On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week we’re chatting with Diane Cook. Diane Cook’s short story collection Man V. Nature is full of stories that are disorienting yet somehow recognizable and telling depictions of very human characters in extreme situations. A widow moves to a facility where she is expected to forget her late husband and prepare for her official placement with another man. A woman refuses to resign herself to the tradition that a mysterious man will kidnap her newborn children as soon as she drops her guard, though the rest of the neighborhood urges her to accept the inevitable. A group of ten-year-old boys who are declared “not needed” escape their state-mandated destruction and must fend for themselves in the forest. As Ira Glass said of Diane Cook’s stories, “Many of them are dispatches from the end of the world, and it turns out to be a surprisingly familiar place.”
1) Where were you and what were you doing when you found out your first book was going to be published? What did you do to celebrate?
I believe I was in my apartment on the phone. I remember it being kind of fraught and me feeling a bit frantic. You could imagine me like Johnny from Airplane! in this scene. On second thought, you should imagine I’m all the characters in it. In fact, I believe this is a documentary someone made about the process of trying to sell a book.
You know, we were so broke at the time I’m pretty sure we didn’t even celebrate properly. We probably drank a reasonably tasty reasonably priced bottle of sparkling wine and watched free Hulu. I feel so boring right now.
2) As you said in your One Story interview about “Meteorologist Dave Santana,” the stories in Man V. Nature are about characters giving free rein to impulses people generally feel social pressure to quash. At what point did you recognize that the stories you’d written shared a theme that could bundle them into collection? How did the book come together after that?
I was just writing stories for a couple of years. Then I began to formulate this series of questions for myself about the world and these questions led to certain story ideas. This work built a kind of web of ideas that a few stories lived in. Then, looking back I could see that a couple of stories I’d written in the past seemed to act almost like the delicate anchors to that web. Then it became a book to me and I wrote more stories from there. But really, even though I grouped the stories and called it a book, it wasn’t until I had given the book to others to read and they responded, “This really comes together as a book” that I believed that it actually DID come together as a book.
3) Many of the stories are set in worlds that are only different from ours in one highly specific, brutal way that the characters take for granted. (I’m thinking of “Moving On,” “Somebody’s Baby,” “A Wanted Man,” “The Mast Year,”
and “The Not-Needed Forest” in particular.) What draws you to these situations and how do you come up with them? Did you have any ideas that didn’t make it into a story?
Some of these stories came from me asking What if questions about the world. What if things happened that way instead of this way? What if daily life looked like this and not that? And whatever lens I’m looking through is kind of dictating what I’m seeing, what I’m wondering about. Most of the stories you just named came about that way. It’s fun and fascinating to think about the world this way. But one story—”The Not-Needed Forest”—came about from reading about a lot of deep wilderness living and from trying to write an homage to an homage while at the same time homage-ing the original homaged story (specifically “Young Goodman Brown” by Hawthorne and “The Man in the Black Suit” by King.) What came out of those initial thoughts all swirling around wasn’t that different from the story you can read in the book but it was a shell, lifeless. You ask what makes it into a story and what doesn’t. I think at some point no matter your goals or hopes for the story were, you have to let the story take over. The early draft was really homage-y. But there were these little bubbles coming up, trying to lift the story out of itself, trying to take advantage of what I’d gotten on the page. So I let them come up. You have to if you want to be really surprised by what you’re working on. The best parts of that story came from letting my original intentions go.
4) If you could meet one character from the book in real life, which one would you choose? What would you want to say to or do with them?
Even though I put them through some extreme paces, I love my characters. Gary from “The Way the End of Days Should Be” and Janet from “Meteorologist Dave Santana” are two favorites. I know people can read Stan and Susan in “It’s Coming” as a bit comical, and I used to too, but now they make me weep. I probably relate most to Jane from “The Mast Year.” But if I could meet anyone I’d want to meet Beatrice, the daughter in “Somebody’s Baby.” I want to follow her through her day and see if she is as mysterious and unsettling as her mother thinks she is, or if she is just a little girl.
5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?
I’m really looking forward to meeting people I only know by name or avatar. A few months after I sold the book we moved to California. It was unplanned and unexpected and pretty stupid timing. We’d lived in New York for a decade and I’d wanted to leave for half those years, but just when living in New York might actually be fun and useful—like, now that I’m a writer maybe I’ll get invited to literary parties!—we bailed. It was probably for the best. I’m a terrible party-goer and pretty timid in crowds. But it was a weird thing to feel like a New York writer (I’d written the book in New York after all) but not actually be one anymore. Imagine all the people I might have met this year if we’d never left. I hope to meet some of them at the Ball.