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.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

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Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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