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Book Talk: Speaking the language of flowers

Marigolds for grief, purple dahlias for dignity, periwinkle for tender reflections. Basil for hate.
/ Source: Reuters

Marigolds for grief, purple dahlias for dignity, periwinkle for tender reflections. Basil for hate.

The meanings attached to each flower underpin the life of Victoria Jones, the prickly and suspicious heroine of Vanessa Diffenbaugh's "The Language of Flowers," who uses blooms and bouquets to say what she cannot force herself to speak out loud.

A veteran of the foster care system released upon turning eighteen, Victoria struggles to find a place for herself in San Francisco, working for a florist and discovering she has a talent for changing peoples' lives through the flowers she chooses for them. Her own past is a different, harder issue.

Diffenbaugh, who has worked extensively with foster children, spoke with Reuters about the Victorian language of flowers and the role it plays in her debut novel.

Q: What made you come up with this particular character?

A: "I was home with my kids, I had two babies and two foster kids at the time, and I just finished writing a book I pretty much knew I wasn't going to sell. It was pretty horrible and I didn't believe in it from the very beginning. So when I sat down to write this one, the seed idea was that I wanted to write about a character who had never loved or attached to another person, and write about what it was like for that person to learn how to love and attach again. I didn't really set out to write about the language of flowers, but the character of Victoria really came to me first, and whole.

"Actually, I just put her in San Francisco -- it was the very first scene I wrote, and I put her on the street. A young man looked at her in a way that made her very uncomfortable, and instead of responding with words in the way that someone might who was well adjusted, she left and came back a week later with rhododendron, which means 'beware.' So that happened spontaneously and then the whole book evolved from that point."

Q: Have you known the flower symbology for a long time?

A: "I was 16 when I discovered Kate Greenaway's 'Language of Flowers' in a used book store in my home town, and I've been carrying it around ever since. I just adored it and I went through it and wrote poetry by stringing flowers together on twine and making my high school boyfriend translate them with the flower dictionary. It's just always something I've loved, I think for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being that it's just so forgotten and such a secret, even though it was so wildly popular, not just in Europe but also the United States. It just fascinated me that something that once was so well known has fallen off almost completely.

Q: Why was it such a big deal?

A: "I've done some research on that. There are a number of reasons but it's mainly just that in the Victorian era, flowers and gardens were in the absolute center of culture. They were popular in a way that we almost can't understand from where we are in history. So once the idea popped up it just spread wildly and became a part of every interaction."

Q: Why marry the flower symbology and this person who hasn't attached?

A: "It definitely came out organically, it wasn't premeditated. But then as I started writing it just really felt right to me. Because one of the things I really liked about what it allowed me to do was that Victoria, at the beginning, couldn't show any love or positive emotion toward people because it was just outside the character's believability. But in order to get readers to attach to Victoria and care about her journey, you have to show that she did have another side. Having her show that she had this talent and passion for flowers allowed me to show a completely different side of the character.

"The other thing that surprised me about the flower part was that when I started writing, I thought as Victoria does, that every flower only has one meaning, and I'd planned to write my book that way. It was very simple. But then when I realized a third of the way into the book that every flower has much more than just one meaning, it caused a little breakdown in my plot -- in a good way, I think. Victoria was able to actually have a two-way conversation with flowers, rather than just studying flowers and not expecting any kind of response."

Q: Overall, was this easy to write? What was hardest?

A: "The hardest was just that I had to revise and revise and revise and revise. The first draft was relatively easy, I just flew out of me very quickly, but then it wasn't very good. I had to let go of a lot of it to rewrite and make it better.

"With this one, I definitely feel as if my first draft was a full character study, I didn't feel it had anything else. In the next book I'm writing I have way more plot than character. I'm hoping that I can start with one and it'll lead me to the others. But I'm still just sort of figuring it out as I go." (Editing by Paul Casciato)