In Diana Wagman’s novel, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, a woman is held captive by a man who keeps a seven-foot-long iguana named Cookie in the kitchen.
Whatever possessed you to make your kidnapper an amateur herpetologist?
I knew when I was first thinking about this story that Winnie would be kidnapped. I knew her kidnapper was delusional, but I didn’t want him to be evil. So I thought a pet—but not a dog (too normal) and not a cat. The giant iguana was odd, kind of frightening, and could come from his carnival childhood. Plus, he loves Cookie, but Cookie doesn’t give much back.
How did you research that aspect of the book? Did you spend time in the herpetological community?
I spent a lot of time with Sabine Phillips, director of the Reptile and Amphibian Rescue Network, and her four rescued giant iguanas. She was a wonderful resource. I also went to the Reptile Expo at the L.A. Fairgrounds. I can definitely say reptile enthusiasts are unusual and often obsessive. Great inspiration for Oren, my kidnapper. I just took it to an extreme. Even before I knew Oren had an iguana, I imagined his house as being so so hot. Cookie was the perfect excuse.
You put the reader inside your characters’ heads, especially the most hapless, such as the hapless psychopath Leo in Bump and Oren here. Characters often think of their own bizarre actions as normal. Do you have an interest in psychology?
I definitely gravitate toward the more unusual members of society. Kidney, the smuggler [in Care and Feeding], was easy for me—once I figured out that he idolizes Michael Jackson. I love obsessions of all kinds and people who are very passionate. Then the idea of the hapless, bumbling, sort of noir character is very me. Oren, the kidnapper, has a lot of me in him. I haven’t kidnapped or murdered anybody—yet—but I often feel that I’m in over my head or that I had a plan that went terribly awry. I think if we were seen at our most private moments, if we revealed our deepest desires, we would all be bizarre. I mean that in a good way.
What appeals to you about the random and the bizarre?
Anything can happen. Every choice we make is fraught with possibility. If we turn left instead of right on our way to the grocery store, we might be in an accident or meet the man of our dreams. I love the idea that suddenly everything changes and the everyday and mundane, like the tree outside the window, looks completely different.
You’ve written novels, short stories, screenplays, and journalism. Is there a form you find most challenging?
I think short stories are incredibly hard because they’re little gems. Like poetry, there is no room for an extra word or phrase. But novels seem the most difficult. The commitment of years of your life, the puzzle of it, so many things going on at once and that you have to come back to it day after day and fall into it again. A novel will take over my nonwriting life. I will live as my characters and dream about them. They’re as real as my own family.