By David Canfield
August 13, 2020 at 02:55 PM EDT
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Who can say what launching your first novel in a pandemic will look like? Certainly, the experience is taking Diane Cook by surprise.

The author behind The New Wilderness, one of the year's buzziest (and best) debut novels, expected a quiet reaction to the book, given the overpowering nature of the news cycle, the inability to physically tour, and her lack of name recognition. But things started lining up in her favor, too. The book, exploring a world ravaged by climate-change and meditating on what it means to survive, speaks presciently to our current moment. And, well, it's really good: Weeks before publication, it snagged a most prestigious spot on the Booker Prize longlist. 

The New Wilderness centers on a mother's relentless bid to save her daughter. This means living the city they've always called home, and searching for refuge far, far away. Their bond is tested in remarkable ways.

EW caught up with Cook on the process of writing the book, the world into which it's entering, and how all the attention is settling in. Read on below. The New Wilderness is now available for purchase.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You imagine an all-too-realistic dystopian future. How did it first come to you, and how did it develop into this novel?

DIANE COOK: I had the idea when I was still writing [my] first book, Man V. Nature. I remember thinking up the premise — which was slightly different than the premise of the book now — and thinking, “Okay, I’m going to write this as a very short story.” Then as I began to take notes to myself and imagine scenes and characters I realized it was a novel. So it jumped in scope pretty quickly. But it felt right and I never looked back. The premise was born out of the idea of environmental mitigation, the process of re-wilding one area to compensate for the development another. I imagined a world where one large area of the United States was mitigated to compensate for some enormous or intense development happening elsewhere in the country. That gave me my Wilderness State in the book. And the people and the rules and the power struggles followed.

Nature and wilderness remains a core theme of your work. How do you see that evolving from Man V. Nature to here?

I sometimes think of this novel as the last story of my first book that ended up getting cut for time because they share so many themes and even imagery. Their core ideas were born at the same time. The difference is that I used fabulism a lot in my story collection. The worlds of the stories are familiar, but there is often something impossible that happens. With The New Wilderness, it’s dystopian and speculative, but I always wanted it to be a story that could eventually come true. If our society goes down a certain path, if power structures remain unchecked, we could get to this point.

In considering a world ravaged by climate change, what kind of research did you do? Did anything stick out or surprise you?

The book takes place after the most calamitous effects of climate change have already happened and there is a new normal. Our current news gave me all the information I needed to imagine what might have taken place. In the book I refer to places that have been abandoned by climate refugees — new coastlines, entire swaths of the country too heat stricken to live in, land fallowed by overuse, pollution or climate. But I don’t go into detail about these places and how they came to be because the book is about the aftermath. The surprising thing is that for a book about the future I ended up researching how people lived in the earliest societies. I read about things like brain tanning, and meat curing, and foraging and sewing with thread made from sinew. The very fundamental ways humans used to survive. In my vision of the future those skills are needed again.

The key to every great survival tale is a strong emotional core. In this case, it’s a mother-daughter story. How did that come to you, particularly against this backdrop?

It was a case of the two preoccupations meeting right in the middle. I love to write about the natural world and people’s relationship with [it]. Agnes, the daughter, is so young when they arrive in the Wilderness State, that it’s really all she ever knows. She belongs there, becomes a part of the place. Her mother on the other hand, is really a product of the City, and in her own way pines for the life she left behind. This causes a fundamental rift between them. I wanted to write about the ways we lose important people in our lives. Not just in death, but in the ways we don’t connect, even when we want to. I think of Bea and Agnes as magnets, as likely to be brought together as they are to be repelled apart. I think that is so common in relationships between mothers and daughters. It is such an elemental bond. It can feel so charged, feel so loving, and then hurt so much.

Given that it began as an idea for your story collection, how did the novel take or change shape as you went along?

I had the idea for the book in 2012 but I didn’t start writing it until around 2015. Then, I spent the early years dipping in and out, finding my way and more recent years really writing every day. I never used an outline to write my short stories, but I found that I needed one with the novel. It was just too big a project. The trick was to have an outline but still be able to discover new things while I was writing. I found a good middle ground with that and I was able to still surprise myself even as I was working through the beats of the story. The thing I had to work hardest at was finding the point of view. In early days I was writing in first and third, even second person. I was all over the place, just going with whatever came out. Bea, the mother, was narrating, and even though I knew I wanted the daughter to narrate as well, I was having a hard time getting out of Bea’s POV. Finally I had to open a new blank document, label it “Experiment,” and finally I found Agnes’s voice. When you’re stuck, always open a new document!

You’re releasing this book in the midst of a different kind of global nightmare. The desire and need to seek refuge, for many, is strong right now. Are you thinking about your book differently in the context of this moment, when it will be out in the world?

It’s been interesting to think about The New Wilderness in terms of now. I didn’t make any associations at all with the current catastrophe, until early readers started making them for me. I think because my history with the book is so long and so full of other touchstones. But one thing I keep thinking about is how right now one of the many things people are grappling with is how to trust one another in our society. With the fights over mask-wearing, and the lack of adherence to lockdown rules, and the utter failure of our government to guide us. It’s a complete mess, one that feels shocking but also uniquely American. Something basic about society seems cracked. If we feel as though the social contract we all tacitly agree to is broken in some way, the impulse to flee and isolate feels pretty natural. In my book though, the place they flee to isn’t a refuge, because it has its own dangers. And there doesn’t feel like there’s a safe place to flee to in this country right now, either.

This novel has already been longlisted for the Booker, and it’s not even out yet! What’s the feeling there?

It’s been pretty wild. The pandemic has really altered the reality for a lot of us publishing books this year. It’s been hard. To be honest, I was expecting a pretty quiet launch and a small readership. I think most people hadn’t heard of the book. In a moment, with the Booker announcement, that changed. So many more people will hear about The New Wilderness and hopefully they’ll read it. That’s all writers want — to be read. I’m really astonished and grateful that the judges responded to the book the way they did.

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