NPR personality Ira Glass calls Diane Cook’s new collection of stories “dispatches from the end of the world.” While the ten stories in Man V. Nature cover ground tonally and in terms of subject matter, many inhabit that often mined end-times trope. What makes Diane Cook’s new collection interesting, and so often moving, is not the wasteland that her characters troll through but in the characters themselves, written with refreshing empathy and skill, equal parts humor and severity.
What was the impetus for writing these stories, many of which deal with strange and terrifying situations or settings?
For the book, a common fascination was with the natural world and our deep, ancient though seemingly tenuous connection to a more primal self: the urges, instincts, fears, actions. I started to imagine people having to deal with situations not mitigated by civilization. Inviting a kind of wildness in. One thing I like about the stories is how impossible they feel even while aspects of the worlds, featuring urban and suburban settings, feel familiar. I want a reader to think, Hey, I recognize this world but the rules are strange…” and then to begin to question whether what they’re seeing is actually all that strange. Maybe that’s when the stories can seem a little terrifying?
There is a great deal of humanity in these stories, despite the motivations of the characters being largely driven by survival. What do you see as the relationship between survival instinct and the desire for companionship in the book?
That thread of survival running through the book is both in conflict and in concert with the need for others. I think most of the characters are desperately trying to connect with one another. But sometimes they can’t. They can’t or won’t change in a way that could help them or another. Maybe because this other desperate impulse to self-protect kicks in. Which is a kind of survival mechanism, though not always useful and certainly often at odds with the rest of the world.
I’m interested in the way you build the strange and unfamiliar worlds of these stories with some degree of nonchalance. Do you think about narrative delay or restraint as an important aspect of your writing?
The nonchalance is a way of saying, It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it, just come on. We don’t need all the pieces of a world. We just need the right ones. […] Basically, if you’re world building you must set the rules for the world early and with command so the reader never hesitates or pauses […] You get their trust by being in control of the story the whole time, and by handling strangeness and difference with grace, expertise, and confidence.
Some stories seem to be asking for us to read them more directly as metaphors or parables. I’m thinking about the story “Someone Else’s Baby” in particular, which even uses the word fable at one point.
I love fables and fairy tales. They are basic narratives. The characters are often archetypes. They stand in for humanity. For you, in some cases. They strip away every distraction, including the distraction of reality. They let your mind play and through play you discover new things, most often about basic human nature. Fables, fairy tales, parables are a foundation for the more involved world building of later novels and stories. But all this writing is doing the same basic work. If you stripped all the detail and the extraneous characters out of some chunky family saga, what would you be left with? I like to think it would look a little like a fable but would still be able to offer its small gem of instruction; some kind of revelation, some lesson of life.
November 5, 7pm, Literati Bookstore, 124 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor, (734) 585-5567, literatibookstore.com