On February 17, Aspen Words will announce the shortlist for the fourth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award recognizing a work of fiction that addresses a vital social issue. Fifteen works are still in the running, and the diverse list includes 13 novels and two short story collections. While the jury works on narrowing down this list to five finalists and a winner, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, how they view their role as a writer in the cultural and political moment, and the best piece of writing advice they’ve received.
Diane Cook is the author of the story collection Man V. Nature. She received a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is a former producer for the radio show This American Life. In her novel The New Wilderness, Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away, consumed by the smog and pollution of an overdeveloped metropolis that most of the population now calls home. If they stay in the city, Agnes will die. So they volunteer to live in The Wilderness State, the last swath of untouched, protected land, where people had been forbidden until now. But Bea realizes that saving her daughter’s life may mean losing her in a different way—the farther the pair gets from civilization, the more their bond is tested.
How do you view your role as a writer in this cultural and political moment, and why is the time right for your book?
I think writers and other artists show people what the world really looks like, or could look like, in the case of a speculative novel like mine. I’ve always felt that novels don’t bring baggage with them. Not like your relationships with family members or friends. So readers can pick them up and experience the truth in the book purely. They can process it quietly in their own time without pressure. That space is a gift.
I think any time is the right time for any book. There will always be readers who needed what they read. And zeitgeists seem very circular. I remember getting depressed early on in the writing of The New Wilderness because a bunch of climate change books had come out and I was thinking that by the time I finished mine no one would care…because, I guess, climate change would be all fixed???
What is the core tenet of your book’s philosophy?
I think climate change has been hard for many (privileged) Americans to wrap their heads around because they don’t think they can see it, and so they don’t think it affects them. How awful, they might think at the news of some environmental calamity, but they’re fairly certain it won’t happen to them. The New Wilderness is exploring a moment in the future where everyone will have been affected by what we’re creating now. One of the main ideas is that not only can it happen to you, but it will happen to you unless something changes.
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
I was a lot of other things before I was a writer, so I’ve explored this alternate life already. I remember really wanting to go to graduate school to make nature documentaries but the program required a science background which would have meant getting a close equivalent of another undergraduate degree. I couldn’t take that on. I remember being pretty pissed about it too. While I understood the need to have a background in the natural sciences to document the natural sciences, I thought it was a bit rigid to think that someone with an arts background couldn’t successfully explore and explain the natural world. I imagine that is part of why I focus so much on the natural world in my work. I want to use my particular tools to do that same kind of work. To show it can be done.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received on writing fiction?
Don’t stop yourself.
Which books have brought you hope or solace, or expanded your awareness over the last year?
To be honest I’ve read a fraction of the books I normally would have in a year. This has to do with the pandemic and loss of child care, but also I had another baby in the midst of it all. And I’ve read mostly new books rather than look for comfort in another time or wisdom from before. I’ve read books from friends or books from people I admire. I find there is solace and hope in that. Seeing how we all do this thing so differently. Feeling happily dumbstruck by what I’m encountering. Finding a sense of normalcy in this one thing I’m still able to do.