S. TREMAINE NELSON interviews DIANE COOK
Diane Cook’s debut short-story collection Man V. Nature was recently published by HarperCollins. The New York Times called it a book of “great beauty and strangeness.” Cook is a former producer on NPR’s “This American Life” and a graduate of the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia University. She currently lives in Oakland, California where she is at work on a novel. S. Tremaine Nelson talked with Cook about writing “unnerving” stories, her least favorite author, and the many perks of novel writing.
S. Tremaine Nelson (SN): Your book Man V. Nature has just been published. How would you characterize most readers’ response to the collection?
Diane Cook (DC): I think for the most part people have really loved it, and I’m very happy about that. I knew I loved it but I wasn’t sure how people who didn’t have a relationship to the work would feel. I guess every writer might feel that way. One thing I was surprised by was how dark some people think the book is. And I mean a darkness beyond redemption. A depressing darkness. Unnerving is an adjective I hear a lot. But I don’t think it’s an un-redemptively dark or depressing book. I think it is dark, a more extreme darkness than our own dark real world perhaps, but that it is an honest book, and also, that there is hope amidst difficulty, just like in life. I’m grateful for the people who read and understand that, who are not made uncomfortable by the dark corners of this book but learn something from them, or who are made uncomfortable but embrace that discomfort. It’s a great compliment.
SN: My favorite story in the collection,“Girl on Girl,” subverts widely accepted notions of high school violence and sexuality, but I kept wondering: how much of this is true?
DC: None—it’s fiction! Do you mean about the way we are when we’re young and confused and all our impulses are pushing out of our skin? The things that happen in fiction aren’t things that have to happen in the world, but for me, they need to tell us something about ourselves in our world. I feel for these girls in the story. These specific actions and thoughts never happened in my life but the abstraction of those feelings—jealousy, obsession, possessiveness, desire, loneliness, all tamped down into one bubbling core—these are all things I felt at one time or another as a girl. I know I’m not alone which is why I think the story means something to people. If the reader focuses just on the actions of the story it is a troubling tale and you might ask why?—and not because you are curious about the answer. If you really try to feel the confusion of the characters and their intense need for so much they don’t have, then the story becomes more understandable because the characters are more understandable.
SN: Several of your stories, especially “Moving On,” reminded me of George Saunders’ work. Would you describe him as an influence, or perhaps a literary icon to eventually overtake, surpass, and destroy?
DC: I love George Saunders and he is definitely an influence. I hope never to destroy him. Because he is a treasure. Because he is an inspiration. And because I want to be my own kind of writer. We share similarities and also are very different writers. I could never really write like him. And he could never write like me. But I love hearing comparisons. If my work reminds people of other writers they love, that is a good thing, a huge compliment, and also a really interesting mirror for me.
SN: Have you realized your ambition as a writer? If not, do you have any ideas about where your larger ambition will take your art?
DC: This is an interesting question. I have in some ways. I wanted to write a book and I did that. I feel very proud and I worked very hard and through a lot of obstacles in order to do it. I think the book is really staying with the people who read it and I am so grateful they have found it. After all this, I think any further ambitions I may have had have shifted. Now my ambition is to just write the books I want to write without worrying what the world will think of them or how they will be received. I had that spirit when I wrote this. I wrote it because it was the book I had to write, the only book I could write at the time, not a book I thought I should write. I see now how lucky I was to be in that mental place where no one—including myself—had any expectation of me. My ambition is just to somehow keep that sensibility through the writing of all future books. I write from a place of curiosity and confusion, to ask questions and go searching for something via narratives and new worlds that I’m very aware I may never find. My ambition is to keep that feeling.
SN: Can a short story accomplish as much breadth and depth as a novel?
DC: I don’t think it has to—that is what is so wonderful—but I think it can. Or, I think it can cover as much as a novel needs to cover. They are very different animals though, and people read them for different reasons. Generally, I don’t read to lose myself in books. I read to learn about people and the world and to get stretched as a person myself. Both novels and stories do this. But if your main desire is to lose yourself in a book, you’ll probably grab a novel. Not exclusively, of course. But, novels seem to be the “go-to” for that kind of thing.
SN: Who are three living writers whose work you admire?
DC: Aimee Bender, Rebecca Curtis, John McPhee. Those are the first three that come to mind and there are obviously so many more. Bender, because she was one of my earliest inspirations for the direction my writing went. Curtis, because for me she is one of the most exciting writers today, and McPhee, because I am so grateful for the writing and reporting he’s done over the years.
SN: Who is one author whose work you’ve always wondered: “What is up with people liking that author?”
DC: I’ve never read a word of Philip Roth. I’ve not avoided him, and it’s not that I read something once that I hated and so never went back. I just have never been moved to read him. Sometimes you just don’t care and there are so many books. I don’t love that but what can you do? (You could read some Roth, she muttered to herself.)
SN: Can you give us a sneak-peak into how the novel writing is going?
DC: Writing a novel is very different from writing a story collection. I’m making new muscles all over my brain and, like making new muscles anywhere on the body, it is a painful process but I’m telling myself if I stick with it I will have better posture, a longer life, and great sex.
SN: What books are currently on your bedside table?
DC: Well, my bedside table has of late been a bookshelf and so I tend to have books I’ve recently read and love and they stay there for a while so I can remember all the good times we had. Those get mixed in with what I’m reading currently. Some of those read and loved books are 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, By Light We Knew Our Namesby Anne Valente, and The First Bad Man by Miranda July. I’ve got bookmarks in A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor, Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce, The Observable Characteristics of Organisms by Ryan MacDonald, and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.
S. Tremaine Nelson is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and founder of The Literary Man book blog.
Photos by Diane Cook.