Nature V. Diane Cook

Annie Liontas


Can we help what’s in our nature?  What is in our nature?

Do you really want to know?

There is danger everywhere we turn, especially when we turn to ourselves.

In Diane Cook’s collection Man V. Nature (October 2014/ HarperCollins), we get stripped to our essential elements:  aggression, grief, the impulse to dominate or be dominated, selfishness & self-preservation, and cowardice, which is giving into fear in the face of great stakes. Cook’s precise and unflinching debut reminds us that our stink is not so different from the stink of neo-man—and don’t we ever forget it. And don’t we stop running, and don’t we trust anything but our own instincts.  And yet:  the unmistakeable resilience driving the characters in this work reminds us that survival is as much about holding on as it is about moving on.

Before receiving her MFA from Columbia University, Cook worked as a radio producer for This American Life for six years, receiving Peabody and duPont awards for episodes and stories.  In 2012 she won the Calvino Prize for fabulist fiction.  Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Tin House, Harper’s Magazine, Zoetrope: All­Story, Salt Hill Journal, Guernica, and Redivider. In this interview, Cook tells us how to prepare for the end of days, cautions us about what we think we know about people, and confesses the love letter she wrote to her own husband.

ANNIE LIONTAS: How does it feel to play God in Man V. Nature?

DIANE COOK: Excellent. I used to work within the confines of truth/nonfiction and now I can make things up forever.

I have this feeling that if I really want to I can always make a fictional story “work” because I can always change it. I might have to rewrite it completely or start over. And it’s not always fun or pretty. But there is always something I can do. That was not the case in nonfiction. Sometimes I would wish something had happened that just never happened, or that someone had said or had felt something they never said or felt.

AL: Characters prepare for the end even when they don’t realize it. In “Moving On,” a widow realizes her husband may have prepared for her loss by keeping “part of himself separate so he could give it to someone else if he needed to.”  

How are you preparing for the end of days? Can you give us an inventory?

DC: I’m not actively preparing for the end of days. I personally think the end will come at a slow creep. We won’t even realize we’re evolving to meet the new, terrible reality. But I think some things will be helpful for the moment we realize what is happening to us.

In other words, don’t have someone in your life you can’t leave in an instant. I have a feeling this will be helpful. Have a car you know how to fix, and in the trunk of that car have a bike you know how to fix, and next to that bike, have some good running shoes. Practice not falling apart. You’re not going to want to lose your shit during the end. If you feel, as I do, that you want to experience the feeling of letting your life fall completely to pieces just once because other people do it and why can’t you, maybe it’s best to do that now, so that you can begin to rebuild your fortitude reserves so they’re strong for the end. Lastly, you’d be a fool not to bone up on your wild edibles.

AL: There are great frightening unknowns in this work. In certain stories, such as “It’s Coming,” that unknown is never named, not even for the reader; in others, such as “The Way the End of Days Should Be” as well as the title story, the unknown is something as specific as an endless body of water. Yet even in these stories, where the threat is identified, we keep looking over our shoulder. We sense that this danger in front of us is not the only one—or not the right one.  

What should the reader be wary of as she makes her way through these stories?

DC: I think my characters are instructing readers to be wary of thinking they know what they want, because my characters are people who think they know what they want but are often wrong. They are often uninterested in confronting the possible folly of their ways. They want their ways to be right. They want love and acceptance of the way they are.

This leads not so much to disappointment—if the story continued, that reckoning scene may come, maybe ten or twenty pages later—but rather they are bewildered. They are still holding onto this feeling of, “Wait, but….what? This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”

I would hope the reader would also be wary of thinking these worlds in the stories aren’t real, aren’t our world. I recognize that these worlds will seem strange and impossible, but to me, the essence of our world is in there. It’s a slightly exaggerated reality. Men don’t steal babies from yards, but, well, sometimes they do. And there is plenty to be afraid of as a new mother even when a man isn’t stalking your child. All children are needed except when they’re not. They get told they are not-needed through apathy, neglect, dire need. Sometimes a threat to life is figurative. But sometimes it’s a cougar. Sometimes a flood. Sometimes it’s us.

AL: I’m most intrigued and moved by the stories here that demonstrate a “raw yearning.” This is true of the very first piece, the aforementioned “Moving On,” which is about a widow who is compelled by the State to forget her dead husband. It is also true of “A Wanted Man” and “The Mast Year,” which read like companion pieces. In “A Wanted Man,” people succumb to their animal natures; specifically, men are given to the prideful behavior of lions, winning—or losing—by decisive violence the right to mate with any woman.

In a collection like this—in a world like this—where we are stripped to our base fears and urges, this kind of “raw yearning” seems essential, and it also seems impossible. How does it continue to exist? Why cling to it?

DC: I like thinking about the ways that people are still animals—possess animal, natural and instinctual ways but also try to hide and deny that lineage with civilization, rules, structures, rational thinking. We are our base fears and urges. But we control ourselves so that we can live among others. I’m aware of the ways I mediate my own raw yearnings. And I’m always fascinated when I meet people who don’t, or don’t go to the same lengths.

We calm down, we take a breath, we sleep on it, talk it out, we hold our tongue, we say no when we really want to say yes. All in the service of harmony, order, ease, and kindness, too.

In the book, that people fuck in the streets or tear one another apart when they leave their apartment seems impossible, but not entirely. It’s just farther down the sliding scale of what being human is. But it’s the same scale.

AL: Despite primal urge and a driving need for self-preservation at all costs, nearly all of your characters seek one thing:  friendship. Why? [As in, why “friendship” and not “family,” etc.]

DC: One thing I realized in my adult life is that I never learned how to make friends. I moved every year when I was a kid. I’d come into a place, have to make friends, then leave and start over again. When I finally stopped moving, I had no idea how to have long-term friendships. So I would switch my friends every year, even within the same school. I didn’t know how else to do it.

People who grew up in the same place or have childhood friendships amaze me. I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like–to grow and become you in front of others at a time when you’re really changing in big ways and it all feels of great consequence.

This thing of knowing and being known by people was a weirdly foreign concept to me then. I’d say my formative years for sure. So even though I’ve managed to get past that and happily have many lovely people in my life who know me, I still look at the process with a lot of wonder and disbelief and fear. Of all the types of relationships one can have, I think friendship is the most mysterious one.  It’s not a thing we map out as much as romantic love or our family bonds and sometimes I think we don’t weigh it as much though I’d argue we should. It has many forms. It’s this strange shape-shifter we tangle with daily.

AL: Looking back, do you think the first-person plural was inevitable, ultimately, for a collection like this?

DC: I guess when I’m wrapping the stories with a big Man V. title it conjures big humanity. And I’m trying to think about People with a capital P even as I’m writing stories about individual characters. I like fairy tales, myths and fables in part because I like archetypes. I like allegories because I don’t mind when something is in your face about being universal. I like universal. Writers are always trying to get at something universal. Trying to touch the human condition, truth. They can do it by presenting a very specific character or they can set looser characters adrift in a specific story. I rarely describe what my characters look like because it rarely occurs to me to do so. And as a reader, I rarely care what description an author has given for a character (unless it is key to the plot, or it’s so good it takes over my imagination). I just picture whatever I picture from my own store of images, or maybe I just picture a shape without specifics. I don’t know now. Suddenly, it’s like I have no memory of ever reading.

AL: I’m the same kind of reader, actually. I imagine that your work at This American Life really helped shape the impulse towards People with a capital P. 

DC: Either that, or my impulse for it led me there. This American Life was like six years of narrative bootcamp. I was a producer, which meant I did everything. From finding good stories, to going out in the field with a writer to make sure we got the right tape, cutting it back at the office, working on structure with the writer so he or she could write through the tape, editing with the writer and other producers and Ira, then mixing it all once those (many) edits were final and we’d recorded the voice tracks. The show is very particular about what airs. You have to start with a story that moves and is surprising. And then you have to ask what a writer or storyteller has to say about the story. What’s interesting about this story? It can’t just stop at what happens. This ability to not only tell a compelling story but also interpret it and pull meaning from it is what made a story one we could air, rather than an anecdote, or a series of actions you might tell to a group of people who would be left thinking, “Why is she telling us this?” But more, that interpretive act would create little gifts of insight to offer the listener.  Perhaps about being a Person in general.

AL: “It’s Coming” is about an attack on an office building, which in setting, immediacy, and namelessness invokes 9/11. The story continues to redefine the threat as it moves, however, conjuring an almost prehistoric mass, until finally it takes the form of common man’s newest threat—the business executive. In “It’s Coming,” these execs, who are the last of the prey, identify with the predator, as they themselves are at the top of the food chain.  

DC: I didn’t set out with an idea for this story. I was reading The Bloody Chamber and found I wanted to write a story full of gore where I used the word “prick.” And that’s what I did. It took me a long time to figure out what the story was doing or saying. What came out just came out and I had to learn from it and go from there. Now, I feel that the characters are acting on what they’ve been taught, told, led to, or come to believe about life and themselves, and that they are wrong. And now they are screwed but they aren’t even totally aware that they’re screwed yet. At the end when they stand at the lip of the building figuring out how to survive they have nothing to show for their survival except…survival. Is that new life even going to be worth it? The execs aren’t a political statement. They’re more a statement of how expecting certain outcomes is a trick and a trap. Stan and Susan, through the process of revision, became two of my favorite characters in the book. I love them.

In a book where many people are just trying to survive, they really don’t try to survive at all. They run, sure. But they are more moved to give into their desires, to have something to show for all this.

AL: How much does luck figure in survival?

DC: It seems helpful, or at least sane-making to think luck has a lot to do with survival. Because the alternative–that something you’ve done, and done wrong,  has led to a bad outcome and your demise–is terrible. Yet, it must also be true, right?

AL: What is the relationship, in this collection, between sex and death? Or, at least, masturbation and death?

DC: Oh wow, I have no idea. What do you think it is?

AL: {laughs} I’m not sure. It comes up a lot, though.

DC: I write about sex. I write about death. But I hadn’t connected the two. My characters desperately want to connect with others. Some of this is in service of friendship, as you pointed out. But there is a need for physical connection that burns very hot in some of the characters. I think of Gabby in “Girl On Girl” whose need for intimacy manifests in violent urges. But physical intimacy is validation too, for someone like Janet in “Meteorologist Dave Santana.” Is it that she loves having sex or is it that she needs to be wanted by another? There is a line in “The Way the End of Days Should Be” that echoes throughout the stories for me. It’s when the narrator hears a wedding march from his neighbor’s house and imagines an impromptu wedding between “two people desperate to have what they think is love before the big end.” There are a lot of kinds of endings in the book, either big world ends, or smaller ends of a personal era. Maybe these ends are a kind of death. The characters are trying to connect, to reach out and hold tight, so they don’t disappear along with the moment.

AL: Monogamy and fidelity seem to be exceptionally vulnerable in Man V. Nature. Why, on the local level of character and story, does marriage seem to fall first? Do you return to the culturally protected and binding institution of marriage to demonstrate how the institution of civilization itself is unable to protect or bind us in the face of real, catastrophic threat? 

DC: There are so many ways to dismantle a relationship. Internal strife. Strife between the two partners. Outside pressures, even when that pressure is the relentless attention from another person. Attraction and desire feel like very basic instincts and some of the hardest things to ignore. I don’t care so much why people do what they do. I’m more interested in why they don’t do what they want to do. Monogamy is only a promise made between two people, a decision, a mental rationale to keep us in line when many other things would try to pull us out of line—namely our own desire, someone else’s desire. Getting married or otherwise committing to monogamy doesn’t change anything about the world. It doesn’t make you suddenly asexual to all except your partner. It doesn’t make every other human unattractive to you.  It just gives you a new and huge rule to follow. It gives you a new thing to worry about spectacularly failing at when the tender heart of someone you love is at stake. I’m intellectually interested in the precariousness and flaws of monogamy. But as someone in a long-term monogamous relationship, I’m emotionally invested in the ways it works, is advantageous and is something that means something to me. In some ways, I consider  “Moving On” as a kind of love letter to my own husband. It’s also one of the stories where, though marriage takes a hit in that it eventually becomes a transaction, it starts out real, in a place of love, need and wanting. Everyone gets one chance at something pure and un-compromised. But just one.

AL: Are you warning us about global warming? At all?  

DC: No, no, not at all. I’m using the natural world as a mirror to show us our very human selves. It’s kind of a funhouse mirror so maybe we look weird but it’s unmistakeably us.

AL: Are you a Naturalist by nature or design? That is, do you see yourself in the lineage of the Naturalists? Do you see yourself as part of the recent wave of Strong & Inventive Surrealist Women Writers?

DC: I’m so happy you asked this. In general, I see myself as part of the recent wave of Strong and Inventive Surrealist Women Writers, or, SISWW, in that I’m a woman who is reading and admiring those writers and who has always been more comfortable and successful finding truths in the strange. But, for me this book has always had more in common with naturalism than surrealism or fabulism. My intellectual interest is partly seeing how close we still are to the wilder version of ourselves. In a way this book is more inspired by Thoreau or Hawthorne than by the books of the SISWW (do you think this will catch on?). It comes from observation and immersion in the natural world, and in the tension between a gaze that sees the wilderness as sublime and one that sees it as terrifying. Nature is the master of strange.

That said, I remember very clearly writing straight realism in college and wanting to shift things but not knowing how to. I think elements of the strange always came into my old stories in the form of a dream because I didn’t know how else to introduce them or play with the rules of the world. This made for stories that were so deeply dumb. I wasn’t widely read enough to realize I had other options. Science fiction and fantasy seemed far away from what I was trying to do, and I had never been a big reader of those genres. I was reading Hemingway and Carver and Ford short stories. I still love them but they were limiting for me at the time. I hadn’t yet visited Cheever’s weird suburbs. But I remember coming across Aimee Bender’s, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and going, “Oh shit, no way. Basically, I can do whatever I want and take risks narratively as long as I set the course and am confident and trustworthy enough to entice the reader to come with me.” I’d certainly read books that took place in a world different from mine. I mean, I’d read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’d read dystopic novels and fairy tales. But there was something so simply ordinary about the life presented in the stories even as they were filled with impossible occurrences. It freed me up. Then, I looked for a place to get inspired and found that in the natural world. So, you know, I’m both a naturalist and a member of the SISWW (now an official acronym which can be found in the dictionary).

AL: Water, as mentioned, appears as a great force in at least 25% of these stories. Often, it coincides with starvation. What compels you to return to these elements?  

DC: Water is the big, bad, over-thought-about, not-likely-to-happen-but-can-happen threat. Like plane crashes. The forest is full of the little things that may actually get you, like a bad cell or drowsy driving. But really, in the book, people are the threat to one another and to themselves. I see the thread of people as predators very solidly throughout the stories. Whether it’s by stealing babies, or seducing an already committed weatherman, or obsessing over the dissolution of a friendship, the characters are setting their sights on what they think they want and calculating their next move so they can have it.  That a character could be both predatory and trying to survive seems natural to me.

AL: There is a stunning, quiet absence of the State, except for the occasional mandate such as the elimination of the not-needed boys. As a result, everything in Man V. Nature is fought on a domestic front, with people having no real authority to turn to—not when their children are taken, not when their survival depends on it, not when life as they know it ceases to exist. How can you account for this absence?

DC: It just makes sense to me that the State or powers that be aren’t in our lives except when they are too much in our lives. We live under certain rules that disappear after awhile because we take them in and they become a part of us. If you live in a world where someone stealing your baby is a normal part of life, why would you need help from the state? The characters who accept the rules of the world are unbothered.  The characters who stress and fret over the rules feel overwhelmed by them.  They fight and so are burdened.

AL: I love “The Not-Needed Forest.” It’s as familiar as “The Lottery” until it isn’t. It rejects Lord of the Flies until it can’t fight it off any longer. Most tragic of all it demonstrates the more gruesome nature of man—a nature that did not fully show itself until the 20th century—in innocent boys. Where did “The Not-Needed Forest” come from?

DC: This story really surprised me. I didn’t know it was coming. I was reading a lot about homesteading in wildernesses, specifically I was reading John McPhee’s Coming into the Country. As I was thinking about that and the novel I’m working on, I began thinking about evil, specifically evil in the woods. Which, of course lead me back to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” And then I started thinking of that Stephen King story, “The Man in the Black Suit,” which is great and an homage to YGB. I had these two stories and these survival-in-the-wilderness ideas in my head. I really just set out to write my own homage—to write a story with a real devil in the woods. I wrote that pretty quickly, or, with immediacy. And then I gave it to my husband who offered an ingenious suggestion which I followed. Then I gave that to my friend Heather Monley to read and she offered genius thoughts about pacing and believability. They made me see how the story now  held more possibility than my original premise has allowed for. I was able to let go of needless things and bring needed things very easily. Then I got an excellent edit from Zoetrope, who published it. It was one of the cleanest story writing processes I’ve ever had, which is funny considering what the story is about and how, as I was writing it I kept thinking, “Diane, what is wrong with you?”

AL: Ha!

DC: But it isn’t fully accurate to say I was only thinking of devils and the woods and Hawthorne and King. I was also thinking about a story that my husband told me when he came back from visiting an orphanage in Kampala (he was working on a project for Unicef). He told me about how in the girls’ dorm room the bunk beds had sheets neatly tucked around their little bunk mattresses and everything was clean and orderly. And over those neat beds were mosquito nets. In the boys’ room, there were no sheets, just mattresses, sometimes on the bunks but just as likely strewn around the room. The room was chaos. But the worst was that the boys had no mosquito nets. The woman running the place explained that the boys just tear up and destroy their sheets and nets and the orphanage  couldn’t afford to keep replacing them so the boys no longer got them. The sheets are one thing, but without nets, the boys are exposed to malaria, yellow fever, things that may very well lead to death. And this bad fate was simply because they were boys, who were at a tough age, a tumultuous age, who just couldn’t help themselves, and had no one who could successsfully guide them through this stage. What will happen to those boys? It is a version of being not-needed. And there are many more versions.

AL: Where is God in this book?

DC: Nowhere. Morality is at play here, but there is an ambivalence surrounding it. I guess the morality drama and the idea of goodness is most obvious in “The Way the End of Days Should Be.” But I like the narrator so I don’t know what that says about me. He embodies a kind of anti-godliness in his selfishness, but I think he’s also relatable. His situation seems extreme because the whole situation is extreme. There will always be people who’ll drag a limping liability along with them, but many more will run, solo, for their lives. It’s self-preservation at all costs. It’s our survival instinct kicking in, and kicking out any sense of brotherhood.

AL: As the Creator, what was most fun to write?   

DC: The stories that took me by surprise are always the most fun. “The Not-Needed Forest” for example. It was one of those great writing moments where you’re writing and going, “What the hell are you doing you’re nuts,” and you keep going and in the end you are so happy with your brain you could just take it out of your head and give it a big wet kiss. Those writing moments where you do something and then a part of your brain says, “You can’t do that,” but you just keep going anyway.

Like, “Okay okay, I promise to change it, but later, later. Just let me keep going now.” But you don’t change it later. You keep it because now it’s part of the story and it’s weird and it works. “It’s Coming” was like that. “Marrying Up” was like that. Nutrient packs? Weightlifting in the living room? I very clearly remember thinking, “No way, this will need to come out.” But it never did. Being surprised by what I’m writing is the best part of writing and probably why I continue to write.

AL: You’ve mentioned that most of this collection was completed at residencies. You’ve amassed an impressive list, including Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, The Albee Foundation, and The Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. This is certainly one way to survive as a writer! Can you offer emerging and working writers some advice about applying?  

DC: I’m sure residencies aren’t for everyone but they are definitely for me. I’ve done a few over the last few years. At this point, I find it necessary to get out of my life to do the really hard work on a project. I recommend everyone try to do one residency and see how they like it. If for no other reason than to participate in this unbelievable system of gifting time and space to artists. It’s special that people care enough about the arts to secure and donate money and resources just to give artists time to work. And then there’s  the community you become a part of, the time you get to think, the work you get done.

As far as advice, you have to plan a bit because applications are due long before a residency might happen. Have something you want to work on that you can write well about in an application. Once you get there though, follow whatever creative thread presents itself. And you have to be able to take time away from your life, your job, your partner, your family, whatever your obligations are. And you have to try really hard not to feel bad about that and not to listen to people who have decided to have an opinion on the matter of how you secure creative time for yourself. That’s important. Because, incredibly, people will have an opinion and some might even get mad at you. You have to be okay giving up the income or vacation time or holiday family time you’ll lose in order to do a residency. In general, you have to sacrifice a lot to go off and do your work, but you get a lot from it. And you have to get ready for rejection. For every residency I go to, I’ve been rejected by many others. Rejection is good for you though. It’s grounding. Even as I was in the process of selling this book, I was being blanketed by rejections from residencies, journals, fellowships, editors. It’s just part of making work. Your stuff is not for everyone.