author of The Language of Flowers
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, California. I planned on going to a state university, but my grandmother offered to pay the $50 application fee to Stanford, and, to my surprise, I was accepted! I majored in English and studio art and received a graduate degree in education.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Writer, writer, and writer. When I was twelve I wrote my first short story for an English teacher who would come to have a great influence on my life. The title was: The Disappointed Bench. I’ve lost the story, and can’t remember what it was about, but the title intrigues me. At twelve, what did I know about benches that has now escaped me? At eighteen I’d been writing in a journal every day for over three years, and at thirty I was just beginning the novel that would become The Language of Flowers.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
The year I turned eighteen I shaved off all my hair. It was a dark, introspective time, and I was brooding inside the pages of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and trying to figure out exactly what it was that I believed, separate from what others believed. To this end, I wrote a list of all the things I would do if it was just up to me to decide (because, after all, it was just up to me to decide!). First on my list was cutting off my long, blond hair. When my hair fell to the ground and the world did not end, I continued down my list.
So, to answer your question: before eighteen I believed life was to live as other people told you you should; after eighteen, I decided that life is for pursing your passions, no matter who might caution you against it.
4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
There is a musical group called The Weepies. I discovered their music as I was writing my book and many of their songs—Somebody Loved, World Spins Madly On, and Gotta Have You, to name three—felt like they were being written EXACTLY for the characters in my book. I would put these songs on while I wrote, and it would help me to know exactly what was to come next in my characters lives.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I started my first journal at age five and never wavered in my love of putting words to paper. While I dabbled in other media (a few years playing piano, a stretch painting murals, and a continuing fascination with making books) writing a novel was always my goal.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
My debut novel, The Language of Flowers, is about Victoria Jones, a young woman raised in the United States foster care system. The novel starts on her 18th birthday, as she is starting off in the world alone, and juxtaposes her present with childhood scenes of her year living on a vineyard with Elizabeth, the only woman who ever loved her. Elizabeth taught her to communicate through the Victorian language of flowers, which she uses mostly to communicate things like mistrust (lavender), anger (peony) and misanthropy (thistle). At eighteen she meets a man who understands the language of flowers, and she embarks on a slow, painful journey to learn to love and trust again.
(BBGuru: Read Toni Whitmont’s review here + here is the publisher’s synopsis:
I had a sudden urge to tell him about the flowers, to explain the hidden meanings.
Honeysuckle for devotion.
Azaleas for passion.
Red roses for love.
I placed a rhododendron on the plywood counter before him. The cluster of purple blossoms was not yet open and the buds pointed in his direction, tightly coiled and toxic.
In The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s powerful first novel, a damaged young woman, Victoria Jones, who can only communicate through the Victorian language of flowers, goes from being homeless to a sought after wedding floral designer.
The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in conveying feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.
Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what’s been missing in her own life, and as she starts to fall for him, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
The Language of Flowers is a heartbreaking and redemptive novel about the meaning of flowers, the meaning of family, and the meaning of love. Beautiful, original and utterly unforgettable, it is set to be the fiction sensation of 2011.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I believe that people are spurred into action when they both see the injustice of a situation and the possibility for change. With The Language of Flowers I tried to write a book that was honest and true, but hopeful enough to inspire people to act. Each year, nearly 20,000 young people emancipate from the foster care system, many of them with nowhere to go and no one to go to for support. I am launching a non-profit called Camellia Network that will connect every emancipating foster child to a community—a book club, a women’s club, a church group—to support them through the transition to adulthood and beyond. It is my hope that readers everywhere will read my book and become inspired to partner with emancipating young people in their own communities. www.camellianetwork.org
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Toni Morrison – because she is brilliant. I have read Beloved half a dozen times and it gets better every time. I love that she doesn’t shrink from tough subjects or tough characters; she writes about people as they are—whole, struggling, flawed, and trying to do the best they can.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I have two major goals right now: to write my second novel and to launch Camellia Network. My new book is coming along slowly but surely—I have close to a hundred pages, but have put it on hold during my upcoming tour. Camellia Network will launch when my book releases in the United States (August 23rd)—and we are making progress toward our launch every day!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
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.
Vanessa, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.