SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Victoria Jones is often sullen, silent and hostile. But she speaks the language of flowers. She knows that red roses signify love. The primrose means childhood, which she never really had growing up in a series of foster homes and institutions in Northern California. The hawthorn means hope, which Victoria Jones ran out of after never being adopted and then turned out of foster care and left on her own when she turned 18.
Aging out of the foster care system convinces Victoria Jones to be suspicious of all attachments, signified by the Indian jasmine, by the way. She sleeps in the park and does odd jobs in a flower shop for small change until the power of flowers opens her life.
"The Language of Flowers" is Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel. It was the prize in a bidding war among publishers last year. It's now been published, and Vanessa Diffenbaugh joins us from WBUR in Boston.
Thanks so much for being with us.
VANESSA DIFFENBAUGH: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.
SIMON: Victoria Jones has a hard time trusting people. But, I mean, can you really blame her?
DIFFENBAUGH: She absolutely has a hard time trusting people. And, you know, I've worked with foster kids a long time, and I think that this is something that foster kids, and really all of us, struggle with to some extent. If you've been hurt, as Victoria has many, many times, it's hard to learn how to trust again.
SIMON: Does it help if youngsters can find something to cling to, like flowers, like horses, like baseball, like art?
DIFFENBAUGH: I think for Victoria it is a connection that she has with flowers. But I also think the other piece of that is it's just something she's good at.
There aren't always, especially in low-income communities, the arts and the dance and the drama and the things that can really show a kid, look, even if I'm three years behind in math there's something I'm good at that can help me be successful in life. And I think for Victoria that's what the flowers give her, is a sense of success.
SIMON: And as you note, you've worked with foster children, you and your husband are foster parents. So may we ask to what degree is this novel drawn from real life experiences close to you?
DIFFENBAUGH: You know, the novel is 100 percent fiction. And as a novelist you do draw on experiences or feelings that you have had. But Victoria, she's based somewhat on a specific young woman that I worked with. I was not her foster parent, but I did mentor her.
And she had a very serious attachment disorder. She'd been born into the foster care system. She had a number on her birth certificate and she didn't even know who named her. And there were brief moments when I felt that I knew her. And I loved her and I knew that she was capable of loving me back, but I could never quite get through to her. And I really drew a lot on that experience of working with her when I was thinking about Victoria.
SIMON: Victoria keeps going to different families. No one chooses to keep her until she meets Elizabeth. And I'm going to ask you to read a section from the book when Victoria's first introduced to Elizabeth. And the one thing Victoria knows is the rules.
DIFFENBAUGH: (Reading) You can't poison me, or give me medicine I don't want, or hit me, even if I deserve it. Those are the rules. I glared across the table when I said it and hope she felt my threat. I had reported more than one person for spanking.
(Reading) If I were trying to poison you I would give you foxglove or hydrangea, maybe anemone, depending on how much pain I wanted you to feel and what message I was trying to communicate.
(Reading) Curiosity overcame my dislike of conversation. What are you talking about? These flowers are starwort, she said. Starwort means welcome. By giving you a bouquet of starwort, I'm welcoming you to my home, to my life. She twirled buttery pasta on her fork and looked into my eyes without a glimmer of humor.
(Reading) They look like daises to me, I said. And I still think they're poisonous.
SIMON: That's a kid who's really been hardened by experience.
DIFFENBAUGH: Yes. She's very young in that section. She's only 9 years old. And kids are going to test you. And that's something that I think all good foster parents know going in that it's not going to be easy, you know. In order - you have to really prove yourself to young people. And if your answer is clear and consistent and loving, even if it's angry and disappointed, what's important is that you're being real and honest and not going anywhere.
SIMON: Yeah. And without giving away too much of the plot, alas, it's one of those tests that pushes Victoria out of Elizabeth's arms.
DIFFENBAUGH: Yes. Absolutely.
SIMON: Do you know as much about flowers as you do about foster families?
DIFFENBAUGH: No, I don't. I love flowers, But, you know, I didn't - I certainly sat down to write a book about foster care and to really try to tell the complexities of the emotional life of trying to learn someone - of trying to love someone who has never been loved and is learning to love you back. That was the story that interested me.
I discovered the language of flowers at a very young age, and when I sat down to write this book, the first scene I wrote was the one in the flower market when Victoria sees a man who looks at her in a way that she doesn't like. And the next week she brings him rhododendron, which means beware. And it wasn't premeditated. It was just that here was this young woman who was so hurt and so outside of society in every way and she needed some way to connect and communicate, and the language of flowers was really what felt right.
SIMON: You know, I think you explained this very well in the book, but let me try and get it explicitly in this form, too. A lot of people who haven't had the experience with foster children, with adopted children, will understand why do youngsters who hunger for love push people away?
DIFFENBAUGH: If you've been given up at birth, if you've lost your own biological family, even if it was not your fault, even if your parents had addictions or ended up in jail, the fact that you don't have a family, I think, brings a lot of feelings of unworthiness. And so I think that the hardest thing about working with young people in foster care who've been through this kind of neglect and abuse is really to convince them that they are worthy of being loved. And I think because often they don't feel worthy of it, that's why they push people away.
SIMON: Vanessa Diffenbaugh, her much-awaited debut novel, "The Language of Flowers." Thanks so much.
DIFFENBAUGH: Thanks, Scott.