We Never Asked for Wings — Author Interview

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Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight, just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction correct their flight paths all at once.

Four years ago, Vanessa Diffenbaugh published her first novel, The Language of Flowers, which became a surprise bestseller — and a staff and customer favorite at Lake Forest Book Store. It’s rare that a new author builds an audience so quickly. Kathryn Stockett  comes to mind — but it’s been more than six years since The Help was published and there’s no new book on the horizon.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s much-anticipated second novel, We Never Asked for Wings, has just arrived in stores. Her whirlwind publicity tour included two events in the Chicago suburbs: an evening reading and discussion at Highland Park Public Library and a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon. Quite a few of the attendees had met Vanessa when she visited Lake Forest for a luncheon in September 2011, just a couple of weeks after The Language of Flowers was published. That event — one of Vanessa’s very first —  was a benefit for the Allendale Association, a local organization serving troubled children and adolescents.

Few authors are lucky enough to be sent on publisher-sponsored publicity tours. As author Justin Taylor points out in an article entitled “On the Total Weirdness of the Book Tour”, both reading and writing (“these two vast solitudes”) are fundamentally private activities, yet book tours attempt to transform them into social events:

Every art form has its peculiarities but the strangest thing about writing . . . is that its fundamental attribute is solitude. Plays, concerts, operas, movies take dozens if not hundreds to make, and are seen by thousands (or millions) in their turn. Even the painter, who might work alone or with assistants, eventually sees his work on a wall in a room in the company of that of his colleagues.

I’m sure authors get tired of answering the same questions at event after event, but in my experience they are all unfailingly gracious, even with inane queries — “Do you write in longhand or on a computer?” “How can I get my book published?”. Most attendees ask more insightful questions, often about the story behind the book. I’m always interested in what the author is currently reading; the “what’s on your nightstand?” question always asked in the New York Times Book Review “By the Book” column. When I interview authors, I try my best to ask them a few questions they haven’t been asked multiple times.  Last week, Vanessa was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule to chat with me.

I asked Vanessa what readers ask her most frequently. She said, without any hesitation, that readers are most curious about how her personal life ties in with her fiction. Vanessa has spent her adult life working with disadvantaged youth, as a mentor, teacher, and foster parent. Her experiences have inspired her characters — Victoria, the young woman aging out of foster care and facing life alone in The Language of Flowers and Alex, the bright and precocious teenager trying to get to know his parents, and himself in We Never Asked for Wings  and her motifs: flowers, birds, and feathers.

Vanessa mentioned that the natural world plays an important role in how her characters make sense of their lives. Alex’s knowledge of bird migration, for example, draws him closer to his grandparents and helps him understand why they returned to Mexico. Vanessa’s brother-in-law is a climate scientist at Stanford whose help was invaluable as Vanessa planned Alex’s science project inspired by his grandfather’s feather collection. In the Q and A session after Vanessa’s reading, she mentioned that she’s always been a nature lover, having grown up in a small farming community.

When Vanessa began writing We Never Asked for Wings (a long and difficult process that took more than three years and involved a complete rewrite) she intended the book to focus on the dichotomy between educational opportunities for wealthy and poor children, not on illegal immigration. In an interview on MomAdvice/Sundays with Writers, she says:

For me, it is especially interesting that I wrote a book about immigration because I had no intention of doing so! I was thinking about economic and educational inequality, and themes of motherhood and family. But as I got deeper and deeper into this novel, it struck me that I had created a community of characters in which immigration status would be an issue. It would be disingenuous to write about a low-income community in California and pretend that every citizen in the book would be documented. That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live in these communities.

I was particularly curious about the abandoned housing project by the ocean where Alex and his family live. I could visualize the muddy expanses and decrepit buildings of Eden’s Landing, but I couldn’t find any information about the Landing on the Internet. Actually, Vanessa told me, the setting of We Never Asked for Wings was based on Columbia Point, a housing project on a peninsula in Boston that was razed in the 1980s. She initially planned on setting the novel in Boston, but as a native Californian, her heart was in the area she knows best.

The other question I was especially interested in was why she decided to write We Never Asked for Wings as a purely realistic novel, with none of the magical realism that characterized The Language of Flowers. Her answer, which surprised me, was that she thought the book was entirely realistic. What I, and other readers, saw as fantastical events were not, according to Vanessa — they were caused by the power of suggestion.

Vanessa pointed out that her book contains two coming of age stories — Alex’s, of course, but also his mother’s, as Letty learns to become an adult and a parent. The flashbacks to Letty’s troubled teenage years and Alex’s first experience with love will appeal to teenage readers who are ready for adult books. One of my colleagues mentioned that her son, a high school student, was enjoying We Never Asked for Wings, finding himself interested not only in Alex’s story but the immigration issues raised in the novel.

And guess what? Vanessa was called to the podium before I got a chance to ask her what’s on her nightstand. I recommend, though, that you add We Never Asked for Wings to the stack on your nightstand.

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