"We carry our accumulated guilt like rocks in our pocket," Diana Wagman says, sitting in the dining room of her airy Echo Park home. "Guilt motivates people and usually not in a good way. In fiction it's always interesting."
Wagman is discussing the "albatross of regret" that the characters in her fifth novel, "Life #6" (Ig Publishing: 280 pp., $24.95), can't seem to shake. Set today and in 1979, "Life #6" is loosely based on her own life. It revolves around Fiona, who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, which reopens a valve of suffering and resurrects the memory of being lost at sea with her lover, Luc, and several men during an ill-fated trip from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda.
"Life #6" examines how we collect and keep our own pain, and asks the reader to investigate how the weight of our accumulated regret pollutes our every move. When asked why she chose now — 30 years after her own near-death encounter at sea — to finally write about her experiences, Wagman said, "I really started to look at what that [experience] had to do with who I am today. Survivor guilt is part of it. I did survive being lost at sea, I did survive a broken heart, I did survive cancer. And, of course, the survivor's question is always 'Why me?'"
Wagman didn't start out thinking she could choose writing as a career, though she always loved to write. "When you really want something, sometimes you're scared of doing it," she says.
The offbeat sensibility in her work may stem from her start as a mime on the streets of New York City with a dancer boyfriend (much like the one in "Life #6") whom she met in a college miming class in Utah. Realizing it wasn't the most lucrative career, she moved on to film school and continued her studies at American Film Institute as a screenwriting fellow. Film seemed like a natural choice for someone who spent much of her childhood outside Washington, D.C., going to movies with her father as a way to stay close after her parents divorced.
But Wagman found it exhausting to write scripts that tried to capitalize on what was on trend and found the rejection even more so. After watching the final cut of "Delivering Milo," based on a story she had written, and noticing that only one line was still hers, she decided to write fiction "just to love writing again."
Her 1997 debut novel, "Skin Deep," sold right away, and the film rights have been optioned multiple times. Wagman says she loves writing about troubled and traditionally "unlikable" characters: women who lack agency or can't seem to overcome their poor odds. She recalls that some editors at small presses have asked her to soften the edges of characters such as Martha, the topless waitress in "Skin Deep" who chooses not to be a mother to her young daughter. Wagman fought against that request and won, but she relented on others and knows the pressure would be even greater at a larger publishing house.
"I love Oprah, but I think her strong females who fight and get through the situation changed things. We expect that in our female characters," she says of the kind of books Winfrey has celebrated in her book club. Wagman finds that role-model narrative stifling. "If you think about 'Gone Girl,' she's not particularly likable — strong, weird, twisted — but not particularly likable," she points out. "So maybe editors are wrong."
Robert Lasner, the editor on "Life #6," says he was drawn to Wagman's "tight, punchy style." He also published her previous novel, "The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets," about a woman who is kidnapped by a man who owns a pet 7-foot iguana, and says after reading many, many manuscripts, he discovered that "a simple way to know if a book is one that you want to publish is if you become so mesmerized when reading the manuscript ... that you forget you are reading the book for work and the whole process becomes pure pleasure."
Wagman works hard to impart that sense of pleasure — along with perseverance — to her students at Writing Workshops LA, where she teaches. Having spent so much of her own career trying to second-guess the market with screenplays, she urges them to "write what you love. People will see how good you are and what you can do." Though her path to success has been circuitous, Wagman has found her own singular voice and is determined to write the stories she wants to write, on her own terms — weird, likable, or not.
Diana Wagman will be reading from "Life #6" at Skylight Books at 5 p.m. on Sunday.