In September I had the pleasure of meeting the talented and lovely Vanessa Diffenbaugh at an author talk in Highland Park. After finishing her captivating book, I reviewed her bestselling novel, The Language of Flowers.
Today I’m thrilled to introduce her to our readers.
Joan: Since debuting in August, your gorgeous novel The Language of Flowers has hit numerous bestseller lists, been blurbed by big names in literature, and has snagged a movie deal. It would have been easy for you to sit back and collect your accolades and royalties, but you decided to do something very different. You’ve started this amazing non-profit, The Camellia Network. Tell our readers about your mission.
Vanessa: I’d love to! When I sold my book in the manner I did—at auction, and in 40 countries!—I realized very quickly that I would have a platform from which to speak about the challenges youth face when they are transitioning out of foster care. And as I started to speak about this issue, I heard the same response over and over again: I didn’t know this was happening! Followed more often than not by the words: How can I help?
I had recently been involved with a group of women that had helped a young man transition from foster care to college. We had arranged an early move-in to the dorms, purchased gift cards at a grocery store for the weeks before the cafeteria would open, and registered him at Target for everything he would need his freshman year. Because there were over 20 of us, no one had to spend very much money and we were able to make a huge impact on this young man’s life.
As I started my book tour I began to wonder—what if we could implement something like this on a national scale? I believed strongly—and still do—that the “aging out” issue is a solvable problem. While 20,000 youth a year may seem daunting, if you break it down by community it isn’t very many. In my hometown of Chico, California, less than 100 youth age out every year. So we launched Camellia Network, whose mission is to activate networks of citizens in every community to provide the critical support young people need to transition from foster care to adulthood. Our pilot program served 50 youth in 12 states, and we are trying to fulfill their registries by Christmas. You can find a youth to support at www.camellianetwork.org.
Joan: In The Language of Flowers Camellia means My Destiny is in Your Hands. Read literally, it’s a sorrowful plea for help, yet the moniker’s complexity and power become clear when one considers the following quote on your website: “We have named Camellia Network to emphasize our belief in the interconnectedness of humanity, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens.” One of my favorite passages in your book touched on this very theme, where Victoria imagines what her world of flowers could accomplish:
“…would alter the quantities of anger, grief, and mistrust growing in the earth on a massive scale. Farmers would uproot fields of foxglove to plant yarrow, the soft clusters of pink, yellow, and cream the cure to a broken heart.”
You’ve captured the interconnectedness of humanity exactly. Did you know in your first drafts you’d be sharing your message this way?
Vanessa: No, not at all. When I started writing The Language of Flowers I had a very simple idea: I wanted to tell a story about a young woman who had trouble learning to love and attach because of her history in foster care. I didn’t even plan to write a book about flowers, but when the character of Victoria came to me she was speaking through flowers. The rest of the book grew very organically from this premise—Elizabeth, the vineyard, the flower farm—none of this was premeditated, but rather became the background (and often the driving force) of Victoria’s emotional journey.
Joan: I loved reading about the 95-year-old Dallas women who willed you her book on herbal symbolism. Wow! Tell us about the overwhelming response you’ve received on book tours and in media (social and print!).
Vanessa: That was the best moment I had on my book tour. She was lovely; so smart and passionate about flowers, and thrilled that she had found someone who shared her passion. It felt like meeting an old friend, and I wished I’d had more time with her. And she actually isn’t the only one who has sent me a book! There is another older woman from the UK who has a small book on the Language of Flowers that she wants to send me. I am happy to be the one to carry this interest into the next generation, and will treasure both books.
Joan: As your book has gained worldwide attention in so many countries, have you been able to garner attention for The Camellia Network at an international level or does foster care feel mostly like an American issue? Has there been any talk of the organization expanding to any kind of international effort. (Thanks to Julie Kibler for this question!)
Vanessa: There has been quite a bit of interest, especially from the UK, which has a foster care system very similar to ours (with tragic outcomes for youth leaving care that are nearly identical to our own). We see the Camellia Network model as one that could work internationally, but we are still in the very early stages of our organization and know it is important to build and establish ourselves here before expanding.
Joan: I was very moved by the profiles on the Camellia Network website and am happy to fulfill a youth's registry by Christmas.
I imagine between book touring, non-profit work, and raising children, it must be difficult to find time to work on your next novel. Will we be rewarded with another book any time soon?
Vanessa: I can finally answer that question with an honest: YES. I write every morning, but for a long time I was having trouble focusing—there is just so much going on in my life now! When I wrote The Language of Flowers I was home full time with two teenagers and two babies. So while I didn’t have much time—babies and teenagers are certainly demanding—I didn’t have anything occupying my mental space. Now, with Camellia Network and obligations for The Language of Flowers in so many countries, I have had trouble turning all that off and sinking into my new book. But I can finally say I am making progress, and enjoying it!
Joan: Fantastic! Now, about that movie deal… Many of us at WWW choose actors to represent our characters, to help us picture them as we write. If casting were up to you, which actors would you like to see in the main roles?
Vanessa: Oh, I am the worst person in the world at answering this question! I don’t watch enough movies to stay on top of all the new (especially the young) actors. Also, even though the teams at Fox 2000 and Red Wagon Productions have been incredible at keeping me in the loop and asking for my input, I have a hard time believing I will actually have any say in actors or actresses—so I try not to think much about it!
Thanks to Vanessa for sharing her story and her time. You can also follow The Camellia Network on FaceBook.