. Nature seethes with heat, rejection and twisted perception. Like the very best raft stories, it pinpoints that moment where being lost in the wild brings out the wild in us.
I found myself enthralled by all of the stories in this collection. Not only are they surprising, but also fresh, funny, sad, often surreal and oddly true.
When I finished, I knew this was a writer I wanted to know more about. Cook, just back from the wilderness of her book tour, answered my questions by email.
Claire Cameron: Your stories place characters in survival situations, like the three friends lost on a dinghy, co-workers in an office disaster, a woman in a shelter who is waiting for a placement with a new husband, and feral boys struggling to live through winter. All this hardship and I found myself cracking up. Why am I laughing?
Diane Cook: I’m glad you’re laughing. In general, I’m a funny person and my worldview, even when sad, is still rueful. Also, I think that as unreal as the situations in the stories are they aren’t at all unrealistic. There is the feeling (to me and I hope to other readers) that these are situations entirely possible even if they wouldn’t actually ever come to fruition. That they are things people ultimately are capable of. Which is uncomfortable.
Humanity has come up with the most awful ideas and has rationalized them so successfully. And so there is the lightest dusting of satire and/or cynicism over the stories. This knowing wink is a bit of a relief in situations that would otherwise make us squirm. It’s comic. The knowing wink also leads us to some hope too. We recognize what’s wrong in these worlds. That’s half the battle.
CC: At the beginning of the collection you quote Emily Dickinson: "The Wilderness is new--to you. / Master let me lead you." I kept coming back to this and thinking about it. My idea: In your stories it is often a character's instinctive response to the unknown that leads to something new. What does the quote mean to you?
DC: In an abstract way, the quote says something to me about the characters and the worlds they are inhabiting. The characters are often bewildered by something their world is presenting them. They are new to it and need some kind of guidance. As the stories go on, who and what offers relief is unexpected and surprising. But I think leaders and guiding philosophies exist in the stories.
And the wilderness as an idea is very important to me, be it a wild wood, a bewildering society, or a wilderness of the mind. But the quote actually comes from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to her longtime publisher and editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I believe she is writing about the recent death of his wife. And so the Wilderness is the grief after death and she is offering help as he navigates this new terrain, the landscape of grief and loss, a landscape she knows.
This is important to me too. My mother died just before I began writing in earnest and I know that many of these stories are grappling with loss in some sense. I began to work out some of my feelings of loss by watching my characters go through their paces with grief of all kinds.
CC: A few of the stories are set in worlds where civilization has collapsed in some way, yet the collection as a whole feels hopeful. Like in 'Moving On', a widowed woman in a shelter is placed with a new husband and manages to find good. Are people inherently hopeful?
DC: I’m glad you see the hope in here. I definitely do. I think people must be hopeful otherwise, why go on?
Each breath into the next is an affirming step toward more life. I really think of it coming down to each moment. Each breath is an inherently hopeful thing. In this next instant anything is possible, isn’t it?
Even when my characters hit a wall or find themselves far from where they’d hoped to end up, they are still making the effort to survive, whether in a world-ending flood, or just survive the ending of some relationship. The book is about this yearning to survive, an almost desperate one. And to me that is the same as hope.
CC: Some of your stories are a refreshing take on social norms, like the teacher in "Meteorologist Dave Santana" who has sex for pleasure. She is also somewhat of a misfit because the other teachers don't know how to be around someone with "no secret shame, guilt, trauma or self-hatred." Why do we suppress our instincts?
DC: This is one of my main fascinations in life, which must be why I end up writing about it so much in the book. All the characters grapple with this tension between how they want to behave and how they must behave. Some give in to impulses, others don’t.
In my own life I tend to catalogue these moments myself and wonder why I act how I act, and wonder how different I am from others when it comes to my impulses. I think we suppress our impulses as an overture of peace. I do what is expected of me in certain situations because someone, usually someone I love or someone who has influence over me, expects it. Or because I know that to not behave in a certain way causes problems for everyone else.
I’m the kind of person who tries to avoid making more work or hardship for others. I am, however, endlessly fascinated by people who don’t live like this. Fascinated and perhaps a little jealous sometimes. I write about these people sometimes, and other times I write the characters who are more like me.
In this way I end up stringing together a kind of portrait of how complicated it can feel to be a regular person in the world.
CC: The wilderness looms everywhere in your book, sometimes in the center of the story, sometimes in the edges and sometimes inside a character. What is the wild to your writing?
DC: I get most of my inspiration from the natural world. Many of the situations in these stories came from my observations of the lives of wild things and asking myself how humans would deal with a similar situation.
Like, with the story "Somebody’s Baby," I was thinking about how precarious the lives of newborn animals are in the wild and how there are always predators waiting to strike when a mother isn’t looking. Danger is just a way of life. And survival is a daily thought. I wondered how mothers in a suburb might react to a threat that is unavoidable and constant. Loss in the wild is a stark and common thing. I love thinking of humans as wild things just farther along a spectrum of being.
And I try to keep that sense of wildness in my characters. For me it is the only way the actions of people can begin to make sense. I think we’d be so much more comfortable in our skin as people or as a society if we didn’t deny our wild lineage. It’s always been my belief that the world makes more sense when we acknowledge that sometimes our rationality is at odds with our instincts.