When a Reality Survival Show Becomes a Little Too Real
By Neil Nyren
Ashley wanted to be famous. That’s not an insult, it’s the truth….Kyle was an Eagle Scout, which meant a lot to him, although none of the others pretended to care….Bullfrog was a real anarchist type, old-school. The kind who wouldn’t call it anarchy, just country living or ‘fuck the government’ or something like that….There was a fifth guy, too. James.
He was the only one who got out in time.
The woman speaking in Blair Braverman’s SMALL GAME is Mara, and the people she’s talking about are her four teammates on a new reality TV show called Civilization. They’ve all been dropped into a distant unknown forest, where they will have to band together to survive. Anybody who makes it through all six weeks will get $100,000.
Mara thinks she might possibly have a little bit of an edge here, because she’s an instructor for a survival school. Granted, the school’s for rich tech bros, but still. However, she has no illusions about the show: “She knew her role; her role was entertainment. She was there for the producer, who was there for money, which meant he was there for the audience. Mara was disposable.”
It turns out, they all are.
The first weeks are hard enough, as they all struggle to find their places, to get along, to get enough food, and to find a way to sleep more than an hour at a time with the temperature changes and the itching and the scrapes and bites and holes all over their skin. Harder still are the creeping suspicions that the crew is there not just to film them, but to nudge things along: doling out favors, setting tests, providing misinformation.
And then one day, the crew is gone. Is this another stupid test? Some kind of manufactured drama for the TV cameras? No…they’re really gone. Their camp is abandoned. The cameras are inactive.
Early on, Kyle had scoffed, “This isn’t survival. It’s a survival game. We’re playing the game. It’s not survival if you have a choice.”
And now they have no choice. They must band together, or they will all die out there. They might die out there anyway, and that knowledge is the most disquieting thing of all. “People do irrational things when they panic,” Mara says. “Something flips in their brains.”
She has no idea how right she is.
Twisty, smart, filled with surprises and scares and unexpected wit, SMALL GAME is a gripping exploration into what it means to be civilized. It’s the sleeper book of the year—though you might find sleep a little hard to come by when you read it.
Blair Braverman knows what she’s talking about. Thirty-four years old, she has spent much of her life as an adventurer—learning how to drive sled dogs in Arctic Norway; working as a guide on an Alaskan glacier; racing, and completing, the grueling Iditarod dogsled race. She has crossed thousands of miles of wilderness with her team—but it was a different experience that inspired SMALL GAME.
“A few years ago, I was on the survival show Naked and Afraid. My partner and I were deposited in the South African desert (naked and barefoot) and left to survive however we could. It was a great experience. Super physically uncomfortable, but great. A camera crew showed up in the morning and left in the late afternoon, and the rest of the time we were completely on our own. One night I was sitting up by the fire, listening to a pack of hyenas circle us just beyond the firelight (they did that every night), and I had the thought: What if the crew doesn’t come in the morning? What if they never come back? What if this survival game turns real? Our days might look exactly the same—we’d still be foraging for food, and boiling water, and all of that—but everything would be different.
“Now, we had a fantastic crew, so I was never actually worried that they wouldn’t come back. But that idea—a survival show turned real survival—fascinated me. How long would it take for the contestants to catch on? How would they respond? What would change for them psychologically? I kept thinking, someone should write that book, because I’m dying to read it. A couple years passed, and I was still obsessed with the idea, so I figured, well, it looks like if I want to read this story, I’d better write it myself.
“That show was such an interesting experience! I’m a long-distance dogsledder, so I’m used to wilderness, but this was completely different from anything I’d done before. The scariest thing was probably that I got pretty sick out there, to the point where I was losing vision whenever I tried to stand up. I ended up tapping out on day 14 (a week before the challenge ended) and went to a hospital shortly thereafter; it turned out that I had an infection we believe was from a violin spider bite on my cheek, and after getting IV antibiotics, I recovered relatively quickly. The most surprising thing, I think, was the experience of hunger. It was all-encompassing. And the most exhilarating thing, for sure, was the wildlife. We made camp near a watering hole, and all day long we shared the space with elephants, warthogs, hyenas, countless other species.
“The survival show in SMALL GAME is fictional—it’s not the same at all. But if you’re curious about what a real-life survival show is like, you can read about my experience on Naked and Afraid here: Everything on ‘Naked and Afraid’ Is Real—and I Lived It.”
It’s a fascinating article, but as the author admits, she couldn’t get everything into that piece—at one point, Mara has some particularly blunt comments about what people at home can’t know about what they’re enduring: “You take an intense experience and squash it into an essay, or a television episode, or any sort of condensed narrative, and huge amounts of it are going to go untold. As a storyteller, particularly when I’m writing nonfiction, I have to do the same thing myself. It doesn’t bother me personally—to me, the distillation of an experience is one of the most interesting parts of making and consuming art—but for Mara, the experience is tremendously jarring, especially because she feels unseen in so many other ways, too.
“Mara’s personality is very different from mine, but there are things I relate to in most of the characters. I felt pretty sad and cynical at a certain point in the pandemic, when I started writing the first draft, and those emotions went into Mara. There’s a very millennial part of me that thinks if I just work hard enough career-wise, I can guarantee myself a good life, and that shaped Ashley. But the character I’m closest to, in terms of character, is probably Kyle. Kyle thinks of life as an equation, where if you can just figure out how to do things right, then you know everything will be okay. He’s wrong, of course. But I understand why he wants so badly to believe it.”
Even with all her experience in the wild, there were still things she had to learn about to write the book. “The wilderness in the book is based on the upper peninsula of Michigan, which is about an hour away from our home in northern Wisconsin; we often camp and train there with the dogs. When I reached the season in which the book is set—roughly May through August—I started going on frequent walks in the woods with a notebook, writing down all the natural details I saw. Different plants blooming, insects emerging, changing foliage, that sort of thing. Those details became the backdrop to the characters’ lives. A friend who’s a mycologist took me on a foraging trip and taught me about wild mushrooms, and another friend, who’s lived deep in the woods for 40 years, read the manuscript and offered suggestions. Working on the natural details was so rewarding—that was a part of the process that I wished would never end.”
The same could be said for all her life outdoors. Asked how her experiences have shaped her, what they have taught her about survival and resilience, she says, “This is a hard one to condense into a short answer because the dogs have taught me so much, and still do every day. So I’ll share a small anecdote instead. We have a girl named Refried who’s remarkable because she sings while running—whenever we’re going up a big mountain that seems to keep going forever, or it’s five in the morning and we’ve been mushing through the night and it seems like the sun will never rise, Refried will throw back her head and sing. Now, all our dogs like to howl, but none of them do it while running—that’s extremely unusual, almost unheard of. But Refried’s voice is so motivating; it makes all the dogs so happy. It’s the most beautiful sound.
“When Refried retired from racing at 10 years old (now she’s a grande dame and rules the porch), I was a little heartbroken, because I wouldn’t get to hear her running song as often. And then later we were mushing through the woods on a normal day and suddenly I heard Refried’s voice, clear as day—but she wasn’t there. Her niece, Willow, had picked up the song for all of us.”
As you can tell by now, SMALL GAME is not her first time in print. Braverman’s work has appeared in many publications, she’s earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa, where she was also an Arts Fellow, and she has been resident Fellow at Blue Mountain Center and the MacDowell Colony. She is also the author of a terrific memoir about her adventures in Norway and Alaska, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, which prompted one reader to call her a “twenty-first century feminist reincarnation of Jack London.” What was the transition like from nonfiction to fiction?
“It was easy, because so much is the same between fiction and narrative nonfiction. In both cases, I’m trying to write complex characters, dialogue, place, and a story that develops its own momentum. Writing a novel was faster than writing nonfiction because I spent far less time reporting, interviewing, transcribing, fact-checking, and so on. But the writing itself felt very similar.
“The two books that influenced me most as a writer are Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Kevin Wilson’s Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Dillard has this sense of almost spiritual horror/awe at the natural world; she never says things based on what people expect from her but is guided by her own visceral response. Kevin Wilson has an unmatched eye for the absurdity of human behavior, but he’s not making fun of it; he writes like he feels great love for it. It’s tender and hilarious and sweet.
“I’m big on printing out manuscripts and re-typing from scratch. I probably did it eight times for this one. It’s time-consuming, for sure. But I find that if I’m simply entering edits by hand, without retyping it all, there’s a slight inertia to keep things as they are. When I’m typing from scratch, I feel more free to try different things—even on a tiny sentence level—every single time, and it gives the story and the language more opportunities to evolve.”
There’s one other element that goes into her writing as well. She’s also a contributing editor for Outside Magazine, with a regular advice column called “Tough Love,” dealing with relationships and the outdoors. Has anyone ever given her “Tough Love”-type advice?
“Oh, man, all the time. When it comes to writing, I love being edited, and that’s a kind of tough love, isn’t it? And off the page, nobody’s better than my husband at calling me out on my shit.”
Next up for Braverman are two book-length projects in the early stages—one fiction, one nonfiction. “We’ll see which one hits the world first!” she says.
Whichever one it is, if it’s anything like SMALL GAME and Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, she’ll find an audience ready and waiting for it.
Neil Nyren is the former EVP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among the writers of crime and suspense he has edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, John Sandford, C. J. Box, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Jonathan Kellerman, Ed McBain, and Ace Atkins. He now writes about crime fiction and publishing for CrimeReads, BookTrib, The Big Thrill, and The Third Degree, among others, and is a contributing writer to the Anthony/Agatha/Macavity-winning How to Write a Mystery.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.