“They’re People Like You and Me”: Talking With Debut Author Diane Cook About Short Story Collection ‘Man V. Nature’

In Diane Cook’s daring debut story collection, Man V. Nature, mothers lose children only to find them again, leaving both irrevocably altered; men cast adrift on a lifeboat suffer mid-life crises; and young, wild boys fight for survival in an untamed forest of obstacle courses. Each beautifully rendered story is full of peril and, often, tenderness, featuring regular folks attempting to navigate their uncanny worlds. Layered with pitch-black humor, each story is a fight for survival, and together they feel like notes sent from the edge of a place just familiar enough to rattle you and just strange enough to catch you off guard. Writer Karolina Waclawiak, also familiar with the edge of the surreal in her books How to Get Into the Twin Palms and the forthcoming Invaders, talked with Cook, a former producer for This American Life, about what went into writing Man V. Nature.

Flavorwire: Where did you write these stories? How did location influence you?

man v natureDiane Cook: They were always inspired by the natural world. I would be hiking and think that’s a weird thing that happens in the natural world. What if it happened to people instead of it happening to that tree? What if people were preyed on like animals are preyed on by other animals? When I went to Oregon on the coast to write, that’s when all that stuff came up and I actually had time to get it all down on paper. I was in the woods there with all these crazy gnarly fairyland forests, Sitka spruces covered in moss, in fog, and the ocean is not too far away, but it’s almost like a dense rainforest.

It was spooky.

It was spooky and fecund. It was a rich, weird landscape and I had all this material that had been bubbling up and I wrote a bunch of it there.  It was that landscape, but any natural landscape influenced my writing. That natural world juxtaposed with city living, which was what my day-to-day living was normally.

This is sort of a survival handbook to me. Normal things are pushed to the limits in your stories — as in “Moving On,” where grieving people are locked away until they get over their loss and are ready to start over.

What’s interesting to me is that you take society’s discomfort with grief and take it a step further, but the sentiment is taken from real life. We don’t like the lingering infection of grief, we don’t want to see it or be near it or be infected by it. How do you know to take your stories just far enough? 

What stops me is that I want it to be our world. I want it to be strange enough that you have to look at it and pay attention to it, but I think of these stories as our world pushed a little bit. Maybe because I’m trying to get to a particular kind of truth and a particular kind of feeling and that’s what it feels like to me.

For example, with Moving On, when you’re experiencing a kind of grief and you know the world around you isn’t going to wait for you on this one. It feels like you’re being pushed and prodded. There is a discomfort and there is a pressure and this is what it feels like, being pushed into a dark place until you’re ready to come out.

I’m trying to match what it feels like with the social experiments that exist for that kind of thing. It’s awful to have to move on so quickly when you’ve lost someone — whether it’s your decision or someone else is pushing you.

It’s all so familiar in terms of the universal sense of loss that we go through, but you’ve found a new way to write about grief. It’s hard to find a new way to write about life that doesn’t feel oppressive or feel like we’ve seen this before. You’ve found a way to add a sense of humor and a bit of the uncanny to make the sadness interesting again. 

Some reviews have come in from people saying the book is super depressing, it’s so bleak and dark. I’m surprised, actually, when I hear that because I don’t feel that way about the stories. They’re something else to me. I understand that there are depressing things about them, or sad situations, or they end bleakly. That doesn’t translate as sad to me. There’s something else going on in them for me. I can’t say they’re joyful, because that’s not it, but they’re exuberant. There’s an audacity there that saves them from being bleak. 

There’s also a lack of hysteria to your stories. You have people prepping for the end, as in “The Way End of Days Should Be,” but things don’t turn out as planned, even though we’ve tried hard to control the outcome. Were your earlier stories full of an uneasy calm too?

In the very earliest stories I was rehashing things that I had seen before. They were stories where nothing happened and things ended with ambiguity. No one does anything or says anything, characters just think or feel lots of things.

There are definitely wild things that happen in the book, but they’re not a big deal. I just lay it out as the world and I think that works best when you’re trying to introduce something strange. If you make it a big thing and put a lot of energy behind it, it becomes too noticeable and takes up too much space and the reader gets obsessed with why this thing is happening. Whereas if you just say, this is happening, this is the world and here we go, you can do anything at any point. You take the reader where you want them to go and you don’t make a big deal about it.

The stories aren’t about the world. They’re about the people within the world who have to keep on living in it. 

When I would come up with an idea, which is how I generally work, I come up with a scenario. That’s where you start, but eventually that has to go away – that little confine breaks open. Once the characters come in, it becomes a bigger story.

I think that’s why there’s a lack of hysteria to the stories, because I really do just follow where the characters are going. When I’m writing and in the process of creating material, I’m pretty good at getting led by the story.

Suddenly there’s a character named Gary and I didn’t know he was there before, but he’s there now and he’s a big deal so let’s see what happens between the characters. You’re just following people’s day-to-day lives, it just happens that it’s happening in the last moments of their life [in “The Way the End of Days Should Be”] and in the most extreme situation you can possibly imagine, but there’s actually nothing extreme about it once you’re there. I love big disaster movies, but I do like to think about just after, when there are only some people alive. Now what?

They’re still fighting about hedges. Or in the case of “The Way the End of Days Should Be,” what’s wafting from one moat to the next. 

You want to think people are better than that. I don’t, actually. The world wants to think that people are better than that. That we suddenly shed all our crap when it’s necessary for us to shed all our crap, but how can we? If we couldn’t do it before, why on earth could we do it now, at the very end when all we have left is who we are?

There’s also this muted anxiety of time passing and loss, especially windows of potential motherhood closing in “Meteorologist Dave Santana” and “Flotsam.” Can you speak to that? In “Flotsam,” the character is finding baby clothing in her dryer. It’s so invasive and annoying.

I think a lot of the characters, even the male characters in other stories, have this feeling that they want something that they haven’t had. Or they’re not sure if they want something they haven’t had. That being kids, I guess.

It showed up in the title story too.

It’s something I think about a lot because I’m older and I haven’t had kids. I’ve always wondered if I actually want them. Or how life would look without them. Would I be upset in 20 years? Would I be fine in 20 years? Would I feel like I missed out or what if I didn’t and everything was fine? The big question mark over all the characters’ heads is probably my question mark a little bit.

Janet in “Meteorologist Dave Santana” is pretty solidly against it up until the very end and then she thinks about it in a power play way, though it’s more tender underneath her facade. The woman in “Flotsam” is haunted by these things. To me, she doesn’t even know why they’re coming. It’s subconscious and it’s scratching at her. I think about it all the time, so it shows up.

Even women who have kids, as in the story “Somebody’s Baby,” they think about why they had kids and was it worth it? I’m thinking about my own mom and what her life was like. She died a few years ago so it’s kind of the only way I can think about her as a fully-formed human. What was it like for her to be a mom? Because I can’t talk to her about me thinking about being a mom. I have to think about her being a mom when I’m thinking about being a mom at all.

Maybe I’m a regretful person, but I think about things I’ve done and still wonder if I should have done them or not. It’s done and it’s over, but I’m always thinking about other paths that might have been. It seems really natural to me, especially with the kid path. Because so many people take it and you can’t really ever look back, but I think people must.

Who are your literary influences?

Aimee Bender. She’s the first writer I read where I really began to understand this impulse within myself to make things stranger. Or to play with the realities of the world around me to get at meaning or to get at an idea. I also read a lot of nature writing and a lot of these stories come from a place of observation of the nature world and then I let them bleed into very human suburban and city life. I like to read Henry David Thoreau. He’s a big influence on me. And I love George Saunders, his kind of strangeness. Nathaniel Hawthorne, too.

What’s next for you?

I am writing a novel. It’s interesting you talked about the book as a survival guide, or a book of survival. The novel is about people who live in the wilderness in a very extreme way as nomadic hunter gatherers, but they’re people like you and me. They’re modern people who have decided to give up everything and live in the woods. It’s a speculative novel, so it’s a future world where things are bleak, but it’s not post-apocalyptic yet. It’s extreme survival, but they do it because they think it’s worth it.