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When Survival Isn’t Just About Yourself

Feature image of Blair Braverman by Kiliii Yuyan

Blair Braverman is no stranger to the wilderness. A musher who learned her trade in the folk schools of Norway and once worked as a guide on a glacier in Alaska, Blair’s Iditarod-completing sled dog team with her partner Quince have become Twitter famous for their antics, athleticism, and sweet smiles. That’s how I first discovered Blair’s work — through her iconic Twitter threads about Braver Mountain Mushing and the sweet dogs that work together to pull sleds, explore the woods, and eat the occasional bear head!

As you might expect, Blair is also a writer whose work explores survival, gender, power, and the space we inhabit both in our communities and on the planet. After her memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, came out in 2016, Blair had the opportunity to go on Discovery’s survival reality show Naked and Afraid, and her experiences on the show had her wondering…what if?

The resulting novel, Small Game, was absolutely riveting. I read it all at once without putting it down, and then I read it again. It was suspenseful, it dealt with its themes with complexity and grace, and it was queer! Truly everything I want from a good read.

I had the opportunity to speak to Blair ahead of the book’s release, and I’m so excited to share our conversation with you!

This interview contains light spoilers about the premise of Small Game.


The same yellow dog sprawls on a wooden platform with her paws wide and a book between them, and her head slightly ducked

Flame with a copy of Small Game. Image from Blair Braverman’s Twitter account.

Darcy: First of all, I know my dog Milo would never forgive me if I don’t say hi to your “porch dog,” Flame!

Blair: Oh, wow! Please return the favor!

Darcy: Did you know you wanted to write about survival? Did you know that it was going to be fiction? Did you know you wanted to frame it around a reality show? How did all of that come up?

Blair: I knew I wanted to write about survival. After Ice Cube came out, my next book was going to be a nonfiction book about apocalypse preppers. I started following local preppers, and I thought I would follow how people prepare for the end of the world as we know it, and why. And then Trump got elected, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was just like “I can’t be in this world right now.” And so that project sort of fizzled, but it was always something I was interested in.

Darcy: Preppers are fascinating.

Blair: Right. But it was bleeding too much into malicious civil war stuff and I was like, “I just wrote a book about sexual violence.” I needed to write about puppies just to clear my palate and my brain a little bit.

Darcy: For sure.

Blair: But I’ve always been fascinated by survival. I grew up on survival books, I loved them as a kid, I love them as an adult. It’s always been a sort of parallel interest of mine. But I didn’t have a concrete plan for how to put it together, and then I was invited to go on Naked and Afraid, and it was very cool. I’m super glad I did it. I had a great experience. And it was nothing like the show in this book. Actually, they let me write about it in nonfiction.

Darcy: Yeah. I read your essay in Outside.

Blair: I asked before I went, I was like, “I’m going to want to write about this,” because you sign an NDA and stuff. And they were like, “Yeah, no problem.” So that was very exciting to me.

Darcy: Your essay was fascinating. I always thought the bugs would be the worst part and then that spider bite, or whatever that was, sounded so awful.

Blair: There weren’t a lot of bugs actually because we were in such a dry climate. But honestly, the ground was very difficult. You were just always on the ground and it was covered in bugs and you had nothing to protect yourself. I was surprised that the things that I thought would be hard weren’t necessarily the things that were hardest.

Darcy: That makes sense!

Blair: And then while I was out there I had a lot of time to think about survival shows, as one does. You’re not eating or anything. You’re thinking about food and survival. I had a great crew. I had a really good crew, and I was so hyper aware of if I’d gotten a bad crew we’d be screwed. We would be so intensely vulnerable.

And then the crew would leave every night. And I would just think, “What if?” Almost an intrusive thought, like, “What if something went wrong? We have no idea where we are and we literally have a pot and a knife.” How long would it take us to realize we’d shifted from an enactment of survival to real survival, even though every day would be the same? We’d be trying to figure out how to boil water, trying to figure out how to get food, but everything would’ve changed because we wouldn’t be there by choice anymore.

Darcy: That was a part that I had underlined where one of the participants, Kyle, says “This is survival.” And Mara says, “No, this is a survival game.” And then everything switches over for them.

Blair: Oh good. I loved that thought. It was so inherently interesting to me. And it stayed in my mind. I was there for two weeks, and then I had a weird infection and went to the hospital and it got better and went home. And I still had this idea in the back of my mind, I really wanted to know what would happen if things went sideways. If someone was doing something like this and it went from a game to the real thing. Because figuring out that line, how people would transition from play survival into real survival, felt like it would teach me something about what survival was and what we’re looking for when we go out there.

And I never set out to write fiction, at all. I love reading fiction and I love writing non-fiction, and I never thought of myself as a fiction writer. But I was so obsessed with this idea and I couldn’t make it happen in nonfiction.

There’d be no way to do it unless you were doing a highly unethical experiment on other people. But you can do the unethical experiment in fiction. So at some point, I realized that if I wanted to see this story out, if I wanted to know what would happen, I was going to have to answer that question for myself. I was going to have to write it. And that’s how the book was born was just this burning curiosity about a very particular situation and how it would play out.

Darcy: It’s such an interesting question. And then also I think with it being fiction, you were able to explore the gender and power dynamics all the way through. Like from the very beginning, Mara is taking care of people, even when she’s in this situation where she’s incredibly vulnerable. The way she knows to slip into this mode with the cast and crew so that she can take care of their feelings and get through it all.

Blair: Oh, I’m so happy those dynamics were interesting to you, because I care about them a lot and I think about them a lot. And the book hasn’t hit the world yet so I haven’t heard what resonates with people. But I’m happy that those things resonated with you because they’re important to me. I mean gender and power fuses everything we do.

And if you’re in a situation where things build two basic elements, food and water, and getting through the night, these elements of gender and power don’t go away. And in some way they are distilled too. You can see them more clearly because there’s less distraction.

I think Mara is an interesting character because I wrote a book about feeling very conflicted and sometimes afraid of gender dynamics in these very remote places with Ice Cube. But with fiction you get to write a character who isn’t you, which is very refreshing. And one of the things I find interesting about Mara is she sees those dynamics, but she’s not necessarily afraid of them. She sees them in a utilitarian way; she almost uses people’s biases against them. She sees what the crew member is doing to her and she’s like, “Here’s how I can use this”. And I think a lot of people, a lot of women, do that anyway, but it’s not something I always see a lot of conversation about. If you’re going to be in a fucked up dynamic, a survival skill is learning to use it to your advantage in whatever capacity you can, even though it’s still fucked up.

Darcy: I thought it was really interesting kind of going back to Mara’s parents, the way that they emphasized mutual aid and community care, but then they didn’t really have a community. Like Mara was basically on her own and felt really isolated and at the beginning it seems like she kind of views other people as, “They’re going to need something, or they’re going to want something, and I can figure out if I know what that is. And the person I can depend on is myself.”

Blair: Absolutely. I think Mara’s parents have some really great ideas, they’ve attached themselves to some really powerful ideas, but they’re governed by fear and that’s what makes the difference. So they are so governed by terror and, I don’t want to say…reclusiveness. Yeah. How do I say this? I’m glad you brought that up.

They’re governed more by fear for themselves than fear for their community. And because of that, they’re very self protective and they’re not able to have the mutual aid and the community living that in their minds they know they should aspire to if they want to have the kind of prepper life that they want to have. And that’s sort of a conflict with preppers. When I was doing prepper research years ago, there seems to be a conflict that a lot of people doing this apocalypse prep thing have. There is a lot of suspicion of the outside world in the prepping arenas that I’ve been able to have access to. And so a common topic of conversation is, “If I saved food for my family, how do I keep it, when other people are starving and ask for it and I don’t want to give it to them?”

It’s a very family and enclave-centered thing. I mean prepping is looking at the world and saying, “It’s fucked up, so I need to make sure my family’s okay.” And one can also look at the world and say, “It’s fucked up, I need to make sure everyone’s okay to the best of my ability.”

If you’re going to be in a fucked up dynamic, a survival skill is learning to use it to your advantage in whatever capacity you can, even though it’s still fucked up.

Darcy: And community really requires trust, which is something that just isn’t there.

Blair: Yeah, absolutely. You’re looking at your neighbors and thinking, “people are starving and they’re going to storm my compound.” I remember reading on some prepper forum this elaborate plan someone had to build a fence, a big fence no one could climb over, but then make these Ziploc baggies with protein powder and antibiotics in them and fling them over the fence when strangers came by.

Darcy: Oh wow.

Blair: So it’s altruism, but without having to interact with them or have the risk of interacting with another human who might want more. Mara’s parents aren’t quite that bad, but there’s a little streak of that and that’s what she was raised with.

The original title of the book was Civilization, which is the name of the reality show in the book. And I’m very glad we changed the title, but one thing I appreciated about that working title was that I also told the story of the Civilization of Mara, like Mara learning to live with other people in a way she never has before.

Darcy: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s a really sweet little queer love story in there too.

Blair: There is! It wasn’t planned, but then it started coming together and I was very happy.

Darcy: And there was a line that I underlined, “It’s really hard when you’re hungry to believe you’ll ever be full”. And it’s such a queer line. It’s so full of longing. Did you know that Mara was going to fall in love? Did you know she was going to fall in love with Ashley? Or how did that all come about?

Blair: That line felt very queer to me when I wrote it, so I’m so happy that it felt queer.

Darcy: Oh yeah.

Blair: Originally, when I was thinking of characters for the book, I was thinking of archetypes of who we expect to be on reality shows, and you have your Eagle Scout, and you have your grizzled mountain man. These are just characters we think we know. You have your girl who wants to be famous. Mara is a little bit less of an archetype, but she’s still basically the competent one.

And so originally, I didn’t know how their interactions were going to play out, but the thing about archetypes is like no one is actually an archetype. You could fit into that category, but once you get to know someone as a person they’re always infinitely more complex. When I first wrote down the categories of people I wanted to have represented, I didn’t know how they were going to interact with each other yet. I didn’t know who was going to get along and who wasn’t, and what their conflicts would be. And then as soon as I started getting to know them as people, I just felt like Mara and Ashley chose each other.

Darcy: Characters can do that!

Blair: I didn’t plan to write a love story specifically, and I wasn’t thinking of love interests when I started designing the characters. But as I started writing, it felt like Mara and Ashley chose each other. Or found each other, I guess, when they expected nothing but needed each other most. Which is how love has played out in my own life as well.

Darcy: Yeah, it’s a really good time to have queer love stories out there because it’s such an odd political time generally for so many of us. And I think the more really good queer stories out there, the better.

Blair: Always. Absolutely. I certainly didn’t grow up with any queer survival stories, so I’m happy to add to that genre. I’m sure there are some, but it’s not one I’ve had the pleasure of reading a lot of.

Darcy: Oh, I wanted to ask you, what was your favorite survival story when you were growing up?

Blair: Oh gosh, this is horrible. No, it’s fine. It’s great. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.

Darcy: My dad read me Hatchet! I loved Hatchet as a kid.

Blair: It’s so good. But the book that I love the most, which in retrospect I’m like, “Oh, this was the only survival book that I really read as a kid that involved girls where girls were the ones surviving wilderness”. Everything else that I read was a boy. And I know there are some with girls, I just hadn’t found them as a child. It was a book called Baby Island.

Darcy: (laughs) Oh!

Blair: It’s an old book. My mom read it growing up and she gave it to me. And it’s these two girls who are stranded on a desert island with a lot of babies.

Darcy: Oh my gosh.

Blair: And they have to learn to deal with colic and teach the babies to respect the Lord’s Day.

Darcy: I think there was a Babysitters Club book that ripped that off. Yeah. Yeah, that sounds like it would’ve been 100% up my alley.

Blair: Yeah, it has a lot of problems. But I gave it to a friend recently and she was like, “Where has this been all my life”?

Darcy: Yeah! Ok, getting back to Mara, it feels like Mara did end up finding her community and by the end she… I mean she always kind of felt this way, but she says, “There’s no reason to make life harder. There’s no reason to make life hard at all”. But it felt like by the end she felt that about other people, whereas at the beginning she kind of just felt that about washing machines.

Blair: Say more!

Darcy: It seemed like she was able to connect with people by the end of the book in a way that she just really hadn’t learned how to do previously in her life.

Blair: I think so. I think she really did. I think that was the first time she’d been in community in any sort of real way, any sort of inter-reliant community. And I think she went on the show to change her life and she’s going to go out of there a lot better. The wilderness has prepared her for the world of people, in a way she certainly never expected going into it, because she didn’t know that she needed the world of people.

Darcy: Amazing. I really loved her arc!

Thank you so much for speaking with me, Blair!

Blair: By the way, I just want to say Autostraddle means so much to so many people. And it’s meant a lot for me in my life and in my journey! I just know the work you do for so many people and having a place and having the content you put out, it just makes such a big difference. So I’m in awe of all of you. You do such an important thing for the world. Thank you.

Darcy: Oh my goodness. Well, thank you. I feel so honored. They were very, very important for me as I was going through my journey, and I feel really, really honored to be able to be a part of that. And I agree. I’ll pass all of that along! It’s so kind.

Blair: Yeah, absolutely. They’re lucky to have you and we’re all lucky to have them.


Small Game by Blair Braverman comes out tomorrow, November 1.


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Darcy

Darcy, a.k.a. Queer Girl, is your number one fan. She's a fat feminist from California who doodles hearts in the corners of her Gay Agenda. They're living through a pandemic, they're on Twitter, and they think you should drink more water! She also wants to make you laugh.

Darcy has written 332 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Had to pick up Small Game last night after listening to Blair Braverman on You’re Wrong About (Flight 571: Survival in the Andes). Highly recommend listening to that episode as well as the other episode where she is a guest: The Dyatlov Pass Incident. And, I want to add another queer survival book I enjoyed: Wilder Girls by Rory Power!

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