To Imagine Life Post-Climate Change: A Conversation with Diane Cook
Amanda Goldblatt Talks to the Author of The New Wilderness
I first met Diane Cook in 2013 at Vermont Studio Center, where she read aloud what would be the first scene of her stunning novel The New Wilderness: her main character Bea gives birth to a stillborn daughter in the company of no one but buzzards and coyotes and clamoring flies. “What a lonely thing,” a fellow resident told her when she finished. No one would disagree.
Cook’s work has often been preoccupied with the proposition: “The things that happen to animals… what does it look like when they happen to people?” Though the stories in her acclaimed Man v. Nature often answered this straight on, the novel subverts it from a new, exhilarating angle. The speculative story follows Bea, and her daughter Agnes, as they work to survive in the Wilderness State as part of the Community: a group of people who have gained permission to leave the toxic air and overcrowding of the City and live nomadically.
The book holds many emotional and immediate narrative pleasures: a tough, intimate buzz of a relationship between Bea and her kid Agnes; the zoomed-in near-reportage of landscape and animals; funny, dry dialogue; and difficult characters that you enjoy spending time with only because you don’t have to rely on them to stay alive.
In this conversation, conducted over video during the first week of August, I found myself wanting to know how Cook managed to write a book that was so energetically timely. It’s a Swiss army knife of a novel that somehow contemplates the fate of the planet without ever feeling over-grand or divorced from the everyday.
Amanda Goldblatt: Let’s start at the final pages of the book, which include a land acknowledgement. It acknowledges both the land that the (non-Indigenous) characters occupy and also the “real traditions, foodways, and skills of tribal populations,” citing the Northern Paiute, Shoshone, Ute, Klamath, Modoc, Molala, Bannock, and Washoe tribes. I imagine that in this future, reservations no longer exist, that land theft has been unreversed, made complete. The project of the Community is to see how humans live in the wilderness because that’s, as the book says, “lost to history.” How did you reckon with that?
Diane Cook: The world of the book tells of a future full of loss. This loss of history you mentioned, the loss of land, loss of freedoms. And with that, I figured, would come a loss of culture once everyone ends up living in the same endless megalopolis. And what we would be left with was a kind of flattened culture. A loss of diversity. Far from some post racial utopian vision, this is a loss, but it’s not something the book was attempting to comment on. It just was the reality of the world of the book. If I draw a straight line from the way things were when I was coming up with the world, toward the future, this is what I envisioned. That a lot of what people are fighting for today would be lost tomorrow.The book tells of a future full of loss. This loss of history you mentioned, the loss of land, loss of freedoms.
That said, I kind of backed into those ideas. I was just writing about a dystopian, post-climate-change world where there is only one wilderness area left and a group of people who get to live there. In the first year of writing it, I read a little bit of the book to a group of people, and someone asked me, “Are there any Native Americans in the book?” And I was, like, “Well…no.” She gave me a look, like, Maybe you should think about that. And so, I did.
I thought a lot about it as I wrote. But I didn’t really know how to reckon with it. Because I wasn’t trying to write a book about a particular group of people or particular history. I was trying to create a modern future tale. But it took someone asking the question for me to realize something more was implicit in the work.
This story that was speculative, that seemed almost allegorical when I was writing, was inevitably a kind of retelling of the history of the country. Because as the book went on and took shape, characters who lived on that land came to call it home and were eventually driven from it. I couldn’t write a book so concerned with American land without conjuring its history. It wasn’t possible. And that’s when I realized I had to write a land acknowledgement. I didn’t even know at the time what a land acknowledgement was. I just knew pretty early on that I had to say something.
The way I approach identity in writing has always been to make my characters archetypes. Like, I don’t really describe them. I give them very common—though Anglicized—names, or no names at all. I don’t give them last names. You know very little about their physical being. I’ve always done that on purpose because, as much as possible, I want any reader to be able to put themselves in it. I don’t want all the details to distract you, to create a distance. I don’t think I write to create escapes for readers. I want you to be able to imagine yourself.I couldn’t write a book so concerned with American land without conjuring its history.
AG: In the novel there are Latinx names, and Spanish is spoken. So something changed with this book.
DC: One thing that changed was the renewed immigration debate. I was writing the novel in 2015 and 2016, and it was gross and it was disturbing, and then it was worse in 2017 and 2018. I had always been thinking about migration in general and the drive for us to go from one place to another, whether it’s by choice, or by necessity, or by force. I was thinking about it in terms of people and animals.
But then in the real world, suddenly people were talking about migrant caravans with this real “us vs. them” mentality. An entire population was being maligned by the government and president, people who are just looking for a better life. Some are looking to save their lives, save their kid’s lives. That’s what my characters were doing. The United States started to feel like the wilderness for people coming into the country from the southern border: a dangerous place where they were not welcomed and where they were watched and monitored constantly. It just became clear that my desire to have archetypes as characters wasn’t really going to work for this particular book anymore. So, in thinking about a future America for the book, Spanish had to be present.
The other thing that happened—and this is often the case—was that it got personal. My husband is Puerto Rican, and we have a bilingual daughter and she will grow up, definitely, with the stronger culture being the Puerto Rican side. It’s just how our family is. I wanted her to feel represented. She’s white like me. But she’s also Puerto Rican. I want her to see herself in books. I didn’t see a reason why I couldn’t start with my book.
AG: I read the Administration, the governance in the book, to be oppressive, prescriptive. And so the fact that there is Spanish felt exciting to me because it was like, Oh, this future fascist state still couldn’t manage to get rid of Spanish or evidence of other non-white cultures. So hearing you talk about that, it feels like there’s some kind of hope embedded in this very un-hopeful condition.
DC: Yeah, I never imagined the Administration as a fascist state in the strictest sense of that word. I just imagined it as what our government would look like in the future if we did nothing to change course now. It wouldn’t take some big coup or pivot to some other kind of obviously different power structure. I actually always imagined it was still a democracy, but just one that we let become a grotesque version of itself. Where things changed at a creeping pace over time, right under our noses and we either didn’t notice or didn’t have the energy to stop it. Until you suddenly look around and think, Oh, wow! Things sure are different! We say yes to things, or we say nothing to things, because they make life easier and life is so complicated and we are desperate for moments of ease. Just look at privacy.
Part of the reason I call it the “Administration” and not the “Government” had a lot to do with watching Trump govern, and seeing how powerful his office became once he just decided to do whatever he wanted. It actually seemed like he had an awful lot of power in a way that another president, say Obama, who was interested in keeping traditions and decorum, never seemed to have. And this reality that we talk about “the Bush administration” or “the Obama administration” or “the Trump administration” suddenly became very potent. Like all the power lies in that. And so, like I said, I could write it as a democratic government still. It’s just that everything that we know or think of as a democracy has eroded by the time my book takes place. And it’s because the people who lead the country now never got booted out of office. They just kept leading us down this road until you can only really use a word like fascist to describe it, even though nothing calamitous happened—well, except for climate change.
AG: Speaking of, this is a book about climate change that doesn’t talk directly about climate change.
DC: I think that’s true. I never thought about it like that before, but, yeah, it’s a book about climate change in that it’s a book post-climate change. We’re not dealing with it anymore, now it’s just our life. There will be a time—I hope—when we are post-pandemic. We’ll know in a narrative sense, that the pandemic happened and that it’s finally over and we’ll be relieved, but we will be forever altered because of it, and not even in the obvious hand-shaking ways. I read an article somewhere that connected this back to what happened after 9/11. We forget how much changed after that in our interactions and what we consider normal. And that’s just for people who were old enough to know what life was like before. That’s what I was thinking about earlier when I mentioned what happened to our privacy. And also a little bit what I meant when I was talking about things getting lost to history. New normals take the place of old normals and we forget, or we take the memory with us when we die. We can read about it in a book but the knowledge of what it felt like, the visceral difference, will be gone forever.
I think that’s what’s going to happen with climate change. We’re not going to get suddenly wiped off the face of the earth. We’ll lose land to climate change. Then there will be fewer resources available. But the population will still grow and then we will need more land for a bigger population, but by then we’ll have less land to support it, and it’s just this hell spiral. In the book, climate change has remade the world, but it’s not front and center and I think that’s what feels accurate to me. It will usher in the kind of world we were discussing earlier, where our government becomes unrecognizable and we let it happen because we felt we had to. When you move the coastlines and lose some of the interior land to climate change, then you’re going to have to reevaluate where people live, and why, and whether that land that they live on is better suited for farming or mining, because you need that food and those minerals. Etc, etc. That’s the way I was imagining things going.
That being said—and I’m going to jump back to something you said earlier if that’s all right.
AG: Of course.
DC: You mentioned hope earlier. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the world I built and how it comes from a pessimistic mentality. When Trump got elected and started doing his thing, I thought, Oh my god, your book is going to come true. But now, when the protests started, I felt hopeful for the first time that I got it all wrong. That if you drew that straight line into the future from right now, there would be a very different outcome. We wouldn’t get to the point my book reaches. Which is good! I’m seeing hope outside of it in a way that feels kind of astonishing.
AG: Still, the future in your book is not just speculative, it’s convincing. Maybe part of that is our collective, cultural pessimism. But I think a bigger part is your deft craft: You’ve managed to build what feels like this very rich, detailed, complicated world and readers have some access to its specificities and complications, but certainly not all of them. You don’t get to know why things are, even what things are, quite often.
DC: The reason why I world-build the way I do is part necessity and part preference. The story has nothing to do with how we got where we got. It has everything to do with where we are right now. And I think part of the trick of writing things where you are world building is to figure out what information people need in order to accept your premise. And it’s a tricky line to walk, because you might lose some readers and gain others. If you go too far in one direction people are confused. Too far in the other, and they’re in the weeds.
I like leaving things a little open. One of the reasons I don’t really describe why—in what ways, specifically—the City is so bad is because I want you to decide what’s so bad about the City. Like, what’s the worst thing that you can imagine having to live in? There, that’s it. I think that openness is important. I like that better than when I’m told exactly what the problems are. So it’s preference and also just, like, I don’t want to spend a lot of pages describing something that already happened. Something that isn’t going to change in the course of the book. Whereas I’ll spend pages looking back at the relationship between Bea and Agnes, because that’s a living, evolving thing on the page. That’s what I want to spend time on. That’s the kind of work I want to do.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook is available now from Harper.