How I Write

08.15.12

Helping Children After Foster Care: Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s How I Write Interview

Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of the novel The Language of Flowers and the founder of the Camellia Network, talks about her mission connecting youths with critical resources, and how she needs to have another baby in order to write.

At the age of 23, Vanessa Diffenbaugh took four children into her home, and she has been fostering kids in need ever since. Her debut novel, The Language of Flowers, chronicles the experience of a young woman growing up in foster care and the difficulties she experiences after leaving the system.

What is Camellia Network?

I founded Camellia Network with my dear friend Isis Dallis Keigwin. The mission of our organization is to create a national network that connects every youth aging out of foster care to the critical resources, opportunities, and support they need to thrive in adulthood. Currently, outcomes for former foster youth are dire—more than half end up homeless or incarcerated within two years of “aging out” of the system. But at Camellia Network we believe if we can create a way of identifying every young person aging out of foster care, defining what they need, and giving a community of supporters a simple and clear way to fulfill those needs, we can produce radically improved outcomes for youth.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Chico, Calif.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Cambridge, Mass. We moved here almost two years ago for my husband to go to Harvard, where he’s studying school leadership and education reform.

Describe your daily routine.

Well, I get up and I get my kids ready for school. I only have my biological children living at home now; my foster kids are all at college. So I get my little ones ready for school, and then after I drop them off I write for about three hours, sometimes in the Cambridge Public Library and sometimes at home. The rest of the day I spend working on my nonprofit, or running around with my kids again.

My last book, The Language of Flowers, I wrote completely on naptime, when my little kids were asleep. That has changed now, because they have started school and I’ve been traveling a ton. I keep telling my husband that we need to have another baby so I can get back into my writing routine, but so far he’s not going for it.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. 352 pp. Ballantine. $15. ()

I could go into excruciating detail about how I put my kids to sleep, but I don’t think that’s what you are looking for! Then, if I’ve managed to stay awake, I’ll have a glass of wine with my husband and watch The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert. We are always a day behind because we can’t stay up late enough to watch it when it is really on.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

My son. He is only 4 and told his preschool teachers that his favorite things are noodles, hot chocolate, and making people laugh. He’s really good at it, too.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Strangely, the Harry Potter movies. I’ve watched all eight in a row while flying around the country over the last few weeks, and I cry every time. I just feel so proud of those kids, being so brave and all.

Do you have any superstitions?

No, konahora. Although that was hilarious. I said “no,” and then I said “konahora,” which is like the Jewish equivalent of “knock on wood.” So I guess I do. Anytime I say something good that I don’t want to change, I say “konahora.”

What is your favorite snack?

Does ice cream count, or is that a dessert?

How did you publish your first book?

I was living in Sacramento and I didn’t know anyone in New York or anyone who had ever published a book before. I felt like I could handle being rejected, but that I couldn’t handle sending off my manuscript over and over and no one ever responding, and just waiting indefinitely. So I decided I needed to try to meet the right people. I started going to author events and asking authors to send my manuscript to their agents. And it worked, the second one I tried! I first asked Kelly Corrigan, and her agent almost took it. And then I asked Tasha Blaine, who wrote a book of nonfiction, and her agent is my current agent, who I love.

Do you have any good stories that happened on a book tour or a book event?

Yesterday I was in Austin, Texas, and I met a woman who is about my age and is about to adopt a special-needs 16-year-old boy out of the foster-care system. She read my book and loved it and came to my event with pictures of him. It was just so inspiring and wonderful.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. First drafts are never any good—at least mine aren’t.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“She tried hard.” I always tell my kids that I’m not perfect, but I try really hard.

What is your next project?

I’m working on my next novel, and I’m about halfway through the manuscript.