The Almighty Father is your first novel. What inspired it?
I was turning 30, and I had a lot of unresolved issues. So I got some much needed therapy. And part of the therapeutic process was to journal, which didn’t come naturally to me, but as an actor, storytelling did. So I would write about a few memories or moments in time I felt I needed to process through, and then my brain would yearn to string that together with another memory and another, until I felt I could read it back like a story. After a few weeks of doing this, I realized how cathartic it was to process through the messiness, but I didn’t want to be restricted by the details, so I created Anna Bishop and let it all loose - some of the truth and a whole lot of fiction. I was also in the process of searching for my own biological father at that time, so there was this very weird space time continuum happening between myself and the fictional characters I was creating.
You started writing the book 20 years ago. Does it resonate differently with you now? Why did you choose to publish it when you did?
I wrote the first version of it 20 years ago, but what it is today is a combination of who I was then and who I am now. And I’m so glad I sat on it for a long as I did. I needed 20 years to keep going over it, editing and altering it, not just because I matured as a writer, but because I matured as a human being and my perspective changed so much. I was a lot angrier at 30 than I am at 50. I would go for years without ever pulling it out, forgetting it for long stretches of time, then something would draw me back. 2020 afforded me the time I needed to really dig into it, until I arrived at a place where I knew it was finally done.
Anna Bishop, the protagonist in The Almighty Father, experiences what might be called a spiritual awakening. She is also endowed with the gift and curse of foresight. What role does faith have in your own life?
I’m all for faith, can’t imagine how one could get through life without it. And I have always been spiritual, which I know is a broad term that has different meanings for different people. For me, it’s about feeling a connection to something beyond the here and now, whether that’s through the eternal spirits of our loved ones who’ve passed on or a higher power; I personally believe in the existence of both. Organized religion is not my bag, but living a life that’s built on the tenets of faith, hope, kindness and love is important to me. And truth. Living fully in one’s truth can get pretty uncomfortable. But what’s the alternative? Living a lie? I can’t imagine arriving at the end of your life and feeling good about that.
You grew up and currently live in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania -- Anna Bishop’s hometown -- but you have also lived and worked all over the country. Does the idea of home play into your writing?
I think it does. Whether it’s Anna, whose story unfolds in my hometown, or some of the other characters I write for, their connection to a specific place and time is as important to their development as their circumstances. We are all products of our environments, so I find it necessary to give a character strong roots. I also think it helps to know the lay of the land when you’re telling a story and paint clear pictures for the reader to engage with.
In your day to day life, you are the director of a theatre department at an arts high school. How does your background in education and theatre affect your work as a novelist?
I never set out to be a teacher, certainly not to work with high school students, but I know I landed where I am for a reason. My students inspire me. There’s nothing like being young and having your whole life ahead of you, to dream big and spend your days trying to make those dreams come true. Some people believe that ends at a certain age. I am not one of those people. So I relate to the kids I teach. I relate to their ambition, and I also relate to their struggles. It’s not easy being a kid. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know and work with so many talented young performers. My day job is cool; we focus on the art of telling stories.
What does your writing process look like?
Over the past twenty years, it’s been sporadic, with the inspiration to write sort of coming and going in waves. I’m trying to work on that now, trying to write more often and giving myself the license to write badly so I can get a story on the page then go back in and finesse it. As I grow older, I try to write more for myself, because I love doing it, and less with the opinions of others in mind.
Who are some of your favorite writers and why?
John Irving has always been a favorite. A Prayer for Owen Meany was the first book I read with a character that came alive to me solely through the written word. Wally Lamb is an inspiration, the way he carries you through time so effortlessly; before you know it, you’ve spanned decades with his characters and still you’d be willing to keep going because you are crazily invested. And I remember feeling very connected to the narrative voice of JD Salinger when I was young - Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey. I felt like I was inside the mind of those characters, moving through the landscapes with them. That was life changing. It introduced me to the power of literature.
You have several other writing projects in the works. Can you tell us about some of them? What can we expect from Diane Wagner?
I have an eclectic mix of projects in the works. A story about a nine year old boy in Ireland in the 1950’s who is being pursued by a band of fairies, the story of a precocious, young, Jewish girl who is uprooted from Queens and moved to the deep south, and a series about the never-ending struggles of a group of colonial women that I could probably keep writing into infinity.