A Mother-Daughter Survival Story in a World Destroyed by Climate Change
Diane Cook on her Booker Prize-nominated novel "The New Wilderness"
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The first time I read Diane Cook’s fiction—as a workshop classmate in Columbia’s MFA program—I followed her to the water fountain in Dodge Hall, professed my admiration, and insisted that we become friends and read each other’s work for the rest of our lives. Luckily, she wasn’t put off by my intensity. Eleven years later, I can attest to great friendship, much draft reading, and so very many novel writing pep talks.
Even in the story that made me a Diane Cook superfan, which, if memory serves, involved a tragic accident with a pen on a crowded bus in Brooklyn, it was obvious that Diane had a singular voice and worldview, full of wisdom, wit, and yearning. Readers were introduced to this worldview in her acclaimed story collection, Man V. Nature.
Now, Diane returns with her bold, haunting, Booker Prize-nominated debut novel, The New Wilderness, which takes place in a world destroyed by climate change, pollution, and overpopulation. Set in the near future in a country that resembles America, the book follows a group of twenty people chosen to participate in a government study where they’ll live in the last remaining Wilderness State. At the novel’s center are a mother and daughter: Bea, who fled the City for the Wilderness to save Agnes, her sick young daughter, who needed different air.
Jessamine Chan: Not to limit your future subject matter, but I want there to one day be an English Lit course called “Climate Horror: The Fiction of Diane Cook.” Maybe it’s just going to be “the early fiction.” What drives you toward the end-times as a subject?
Diane Cook: I really enjoy world-building, and perhaps I am too pessimistic, but in building future worlds or alternate worlds (which are often future worlds) I can’t help but predict a dire situation. A lot of my scenarios—in my stories or in the novel—seem impossible, but they’re actually playing out in some form currently. Sometimes when I think of my book, I forget it isn’t really happening somewhere. I like to use the big fictionalized world to blow out and make very visible something you could see today if you knew where to look or cared to see it. This isn’t often my intention when I set out, but our world seeps in when I’m writing. I can’t stop being a person in our real world even when I’m immersed in the one I created.
JC: Without giving too much away, what are some ways the real world seeped in?
DC: Environmental deregulation. Most deregulation, actually. Immigration and migration and border enforcement. I remember early on in writing the book, I worried whether my premise seemed too far out there. But the Trump presidency has made it all seem almost inevitable. He sets twelve fires so you can’t put them all out. People can’t commit to all the issues all at once. Something falls through the cracks. He’s done major damage to the country and its future that most people don’t even know about because those weren’t the fires they were fighting.
JC: I was struck by the many rules for survival, and the parallels, in terms of behavior for the common good, between pandemic rules and Wilderness rules. How did the government “study” and “the Manual” provide useful constraints for storytelling? At what point in the development of this world did these rules emerge?
DC: I follow rules. Full stop. I have a lot of theories as to why…suffice it to say, something made me very rule-oriented. I’m fascinated by the different relationships people have with rules. How some people follow them, while others don’t think they are applicable. There are a lot of rules in my first book, Man V. Nature. There’s even a Manual. Rules govern everything about how our society does or doesn’t run. Most interesting to me might be the unspoken rules, the spaces between us where there aren’t bright red No Trespassing signs. Putting those constraints on a world brings out our prickly humanity. Which comes in handy in a book that is pressing characters toward their more animal sides.
I think the idea for the Rangers being nitpicky enforcers was there from the beginning, as was the Manual. I couldn’t envision a wilderness area without needing rules and a method of enforcement. I used to teach in a literature and writing program, and as part of the program, we went on camping trips into state and national forests. These trips seemed composed of one big rule to follow. That’s how it is in wilderness areas. I’ve never been in a wilderness where I wasn’t potentially breaking a law or rule. This is not me complaining—see above, big rule follower—but it’s interesting that to preserve something wild we must impose a system of regulation over it. It’s so stupidly and necessarily human.
JC: How did you decide how much technology to use in a story set in the near future? There’s surveillance and drones, but the maps “look like a child had dreamed them up.”
DC: I didn’t so much decide as avoided. A pleasant byproduct of writing about people living as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the wilderness is you’ve built in a natural logic for not using technology. I had played around with a lot of different ideas about how their world might look in the future, about what kinds of tech would exist. But then I would get so wrapped up in the minutiae. What would it look like, what would it do, and how? And then I’d have to think about just how far in the future the book was, and what would be possible, and all of that parsing made me unhappy, and took me away from what I was actually trying to write about.
My book wasn’t about technology, and so I decided I would barely mention it at all. And that made me happy. In that way, any idea or object could be free from the association of the future, and could just be the thing that I felt made the most sense or created the image I wanted, or the idea I wanted to play with. The surveillance drones echo our current world. The childish maps evoked images of treasure maps, of x marks the spot, of kid adventure. I liked playing with the tension between this adventure narrative aspect of the book and the real life and death stakes. The maps have a menacing quality. Like kids playing a game that suddenly gets real.
JC: What’s your own relationship to technology? We’ve talked sometimes about your aversion to social media.
DC: Social media is not for me. It turns me into my worst self. I’m happier away from it. I wish I could access the community aspect of it in a genuine way, but I couldn’t parse that from everything else. Best to walk away. I’m a bit of a luddite. I never update my phone. Half the emojis people send me are white squares or question marks. It’s fine. I don’t think I’m missing out on too much. It’s the thought that counts. I know I sound so boring right now. I just am not made for the future. Which is probably why I wrote a book about future people being forced to live like prehistoric people and no one has a cell phone.
JC: Let’s talk about motherhood. Entire families are trying to survive in The Wilderness State, children are being born. A family is necessary to stay warm at night! The depiction of Bea and Agnes’ relationship is so unsettling, because you really get into the unknowability of parents and children. What were some of the mysteries of motherhood and daughterhood that you hoped to explore?
DC: I really wanted to look into the things we don’t want others to see in ourselves, especially when it comes to these big archetypal roles we inhabit. I long to know all of my mother’s secret feelings about motherhood. When she hated being a mom. What she really felt when our relationship was at its worst. What frazzled her as a young mom. When I broke her heart. The things she probably never would have offered up on her own, but maybe if I had asked…. When she died, all that potential knowledge left with her. Like the ways she might have instructed me in how to be a mom. Not in the tips and tricks realm, but in the secret feelings that would save me from feeling bad and ashamed of myself in my worst moments. I can complain or be candid with my friends, but it’s only a bit of tension release. It never feels truly liberating. If I could do that with my mom, though, it would feel like discovering truth. Because I am of her. If she felt it, then I would know there is nothing wrong with me. We are from the same line.
I wanted this line to be present for Bea and Agnes. I wanted this sense of loss to be present, even when they are together. To explore how, as mothers and daughters, we are drawn together and repelled apart by the very relationship that binds us. My mom was my person in our family. Without her, I feel pretty detached from everyone else. But, still, there was a distance between us that we always tried to bridge but never quite managed to. I think in the end we didn’t know each other as well as we wanted to. As I got older and became a mother, I think I looked for ways to know her as I never did before. It’s a poor substitute, but I think in the losses we experience we have to look for something to discover that we couldn’t have found otherwise.
JC: We became moms around the same time, and being “art moms” is something we talk about regularly. Rather than asking how you “get it all done,” which male writers are never asked, I’d like to know how motherhood has informed your writing of this book, and generally.
DC: It’s made me feel really protective of my ability to write as my work. To try to make sure this can always be my job. To that end I’ve been trying to, er, diversify. I love books. But I love writing more. I just want to write creative things. I want to write fiction. Whether it’s in book form or some other form. Like, I’ve written these two books. Now I want to be a writer on a broader scale. To try other forms. To know how to do it all. So I can always pivot when needed. Publishing is too fickle. I can’t put all my eggs into it.
Being a mom has made me more practical about the act of creating. I remember going back to work after my daughter was born. I was on deadline—it was the most recent of many missed deadlines, so it’s possible I could have pushed it yet again. But I just felt like I had to just finish this fucking thing once and for all. It was time. Now that I had this kid I had to stop finding my way and be there already. So I went back to work before I was ready and it was really hard. It was a self-imposed thing that was physically painful. I felt like I was being a terrible mother, hurting and abandoning my daughter. But my other art friends and mom friends were good about reminding me that I was teaching my daughter something about ambition and passion and work, not about abandonment. There are so many things that she will encounter in her life that will attempt to derail her from what she is trying to accomplish. I want to make sure I give her an example where she feels loved and cared for, but also where she sees how to take the time she needs in order to make things, to do things for herself.
I just had another baby in June, and without even meaning to, I have already set myself up to start a new project when he is about four months old. I think I will have a different relationship with that return to work this time, but if anything, it makes me realize how important it is for me to do the work that I do.
JC: And now your book has landed on the Booker Prize Longlist! Congratulations! What’s that been like?
DC: It’s been awesome and unreal. I’m really proud of my book, and all of us launching it were working hard. But before the announcement I was expecting that while The New Wilderness would have its fans, that group would probably be small. I’m not trying to be dreary or insecure by saying that, I’m just being realistic. My galleys shipped the week the country went into lockdown. They sat in mailrooms and empty offices rather than potentially getting read or piquing interest. I don’t have a social media presence. Most people didn’t know I had a new book coming out, even people who loved my story collection. With the longlist announcement that changed overnight. And I’m so grateful. Writers just want to find readers. Publishing is so hard because that very basic desire is never guaranteed, even when people care and work hard for it. Add in the global pandemic, and it just felt like an impossible situation. I now know that many more people will read my book and take it seriously. They may not like it. But they’ll read it. That is all I ever wanted.