A Q&A WITH VANESSA DIFFENBAUGH
Random House Reader’s Circle: What was the writing process like for this novel? How was this experience different than when you wrote your first novel, The Language of Flowers?
Vanessa Diffenbaugh: It was a completely different experience in every way. First of all, for me, writing a book is a very messy process—-I write a lot of really, really bad drafts before a book starts to come to life. When I started writing The Language of Flowers, it didn’t matter if a love scene was sappy or the backstory didn’t make any sense. I could just tell myself that no one would ever read it and keep going. In this way I was able to write a book with very little self–criticism or self–censorship. With We Never Asked for Wings, I couldn’t tell myself that no one would ever read it. I’d met my readers, and they were wonderful! And I wanted to impress them! So from the very beginning, I struggled. Terrible sentences tormented me. I was so worried about writing a “good” book that I ended up writing a carefully polished book with absolutely no heart. Finally, a dear friend in my writers’ group, after reading the second or third terrible draft, said to me: “You know, you don’t actually have anything to prove.” Somehow, these words set me free. I stopped trying to be good and just started to write—-and the book improved dramatically from that moment on.
RHRC: What was the idea that sparked We Never Asked for Wings? Were you inspired by a particular experience in your own life?
VD: My first job out of college was in East Palo Alto, a low–income community in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had been hired by a nonprofit to run an after–school art and technology program, and what struck me immediately was the intense isolation felt by the kids who lived there. East Palo Alto had a reputation for failing schools and violent crime; in the late 1990s, there were more homicides per capita in East Palo Alto than anywhere else in the country. But what made East Palo Alto so unique—-and this is more true now than ever—-is that it is surrounded on all sides by incredible wealth. San Francisco is thirty miles to the north, Silicon Valley just a few miles south. Stanford University is within walking distance. But even though East Palo Alto sits in the center of incredible affluence and opportunity, very few of the kids I worked with had ever been outside their own neighborhood. They’d heard of Stanford; they’d seen San Francisco in the movies and on TV, but they’d never been there. It was this experience—-working with kids raised in a community so physically close to all the wealth and opportunity our country has to offer, but whose daily experience was completely cut off from that opportunity—-that inspired me to write We Never Asked for Wings.
RHRC: Letty makes some difficult choices as a mother in this novel—-and some readers might not find her to be the most sympathetic character, at least in the beginning. Do you think her struggle—-especially in trusting herself to be a good mother—-is universal?
VD: I do! Some of us certainly struggle with being a mother more than others, but I’ve yet to meet a mother who feels she gets it right one hundred percent of the time. Parenting is exhausting, unrelenting work, and it requires making hundreds of decisions each day that affect the wellbeing of very demanding, often unreasonable, not–yet–fully–formed humans. How could we possibly get it right all the time? We don’t. We can’t. No one does. When I make a mistake I apologize to my children, forgive myself, and shake it off. I can do this because I deeply believe that even though I am not perfect, I am good enough. But for Letty, who has very little self–confidence, every small (or big) mistake feels like a sign of her worthlessness. It takes a long time for her to start to see what she has to offer her children, and to believe that what she has to give is exactly what they need.
RHRC: Why do you think so many authors are exploring the topic of illegal immigration, and what was the most surprising thing you learned about this issue when writing We Never Asked for Wings?
VD: That is a great question. 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 cast 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 was documented. That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live and work here. So, to answer your question, I think so many writers are writing about immigration because so many people are living it, and for those of us who are trying to capture this moment in time, undocumented immigration is an issue we can’t ignore.
RHRC: For your first novel, you had to learn so much about horticulture, but this book was all about the feathers (from ornithological and migratory details to utilizing feathers in an interesting art medium). How did you come up with this idea for your story, and how did you research birds and feathers to shape this theme?
VD: When I came up with the idea of the Landing—-an abandoned housing project on a marshy peninsula near San Francisco—-I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the Espinosa family had stayed. Why would they stay, even when everyone they knew had already left? It was this question that led me to create the character of Enrique, a Mexican feather worker. He stayed for the birds. I imagined him at the window, sitting underneath the Pacific Flyway; I imagined his vast and intricately organized feather collection. The year after my husband and I were married we lived in Mexico, and we met a fourth–generation feather worker whose giant house was filled with bursting jars of feathers, so I had an image from which to draw. In terms of research, I am lucky to have very knowledgeable family members, and when I needed an idea for Alex’s science project based on the feather collection, I called my brother–in–law, Noah Diffenbaugh, who is a climate scientist at Stanford. We spent hours talking about all the things Alex could learn from the feathers, and with his guidance I was able to come up with a project using feathers and the migratory patterns of birds to look for changes in climate over time.
RHRC: As a former teacher of youth in low–income communities and the founder of the former Camellia Network (now part of LifeSet Network), were you able to channel your experiences working with struggling youth into the children in your story?
VD: It’s funny: with The Language of Flowers, interviewers often asked, or even just assumed, that Victoria was based on the children I fostered. She wasn’t! In fact, her personality was as different from my two sons’ as it could have been. But in We Never Asked for Wings, I drew a lot of inspiration for Alex from my two oldest sons. Both Tre’von and Donovan are incredibly smart, responsible, and resilient. Tre’von was the kind of kid who read the encyclopedia for fun; I interviewed him a few different times about what it felt like to be a smart kid who loved to learn in a school that didn’t expect anything from him. My oldest son, Donovan, was fiercely independent because he had to be. Raised in foster care, he could get himself anywhere—-to football practice or friends’ houses, on foot or by bus. I thought about him a lot when I wrote the scenes of Alex navigating the bay area alone and with his sister in tow; I tried to cultivate in Alex the quiet confidence that Donovan would have projected in the same situation.
RHRC: How did you come to be interested in educational inequality?
VD: We all know that our education system is unequal; researchers have said that the most accurate predictor of educational outcomes is a student’s zip code. But what upset me most as I conducted research for this book is that in many states, our school districts are unequal by design. In California, for example, districts with the highest property tax base (known in the education world as “basic aid” districts) are allowed to keep their own property taxes. This results in affluent school districts serving predominantly affluent kids, which are able to spend thousands of dollars more per student than middle–class or low–income districts. Where I live, on the central coast, one of these “basic aid” districts spends over twice as much per student as a high–poverty school district less than a mile away—-extra funding that allows for full–time art teachers, music teachers, science programs, and field trips that are nonexistent in the high–poverty district. It is easy to see why a parent like Letty, who just wants to do what is best for her children, would do anything possible—-including breaking the law—-to find a way into a more affluent school district.
RHRC: Like your first novel, We Never Asked for Wings deals with a lot of social issues and problems—-ideas that elevate all your work. Do you hear from people who have been changed or encouraged or inspired from reading your books?
VD: I love to write about social issues, but I try to stay away from having any kind of political agenda because I think it gets in the way of the story. In an interview with The Paris Review, Tobias Wolff was asked if he believes a writer has an obligation to write politically, and he said that “the most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being.” I love this, and I think it is right. While I do write about social issues, I try to first and foremost write about people, because I think that the only way we will ever care about an issue is if we care about the people who are facing these issues. Foster care and immigration are both examples of issues that can be easily ignored if you aren’t living them. A great number of people will never be in foster care, will never lose their child to the foster care system, will never be a foster parent, and will never even know anyone who has directly experienced any of these things. The same is true for immigration in many parts of our country. Fiction is one of the best ways to truly live inside the experience of someone who is different from you, someone who is struggling with something you may not have ever even really considered. And once you have lived inside someone else’s experience, it is almost impossible not to feel empathy for that experience.
RHRC: There is a theme of hope through a lot of your writing and your presence on social media. Do you think there is hope for all families?
VD: Absolutely. I am an optimist by nature, and by experience as well. As Gloria Steinem writes in her new book, My Life on the Road, “Altogether I’ve seen enough change to have faith that more will come.”
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Maria Elena raised Alex and Luna almost as if she were their mother, even calling them “my babies,” and yet she makes the incredibly difficult decision to return to Mexico and leave them alone with Letty. How do you think she justifies that to herself? Do you agree with her decision? Why or why not?
2. The novel alternates between Letty’s perspective and Alex’s. Which did you find more interesting? Why?
3. It’s no secret that Letty is struggling as a mother, from drinking heavily and working multiple jobs to leaving her children alone in the middle of the night. Were you able to sympathize with her in spite of her flaws? How does Letty evolve as a mother as the book goes on?
4. Do you think Letty’s decision to hide her pregnancy from Wes was justified? Why or why not? What about the way she conceals Wes’s identity from Alex?
5. By dating Letty, Rick takes on a greater responsibility. What does that say about his personality? Do you find him to be a relatable character?
6. When Alex shows Enrique’s feathers to Yesenia, he discovers a note that reads: “For my Alex: Make wings.” From Enrique’s feather art to Alex’s migratory project, there are a lot of flight–themed images and references throughout the book. How do you think flight relates to the challenges the characters face?
7. Given the flight motif, why do you think the author chose the title We Never Asked for Wings?
8. Even though Letty slowly works to pull her life together, at different points in the novel she comes across as beaten–down, and often struggles with fear and self–confidence. At the same time, Alex is unwilling to accept that he (or Yesenia) deserves anything but the best education, no matter the risk involved. What do you think explains that difference in their outlooks?
9. “Yesenia was not a U.S. citizen. All her life she’d been here illegally, and she hadn’t even known it. Alex didn’t know what to say.” Yesenia and Carmen reflect the reality of millions of people living in America without documentation today. How do their experiences in the novel shed light on broader social issues? Did you learn anything from the challenges they face?
10. Were you surprised by the way things worked out in the end? If you could change one thing about the novel, what would it be?