I first encountered Diane Cook’s writing in 2014, when I read the title story of her collection Man V. Nature. Years later, the feeling of being lured into that eerie story—ostensibly about three old friends who get stranded on a lake while on a weekend fishing trip, but really about survival, pettiness, power—remains fresh. Balanced on the knife-edge of absurdity and mortal danger, Cook’s writing manages to be both funny and terrifying at the same time, its soul the darkly transfigured stuff of life itself. The rest of that collection—featuring stories of baby-stealing bogeymen, flooded post-apocalyptic worlds, unseen monsters feeding on corporate executives—was just as strange, hilarious, and profound.
Cook’s debut novel, The New Wilderness, lives in the same surreal territory of physical danger and existential dread. Bea and her five-year-old daughter, Agnes, seek refuge in the Wilderness State, the last swath of protected land in a future America that is on the brink of environmental collapse. Together with eighteen other volunteers—the Community—mother and daughter live as nomadic hunter-gatherers, part of a study to see if humans can co-exist with nature. We follow the intrepid, bickering community as they wander through the grand country, crossing treacherous rivers, braving injury, battling hunger and thirst. As in Man V. Nature, however, the true peril lies within. The farther the community roams, the fiercer the power struggles become among its members, and the sharper the cruelty in the name of self-preservation.
Reading this novel, I was reminded of the writer Namwali Serpell’s conception of using different genres as lenses, to refract and layer reality. The New Wilderness is an ecological horror story; a mother-daughter love story; an ensemble disaster story; and much, much more. It grapples with questions of wilderness and belonging, taking inspiration from and ultimately subverting the genre of nature writing. It is a coming-of-age novel for feral Agnes, who must learn who she is with and without Bea. It is a kind of frontier novel, where the frontier—the Wilderness State itself—is ultimately shown to be artificial and porous, a romantic construct of the beleaguered City dwellers.
I would have said the world refracted through these lenses is stranger and truer than our own, but I began reading The New Wilderness at the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Each day, the external world seemed to catch up with Cook’s fictional reality, with everyone from policymakers to partygoers caught up in the everyday calculus of ethics and survival. Cook’s wry observation that it’s “Us v. Us” has never felt truer.
It was my great pleasure to speak with Diane Cook over video chat about The New Wilderness. Not long afterward, the novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
— Rachel Heng for Guernica
Guernica: As a fan of your collection Man V. Nature, I noticed many similar concerns between that collection and this novel, The New Wilderness—apocalyptic settings, mother-daughter relationships, people stranded in boats, floating houses, and now, in remote pristine wildernesses. And yet the novel feels undoubtedly novel-esque. What was it like moving from stories to the novel as a form?
Diane Cook: I found writing the novel incredibly difficult. For stories, I would think about them for a long time, then I would jump in and write the first full draft very fast, then edit from there. It was very cathartic, fun, and emotional. All the good things. I had almost none of that feeling writing the novel, just because I never got to the end of it until I got to the end. But ultimately I liked the process. I had the idea for the novel while I was writing the stories, and I just spent a couple of days taking notes for myself, then put it aside for three years. I definitely connect the two books together. There are ideas and imagery that the novel shares with some of the stories. But I think the questions I wanted to explore in the novel felt endless to me. They felt like I was never going to find an answer, so it made sense that I took on those on in novel form.
Guernica: I saw in a previous interview that you’re interested in writing about disaster because it’s “Us V. Us.” Is that still the case in The New Wilderness?
Cook: I think so. For all the backdrop being a precarious life, a non-civilization by design—for all of that, I feel like the main stories of the book are interpersonal. They’re between the people of the Community, the power struggles that happen between them, the emotional relationship between Bea and Agnes, and the relationship between the Rangers, government, and the people in charge and everyone else. I think you can’t tell a story about people’s wildness that extracts the humanity from them. I guess our humanity is what makes us so particularly wild.
Guernica: Danger is often deceptive in your work. You have external threats, like an invisible monster, or like, people are in a place where rivers are killing them and animals are coming for them. But often those end up not being the things that are truly dangerous. Rather, it’s decisions that the Community themselves make. In the middle of the book, when Bea gets up and leaves the Wilderness state, you’re kind of like—oh my God! They can just get up and leave at any time! And that’s kind of a devastating realization.
Cook: I like that they can leave and they don’t, until some of them do. I like playing with what’s actually dangerous. I’ve been thinking about trying to adapt the book into a screenplay, and so I’ve had to think about how to show what people are leaving behind in the City. How would you portray what forces them to leave? What’s everyone’s threshold where they can no longer live the life they’re living? It’s a big question, because once you define the thing that pushes someone to their limit—the thing that makes them too afraid or terrifies them—then it’s defined for everybody. I like leaving it a little ambiguous, because every reader’s threshold is different. What’s terrible or dangerous or scary or just too much is different for everyone. I think it’s more fruitful to leave it a little hidden. It’s more fun for me anyway.
Guernica: It’s one of those questions you get asked, isn’t it? “Why does this character do this?” And sometimes there is no clear linear answer—and by offering one anyway, you have the feeling that you’re making it smaller somehow.
Cook: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the why. I know I have the whys in my head, the backstory and so on, but I agree exactly with what you’re saying about making the world smaller. It always surprises me how much people want the smaller world. They want all the explanation; they want to know why the world is the way the world is. It’s a good way of finding out who your readers are, because if people are preoccupied with that stuff, then they’re not going to be able to be swept away by the actual project of the book.
Guernica: Bea and Agnes’s relationship is so filled with love and alienation, moments of miscommunication and grace. I find this ambivalence to be very moving. What was it like writing about them?
Cook: I always thought of them as magnets, how magnets have this attracting and repelling quality. Bea and Agnes love each other fiercely, but they’re different people who become even more different through the course of the book. They lose each other over and over again, emotionally and physically, just by being who they are. In the beginning I was thinking about being a daughter and exploring that. My mom died over ten years ago, so I started the book thinking about having lost someone who could no longer answer the questions that I now found myself wanting to ask, like how she felt about being a mom. That institutional memory was gone with her. Then, while writing the book, I had a daughter, my first child. I was still exploring all these same questions, but it got really rich and complicated as I walked the line between both personas. If I had questions for my mom as a daughter, then I had concerns for my daughter as my mom. Would I be a good mom? Would I be the kind of “bad mom” that Bea sometimes is? Maybe this is true for all parents and children: we’re always trying and not quite getting there.
Guernica: I didn’t think Bea was a bad mom. I thought she was trying really hard.
Cook: I use “bad mom” with the air quotes around it. To me, “bad mom” means something like “more human than is permissible.” I’m fascinated by the idea of what mothers are supposed to be, and how that’s at odds with what they are—the fact that they’re just female humans who had a baby or are raising a child. I don’t think Bea is a bad mom at all, but I know some people will think that. She makes some of the ultimate sacrifices for her daughter, she just isn’t always happy about it. When my husband and I were younger and thinking about having kids, the concerns I had about parenting felt really unnameable. I was concerned about things that I couldn’t speak of or name. It wasn’t the frivolous stuff that I miss now, like sleeping in, going to residencies, or taking off on road trips. It was some other preoccupation I couldn’t talk about. And I think that still exists.
It’s still something I don’t have words for. This nostalgia, or love, of another path that I didn’t stay on. I can still love that path and love the one I took. Bea’s a character who embodies both. She loves her daughter, but she does these things she’s not supposed to do because she’s moved to do them, by other feelings that are just as important to her. Like her own identity as a daughter when she goes to be with her mother. I wanted Bea to be complicated and have lots of realities within her, because I think that I do, my mom did, and we all do.
Guernica: In this novel, as in your [story] collection, danger and brutality are always laced with a gentle absurdity. The Community, for example, carry around an enormous cast-iron pot despite its weight; the Rangers’ series of fines for micro-trash and misleading directions are a kind of Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare; the Community, even as they fight for their lives, find themselves arguing about buddy systems. Can you talk about the humor in your writing?
Cook: Communities are made of relationships you want to run away from, as much as they are relationships that you love. I used to live in co-ops in college, I’ve had housemates and roommates, worked in close-knit staffs, and it’s always the same thing. You have these fun moments and then you have these angsty moments when you’re trying to figure out who’s using all the toilet paper. Your meetings are way too long, you’re frustrated at Debra because she’s always bringing up the same shit. I think it’s always going to be that way, even if there’s a cougar prowling and threatening to eat you. That, to me, is just funny. You can’t get away from the folly of just being people with other people. I don’t think I could write any interaction between people that doesn’t have a dusting of what irritates someone about somebody else. You need the humor, because the worlds I build are strange. And I think that’s a good mix. For characters to be so frustratingly human in a world that feels destabilizing and strange.
Guernica: I love that. Every time the Community had to make a decision, I was like, wow, I’ve been in that meeting a thousand times at every job I’ve ever worked at.
Cook: Yes! You can’t get away from it. The moment you get to a scene where they’re in one of these conversations, you’re like, Oh God, can’t even get away from it in a book. It’s very fun to write.
Guernica: The Office in the Wilderness State.
Cook: A long terrible meeting in the big wilderness.
Guernica: I also noticed how visceral so much of the book felt—the aches and pains of the Community trudging across miles of wilderness, hunger, thirst, the taste of jerky, the sex that everyone can hear at the campfire, Agnes getting her period.
Cook: Yes, I like writing about nature and the physical world. I wanted this to be kind of a nature book too, so I had to get the physicality of how it feels to be in these spaces. What the land looks like, but also what it feels like to be there. Part of the excitement of writing it was to make them physical bodies living this life.
Guernica: What kind of research did you do for that?
Cook: I spent a lot of time in the high desert in the West, mostly in Eastern Oregon, at the edge of the Great Basin. It’s not the landscape I had originally imagined for the book, but it became the main landscape once I was there. It really affected me, this huge empty space, even empty of trees for the most part, and it felt like such a huge contrast to the density of the city I was used to. I had to find out certain things, like how you make pelts or smoke meats, and I could find a lot of that knowledge online. Sometimes I would run into a problem—like, would they really have this item in this season?—but then I would decide that it didn’t matter, because this place isn’t real and these seasons aren’t real. So ultimately I made up a lot of stuff that becomes real in the world of the book. That’s what fiction is for.
Guernica: Western literature has a long, fraught history with the notion of “wilderness.” I’m thinking of what William Cronon says, that “far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of a very particular human culture at very particular moments in human history.” He points to a sort of white frontier ideology that has upheld the myth of a pristine “wilderness” to be discovered; a particularly dangerous myth in the context of American settler history. Your novel grapples with that myth, in that the wilderness you create so viscerally is ultimately shown to be quite artificial. By the end, it too can’t escape the encroaching development.
Cook: Yes, I love that we’re now quoting Cronon. I am very familiar with these ideas of wilderness, and think a lot about the idea of “untouched land” and the history of the West. Probably every mention of wilderness in the book should have air quotes around it, but I think that idea comes across in how it almost becomes a brand: Wilderness with a capital W. I’m interested in migration, the history of people moving across land seeking something new, or being driven or forced away. People move out of desperation and dire need, and sometimes just plain desire or personal gain. This movement seems to always come at great cost to the people and places where they arrive, and the people and places they left behind. But we have always done it, and I think it’s assumed we always will—it’s inextricable from human history, but it’s also a very wild, animal reaction.
I was interested in writing about a time and a place where free movement like this is no longer possible. Where would people go when every place is off-limits, owned, in use? At some point the Community begins to imagine they are the original people of the wilderness land, though of course they aren’t. In the book, the Government owns the land. And the Government, surprise surprise, didn’t come to that ownership on the up-and-up either. By the end of the book, there’s a battle brewing between the original Community and some new arrivals. And certain members of the Community who, in the beginning, were only trying to survive and have a better life, who you might have been rooting for, by the end become gatekeepers.
Guernica: You end the book with a land acknowledgment paying tribute to the Northern Paiute Shoshone, Ute, Klamath, Modoc, Molala, Bannock, and Washoe tribes.
Cook: Yeah, the different places that gave me a lot of inspiration, or that I conjured in writing the book, are places out west that were once home to these different tribes, as far as I could tell. I didn’t set out trying to say something about ancestral lands or history of Native populations, but I wasn’t not trying to say something about it. During the drafting process, the book began following threads about belonging, about land use in all its forms, about the desire to “claim” a place as one’s own, and about power. It became interested in the idea of losing your place in the world, being cast out, being driven from your home through circumstance or force. There’s an unspoken idea in the book that the actual history of the land has become obsolete in this iteration of the future, as so much has in that future world. So I felt that I absolutely needed to acknowledge whose land it is at the end of the book, should anyone reading it in the real world forget.