Six Questions — October 30, 2014, 2:00 pm

Discussing Man V. Nature with Diane Cook

I became curious about how a person might react to the kind of hardships that exist in the wild. It became one of the preoccupations of the book.”

Diane Cook’s stories work like carnival mirrors, warping the familiar into something dark and funny. The characters in her debut collection, Man V. Nature, reckon with unsparing worlds: a flooded planet, the deep woods, a neighborhood where children are stolen. Widows are penned up until they remarry. Epidemic impotence makes men go berserk. White-collar types are eaten alive. But amid all the calamity, Cook’s eye is drawn to the everyday, the quiet gesture—and to antiheroes, with their helpless little rituals and perversions. In her taut and rhythmic language, the commonplace is endowed with unexpected significance and intensity. “It’s kind of beautiful,” says a hack television writer wilting away on a motorboat. “This world collapses. But the world below this world—it flourishes. Man V. Nature. See?” The V. notwithstanding, Cook’s fiction isn’t about survival so much as how the rest of us, safe at home, are living. I asked her six questions about the book via email.

1. You produced This American Life for six years. Admittedly, I was looking for the overlap in your fiction, but by and large, these stories are so much crueler than what I’d expect to hear on the radio. Is your fiction a conscious departure from that work?

My writing is a response to the job in a lot of ways, but I’d never thought about it in these terms. The gentler nature of the radio stories I imagine has something to do with them being true. And people generally aren’t monsters partaking in monstrous things.
Something about terrible, complex, psychological behavior doesn’t play well on the radio. Layers don’t play well. Subtlety sinks. Questions beg for answers. I remember this one story that aired a long time ago, in the first year or two of the show, before I worked there. It was fiction, a short story by Ira Sher called “The Man in the Well” about some kids who find the trapped man and, for reasons you never learn but could puzzle over for years, leave him there. It’s rich and deep and strange and psychological and brutal and full of all the things you want in fiction. And it tracks too. It’s a perfect narrative. Many listeners obviously loved the story. I did; the producers who aired it did. But, as I remember it, for years after, as new people listened to that story, we’d get complaints. I guess some people thought it was a true story (a hazard of having a mostly true format) and were offended by the idea that children could be so inexplicably brutal. Why would they do such a thing? I think the question was too big for radio, especially since there was no answer. The subtext of a listener’s complaints seemed to be, And why would you broadcast such behavior without some kind of resolution? The show thrives on stories told by people who are able to talk about and make sense of events, their own behavior, other people’s behavior. But there are deeper, elusive, unnamable things in us, things that have no answer and no resolution. Which is the realm of fiction, or at the very least, the realm of the page.

2. You’ve mentioned Rebecca Curtis’s Twenty Grand as being important to your writing. What nonliterary influences shaped Man V. Nature?

I get a lot of inspiration from the natural world. While writing the stories that would eventually become this book, I would often “get away” to write. I’d leave Brooklyn and rent a cabin in the woods, or go somewhere that felt secluded. There, I’d walk and hike and write. In these places, I observed the natural world more than I observed people. I’d spend so much time in the woods, blending in and being quiet, I was privy to more of what actually took place there. Of life there. I’d witness things that looked like ritual, work, sweetness and desire, exuberance, caution, the small things we easily recognize in ourselves. But I’d witness wild tragedies, too: predation, death, abandonment, grief. I became curious about how a person might react to the kind of hardships that exist in the wild. It became one of the preoccupations of the book. I wondered under what circumstances those more primal instincts might rear up again in us. How many of our basic behaviors are really just small or large efforts to survive.

3. Speaking of which, your settings usually have a narrative logic of their own. They’re never just backdrop. Even the run-of-the-mill suburb in “Meteorologist Dave Santa” has this planned-community weirdness to it that haunts the story. Had you thought up the circumstances shaping each story to begin with, or did you start with the characters?

I had a loose framing for some of these stories. The trick was to make sure that the conceit or frame didn’t overtake the story. It needed to be a way to begin, an initial question or query, but it couldn’t be the whole focus. Making sure the conceit didn’t dominate helped me revise. It was a good baseline—is this story just a fleshed-out scenario or are these living, breathing characters experiencing something?

A few of the stories just came the way some stories do. Some idea or voice or character invades your space. Sometimes I just launch and I don’t know where it’s coming from. I mentioned I like to walk. Sometimes I’m walking and I am looking at the world and then I begin to see it as a character might see it, a character I’m working with already, or maybe a new one, a new voice. And I’ll start jotting things down as that character.

4. And when you do, to what extent do you think about the balance between realism and surrealism, between representing the world and distorting it? Do these modes serve each other when you write, or are they at odds?

Though I fully admit that many of my worlds can’t “happen” or aren’t happening now, I see them as real and I try to give the reader the necessary details to believe that world. And I try to do that right away. Set the world and rules up quickly and with authority so the reader has no desire, or time even, to argue. In this world, when you have a baby, some guy shows up and tries to steal it. Go. In this world, when your spouse dies, you get put in a shelter until someone else wants you. Go. Meanwhile, the worlds happen to be pretty suburban or urban. There are cul-de-sacs and interstates. There are neighborhood associations and bingo night. I like to populate a strange story with familiar things, so a reader can find some common ground, comfort, but also have to be sharp to what’s different. So to answer you, I find that surrealism and realism temper one another. For me there is a sweet spot between the real world and a world I’m dreaming up. I’m trying to find that spot and am very aware of it as I’m writing and revising. I want readers to feel connected to the world I’m writing about. But I want them to be surprised by it, too.

5. And that connection/surprise often comes by way of understatement. In “Marrying Up,” for example, a woman cycles through pygmy lovers until she marries a giant—and that’s just where the story gets started. How do you decide what to minimize or conceal from the reader?

I try to say what is necessary and not much more. But whether I’ve said too much or just enough kind of depends on the reader. I think a lot of—maybe all—readers have a thing they want to see in a story, an itch they want scratched. If you don’t present that, they may feel you’ve concealed too much, or that the world just isn’t believable. “Where’s the dad?” “What does the bedroom look like?” “I can’t picture it!” “The ending was meh.” This is all a bit out of your control, though. As the writer, you have to make decisions that not everyone will be happy with. Some days, you the writer might not even be happy with them. I guess you try to offer enough of the world that it ignites the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest, the stuff the story itself doesn’t need.

But sometimes there is honesty and alchemy to consciously withholding something. It changes the reader and changes how they interact with the story—makes them a voyeur hoping to discover what might not be theirs to discover. Two characters might have an intimacy that means they don’t verbalize everything and so something important lives in this alluring but hazy space a little off the page. Other times, information gets revealed as the story goes on, and you end up building a truth from the top down. These are difficult moments to orchestrate. You don’t want to manipulate but you want the experiences of the characters to read true.

6. In “Bounty,” a flood unleashes avarice; boys exiled to “The Not-Needed Forest” resort to cannibalism. What is it about the extremity in your stories that leads to inhumanity? Isn’t our better nature—compassion, justice, integrity, self-sacrifice—just as primal?

I guess extreme situations kick our instincts into gear. Maybe this is a bit above me, seeing as how I’m merely a fiction writer. But I think compassion moves on a spectrum. I think we have an instinct for it but other instincts war with it. I guess what I mean is that compassion that lives on a spectrum is more interesting than one that is overbearing or absent. And more true. “Bounty” tells the story of two houses near the end of a world-ending flood. One house is full of refugees. The other houses one guy who doesn’t want to let anyone in. This seems heartless, and yet he has lots of justifications for his actions. And he does let one man in, a drunk named Gary. Over time he grows fond of Gary, grows to need him in a way. He cares for Gary. He has compassion. It’s a tricky sort of compassion. But it’s there. It feels small, but who on Earth lives a daily life driven by major, life-changing and potentially life-ending acts of compassion? Not many, which is why their story always seems remarkable. In “Bounty,” the extreme situation confuses the behaviors. The narrator’s refusal to let anyone in seems like the extreme position, while the neighbor seems compassionate, reasonable even. But if you took the extremity of the situation away, the neighbor who gives everything to anyone who asks or has need would seem like a crazy saint and you’d probably think, Ugh, I could never do that. While the narrator, the one who doesn’t really share, or really help anyone day to day, would kind of seem like a normal person. I mean, I certainly didn’t save anyone’s life today. In fact, I sat at a desk all day—one that is literally squeezed into a closet that is four by four feet. I didn’t even manage to help anyone. I mean, did you? Maybe I helped someone by writing a story that person happened to read today, one that gave him a feeling, not an answer necessarily. And that feeling led him to think about how he behaves on a day-to-day basis. And maybe what he came to think made him change in some slight and positive way. Or hell, maybe he changed in some negative, self-serving way he felt fine about, and maybe that behavioral change happened to save his life during some crazy, extreme situation. I really hope this person, whoever he is, gets the chance to tell me if it did. I’d be able to look back on life and think, That day? At my closet desk? It wasn’t wasted. I helped someone.

Diane Cook’s story “Bounty” was published in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Wood Chipper·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today