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Blair Braverman on her novel 'Small Game' about a survival reality tv show gone wrong

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Five people are blindfolded, taken to a helicopter and dropped into a lake in the middle of a remote wilderness.

BLAIR BRAVERMAN: The show was called "Civilization." Their clothes were fast-fashion prehistoric. Canvas tunics and matching shorts, all dyed a dusty brown. The idea was that they'd found one another in the wilderness, this group of strangers and over the course of six weeks, would be tasked with building a new kind of community, something pure and sustainable and right. They would forgo all comforts so that viewers didn't have to. They would be one with the forest. They would find a way to live.

RASCOE: It's a survival competition - a reality TV show, until it isn't. Blair Braverman is an adventurer. She's the author of "Dogs On The Trail" about her experiences as a dog-sledder in Alaska. "Small Game" is her first novel. She joins us now. Welcome.

BRAVERMAN: Hi. I'm so, so happy to be here. Thank you.

RASCOE: So I kind of think of this novel as, like, if you cross the TV show "Survivor" with the TV show "Yellowjackets," although this book does not have any cannibalism in it. Tell us about "Small Game" and who the contestants are who sign up for this show.

BRAVERMAN: No cannibalism. OK, spoilers.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Well, I don't know - that might be a spoiler.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAVERMAN: You never know what can go wrong when people are stuck out there.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

BRAVERMAN: So there's a small group of people who are selected for this show, and they're selected to be archetypes, so to speak. So Mara did not seek out the show. She's working as a survival instructor for, basically, rich tech bros in the Pacific Northwest who want to have a weekend adventure they can brag about. And then we have a young woman who's very beautiful, and she's on the show to be famous, but she has no interest in survival whatsoever. This old grouchy guy, who may or may not have a heart of gold - it really remains to be seen. An Eagle Scout. We have a math teacher. They're all selected to play these roles.

RASCOE: You and your husband were actually contestants on a reality survival show, "Naked And Afraid," in 2018. I thought y'all got a prize, but I was doing some reading. I guess you don't get a prize?

(LAUGHTER)

BRAVERMAN: No, there's no prize. It's literally for the reward of being naked on TV in front of a million strangers.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAVERMAN: I mean, I found "Naked And Afraid" really fun. I found it, like, incredibly physically uncomfortable at all times - constantly thirsty, constantly hungry, like, constantly had thorns in my feet, got surrounded by hyenas a lot. On a deeper level, I found it kind of relaxing because it was very simple. You were only focusing on the next thing at a time. You were focusing on, how am I going to get water? How am I going to make it through the day without eating? I became hyperaware of being part of the food chain. Predators would sort of walk by, and I'd be like, well, I am just as much food as every other animal here and probably more so 'cause I'm very bad at defending myself, and I don't have claws or sharp teeth.

RASCOE: And you wanted to eat. You were constantly thinking about eating 'cause you were starving.

BRAVERMAN: All the time. I wanted to eat everything. I'd see, like, an elephant go by, and I'd be like - can I - and I, you know - I love elephants.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

BRAVERMAN: I didn't think I'd have those thoughts when I saw an elephant (laughter). But, like, when you haven't eaten in a week, you're like, that is calories.

RASCOE: And that's how you end up with cannibalism.

BRAVERMAN: That's true. If we had just gone a few more weeks.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Did the thought ever cross your mind when you were doing this, like, what if I was just stuck out here, and then that would be a book? Did you ever think that?

BRAVERMAN: I thought you were going to ask if cannibalism had ever crossed my mind.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Well, that too, that too (laughter).

BRAVERMAN: Genuinely, the answer is no. I did - the crew would leave at night, and I was aware of the fact that I really was trusting that they would come back in the morning because we didn't know where we were. We didn't know how to get out. And so as long as they were going to come back in the morning, then it was all recreational. And so I think that was part of the seed of "Small Game" - was, what happens if people are sent out for a reality show which is meant to be a decision they make? They're out there by choice, and it becomes something where they're not out there by choice at all, a fake survival situation that turns into real survival.

RASCOE: You know, we can't give away too much of the story. There's a lot of suspense. It's a mystery, but what ends up really being scary is, like, kind of the internal things that are going on and being in the dark about not knowing what's going on and them trying to make sense of it and how to proceed, right?

BRAVERMAN: Right. And I think we often think of wilderness as exterior threats, and it's more about simply not having the systems anymore to get the things that you need - to get the clean water, to get the food, to get out if you need medical care. I mean, the thing is, if things go really wrong on a reality show, on some level, you have to wonder if it's all still part of the reality show. If that's the point - for people to watch you suffer a lot. And, you know - 'cause they're going to hide those twists from you always, they're never going to tell you the twists in advance.

RASCOE: Yeah, yeah. When does the show end? - is also a part of this. It's like, what is for performance, and what is real life?

BRAVERMAN: Right. And they, you know - and everyone interprets that differently, and that's part of the conflict.

RASCOE: How do you make sense of the dichotomy of people making a choice to go and kind of - I mean, not kind of - to suffer, but then there's all this, like, real suffering in the world, right? There is that...

BRAVERMAN: Right. Yes.

RASCOE: ...Conflict - I don't know if it's a conflict, but there is that dynamic.

BRAVERMAN: There's a difference between discomfort and suffering. You can go out in the wilderness and choose to do something that's going to be uncomfortable. And to some degree, that's something I decide almost every day when I go out with my sled dogs. It's going to be cold. I'm going to be tired. We might get stuck out there overnight. Like, there's a certain amount of discomfort that you're accepting, and that's really different from suffering. I would venture to say that if you choose it, it's not suffering. It's just discomfort.

RASCOE: No, that makes sense because I wouldn't choose it, so that would be suffering for me.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAVERMAN: And it can be miserable. It can be totally miserable, and you can be afraid. Yeah. That knowledge that you can leave is really - it's really a game-changer.

RASCOE: Did writing this book or doing the show or all of the things that you do out in nature - has it changed the way you interact with or think about nature and your place in the grand scheme of things?

BRAVERMAN: I mean, it has to. You can't go out in the woods and still think that you are separate from that natural world that's around you. I think the common answer is that it is relaxing to realize how small you are in the face of the vastness of the universe. I've heard people talk about that a lot. And that's not something that I have felt comforted by, actually, but what I am reassured by is how indifferent nature is and by the fact that nature never, ever, ever intends harm on me. People can intend harm on other people. Like, they can want to see another person suffer. But if you're being bitten by mosquitoes, if you're very cold, if there's a storm - none of those elements are doing it because they choose and accept or are excited by the idea of you suffering.

RASCOE: And you could live, and no one's going to care about that, either. It's just (laughter)...

BRAVERMAN: Right, I think they might enjoy it 'cause, like, things will eat you. And, like, worms will eat you, and they all think that's, like, really great. They feel very lucky or whatever worms feel.

RASCOE: And so that makes you feel comforted?

BRAVERMAN: Absolutely. I feel very, very comfortable when I'm out in the woods.

RASCOE: That's Blair Braverman. Her novel is called "Small Game." Thanks so much for talking with us today.

BRAVERMAN: Thank you so much for a great conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.