Leyton Cassidy, Podcast Editor for the Columbia Journal, sat down with Diane Cook to discuss her debut novel, The New Wilderness, as well as her writing process, relationship with nature, and the religion of writing. The New Wilderness takes place in the near future, where a group of people have elected to live in what remains of a protected wilderness area. The reader follows Bea and her daughter as they struggle to connect, thrive, and simply make it through to the next sunrise. Since its July release, The New Wilderness has already been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Cook is also the author of a collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, which has received worldly recognition.
What was your relationship to nature before you wrote this, and even before the pandemic?
I grew up in the suburbs and never really had a relationship with nature until I went camping for the first time in college. I spent the next twenty years trying to build that relationship, really as an intellectual project. I like thinking about the natural world, animals in particular, and how we are separated on the spectrum of existence. We’re all animals, but we were designated as somewhat different from other animals. I’ve just been really curious and fascinated by that distinction and all the ways that are very clear and all the ways that it’s murky. I think nature is something I always knew I wanted in my life even though I didn’t have it when I was growing up.
I’m curious about when you had the idea for this book in relationship to everything that has devolved in our world. When did you start writing this?
I had the idea in 2012. Well, it was a slightly different idea. I was imagining a future world where there was a large swath of wilderness and that large swath of wilderness area was the only one left. That was my main jumping off point. The idea kind of came from land deregulations and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge… I was just interested in what happens if regulations were seriously threatened politically. That’s the very basic idea that I started from in 2012, but I remember the first couple years of working on it, I had this sense that I was going to have to do a lot of work to convince everybody that my world was plausible and that the rules of the world could ever happen. When I was starting, it felt really far-fetched. But then Trump got elected and I saw how he was very systematically dismantling so much of the regulations that protected not just the land but also our health and our water resources. You know the very few protections we’d actually put into law he just like *snaps* got rid of them… it was crazy. I feel like my book got more and more realistic as I was writing it, which I don’t love. I didn’t understand that I was writing a climate change book. I just wanted to write about humans in the natural world, and I wanted it to be speculative. I had this idea that in the future there’s a giant wilderness area. I didn’t know exactly how this area came to be, I just knew that it existed. And I found that you can’t look at the natural world and our relationship and future without it immediately falling into the realms of being affected by climate change.
The fact that you started this in 2012 is so interesting. It was definitely surreal to read now, but I have a feeling that when people read it in ten years, they will feel the same about it then, too.
I’m really happy that people are responding to it with urgency, and I didn’t understand that it was going to be that way, even when the pandemic first hit.
What was particularly striking and relevant to me is how my relationship to death is different now, and that shift was so encapsulated by your characters. I’m curious to know, how did your approach to death unfold while you were writing the book?
I am really interested in how people and how societies respond to death. That came from dealing with my mom’s death twelve years ago. I really struggled, not just on a personal grieving level but also on an intellectual level. I saw all these different ways that people grieved, and it was really hard for me to make sense of all of them. There was also this expectation about the right things to say and feel when you lose someone, which I really hated. People often judge grief. We have this general idea of how you should feel about people passing away but our entire society is built on the idea that people are expendable, and now with the pandemic that’s even more obvious. A lot of people had a threshold that they walked over at some point in this pandemic where they decided that their own comfort or survival was more important than the safety of the masses.
That’s a great way to put it. So I had planned to ask you, which came first: the world or the characters, but it seems like the world came first. So, now I want to know: how did you figure out who you were going to put in it?
The Wilderness came first I guess, and then The City. I needed this other place to be the other side of that tension. And then the people came quickly. The first people were Bea and Agnes. And that’s partly because I wanted to write about mothers and daughters. I thought a lot about this idea that generationally we lose one another. For parents, your whole job is to raise children so that they don’t need you anymore- kids need to be able to become their own people who will then make their own decisions. If you’ve done that, it’s a good thing, right? But there’s this loss, and I’m interested in this question of: what happens when you lose someone before that handoff happens? What happens to all the information that those people take with them if they haven’t passed it on yet? The other thing that I really wanted to do was just put women in the wilderness and let them have the floor and be the leaders of a space that’s usually designated for men, especially in literature. Women protagonists so often are punished or victimized in some way before their stories are deemed worthy of being told. There’s always like some terrible trauma a woman has to go through in a book or a movie or whatever. So, I didn’t want to do that. These two women who love each other, trying to figure out how to know each other, was always the heart of the book. Coming up with how to embody them and how to make the book both of their stories took a long time but I figured it out eventually.
I thought it was really effective. You really conveyed what you were saying about the mother-daughter relationship. What really highlighted it was the environmental shift part way through them getting to know each other. It put the kid in a position of higher knowledge. You never want to see your own parent learning.
That’s an interesting point, no one has brought that up. I mean I feel that way with my daughter sometimes. She’s bilingual. My husband speaks Spanish, and I try to speak Spanish. I do the best I can, but I’m just not a native speaker and now she’s bilingual and she knows way more Spanish. And it’s amazing but she corrects my grammar a lot. She’ll look at me sometimes when I’m trying to conjugate a verb and then messing it up like “Mama, you don’t know everything I know?” I’m not a gracious learner. I tend to put up walls and I think Bea does too. Agnes, on the other hand, is just this natural thing who is ready to absorb anything readily. She just belongs.
That concept really comes through with Bea and Agnes.
I mean, Agnes is the little girl I always wished I could have been—you know? I bet she’s actually the little girl I was at some point that I don’t remember. This thing that is pure and unsullied by whatever was going to come down the pipe. A pure embodiment of personhood. If I couldn’t be her I just wanted to be with her character, you know what I mean?
I really do. I do want to ask you really quickly, what was it like to go from short stories to a novel?
It was really hard. There’s no way that you can enjoy every moment of it, it’s not possible. I found writing short stories for me was always really exciting and fulfilling and it would still take a long time, but I would write in really fast bursts, and then I would revise. So getting the first draft down was very cathartic because it would happen as an outpouring. And with novel writing that doesn’t happen. I mean, I guess there are people who write a novel in like six months or something, but that certainly wasn’t me. And still that’s six months! It’s such a different beast, and you have to have such a different relationship with the work. Lots of ups and downs and highs and lows, and a lot doesn’t work. It’s a lot of time alone with it where you’re not sure if it’s anything, and you won’t know it until someone reads the whole thing. It took me like five years to get that first draft. It’s its own religion, I guess. I’m not religious, but you really have to have a kind of faith that I don’t normally have in my daily life. I’m kind of surprising myself—it’s weird to hear myself say that.
In those five years, what were the times that you had the most faith?
Probably when I was at residencies. They felt almost devotional. You really are just living and breathing the work and that’s an amazing experience. Also, I lived in California for a couple years in the middle of writing this, and I spent most of my time walking and hiking. I’d be walking around and I would see something that made my brain just go into a character, and I would start to write in my head. I sort of got to see the world more through the characters’ eyes. That would renew my faith in it because I got to access the world in these small ways, no matter what was happening. Two years out from finishing, I compiled everything, and it turned out that I had a draft. That really lit a fire, and I knew that I had something that kind of made sense.
Thank you so much for sitting with me. I think that there should always be more stories about women, more stories about nature, and more stories that just scare us, which this did.
The term “eco-horror” is what’s been thrown around! I think it’s the coolest. Thank you for reading it and talking to me!
Photo Courtesy of Diane Cook