"I threw Away the Clowns..and Started Over." A Q&A with Diana Wagman

Dear Reader,

Winner Parker is having a very, very bad day in Diana Wagman’s new novel, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets.  Locked inside a sweltering house in an LA ‘burb with a 7-foot-long iguana named Cookie, Winnie’s trying to figure out why she’s been kidnapped (could it be connected to her former game show host ex-husband, or her faded-actress mother?) before her kidnapper goes completely off the rails.

The Discover selection committee members aren’t the only ones recommending The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets:

“A brisk and vividly drawn kidnapping tale…the power of Wagman’s book lies in the details….The book also benefits from breathless pace and a dialogue-heavy structure that hints at Wagman’s screenwriting experience and keeps the pages turning.”  — The LA Times   

“A high-speed comic thrill ride that launches the reader against the restraint bar with every turn, while at the same time offering up a surprising array of insights into marriage and midlife.” — Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint it Black  

Diana Wagman discusses starting over, being drawn to stories of endurance and survival, and finding liberation and inspiration as a writer in Los Angeles – among other things – with Discover Great New Writers.

Where did you come up with this story?

Originally this was a book about clowns, specifically a birthday party clown and the things that happen to her.  In the very last chapter, a guy with a 7 foot iguana attempts to kidnap her.  I had 500 pages and the book really wasn’t working.  I’d mention clowns to people (like my agent) and watch their eyes roll back in their heads.  So I looked at the book and thought, “What part of this do I like best?” and it was the kidnapper, his iguana, and the inklings I had of what could happen if he succeeded. It was a hard, sad day, but I threw away the clowns and 460 pages and started over with the kidnapping.

Why an iguana?

Oren, the kidnapper, is complicated. Yes, he’s a kidnapper and a kind of murderer, but he’s really not a bad guy.  I wanted him to have something that showed his warmer side and I thought of a pet.  But a dog is too normal and cats are too independent. I went to the Reptile Expo with my daughter and I saw how obsessive and passionate reptile owners can be.  They’re a very interesting pet owner subset.  Perfect for my kidnapper who grew up in a carnival and has no social skills.  And, of course, lizards are so prehistoric and frightening.  Winnie, his victim, is understandably terrified of Cookie.  

The Care & Feeding of Exotic Pets, like all your books, is set in Los Angeles.  What about LA is so interesting to you?

I grew up outside of Washington, DC in a very bland suburb of Maryland.  It’s a conservative area, no matter who’s in office, filled with trench coats and sensible shoes.  Then I lived in Salt Lake City for seven years.  That’s another very conservative and levelheaded city.  Los Angeles, on the other hand, is the nuttiest place on earth. I got here and loved it immediately. You see everything and every kind of person walking down the street. They come from all over the world to be part of the magic of Hollywood and then they stay.  There is a level of desperation and desire here that makes it possible for anything to happen.  As a mother it worries me, but as a writer I find LA both liberating and inspiring. 

Was it difficult to write a story so dark?

I’m fascinated by survival, and when I look at the books I’ve written and the books I read and love, I realize they are all—in some way—about how we survive.  There are so many kinds of survival, the every day drive slower in the rain kind, and the bigger, kidnapping kind.   And I think to really understand survival I had to go to the deepest, darkest places in my characters.  How far will they go to get what they want?  How far to stay alive?  It’s hard to make characters I’m invested in get hurt, bleed, even die, but there was no question those things had to happen.  I don’t like horror movies, and I don’t read many thrillers or crime novels, but I love to explore the unseen, private, and darker side of a “normal” person.  I think if you dig deep enough, you discover we’re all a little bizarre.

Who have you discovered lately?

I realize both recent discoveries are in keeping with that survival theme.  They are very different novels about very different kinds of endurance.  Radio Iris, by Anne-Marie Kinney is an odd tale of an office receptionist for whom things begin to go quietly and fantastically wrong.  And I loved Jonah Man by Christopher Narozny, about a one-armed juggler (there’s job survival for you!) helping a young performer escape a brutal father.  Both novels are deep and surprising and compelling, exactly what I hope for in my own work.

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.