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 that novel, and why I couldn’t let it go. I was mining my own psychological reality, as I was going through some deep, life-changing events at the time. The series isn’t autobiographical, but some of its themes come from my own emotional experiences. The series is the most challenging work I’ve written so far. You can read more about the evolution of the series here.
I chose to alter the series’ contemporary setting for several reasons. 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. 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 would be essential to readers understanding and relating to the characters.
The three narrative voices of the original novel have become four different stories that share the same location, time frame, and similar themes. All four books also have one central character who, though not always the main character, helps readers the impact of the other characters’ stories. Other characters may return in several books, though not all appear in every one. The underlying theme of the series is how the past instills itself into the present and, unless we have the courage to face those past specters, they will haunt our future and future generations.
The series takes place in the fictional town of Waxwood, California, while other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area (real and fictional) make 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 was gradually abandoned and used for 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. Waxwood is later transformed into a resort town with elaborate hotels dotting the rim where the bay spills into the ocean. It caters 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 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 place to see and be seen. Its elaborate beauty and massive size become fertile ground 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 the aristocratic sector of San Francisco society. They embody the kind of self-importance and privilege enjoyed by the very rich 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 and obstinate streak, though it was somewhat 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, expectation 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 revelations 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 Age contemporaries. 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 sliver of society that is Washington Street and insure her live up to the expectations set by this society. 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 fortune. Unlike many wealthy Gilded Age young men, who have been spoiled and lead hedonistic lives until they are expected to “buckle down” and show their masculine drive and will to succeed in business and sports, he is artistic, contemplative, and studious. He began drawing at an early age, taught by his grandmother, and as he matured, painting became his main artistic medium. He is the protagonist of Book 2 of the series, where his coming of age leads him to reassess certain father figures in his life and explore his past and future in the changing ideals of Gilded Age masculinity.
Penelope Alderdice, Vivian and Jake’s grandmother. Though she is deceased when Book 1 opens, her life and experiences are part of the driving force behind the Alderdice family relationships. Letters written when Penelope was a young woman in the 1850’s uncover 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 that assured and that constrained.
To learn more about Penelope Alderdice, check out this blog post.
Malcolm Alderdice, Vivian and Jake’s grandfather. A stoic, overpowering man, he walks with a cane and uses it to pound into the ground to make his points. 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. Since Jake’s own father died when he was very young, Malcolm was the only father figure he knew and, in Book 2, Malcolm’s death becomes the catalyst for Jake’s own self-discovery.
Gena Payne, the protagonist of Book 3. She has intelligence and insight, but her claustrophobic relationship with her needy, neurotic aunt puts her in a psychological glass cage. She is patient and complacent, but her aunt’s demanding personality often leaves her stifled and despaired. She is in desperate need of her own identity. Here, too, family half-truths and lies rule and eventually lead to Gena’s own revelations.
Harland Stevens, a guest of the hotel who becomes a father figure to Jake in Book 2. He is a middle-aged man with a quiet, mild nature, but there is an 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 a troubled side to him that stems from his own relationship with 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.
You can learn more about Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, here.
Books 3 and 4 of the series will be out in 2020, so stay tuned for more information on those!
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