Beautiful, Hard, Elemental: Diane Cook Interviewed by Kathryn Savage

On why all novels should be nature novels.

Cover of The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Two blocks down my quiet Midwestern street, things turn industrial fast. That’s where front yards with tall rhubarb stalks and lush tomato vines give way to a 230-acre train, trucking, and distribution shipping yard. Over the course of its long extractive history, the shipping yard has polluted the air, soil, and groundwater plume underneath me. Diane Cook’s latest novel, The New Wilderness (Harper), is about a mother who takes her daughter on a desperate experiment into a highly bureaucratic wilderness state to survive, leaving the polluted City they know behind. As I read, I underlined passages I love about sex and grief, mothers and daughters, while in front of me, a row of oil tanker trucks rumble by and shake the window.

“In the beginning,” Cook writes, “the Wilderness State was part of an experiment to see how people interacted with nature, because, with all land now being used for resources—oil, gas, minerals, water, wood, food—or storage—trash, servers, toxic waste—such interactions had become lost to history.” One of the thrills of allegory is what such intentionally heightened narratives lay bare about a particular historical present. In The New Wilderness, Cook has written a futuristic novel that is equal parts urgent reminder of the very real environmental and relational stakes posed by the here and now. Speculative and fabulous, The New Wilderness is a novel of post-industrial, late capitalist causality. It’s about the want to thrive on a damaged planet, and the cost of that desire.

—Kathryn Savage

Kathryn Savage Your first short story collection, Man V. Nature, has been called “apocalypse-tinged.” The New Wilderness explores similar themes and ideas about human nature and about humans and nature. Reading your fiction, I find myself thinking about how there is something inherently anxious and high stakes about nature writing now, in a time of climate change and overpopulation. Did your novel grow out of your short story collection? 

Diane Cook I had the idea for The New Wilderness during the time I was writing the bulk of the stories for Man V. Nature. The very first moment of the idea, I thought it would be a short short. Like, under a thousand words. Then, after thinking about it for a moment longer, I realized it was a novel. I took a bunch of notes and wrote some scenes and roughed out some characters just to get that initial inspiration down and then I mostly put it away for the better part of three years while I finished Man V. Nature. I always knew I’d return to it. I think in part because it felt very connected to the stories, almost like it was the last story of the collection that had to be cut because of word count. But I think it also occupies a very different space than the stories even as it shares a lot of ideas, even imagery. In my stories there is often a fantastical thing that happens in a fairly familiar world. In the novel I wanted it to be plausible even as it is speculative and not real. I wanted whatever this world was to be possible. That was part of what would give the story its power.

KS So much of what happens in The New Wilderness feels so plausible to me, that while reading I recalled what Camille T. Dungy said in her 2018 Georgia Review essay, “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” In it, Dungy writes that all of us writing now are working “in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction, in a time where we are seeing the direct effects of radical global climate change.” Dungy describes the environment as “a set of circumstances,” that pose high stakes in art. Your novel is set in a future that is post-climate change and overpopulation. Do you think your novel collapses the traditional distinction between setting and character, where the natural world is a very active character in your work?

DC I really hope so. I wanted to write something that was as much about people as it was about nature, and people being affected by nature. I didn’t want to observe nature and come to big conclusions about it. I wanted to find a way to have nature be a necessary part of every story. I think my narrative instinct is that books and our lives in books can’t and shouldn’t be separate from the natural world around us, our access to it or lack of access. It should be as uncanny as a current day novel not mentioning a cell phone. I think—or I hope—the natural world isn’t something writers can look away from.

KS The New Wilderness is, equally, such a moving and compassionate mother-daughter story. Told in rotating third-person close point of view, readers enter the Wilderness State mediated by Bea’s perspective. Bea has gone to the Wilderness State to save her young daughter’s life. They’ve left the overpopulated City because its air was destroying Agnes’s lungs. Bea’s journey to the Wilderness State is inseparable from her maternal desire to keep her daughter alive. Much nature writing has long been dominated by white cis-gender male voices and experiences. Was centering the experiences of two female-bodied characters, of a mother and her daughter, an intentional, and perhaps, ecofeminist decision?

DC I was just talking about this idea with my friend Karolina Waclawiak in a conversation for this very magazine! I think women and our fictional counterparts yearn for adventure or escape in natural spaces in equal measure to men, but probably for different reasons, and with different emotional outcomes. I read a fascinating article by Diana Savarin in The Atlantic about how Annie Dillard wilded her bucolic suburb in order to write Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as she was tethered to the home and yet still needed to explore and discover something wild in her space and for herself. Her husband was a great biographer of Thoreau and Emerson. And she had to find wildness in the little patch of woods around the creek of her suburban neighborhood. That sucks. But, she did it. She discovered and adventured and wrote a brilliant book about something she found close to home because that was what was available to her.

I wanted to write about women, about mothers and daughters, who had access to nature and wilderness. It was interesting to put my female characters into a life and death situation and watch them thrive. In a lot of animal groups, the females are the leaders. That’s not an accident. I wanted Bea and Agnes to be leaders like that, but I wanted their instincts to bubble up from very different wells. The book and what happens would have been completely different if the men had truly been in charge. That’s important to me, to see how a story can change simply because a certain character gets hold of the reins.

Diane Cook

Photo of Diane Cook by Katherine Rondina.

KS On mothers and daughters, in an excellent conversation between you and author Hilary Leichter, you reflect on “the time before [your] daughter had language” (that she shared with her parents). I love what you say about how when a person learns shared language, there’s a greater capacity to communicate but there’s also a loss of concepts and sounds, and even emotions. In the second half of your novel, when Agnes’s point of view takes the driver’s seat, her attention is trained so closely on the land and animals. Without spoiling any plot points, I wonder if you think part of the difficulties that emerge between Bea and Agnes stem from having different languages? From needing to communicate so differently within the environments that shaped their survival?  

DC An early reader of my first book Man V. Nature made a comment about how our children will become strangers to us over time. I didn’t have children at the time but I was so struck by this idea and it felt so true and sad and inevitable and right and I’ve never forgotten it. Especially now that I have two children it is something I think about maybe on a daily basis. It very much was an idea I was trying to explore in writing this book. So yes, as Bea and Agnes experience the world, especially the new world, they change and adapt differently. Bea adapts to survive. Agnes adapts to live. Agnes is young, a sponge, ready and open to the new world. Bea isn’t. Bea adapts as much as she needs to, but she is still the same woman in many ways who left the City. The Wilderness will always be a different language to her. Whereas Agnes was young enough that she is a native speaker.

To use my daughter’s language in another example, she is bilingual, Spanish and English. She is about two and a half and already knows more Spanish than I do. I try to keep up, and have become much more fluent in the past two years than in a lifetime of trying to speak and study it. But I make mistakes all the time and my daughter will look at me with this mysterious look, a dawning look and she’ll smile or smirk and correct me. I know she is learning that we are different. That we don’t know the same things. That there is something she can do that I can’t and that means something to her. 

Honestly, learning Spanish has always been hard because I feel foolish when I make mistakes. I don’t like not knowing things. I clam up rather than take risks—which you just can’t do when you’re trying to speak a language. I have both fear and ego. But now, it feels really important that she see me try and fail, not so much as a lesson in trying and failing, but as a way for her to know that as important as we are to one another, we are different and we are and will always be living different lives. Agnes needs to be different than Bea to survive in the new world, to thrive in it. They understand the world differently. It’s something Bea comes to realize. But it’s a painful process. Their version of it in the book is just a heightened version of what I imagine a lot of parents go through as they raise kids to not need them anymore.

KS On the new world that they inhabit, the Wilderness State is a kind of gorgeous Anthropocene prison. Rangers guard it, drones surveil it, and a Kafkaesque rotating Administration oversees it. The book is set in land that has been “re-wilded” by the state, and is the only land of its kind. All other lands are used for industry or congested housing. While your novel is a work of fiction set in the future, reading it felt allegorical. In researching, were there works about US borderlands, Indigenous lands, environmental injustice, settler colonialism, extractive farming, or any other topics that were particularly vital and instructive?

DC Our colonial history is horrible, but many of us still get swept up in a kind of romanticism of being in seemingly wild, empty spaces. I definitely do. Part of the project of writing the book was to grapple with that. I never wanted this pristine “untouched” wilderness to be a balm for the Community. The life they’re being asked to live is hard, nearly impossible to juggle all its contradictions. It is ridiculously bureaucratic whereas some might assume that such a landscape ought to be freeing. And yet, it still is offering them something more than their life in the City. Not through romance, but through an opportunity, or a second chance, when before they had none. This is the problematic narrative of so many people who “discovered” “new” lands. The motivations of my characters get muddied over the course of the book because of it. And how you feel about them should too. 

In the last couple years of writing the book I began to read and think more about migration and the artificiality of borders. About who is allowed to be on and use land. It was filtering in from the news, as the government was fear mongering about migrants, and it was naturally bubbling up in the book between the characters and the power structures of that fictional world. My characters were living and moving on western land, power struggles were occurring between different groups who wanted to claim the right to be there, and ultimately all were driven from it. It became an allegory for that recurring history.

KS The complexity you speak to that the Community navigates together reminded me of other recent novels about idealists and survivors forging a new world at the margins of the world they already know—of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. While the natural world is certainly a deeply important aspect of your novel, so is human nature, human failure and fragility, and, equally, human strength and resiliency. Tell me about your characters and your journey with them. 

DC I wanted there to be mothers who didn’t behave like the culture says all mothers ought to behave. I wanted mothers who behave the ways I feared I might behave if I were a mother, ways I discovered I do behave now that I am a mother. I wanted the complexity of Bea’s experience to be on the page and not have it diminish her motherhood. I wanted everyone to get the chance to be human. I wanted women to get to be heroic without first being victimized. I wanted little girls who could be anything they imagined. Who knew absolutely no bound of culture or nurture. I think Agnes is as close as I’ve seen in a while. She is a colt. But she is also everything else. A little girl. A woman. A leader. An animal. And, a princess. She was on one path in the City and the Wilderness rerouted her. But she would have been astonishing in either place. I wanted her to be untethered. The thing is, you can take mother and daughter characters into all different situations and there will always be this chemistry that follows them. It’s beautiful, it’s hard. It’s elemental. It’s true Bea and Agnes can be anything they want to be, but they will also be mother and daughter. By the end, I wanted all of the characters to have reached a point where they were as inhuman as they were human. 

KS Do you find writing short stories to be a different process and experience than novel writing? 

DC Wow, yes, it is. For me, short stories are like falling in young love. Exciting, whirlwind, fast, a little bewildering, all-encompassing, everything. And the novel was like marriage (or long-term partnership, or whatever is your term). Novels take forever, they sometimes feel like a slog, or feel suffocating. But they are considered, weighty, enveloping, satisfying. They are rich, kind of flabby in a way that feels good and that you think you could probably trim up or slim down but maybe you just don’t fucking feel like it anymore. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write another short story or another novel. Both forms seem impossible for me to figure out now, even though I’ve done both and even felt like I understood both at some point. I hated writing the novel a lot of the time and looked at my stories with hardcore longing. I would sometimes read parts of my stories when I was in the depths of the novel and swoon for how easy it was (even though writing them was absolutely not easy at the time). But now I’m all starry-eyed over the novel. I spent so much time with it. There was a long stretch when I spent more time with it than I did with my husband or my kid. I miss it.

KS You’ve worked as a producer for This American Life. Do aspects of journalism, or the pacing or style of narrative reporting, ever enter your work as a fiction writer, including in your approach to novel research?

DC If anything, because of This American Life I don’t worry about getting things right when it comes to research and facts. I wanted to be free to create and make things up when I left reporting. I had found it too limiting—necessarily so. It has to be truthful. But now, if I researched whether you might find a certain food in a certain place during a certain season, if it didn’t work for my plot, then I said, fuck it, and made it what I needed it to be. Because I could. Because it’s fiction, and that’s why I write it. I’m not worried about having certain things be correct. I want everything to ring true, but I love not needing to be fact checked.

The New Wilderness is available for purchase here.

Kathryn Savage’s debut lyric essay collection, Groundglass, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press (2022). Recipient of the 2018 Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize, her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, The Guardian, Poets & Writers,, the anthology Rewilding: Poems for the Environment, and World Literature Today. She divides her time between Minneapolis and Tulsa, teaching creative writing in Augsburg University’s low-residency MFA program and at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and is a Tulsa Artist Fellowship recipient.

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