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.

Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

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.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

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

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:


Israeli researchers claimed to have identified a ruthlessness gene.

Trump and Putin puzzle out cybersecurity in Helsinki, John Kelly didn't like his breakfast in Brussels, and a family of woodchucks ate the wiring in Paul Ryan's car

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


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“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