The Waxwood Series began in 2002 as a long and rambling contemporary novel in three narrative voices. I wrote it at a particularly difficult time in my life. It was only later I realized why I struggled so much with the novel and why I couldn’t let it go. I was mining my own psychological reality, as I was going through some deep and life-changing events at the tme. The series isn’t autobiographical, but some of its themes come from my own experiences. The series is the most emotionally challenging work I’ve written so far. You can read more about the evolution of the series here.
This is one reason why I chose to alter the series’ contemporary setting. While there are many ideas that speak to our modern times, I felt the story of the Alderdices, the central family in the series, belonged in the past, because so many of the issues they face arise from a particular period in history (more about that below). Also, putting the series in the past allowed me to distance myself from some of the more difficult emotional and psychological conflicts facing the Alderdices and other characters in the series. As a writer, I knew this kind of distance is essential to insure readers understand and relate to the characters.
The three narrative voices of the original novel became four different stories that share the same location, same time frame, and similar themes. All four books also have one central character who, though she is not always the main character, helps readers to understand the personal pasts and historical context through her eyes. Other characters may return in several books, though not all appear in every one. The underlying theme of the series is how the past injects itself into the present and, unless we have the courage to face those specters, they will haunt our future and future generations.
The series takes place in the fictional town of Waxwood, California, with other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area (real and fictional) making a cameo appearance. Waxwood is a small coastal town somewhere between San Francisco and Monterey. It began as a quaint little place, typical of small towns in 19th century America, where activity centered around one single main street, and everybody knew everybody else through generations. Waxwood’s hub is a small stretch of bay that feeds into the ocean and the town’s two piers. The town was named after the strange forest on the other side of the bay, trees as tall and imposing as redwoods, with bark that is slick and sticky like wax. Across the bay lies Brandywine, an artist colony that was thriving in the 1850’s but gradually abandoned to more insidious purposes, as we find out in Book 2.
In the Gilded Age, small towns like Waxwood experienced a rise in commercialism and consumerism, so Waxwood is later transformed into a resort town with elaborate hotels dotting the rim where the bay spills into the ocean, catering to the resort life favored by the growing nouveau riche (as portrayed beautifully in Charles Dudley Warner’s Their Pilgrimage). As a result, Waxwood becomes a two-sided town — the exclusive side across the bay and the seedier side with its broken-down pier, train station and one-road commercial district.
Much of the action in Books 2, 3, and 4 takes place at The Waxwoodian, one of the more exclusive hotels in town. Absurdly massive and ornate in typical Gilded Age style, the place gives the air of pomp and fuss that aristocratic families such as the Alderdices would have expected. The series ends at the dawn of the new century, when hotels such as The Waxwoodian begin to go out of style as a symbol of the ridiculous excesses Americans would come to reject in the age of Progressive reforms and, later, World War I. For the Alderdices and other characters in the series, The Waxwoodian becomes more than a fashionable resort. The elaborate beauty and massive size of the place leaves room for family revelations, which some are ready to face and some are not.
To read more about the location for Waxwood and its inspirations, see this blog post.
The Time Period
When I decided to transform the narratives of the original book into historical fiction, I chose to set the series in the 1890’s. The Gilded Age is the ideal context for the Alderdice family, who are not only wealthy but significant players in a sector of San Francisco society. They embody the kind of self-importance and privilege enjoyed by the aristocracy during this time. Their lifestyle fits the extravagances and excesses that marked the end of the nineteenth century in America. The last book of the series takes place at the dawn of the new age, because the turn of the 20th century brought on the Progressive Era and with it, reforms and social awareness that ended the good life Gilded Agers had called their own, especially those privileged enough to pay for it.
The Main Players
Vivian Alderdice, the daughter of the Alderdice family. She’s the unofficial protagonist of the series, because her experiences and perceptions appear in every book. As a child, she had a rebellious streak, but this was tempered as she grew older by more acceptable feminine social behavior becoming to Gilded Age belles and expected of women, according to the philosophy of the separate spheres. In fact, when she reaches the age of eighteen and comes out as a debutante into San Francisco society, expectations rule her life. At the same time, her personality is such that she doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness. She’s the only one in the family willing to face hidden truths and lies, probing open the Pandora’s box of woes, no matter what the cost. When she was a child, her mother nicknamed her Dagger Girl because of this. Since Vivian isn’t afraid to walk into other people’s dark rooms, she unearths these truths as they affect not only her life, but the lives of others in the series.
To read more about Vivian, check out this guest blog post I wrote for author/blogger Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud blog.
Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch of the Alderdice family. Her intelligence rises above many of her more conservative Gilded Agers. She has a commanding personality and an intimidating composure in the face of adversity. Her daughter has often commented upon how, had she been living in another era where women’s wiliness and strength were honored, she could have become something extraordinary. But as it is, her main purpose in life is to succeed in the narrow aristocratic society of Washington Street and to insure her children do her proud in their eyes. Her obsession with staying on the right side of social convention and getting “in” with the “right people” in San Francisco society leads her to keep a tight rein on both Vivian and her son. Her fear of the past makes her evasive to Vivian’s probing questions, but when faced with pain and trauma throughout the series, she survives it with the grace and courage expected of a “true Alderdice”.
Jake Alderdice, Larissa’s son and the heir to the Alderdice. Unlike many wealthy Gilded Age young men, who have been spoiled into a hedonistic life, he is studious. Rather than pursue a path of pleasure by filling up his time with sports, drinking, and women, he spends his time on art. He began drawing at an early age, taught by his grandmother, and as he matured, he moved into painting. He is the protagonist of Book 2 of the series, where his coming of age leads him to clash with the chaotic ideas of Gilded Age masculinity.
Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. Though she is deceased when Book 1 opens, her life and experiences drive the Alderdice family relationships. Letters written when Penelope was a young woman in the 1850’s open the door to uncovering some of the family myths and half-truths for Vivian in Book 1. Unlike her granddaughter, Penelope was willing to play the part of the social butterfly and charming wife of a successful and wealthy man during her lifetime. But, as Vivian discovers in Book 1, her life wasn’t always on this assured if constraining path.
To learn more about Penelope Alderdice, check out this blog post.
Malcolm Alderdice, Vivian’s grandfather. A stoic, overpowering man, he walks with a cane and uses it to pound into the ground to make his points. His daugher Larissa’s devotion to him carries one of the most explosive Alderdice family secrets. In Book 1, we get a glimpse of him as a young man who was perhaps not so severe and imposing, driven by desire to make something of his life and his love for a woman.
Gena Payne, the protagonist of Book 3. She has intelligence and insight, but her claustrophobic relationship with her aunt puts her in a psychological glass cage. She is patient and complacent, especially with her Aunt Helen, whose attempts to absorb her in a symbiotic relationship that leaves her stifled and despaired. She is in desperate need of her own identity.
Harland Stevens, a guest of the hotel who befriends Jake in Book 2. He is twenty years older than Jake and has a quiet, mild nature, but there is underlying danger about him. He uses his charm to manipulate others, and his intentions aren’t always transparent. He is a cool, dignified man but with an troubled side to him that stems from his own relationship to his father. Those demons come back to haunt him in Book 4 of the series.
To learn more about Book 1, The Specter, and purchase your copy, go here.
Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, will be out in December, 2019.
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