To call The New Wilderness a work of dystopian fiction would be a bit of a stretch. Diane Cook’s debut novel sedulously navigates motherhood in the prospect of climate change, and not-so-distant catastrophe. With delicate precision, Cook invites us to take a look at a world rife with calamity and policing, a world that—while perhaps a little wilder and nomadic than ours—doesn’t feel all that different.
Below, I speak with the Booker Prize-longlisted author about motherhood, the locations that informed the landscapes of the text, and the unanticipated meaning the book has taken on after its release.
Hi, Diane! Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
Oh, lately I’ve been around. I was in Brooklyn, but my family just temporarily moved in with my mother in law in Michigan. We just had a baby and we have a two and a half year old and living in our small apartment without child help help during the pandemic while launching a book felt insane. It’s nice that my daughter can go outside now. I nursed the baby in a swing today. I got more writing work done (in my head) on that swing than I’ve gotten done since March.
The New Wilderness is out now via Harper Collins. Congratulations! How does it feel, to have your debut novel out in the world, and also longlisted for the Booker Prize?
Thanks, Gauraa! I’m excited about the Booker Prize longlist. It instantly gave me a new audience that I definitely wasn’t going to reach before. And that is a real gift, especially when publishing during this terrible year. Of course, they’re not all going to like it but that’s okay with me (usually.) I’m excited to have the book out in the world. I’ve been so curious how it would be received. Now I can begin to find out.
I’ve found that The New Wilderness builds on many of the themes present in your short story collection, Man vs. Nature—particularly calamity and survival. Could you tell me a little bit about the process of transitioning these ideas from short stories to a full-length manuscript?
I had the idea for the novel at the same time as I was writing the stories. So they were all informed by similar ideas. But I knew I didn’t want to work on the novel at that time. I took notes for a couple of days and then put it aside for a couple of years, occasionally dipping back in, to write a line or a description or a scene that came to me. The ideas they share have always been fascinations to me. But even though they were conceived of together, I’m glad I didn’t try to work on them simultaneously. I think that distance between the two projects was good for the novel. It was shaped by the years during which I wrote it, what was going on in my life then. I had the idea for the book and the central relationship between Bea and Agnes before I had children. So I was coming at it from a daughter’s perspective, imagining the inner life of a mother. As I wrote it, I became a mom to a daughter, and so everything expanded and became layered. It would have been a completely different book had I tried to write it at another time.
How long did you spend working on the book?
I had the idea for it in 2012, then returned to writing it in 2015. And while I didn’t really write during those in-between years, I was thinking a lot about it, and sorting out problems in the back of mind. When I returned to the novel, those first couple of years were pretty sparse as far as writing goes. I was still figuring a lot of stuff out, stopping and starting, figuring out POV, imagining and then deleting characters. There was a lot of writing that would never get seen. Then, once I settled into the book I was writing more or less every day for the last couple of years. So, in all, about four serious years of work spanning over the course of eight years? I hope that makes sense, at least to other writers out there.
It’s interesting how the formlessness of time in the Wilderness has come to mirror the formlessness of time this year. Do you find that this story has taken on an unanticipated meaning after its release, especially since so much of the book is built on the memory of a former world?
I love that idea—the memory of the former world. Yes, this book has taken on a life of its own in Covid times. Of course, books always do once they’re published, though. I was talking about this at one of my events with Jane Marie at Skylight books. About how the associations I had with the book are so different than the associations people make with it now. Because how you process it has so much to do with where you are in life. I’ve been writing this book in some form or another since 2012 and finished it long before the pandemic. But it exists for everyone else right now and so it is a timely book because of the themes. Anyway, in the chat box someone wrote, “Art is Amazing!!!” And I thought, “Wow, yeah!” I don’t know why I’d always just thought this was something particular to publishing a book. But of course, it’s the basic nature of art. This is simply what art is. A thing that absorbs or reflects the time in which it’s experienced. It made me so happy to see that small chat box exclamation. That’s a hidden perk of pandemic book tours. That would have been a thought someone kept to themself.
Do you have a ritual when it comes to writing—a specific time, or day, or perhaps a particular space where you prefer to sit down and write?
Not anymore! Not since Covid. I wrote The New Wilderness in a lot of different places. I was also living out in Oakland for a good chunk of those writing years. In California, a big part of my process would involve walking. To put it reductively, it’s a book about a group of people who walk a lot. So I walked a lot during the drafting process. As far as space is concerned, I used to need to be alone to write and was very precious about my time and space. But I’ve gotten over that. Partly out of necessity, and I think partly out of being more comfortable with how I work, and what my brain is capable of. I’ve never been great at writing at home. I’m too distracted by everything else that needs to get done. So I’m wondering what is going to happen to my productivity for the foreseeable future.
The landscape of the Wilderness is beautifully depicted—could you tell us a little bit about your research? Did you have a specific location in mind that inspired you? Or, perhaps, a specific metropolis that influenced what became The City?
Various natural places informed what takes place in the book and the locations the characters visit. But I spent some very useful time in Eastern Oregon. It’s the high desert, the edge of the Great Basin, and an area known as the Oregon Outback. When I first had the idea for the book and the premise, I imagined a very different landscape. But after seeing and spending time in the high desert, that place took over. I just wanted my characters there. I could see the way this band of people would connect to that place. What it would give them. What it would deny them. Of course, I was visiting these high plains and high desert places from the city I lived in—New York. The City in the book is not New York. But contains the feelings I have when I’m in New York and desperate to leave. I’ve lived in cities most of my adult life. Anyone who knows me thinks this is so weird. I love the empty, natural spaces most. I like rural places, I like small towns. And yet I’ve never been able to build my life in these places. I think that is because it’s actually very hard to do so. Cities give me something I can’t get elsewhere. When I think about leaving, New York in particular, I worry a bit that what I think I’m looking for, I won’t actually find in the places I think are my more ideal homes. And then what will that leave me with? This is a tension for some of the characters in the book too. Not coincidentally. But because it’s speculative, this concern of theirs is urgent. It’s life or death.
There are so many exquisite lines in this novel, but one in particular stuck with me: “Motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.” Could you tell us a little bit about what you had in mind for the relationship between Bea, and her daughter, Agnes?
I’m glad you picked that one. It might be my favorite line of the book. I know when I wrote it, I sat back and said, “Well, there, you get to take the rest of the day off because you’re not going to say anything truer than that today.” I really wanted to create a relationship that felt real, that was as full of love as it was full of confusion and hurt. I had a good relationship with my mom. It wasn’t that complicated. Wasn’t particularly painful. But it was other things. Other things I never could quite explain in language. I think because mothers and daughters are so charged. I don’t understand why. But I think it’s true. I often thought of the relationship between Bea and Agnes in terms of magnets. Magnets are usually thought of as attracting forces. Strong. But flip them and they repel. They are equally attracting and repelling but we usually, casually, define them only the one way. I wanted to get into that impulse. See what was there.
I have always been fascinated by your epigraphs—Man V. Nature included a quote from an Emily Dickinson letter: “The Wilderness is new—to you. Master, let me lead you.” The New Wilderness has this quote from Big Star’s “Nightime”: “Get me out of here, get me out of here/ I hate it here, get me out of here”: Could you talk a little bit about the significance of this song?
It came along as an epigraph near the end of the writing process. I don’t know how epigraphs are supposed to work, to be honest. Are they things that inspired the author toward the book, and so were generative and found early? Are they clues on how to read the following text, bits of atmospheric injection before the story begins? I don’t know. Regardless, I was listening to Big Star one night cleaning the kitchen. And the song came on. I mean, I knew the song well and knew the line and it’s a favorite, but I was very much in the headspace of the novel and when I heard these lines I stopped dead. It touched so much about what makes Bea such a prickly character. It made me think about why people try to escape. It’s the lines, rather than the song itself, that made me stop. Taken from the source, those lines seemed the perfect embodiment of the less romantic aspects of the book. Paired with the Aldo Leopold quote, the whole thing gave me shivers and seemed to capture the whole book in some kind of digestible pill form. Maybe that’s what epigraphs are meant to do?
This has been a tricky question to ask, but I’d love to know: what are you reading at the moment?
I just had a baby so I’m too dumb to read much right now. Or, rather, I read a lot of why-is-my-baby-spitting-up-so-much articles. The last two marvelous books I read were Temporary by Hilary Leichter, and A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet. The books I’m most looking forward to reading very soon are Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenriech, and The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. I don’t normally read horror because I’m not sure how much I like being scared, but I’m just too fascinated by this one to avoid it.
Lastly, is there an indie bookstore you’d like to recommend to our readers?
I mean, there are so many. But I got to know Between the Covers in Harbor Springs in Northern Michigan when my first book, Man V. Nature was published. They were incredibly supportive of the book and I got to visit and it was such a perfect and important community place, the way you know bookstores should be everywhere. I wished I lived there so I could go all the time. But you can order from them directly no matter where you are!
The New Wilderness is available for purchase here, and wherever books are sold.