Between the Lines: Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s ‘Wings’ takes flight

“Just as I didn’t mean to write about flowers in ‘The Language of Flowers,’ I actually didn’t mean to write about immigration in ‘We Never Asked For Wings,’
” said author Vanessa Diffenbaugh.
“Just as I didn’t mean to write about flowers in ‘The Language of Flowers,’ I actually didn’t mean to write about immigration in ‘We Never Asked For Wings,’ ” said author Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Randy Tunnell

Is there a private book club that hasn’t included former Sacramentan Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s surprise mega-hit “The Language of Flowers” on its reading list? The 2010 novel spent 69 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, was translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 1 million copies. The movie version is “in development” at 20th Century Fox.

“(Its success) was absolutely unexpected and has changed everything for us,” Diffenbaugh, 37, said by phone from Monterey, where she and her husband have lived for the past year. “My (Sacramento) neighbors were as surprised as I was. They knew I was writing a book, and I was constantly asking their kids to baby-sit to get an hour here and there to write.”

Diffenbaugh’s new novel, “We Never Asked for Wings,” is the story of a young Bay Area single mom working multiple jobs, whose children are being raised by her parents. Sudden circumstances put the responsibility of full-time parenthood on her, and she struggles to find ways to elevate her family’s situation. “One of the (motives) of writing it was to explore educational divide,” Diffenbaugh said.

“Wings” is the Sacramento Bee Book Club’s choice for October, in partnership with the Sacramento Public Library and Barnes & Noble. Because of temporary construction at the Library Galleria, the longtime home of Bee Book Club events, the venue has changed for the sold-out event. Ticket-holders should read the accompanying box for more details.

Diffenbaugh and her family lived in Sacramento for six years, so she has “deep roots” here, she said. “I wrote most of ‘Flowers’ at Temple Coffee on S Street.” That novel is the story of Victoria Jones, a conflicted woman who “ages out” of the foster-care system but carries its psychic consequences into adulthood.

Though Diffenbaugh herself was not a foster child, she has been a foster parent and her passion for the subject is extreme. She used some of the money from the sales of “Flowers” to help launch the national Camellia Network out of an office on H Street in 2012, after piloting the program in 2011. It was a nonprofit “social support platform” that assisted young people transitioning out of foster care. In July, it was acquired by Youth Villages, a national group specializing in transitional-living programs, and renamed LifeSet Network.

“For the most part, people who are in foster care and people who are foster parents are really struggling with poverty,” she said. “It’s a hard thing to fundraise for, because most people haven’t directly experienced it, and that’s what often motivates giving. I had to find another way to have people experience it, and I think I did that with ‘Flowers.’ 

As for the genesis of “Flowers,” “I really wanted to write about foster kids, but I came up with the character of Victoria first,” she recalled. “I didn’t plan to write a book about the language of flowers (floriography), but I’d created a character who couldn’t communicate normally, so it just made sense (to give her) that ‘language.’ 

How did Diffenbaugh enter the realm of foster care? “How many hours do you have?” she said. “My first exposure was when I was right out of Stanford (University) and mentored some girls who I had to surrender to the foster-care system, and then watch what they went through. Later, my husband (a teacher at the time) had a lot of students in foster care, and we made sure they got the extra support they needed. A few of those kids moved in with us.”

Her husband, PK Diffenbaugh, is now the superintendent of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. The Diffenbaughs have two young biological children, an adopted son who is 25, and a former foster son who is 23, about whom she said: “We have no legal relationship with him now, except we love him. There’s a lot of love in our family.”

While Diffenbaugh wrote “Wings” from a different mindset, like “Flowers” it is from first-hand experience. Connected to her mentoring was the after-school program she ran in troubled East Palo Alto, in the middle of Silicon Valley. “There was such an extreme amount of dot-com wealth in the Bay Area, yet I was working in a community of poverty, drug abuse and crime,” she said. “I was shocked by the absolute extremes of the economic divide.”

And the educational divide, as well. When East Palo Alto closed its high school, Diffenbaugh recalled, “Instead of just letting the kids walk over the freeway to Palo Alto High School, one of the best in the country, they bused kids miles and miles to some really struggling schools farther down the peninsula. It was crazy.”

Years later, Diffenbaugh was outraged when she heard the story of Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Ohio single mother who was convicted of falsifying residency records so her children could attend an academically better school outside of their own school district.

“She was charged with ‘stealing a public education,’ which is crazy, given that public education is free,” Diffenbaugh said. “I actually started ‘Wings’ by wondering what kind of mother would do that and what would be the reasons that inspired her. Letty is a character desperate to prove herself to her children and step up to be a better mother, and (enrolling her children outside their district) is part of her solution.

“Just as I didn’t mean to write about flowers in ‘Flowers,’ I actually didn’t mean to write about immigration in ‘Wings,’ but I couldn’t write about this community I’d created and pretend everyone was documented,” she added. “That’s not the way it is in low-income communities, so that (dynamic) ended up as a huge part of the plot.”

How’s the book-tour reception been for “Wings”?

“I’m trying not to have crazy-high expectations,” she said. “For the most part, the people who are coming out (to book-signings) haven’t read it yet. Most of the feedback I’m getting is still about ‘Flowers.’ People bring their tattered copies with like 50,000 Post-Its stuck in them. There’s nothing better for a writer than to see her book really be loved.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Change of venue

Because of construction at the Tsakopoulus Library Galleria on I Street, the Bee Book Club on Thursday, Oct. 22, will host Vanessa Diffenbaugh at the Clunie Community Center in McKinley Park, 601 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento. Doors open at 5:15 p.m., program at 6 p.m.

All the tickets have been taken. Carpooling is encouraged.

“We Never Asked for Wings” (Ballantine, $27, 320 pages) will be offered at a 30 percent discount through Thursday at Barnes & Noble; Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento; Avid Reader in Davis; Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills; Time Tested Books; Underground Books; Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento; the UC Davis Bookstore; and the Bookseller in Grass Valley. During the event, Barnes & Noble will be selling discounted, pre-autographed copies of “We Never Asked For Wings,” along with the paperback edition of “The Language of Flowers” at full price.

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