Author Diana Wagman carries Iggy the Iguana, who is a character in her book, on her shoulder. Photo courtesy Diana Wagman
Diana Wagman, the next author at Eduardo Santiago’s Idyllwild Author Series, explores how an unexpected event in an ordinary day can alter a city’s landscape and the course of a woman’s life.

In her fourth novel, “The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets,” Wagman’s central character, Winnie, is a 38-year-old woman who, after a divorce, feels her life is over. Her celebrity game show host ex-husband has moved on to a younger yoga instructor and a posh Beverly Hills house.

Winnie holds down a meaningless job while raising a 16-year-old daughter. In the course of running errands, Winnie is kidnapped and held hostage by Oren, in an overheated house in Altadena that is also home to Oren’s pet and obsession, a sexually frustrated 8-foot giant iguana.

“I wanted to see how an ordinary day can be forever changed by an unexpected event,” said Wagman of the novel, which reviewers have called a hostage thriller. Wagman sees the story also as one of individuals with conflicted needs who change through unexpected interactions.

“I was more interested in Winnie’s character,” she said. “It’s a story of relationships, mothers and daughters, Winnie and Oren,” said Wagman. She admitted, with kidnapping as a central premise, that she had set herself a difficult task as a writer. “I wanted readers to like the kidnapper.” The kidnapper’s motives are pivotal in how the story plays out as it does, Wagman explained.

Her books have been cited for their sharp and authentic dialogue. Part of that, she explained, comes from having written many screenplays prior to writing novels. “Dialogue is a strength of mine,” she said. “I’m a huge eavesdropper. I go to Starbucks and listen to conversations.” It’s a way, she explained, to get the rhythm and flow of how people speak.

When Wagman wrote screenplays, people said they read like novels. “I didn’t know any screenwriters who were happy. I knew novelists who were,” she said. “So I decided to write a novel just for the joy of it.” And that has proven a successful pivot for her.

Of her writing process, Wagman starts with a character who wants something. “And I also always know my ending. It’s usually an image,” she said. “I write to that.” Asked if she always wrote at the same time of day or only in one place, she laughed and said she didn’t begin writing novels until after she had had children. “I didn’t have the luxury of a specific time and place,” she said. “I’d write with an orange crayon in the laundry room if that was what was available.”

Like other authors in this year’s series, Wagman is fascinated with and writes about the darker side of characters. “I like to go to those extreme places, where anyone, under certain circumstances, could do something dark and unexpected.”

Wagman has just finished her fifth novel, “Life Number Six.”

She will discuss “The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets” with Santiago at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 23, on the upper deck of Café Aroma. Admission is free.