My friend and former This American Life colleague, Diane Cook, just wrote her first book — a collection of short stories called Man V. Nature — which comes out on October 7th. It’s incredible. We talked about the book and how it came to be.
Diane, I love your book.
I wasn’t expecting my ideal dystopian fiction dream book of short stories, which is my favorite thing to read. After I had a baby my mom said, “You should just read short stories for awhile because that way you’ll feel like you’re accomplishing something.”
I think short stories are good for that. I hope that people will learn that about them, that you can really just ingest them so fast but then they stay with you forever.
Yeah, they really do! Sometimes when I read a novel I get through it and I don’t remember any of it.
Yeah, or like I can perfectly picture their living room but I don’t know much more than that? [laughs]
So I don’t know anything about the kind of stuff you wanted to write when you were thinking about writing a book. We’ve never really talked about this which is weird because you’ve been a writer since I’ve known you but we were just so busy doing somebody else’s bullshit.
We were helping other people be better writers! And then when I left the show I kind of thought, Well, I’ve been helping other people be better writers, uhhh, maybe I can do that for myself? People write for a living. They do it and I can do it.
I feel like there’s a huge difference between editing nonfiction and writing fiction.
Well, okay, so I never thought I was going to leave the show and do nonfiction writing. I remember feeling like we’d sit in story meetings and we’d talk about a story and it sounded really great on lots of levels, but it didn’t work. We would say as a group, “Oh, this story would be so good if only this had happened instead of this; if they’d said this and not that or if they had this idea.” I saw that enough and had that experience enough and lost out on stories that I actually cared about but that just didn’t work. That never happens anymore, to me. I’ll have an idea for a story and it will always work! [laughs] I can do anything even if it means I have to rewrite the whole thing or even if the story becomes a totally different story, I can always fix it because I’m in control of everything. Like, I made it up!
Haha, I love it!
So that was a big thing. And I always hated reporting, it wasn’t my thing. I loved the storytelling at This American Life but I hated the pressure of being right.
I can’t make things up. I don’t even know how you start? I remember getting assignments in elementary school like, “Make up a story. You have to fill up one whole page of lined paper with a fucking made up story,” and I would just freeze. I’m just like, “Um, um, a princess is a in a castle?” That’s not a good sentence! My face is getting red thinking about having to make up a story.
Jane, you don’t have to do it.
But you do it and you like it.
I love it.
But how do you do it?
I think it starts with ideas for me as opposed to like “I just started writing this character and it just took off and suddenly I have a novel where everything works.” Those ideas led to conceits or scenarios, for this book especially, and then I would say, “Well, what if this?” Kind of like in those story meetings where everything would go wrong, I’d say what if this happens instead of this? And that actually gave me a story idea and it gave me a new world and a couple of people in that world and then I could start moving them around. That’s kind of it, at least at this point in my life, I start with lots of “what if?” questions.
But I don’t know how you even come up with what one person says? There are lines throughout the book that are like little gems to me like when Janet is holding her baby nephew and says, “What is the point of you?” I loved that. Are you writing that chronologically in the story or are these little lines that you’re finding out in the world and writing them down and being like, “I’ll put that in somewhere.”
I take a lot of notes on my phone, actually. I walk a lot and I’ll pull the phone out and start writing as the character in a story I’m thinking about. An idea or a line will come up and you’re just writing and you’re in whatever zone they talk about and things come to you and it’s a surprise. That’s the other thing that’s so wonderful about fiction, it’s a surprise because it’s all made up in your head so it has to be a surprise.
When you’re writing in the voice of whatever character, do you kind of feel like an actress? Like a method actor where you have to inhabit the character?
Sometimes, kind of! When I’m writing as the character, I’m the character. I mean I’m not fuckng a weatherman or anything, I’m not being the character, but I’m mentally being the character.
Every character is amazing and I just want to be around them all the time. And everybody in your book is super horny. Everybody had the biggest, hardest dicks. I don’t even have a question about it!
They’re the best at sex, all of them. I really love that. When I was working on “A Wanted Man” — which is the story where the guy walks around and fucks everybody — someone was like, “You know, guys can’t really have sex that many times in a day or always be that ready,” and I was like, “They can in this story! This is my world. I made this world.” One of the things I hate the most when I’m reading a book is when books do what movies do — when books pan away from sex or pan away from a moment. I think, No! You don’t have to do that! You’re not getting a rating! There’s no constraint on a book so don’t shy away, just write the sex scene. They’re really fun to write and they’re fun to read.
One of the sexiest scenes to me wasn’t even a sex scene. which was in “Moving On” when one prisoner undresses in front of the window for another prisoner across the yard. I got all “oooOOOoooh!”
One of the things I think about a lot is what we want and what we get and how a they don’t always match up, nor should they. There are lots of things I want but I don’t get them because I’ve made other choices in my life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come at me. Like certain desires. I think about “Meteorologist Dan Santana…”
That’s the best story title, by the way.
Like, it’s obsession but that doesn’t discount it. It’s a real thing to her and you can tell it’s a real thing to him, too. So it’s complicated and I try not to have characters that are good or bad. When someone is just bad or just good, I just don’t care because I’m not bad or good, I’m complicated. I want my characters to think the wrong things and do the wrong things because I do.
There is an absurd hyper-sexuality to many of the male characters. Where did that come from?
I think it’s from observation. I was very aware from a young age of boys and men and how they saw the world, like [how they saw] me. I had this feeling that these people are different and I both like it and don’t like it. I have this push pull of fascination and repulsion. I hate the term the “male gaze” but this one time was I was like dancing in my room to Billy Joel, I was getting ready for bed, and I happened to look out the window across the street to my neighbor who was a teenage boy and he was looking out the window at me, watching me do this thing and I was six and I don’t know why I knew exactly what was happening, but I did and I closed the blind. I just knew that there was some kind of exchange that I didn’t really know I was a part of. And then the first boy who liked me showed me by jumping on me on the playground. I was just sitting there and all of the sudden he was just tackling me and on top of me and that was like, “Hey, I like you,” but it didn’t feel that way. You start to notice it and then you see it everywhere. So now that I’m older it’s an interesting thing to explore. I’m not looking at it in a negative way like I may have when I was younger but I’m looking at it in a fascinated way because it’s always seemed like a strange world to me and I like to explore those things.
There’s also like this personification of fears that happens in a lot of your stories. Personification of bad things. Tell me if I’m misinterpreting this, but in “Somebody’s Baby” — the story where the man is kidnapping everyone’s babies — does the man represent miscarriage? That’s how I was reading it.
So, the story is working on different levels, I hope. The man is a man, everyone in the story is real. I think of the man as all of those things that you could do wrong or that could happen to you that cause you to have the anxiety that…
That you’re not a good mom?
From conception. I was watching animals in the wild, which is one of my favorite pastimes, whether it’s a documentary or just watching them, and its so precarious. Their young are snatched, they’re killed, they’re taken, they just die, they’re eaten by their brothers and sisters. And the mother animal, there’s nothing they can do. They can be vigilant up to a point, but everybody slips. Every creature is gonna slip at some point. I can’t imagine an animal in the wild not having lost an offspring. And I thought, What if that was what it was like for people? I would always hear stories where it was like one little thing happened and suddenly the baby was gone. “I just turned around and somebody took him!” Or the baby ended up dying. And there’s a lot of guilt and shame about it. So yeah, miscarriages, but all of it. It’s all this kind of trauma.
In a lot of the stories there’s a “motherhood is a curse” kind of vibe.
Yeah, I wondered how you would feel about all of that.
Fine! It is a curse! A lot of it sucks. And even the giant baby in “Marrying Up”, my baby feels like a giant baby. I was really relating to that mother and how out of control my family feels a lot of the time and like they’re going to kill me or the outside world is going to kill me.
Yeah, I think about how much you have to do as a woman especially once you have a family and how many people are like grabbing onto you and latching onto you and how much weight is on you. Like “The Mast Year,” the story where the character is named after you, it’s like you think you know what you want but then once you get it, it’s not. There’s a lot of opportunity to get completely put upon by the world and that’s the story where that just happens like a million percent. I think about that story a lot in terms of like family, motherhood, just like there’s so many people just needing something from her and expecting her to drop everything for them and they’re strangers in the story.
And then there are people in her life like her mother saying, “This is good! This is how you find your self worth. This is how you find happiness, by letting the world bleed you dry.” It’s sick, but I love it.
Very upbeat! I guess I’ll say it’s not that I think that motherhood is a curse but I’m not interested in any story that tells me it isn’t, you know? Like I don’t care anymore, I know that it’s an amazing beautiful thing because all of my friends tell me. I mean, not you. [laughs]
Most of my other friends tell me or, “You won’t know until you do it,” and it’s like “I get it!” I wanted to make the people through my characters who found it complex and disheartening and hard and surprising to them like the mother in “Somebody’s Baby.” Some reviews have been like “No mother would ever feel that way!” And I’m like, “What? Not true!”
Like no mother would ever try to move on after losing a baby?
Yeah, forget her daughter’s name or have a complicated relationship with her returned daughter who is a stranger to her. I feel like it’s the most primal part of us, our ability to push past something and keep going.
To overcome grief?
Yeah, overcome grief, loss. Otherwise what do you do? I’m always really interested in people who totally fall apart, you know like in the face of some kind of hardship? There’s a part of me that wants to do that too, but I never did. When my mom died, I was just like, “Alright, just keep going. There’s this process that’s gonna happen with me and in me but it’s not necessarily going to be obvious to the world because I still have to be a functioning human being.” I think about that so it comes out with the baby stuff and it comes out with the husband stuff in different stories. I’m really fascinated by how people push past it and the pressure to do so.
I also loved “The Not-Needed Forest.” I thought it was such a ballsy story because it was like you took Lord of the Flies or Hunger Games to the extreme. Plus, I really love cannibalism.
If you haven’t, you should watch The Donner Party documentary on PBS. It’s really, really good. I didn’t know I liked cannibalism, I really didn’t know that was coming. I was just writing and then I was like, “WHOA! Diaaane! What are you doing?” And then I was just like hacking people and it was fun.
And it’s funny! That’s something I like about the stories, they’re funny too. You’ll be in the middle of the darkest thing you can possibly imagine and then somebody says something stupid or something absurd happens and it lightens the mood. Do you get compared to George Saunders?
I’m doing it right now.
Thank you, I love him. I mean, it’s gotta be world you want to be in a little bit. I don’t know how else to do that other than having a lightness or an audacity or an exuberance in it, something that makes a reader go, “Whoa!” You have to be excited about it.
Where did you write this book?
I started it in grad school but when I left wasn’t done with anything. I didn’t have anything to show for it so I decided to take the year and go away. I went to a residency for a few months out in Oregon and it was on the coast and it was kind of deserted and I was basically alone, for the most part. I would go hiking every day, I’d go to the ocean, I’d be in the woods. The book is about survival in lots of ways and primal urges. I generated a few stories based on that idea of, “This thing happens to animals. What if it happened to people?” That would be my in to really think about our bloody side, like our guts, guts, guts side, and which parts of us are that and which parts are more learned, rational. So I wrote a few stories there. A couple of the ideas I already had but I just needed the time to do it, and I was lucky to be able to do that.
What is this residency like? Do they feed you?
No, they didn’t. I had a little cabin with a little writing studio next to it. I just had quiet and seclusion. I didn’t have to cook for anyone, I didn’t have to take care of anyone, and I didn’t write every day. I don’t write every day, and sometimes I felt like shit because I wasn’t being productive, but I was. I was being productive, it was all happening. I was thinking through things, I was having ideas, I was working things out off the page. I think, think, think, think, think, sit down and it all comes out kind of quickly, and then I revise. Sometimes in revising things change a lot and sometimes they change very little and sometimes I’m revising for years and sometimes it’s very quick.
You’re writing a novel now?
I’m trying. It’s hard. The novel is a thing I thought of when I was at the residency but I was like, “I can’t work on it. I gotta finish these stories.” But I took a bunch of notes and over the last couple of years I’ve just taken more and more notes and written scenes and figured out a lot of problems off the page. I’m not usually an outliner, but I kind of have an outline for it and I kind of understand where I think it’s going but i’m also invested in being surprise d by where it goes. It’s hard work. I used to really love the generative part of writing because it was over quickly. When you write a short story, I wrote in bursts, so it would come out quickly. But with writing a novel takes so long. The generative process is so long and you have so much writing that never does anything.
I’m really proud of you for writing this book.
Thanks, Jane. I’m proud of it. I love it. I hope people love it, but I love it. That’s all that matters!