Début author Vanessa Diffenbaugh talks to Alice O’Keeffe about the personal experiences that inspired her internationally successful novel, The Language of Flowers.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh drew on her own experiences of caring for foster children when writing her début novel The Language of Flowers (Macmillan, August). "I felt, at least in the United States, it's really a story that isn't told very well, I don't think, in all of it's complexity.
"You have these two opposite stories—the complete nightmare kids that are violent and hurt the biological child or burn down the house . . . or you have the superhero, superhuman foster mother that sweeps in and saves the child and they live happily ever after," Diffenbaugh says.
She is speaking from a hotel room in New York, back on home soil after a hectic three-and-a-half-week promotional tour of Europe, where the novel has already been published. She wanted to write more realistically about "the emotional journey of a child who has been traumatised, [who is] learning how to love and trust again."
In The Language of Flowers, Victoria Jones has spent her troubled childhood in and out of children's homes between failed foster care placements. The novel opens on her 18th birthday, when she is legally able to leave the guardianship of the State of California. At first, ill-prepared for the outside world, she scavenges leftover food from restaurant plates and sleeps rough in a park, where she also starts to plant her own secret garden. The Victorian language of flowers, used to express emotion (for example, a red rose signifies love, but a yellow rose means infidelity), has sustained Victoria through her difficult life.
Diffenbaugh shares her main character's passion; as a teenager she came across a second-hand copy of Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers, and was immediately intrigued. "I always carried that [interest] with me. The first scene I wrote in the book was Victoria going into the flower market and there's a young man that looks at her strangely. She doesn't say anything, because she doesn't ever say anything; she doesn't like to be looked at, she doesn't like to talk, she doesn't like to be touched; but she comes back the next week with a rhododendron which means ‘beware'," Diffenbaugh says. "[Victoria] takes solace in this language that no one understands, because she can't be hurt by anyone's response."
Nature or nurture . A central theme of the novel is whether it's possible for someone's personality to change as they get older, or whether it is fundamentally fixed in childhood, as Victoria struggles to overcome her experiences growing up (told in flashback). Diffenbaugh explains that she was thinking about the nature of attachment disorder when she started the novel—a psychological condition that affects children who are unable to bond with others, due to very early childhood experiences of neglect or abuse.
Diffenbaugh had witnessed this herself as a foster carer. She mentions one particular young woman: "We really loved her and there was this one ‘ah-ha' moment where we just realised she didn't love us back—not that she didn't want to, but she just didn't, and couldn't. And I became a little bit obsessed with thinking about it . . . For me I think every decision I've ever made in my entire life has had something to do with love, either looking for it, or trying to keep it, or being influenced by it. And what would it be like to live your life if you didn't have love as your guiding star?"
Victoria's journey is no straight path to happiness. For every positive step she takes—finding casual work with a florist, starting to trust a young man she meets—she'll then take two steps back, retreating into the behaviour that protected her as a child. "But," says Diffenbaugh, "in the end the idea emerges that you really can change and overcome the hardest of early traumas."
Diffenbaugh's path to fostering began after she graduated from Stanford University and taught art and creative writing to under-privileged children in after-school programmes. She progressed from mentoring to fostering, and Tre'von, a foster child who moved in with her and her husband in 2007, is who now an undergraduate at NYU.
Diffenbaugh started writing seriously when she was at home after the birth of her own two children. The first draft of The Language of Flowers was completed in six months, mostly "during nap-time, about an hour and a half every day", but needed quite an extensive rewrite after some rather direct feedback from her American agent. Diffenbaugh recalls her agent's words with a giggle: "It still doesn't have a plot, it's way too slow and your character is still completely unlikeable!"
Her hard work has certainly paid off; The Language of Flowers was the centre of a nine-publisher auction in the UK, with foreign rights deals at 31 and counting. "We just sold in Albania this week" she says, clearly thrilled at the international reach of her novel. She thinks readers should be the ones to comment on the book's appeal but guesses: "[A story about] trying to learn how to love and trust again is more universal than I thought."