Don’t You Wanna’ Cuddle Up With My Iguana?: A Guest Post by Diana Wagman

Dear Reader,

If you missed it the other day, here’s the best bit from Lydia Millet’s piece on Holiday ’12 Discover pick, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets in The New York Times Book Review:

“Diana Wagman’s fourth novel, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, is about a Los Angeles divorcée kidnapped by a deranged iguana owner, and it’s Wagman’s best to date — a quick, engaging story, half thriller and half wry domestic drama….told from the intersecting perspectives of a group of characters moving through a Los Angeles day as their worlds converge. These books have the conversational rhythm and somewhat self-conscious quirks of certain slice-of-life Hollywood films whose ensemble casts may feature, say, Julianne Moore; they’re entertaining and sympathetic, but it’s their glimmers of darkness that are their strongest suit.”

The Discover selection committee readers were completely taken in by the world Wagman creates in her newest novel, where an average gal crash lands in one man’s twisted space — which includes a giant iguana.  We can’t be the only readers who wanted to know how and why Cookie the iguana came to be, so here’s Diana, taking us  behind the scenes in a guest post for the Discover blog:

Don’t You Wanna’ Cuddle Up With My Iguana?

My new book centers around a kidnapping.  The kidnapper is—obviously—a troubled young man.  He is violent, inadvertently kills someone, and blames his victim for every terrible thing he does to her.  But he’s really not a bad guy.  Aggressive and scary as he is, I feel for him.  I care for him.  I know he’s trying to do what he thinks is the right thing.  And I wanted my readers to feel the same.  It’s not easy to warm up a basically unlikeable guy, so I decided he should have a pet.  One he really loves and has to care for.  But what kind of pet belongs to a kidnapper who grew up in a carnival with an abusive father and a nymphomaniac mother?  Not a dog.  I have two dogs and they need to be walked and played with and let in and out. They’re too needy for a psychopath with a devious plan.  And, honestly, dogs are just too normal.  He also couldn’t have a cat (or five or twenty) either.  They’re too independent.  I needed to show his nurturing side, more than changing the litter box and pouring kibble in a bowl.

            At the time, my daughter had a pygmy chameleon.  Nicholas (the chameleon) was quite beautiful and very small, less than three inches.  My daughter had become very excited about reptiles and we went to the Anaheim Reptile Expo, a convention of North American reptile breeders, and the largest in the country.  Two football field sized hangars of snakes, lizards, turtles, salamanders, and frogs—plus all the accoutrements needed for their care.  In one corner was a section for the food they eat: crickets, baby mice, rats, rabbits, and at one end a small white goat. I steered my daughter away.  I wasn’t sure why the goat was there; it was way too big to be dinner for some snake in a cage in someone’s backyard.  At least I hoped so.  I didn’t want to find out. 

            What I did discover is how passionate reptile owners can be.  Reptiles are tough to live with, they are not domesticated, and they need food and an environment not easily obtained in a three bedroom ranch house in Pasadena.  Reptile owners are dedicated, caring, and enthusiastic.  And a few of them—like any obsessive collector—are a little weird.  Perfect for Oren, my kidnapper.

            I chose the Great Green iguana because it looks vicious (even though it’s not unless provoked), and can be huge.  I wanted Oren to love it, and his victim to be terrified.  Nothing would be more frightening than to bump into an enormous prehistoric creature with long claws and many sharp, serrated teeth.  Poor Winnie (the victim).  Poor Cookie (the iguana).  Neither are happy being caged and under the kidnapper’s care.  Winnie drives Cookie a little crazy.  Cookie is the scariest thing Winnie has ever seen.  But Oren really loves Cookie.  Large iguanas are difficult to keep healthy in captivity.  Oren sacrifices much for his reptilian best friend.  He turns his entire kitchen into the iguana’s home, cranks the heat in the house, and plans to spend every penny he has to buy Cookie a mate.  Kidnapping Winnie sort of gets in the way and that upsets and worries him.  He wants Cookie and Winnie to like each other.

            Doesn’t that make you like him?  I do.  Okay, so he’s delusional and probably insane.  But down deep, there’s a warm heart beating.  The devotion he feels for his reptile may not be reciprocated, but that doesn’t stop him.  And a guy who loves an animal and cares for it to the exclusion of all else—even his kidnapped victim—can’t be all bad.

–Diana Wagman

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.