My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Diana Wagman, the author of five novels, most recently Life #6. Edan Lepucki, author of California, had this to say about the novel: “Life #6 intrigued and delighted me from the first paragraph, and for two days I read it everywhere: at meals, in the bath, in line, while driving, you name it. I loved the wit and despair of its heroine, and the way the past—with all its attendant desires and trauma—wouldn't let her go.” Diana's second novel, Spontaneous, won the 2001 USA Pen West Award for Fiction. Her fourth novel, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Salon, Black Clock, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She is an occasional contributor to the LA Times. Click here to visit her website.
My First Novel
I used to be an unhappy screenwriter. I’d gone to school for film, studied screenwriting, and worked hard. I wrote seven scripts, each in a genre everybody—or at least somebody—was sure to want. I had a murder mystery, a romantic comedy, a buddy film, a family drama, and a cop movie. I poured over the trades and the newspapers, reading reviews, checking out what was popular, what was marketable, what would sell, sell, sell.
Three years after graduation, I couldn’t even get my agent on the phone. He wouldn’t take my call so I could fire him. I had no meetings, even my friends had stopped reading my work, and I was beginning to hate writing.
But I grew up and I wasn’t a good student and anyway in the public schools I went to there was never a creative writing assignment. I kept writing stories, but secretly. I could no longer fit under the desk, so I wrote in my bed at night. And I still loved it, but I didn’t show it to anyone. I knew it was drivel, typical teenage angst.
Then, in college, I thought about writing and foolishly thought screenwriters made money. I could write for movies. I loved movies and it was a craft. I could work at it and figure it out and write high-concept, moneymaking scripts and still keep my secret stories that were now, I believed, the typical drivel of a twenty-something woman.
Seven screenplays. Each one carefully constructed to star the most popular actor of the moment and to tell the story everyone wanted to see. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working. Eventually I despaired. I stopped reading the trades. Stopped going to the movies. I’d sit down at my desk—I wrote on top of it now, on a computer—and stare at the screen. But I’d think, why bother?
And then a friend, Janet Fitch, unpublished at the time, well before the amazing success of White Oleander, took me to her writers’ group. The leader gave an assignment, one word that we were supposed to free write about in only six lines. It was very loosey-goosey and I went home with the word, “blue” and immediately put it out of my mind. I didn’t do that kind of writing. I was much more calculating than that. But a few days later, sitting at my desk and not writing, I typed the word “blue.” A picture came to me, of a woman in a blue world, with a blue car and a blue couch, wearing blue jeans. And then I imagined this woman totally encased in a blue bag. I began to write.
I wrote in prose. This wasn’t a movie; it was not marketable. No actress would want to spend the majority of the film in a blue bag. It was just a story, and it got to be a bigger story, a story I really wanted to tell.
I continued writing screenplays, actually rewriting the ones I had, trying to make them more sellable. That was my work. But I ran to the computer every extra chance I got to work on this story. I didn’t know what it would be, but I had to write it down. It was fun. I loved doing it. I dreamed about my character, Martha, at night. She whispered in my ear as I was driving carpool or doing laundry or packing lunches in the morning. No screenplay had ever taken hold of my mind, my thoughts, my heart, the way Martha did. I started turning down social invitations to stay home and write.
It took a long time. I still felt despair over my screenplays. I had a meeting with Meg Ryan’s producer, it went well, and for a moment I was buoyed, excited, but then they never called. My mother died suddenly. I was very sad, and the book was my solace. Her death changed it. Martha’s mother became my mother. The story had depths that weren’t there before. Martha had a past. This blue bag became the logical outcome of all that had happened to her before.
I was bereft when I finished the draft. I wanted to keep at it, but the story was done. I couldn’t say any more. I gave it to my husband to read. His job is to say, “It’s great,” which he did. So I sent it to my older sister. She’s a big reader and I wanted her to tell me it if it truly was a novel.
What she said was “I don’t know.” She liked it. She recognized Mom and our stepfather, some scenes from the past. She thought it was interesting, and she’s a college professor and a wonderful teacher and she wanted to help me. She offered to send it to an English professor friend and I said no. I hadn’t written it for that. I wrote it for me, because I had to, because I loved doing it, because Martha wouldn’t let me stop.
I didn’t give the book to anyone else. I didn’t tell my silent screenplay agent I’d written it. It was just there and I thought I’d do something with it one day. Months went by. Three to be exact. And on July 17th, the phone rang and I answered.
“Diana Wagman?” The woman caller had a strong southern lilt. “I’m from the University Press of Mississippi and I’d like to buy your book.”
It was the friend of my sister’s, who taught English and also was the Editor in Chief of the press.
I almost fell over. I didn’t know my sister had sent it to her. She had to reassure me she had actually read the book I had written, that she didn’t have me confused with someone else. She said, “I can feel your love in this story.”
The first true writing I did, not to sell, not to make money, but out of pure love, was the first thing I sold. That the established, experienced editor of that press wanted this very rough, unprofessional novel is a testament to the old adage: write from the heart.
The coda to the story is that the editor and I worked on that book, sometimes page by page. I learned a lifetime’s worth of writing knowledge from her. The book came out and was very favorably reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. The next day, the phone rang and it was a producer wanting to option my book. He hired me to write the screenplay. The first real money I ever made from screenwriting was because of this book.
Shortly thereafter, my agent called. “Saw you in the Times,” he said and I fired him.