Interview: September 7, 2011
Bookreporter.com’s Norah Piehl talks to Vanessa Diffenbaugh about her book, THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, in which a young woman’s gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past. Diffenbaugh explains the inspiration behind her debut novel, describes what prompted her to make the central character a foster child, reveals her favorite flowers and their meanings, and discusses The Camellia Network, her nonprofit organization, and its connection with the book.
Bookreporter.com: THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS acquaints readers with the Victorian symbolic language of flowers. How did you learn about this, and what inspired you to write about it?
Though I’ve always loved the language of flowers, I did not actually set out to write about it. I wanted to write a story about the intricate relationships between children in foster care and the people who love them. When my main character, Victoria, came to me, she was speaking the language of flowers.
BRC: The central character of the book, Victoria Jones, grows up within the foster care system. You've been involved as a foster parent for years. What prompted you to provide foster care?
VD: My husband and I were exposed to the tragic side of the foster care system at a very young age. After college when we were not yet married, we mentored four girls who ended up in foster care. We watched as they were placed with a single mother in a home with nine children (the legal limit is six), then moved into the home of a Spanish-speaking family (they did not speak Spanish) and eventually separated from one another. It was heartbreaking to watch these girls, whom we had grown to love, experience so much displacement and trauma. We decided then that some day we wanted to be foster parents, and after we married and settled down we followed through with this commitment.
BRC: What kinds of misconceptions about foster care have you encountered? Did you hope to confront any of these in your fiction? What one thing about our current foster care system do you hope people come away from THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS having learned?
VD: There are so many misconceptions about the foster care system. Most of what we see in the media is sensationalized: a horrific child death at the hands of abusive foster parent, or --- the opposite extreme --- the saintly family that “saves” the troubled child and everyone lives happily ever after. The truth is much more complicated, and more interesting. Foster parents and foster children, like adults and children everywhere, are trying to overcome trauma, learn to love one another, and form a family.
If I could choose only one thing, I hope that readers will come away from THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS with a new understanding of the challenges young people face as they leave the foster care system and a desire to help. This is why I am launching Camellia Network --- to give all citizens, even those without the time or resources to become a foster parent, a simple, direct way to support young people leaving the system.
BRC: Victoria's primary challenge is learning that she possesses the capability both to love and to be loved. At first, she doesn't trust either of these things to be true. In your experience, is this a challenge faced by many foster children?
VD: Foster children are like children everywhere --- each one is absolutely unique. I have worked with some young people in foster care who are warm and open and almost shockingly trusting. My son Tre’von, who joined our family when he was 14, is one of these. Then there are others who have an incredibly difficult time loving and trusting. One young woman in particular, whom my husband and I mentored many years ago, was fiery and focused and distrusting and unpredictable in a manner similar to Victoria. Her history was intense: a number on her birth certificate where a name should have been; more foster homes than she could count. She was resilient, beautiful, smart, and funny, and we loved her completely; she did her best to sabotage it, over and over again. To this day my husband and I regret that we couldn’t find a way to connect with her and become the stable parents she deserved.
BRC: How would you respond to readers who might find Victoria, as a character, difficult to like?
VD: I’m not sure how I would respond! I love her and I always have, even in my earlier drafts when she was much more difficult than she is in the finished novel. But characters are like people --- some you just don’t like. I’d probably tell a reader that if you haven’t connected with her after the first section --- if you haven’t seen the difference between her heart and her actions --- you should probably move on to another book.
BRC: Your novel is told primarily in chapters that alternate scenes from Victoria's present --- as a young adult who's just aged out of foster care --- with those from her past. These episodes in her life parallel each other in several important ways and allow readers to detect patterns in Victoria's life. How did you decide to construct your narrative in this fashion?
VD: My first draft was in chronological order. I started with Victoria’s birth and wrote straight through her thirties. This draft was long and the pacing didn’t feel right. At the suggestion of my agent, I started the novel on Victoria’s 18th birthday and worked in the scenes from her childhood that I felt were essential to her story.
BRC: As a young child, Victoria finds strength and comfort in plants and flowers, particularly in the Victorian symbolic language of flowers. Have you known any florists who, like Victoria, incorporate the language of flowers into their flower designs?
VD: I don’t know any personally. In the past few months, however, many passionate fans of the Victorian language of flowers have contacted me through Facebook, including many florists.
BRC: What are your favorite flowers, and were you surprised when you explored their meanings?
VD: Most of my favorite flowers are my favorites because of their definitions; I have known about the language of flowers for so long, I can’t remember what my favorite flowers were before I studied the meanings. My current favorites are tulips (declaration of love), gentia (intrinsic worth), asters (patience) and euphorbia (persistence).
BRC: Your novel illustrates some very dark moments in Victoria's life, but it ends with more than a glimmer of hope. What would be your greatest hope for your character as she enters the next chapter of her life?
VD: My greatest hope for Victoria is that she doesn’t give up on herself, and that she remembers that she is worthy and capable of loving and being loved, regardless of her imperfections.
BRC: THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, especially with its depiction of all different types of motherhood (in many cases, deeply flawed), is certain to resonate deeply with female readers. I can definitely picture this becoming a book club favorite. I know your guide is listed on ReadingGroupGuides.com, and there is an opportunity for book groups to win a chat with you. Have you ever been part of a book club yourself? What do you most look forward to talking to book groups about?
VD: I would be honored to have my book read by book clubs! I was in a book club briefly when I lived in Sacramento and was writing THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS. While I absolutely loved my book club and loved getting together with the other women monthly to talk about interesting books and ideas, I must admit I felt like a terrible book club member. I read constantly, but when I am writing I always want to read very specific things to help me learn about structure, or plot, or dialogue, or any number of other things. So I only read the assigned book about half the time, and I was always apologizing to my club members.
To help launch Camellia Network I will be calling into any book club meeting that is willing to dedicate their meeting to a young person emancipating from the foster care system. I am very excited to talk about the book --- flowers, foster care, mothering --- and also my vision for how book clubs can help solve the tragedy of 20,000 young people aging out of the foster care system every year, with little to no support.
BRC: Tell me more about The Camellia Network. What exactly is its connection with your book?
VD: I have two passions in life: writing and foster care. When I sold THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS last year, I realized that the book could help rally awareness and support for youth transitioning out of foster care. I co-founded Camellia Network with my dear friend and brilliant strategist Isis Keigwin. Our idea is to try to impact the heart-wrenching outcomes of youth aging out of foster care (25% of young people experience homelessness within two years after leaving the system, 25% become incarcerated, only 58% graduate high school by age 19) by activating networks of citizens in every community to provide support for these young people as they go out into the world on their own. To learn more or to join our network, visit www.camellianetwork.org.
BRC: What advice would you give readers who might be inspired by your novel to become foster parents themselves?
VD: First, I would do some research about the foster care agencies in your community, and try to find one with the most support for foster parents. Engaged, energetic social workers are incredibly helpful, as is an active community of foster parents willing to support one another. Then I would just say this: children will test your commitment, teenagers especially. This is part of gaining trust, and if your commitment doesn’t waver, their behavior will most often change.
BRC: How did you get started with writing fiction? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
VD: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I learned how to write. My second grade teacher excused me from spelling so that I would have half an hour every day to write a novel. As for advice, I would say this: rewrite. And rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I have yet to meet a writer that writes a pretty first draft. Find one or two writers (or readers) whose opinion you trust, let them read your work, and then listen to what they say. Really listen --- even if (and especially if) it is exactly the thing you don’t want to hear. Then go back to your draft, and keep working.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
VD: I have started a new novel that I am excited about, but I imagine it will take a few years to write and revise. Stay tuned!