Survival-themed reality television rides a fine line between authenticity and artifice. The scrapes, bruises, and bug bites are real enough; the hunger, cold, and other discomforts endured by the contestants are too. And yeah, a guy on Survivor fell face-first into a campfire that one time. But for the most part, the contestants on these shows are playing a game: one with clear rules, fixed time limits, and medical teams on standby.
Blair Braverman knows this fine line well—she appeared on the hit Discovery series Naked and Afraid in an episode that aired in March 2019, lasting 14 days on the South Africa-Botswana border before illness forced her to leave. (She wrote about it all in harrowing detail for Outside.)
After that experience, Braverman wondered: What would happen if a made-for-TV survival scenario suddenly became a real fight for survival? How would the contestants react, in both action and emotion?
“I had become obsessed with this idea of a reality show where people play at survival and it turns into real survival, and they have to grapple with that shift and with what the reality of survival actually is versus what they thought it was going to be when they signed up for a show about it,” she says.
Until a cast of camera-ready castaways gets stranded in real life (and survive to tell us about it), that’s a question only fiction can try to answer. Braverman, 34, is a nonfiction author and dogsled racer based in Wisconsin, who published a widely acclaimed memoir in 2016 called Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. She hadn’t written fiction since college. So at first, she tried to give the idea away. But when she attempted to hand the concept off to novelist friends, “No one was as obsessed with it as I was.”
It was January 2021, and her slate of dogsled races for the year was still up in the air because of pandemic restrictions. Braverman realized if she wanted to know what happens in her imagined scenario, she would have to sit down and write it herself.
The result is her debut novel, Small Game, which was released on November 1.
The book follows Mara, a young woman who grew up off-grid and gets recruited, via her survival school job, onto a new reality show called Civilization. It’s not a typical competition show: no one gets voted off the island. Instead, Mara and her four teammates have to work together to survive, starting from only the barest essentials. The show’s conceit is that the group will have to find a way to build a new human society in six weeks. Anyone can tap out and walk away at any time, and everyone who’s still there at the end of the game gets the prize money. But things go awry, and shit gets real.
Braverman’s characters are informed by her experience on reality TV—for instance, while on Naked and Afraid, she went eleven days with hardly anything at all to eat. She has a vivid memory of how helpless she felt, looking at the landscape where she’d been planted in the South African bush, “seeing food all around me and not knowing how to get it into a state that I could eat.” And crucially, she understands not just what it feels like to be cold and hungry and vulnerable, but what it feels like to be filmed—to become a product for the entertainment of others, while being cold and hungry and vulnerable. Without some of those details, she says, the book “would’ve been flatter.”
“I was going out every single day with a notebook, and walking for an hour or two and just taking notes of every detail I noticed changing in the environment every day,” says Braverman.
But she didn’t rely solely on her own memories. She also interviewed other former contestants from various shows, and took their experiences into account as she crafted her story. In those interviews, she says, “a theme that came through was there was some pressure for people to stay on. They could not afford not to make the money. So even if they thought they were really in danger, they were like, I need to win this amount of money.”
Naked and Afraid has no prize money, so, she says, “I was not in that situation. But this show in the book does have prize money, and that certainly affects people’s decisions.”
She and her husband, Quince Mountain (who was also cast in an episode of Naked and Afraid), had done a lot of research on survival skills as preparation for their TV stints: practicing fire-starting techniques, building traps, and memorizing what they could about edible flora and fauna. But for the book, she needed to expand on that base of knowledge. Partly due to pandemic travel challenges, which would have made it difficult for her to research a far-flung tropical location, she set Civilization in the north woods of Wisconsin, her own stomping grounds. “That was definitely a second choice,” she says, “but I ended up really appreciating it because it gave me a chance to learn about the woods differently, and engage with them differently than I do on an everyday basis when I’m hiking or running my dogs.” She went out into the forest with expert friends, learning about mushrooms, fish, and plants.
The writing came fast, and by the spring of 2021, she had a first draft. That meant she could revise her second draft while also refining her knowledge of the seasonal changes that her characters experienced: summer’s bloom and fade. “I was going out every single day with a notebook, and walking for an hour or two and just taking notes of every detail I noticed changing in the environment every day,” says Braverman. “And then I would incorporate those details into the book.”
The carefully foraged sensory details will please lovers of nature and outdoor writing, but Small Game is not a slow, musing, meandering kind of book. It’s a thriller, gripping and unsettling, and a very human story—about physical vulnerability and resilience, but also about the unraveling mental states of people under duress.
In the end, did Braverman manage to answer her own question about what would happen if an artificial survival scenario became frighteningly real? “I think I did get an answer,” she says. “I feel like that question is more settled for me, and it was something I’d been so curious about for years. I would love to hear other people’s perspectives because everyone is going to have a different answer to that question. But I figured out my answer.”
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