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 went through some deep and life-changing events. 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.
This is one reason why I chose to alter the series’ contemporary setting. While there are many elements in the series that speak to our modern times, I felt the story of the Alderdices, the central family in the series, belong to 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 allows 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 like you understand and relate to the characters.
The three narrative voices of the original novel have now become four different stories that share the same location, same time frame, and similar themes. All four books also have one central character who is not always the main character but through whose eyes help readers understand the personal pasts and historical context: Vivian Alderdice. Other characters return in the 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 demons, 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 mainly centered around one single main street. Waxwood’s hub is around a small stretch of bay that feeds into the ocean and the town’s piers. The town was named after the strange forest on the other side of the bay, trees as tall and imposing as redwoods, with a slick, sticky bark like wax. Across the bay also 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 rising commercialism and consumerism, so Waxwood is later transformed into a resort town with elaborate hotels dotting the rim of the bay, and 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 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 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.
The Time Period
When I decided to transform the stories into historical fiction, I chose to set the series in the 1890’s. The Gilded Age is an ideal context for the Alderdice family who are not only wealthy but significant players in San Francisco society. They embody the kind of self-importance and privilege the aristocracy enjoyed during this time. Their lifestyle fits perfectly 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 main protagonist of the series because her experiences and perceptions of what’s going on around her weave through every book. As a child, she had a rebellious streak, but this was tempered as she grew older to more acceptable feminine social behavior becoming to Gilded Age belle and expected of women according to the philosophy of the separate spheres. In fact, expectation rules her life when she reaches the age of eighteen and comes out as a debutante into San Francisco society. At the same time, her personality is such that she doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness in life. In fact, she’s the only one in the family willing to face hidden truths and lies, probing open the Pandora’s box no matter what the cost to her peace of mind and to the peace of mind of others. When she was a child, her mother nicknamed her Dagger Girl because of this. Since Vivian isn’t afraid to pry open emotionally locked doors or 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.
Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch of the Alderdice family. Her intelligence rises above many of her more conservative Gilded Agers. She has a commanding personality like her father, who rose from a clerk in his father-in-law’s shipping firm to run an empire. She keeps a tight rein on both Vivian and her son Jake without regard to how she cripples them psychologically, emotionally, and financially. As a result, they can’t and won’t follow the paths prescribed for them by their era and social class. Their failure to fulfill her expectations often makes her distant and cold toward them. At times her temper can get quite volatile like a bomb constantly on the verge of exploding. However, at other times, she shows great tenderness and understanding.
Jake Alderdice, Larissa’s son and the heir to the Alderdice. He is sensitive and artistic though he can become stubborn and sarcastic when rattled. Although his life follows the path of the idler like so many of the sons of wealthy Gilded Agers, his interests differ from theirs. Rather than pursue the path of pleasure with sports, drinking, and women, he pursues the path of art. He began drawing at an early age, taught by his grandmother, and as he matured, he moves into painting. He is well aware his mother loathes him but he is at a loss as to the reasons why. Unlike Vivian, he’s anxious to win Larissa’s love. Whether he is willing to face the truths that are foced upon him like his sister is another question.
Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. Though she is deceased when Book 1 opens, her life and experiences drive the Alderdice family relationships. It’s her life in the 1850’s that opens the door to discovery for Vivian in Book 1. Unlike Vivian, she 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.
Malcolm Alderdice, Vivian’s grandfather. A sharp-speaking, overpowering man, he walks with a cane and uses it to pound into the ground to make his points. Larissa’s devotion to him usurps her ability to truly care for her children, even after his death in Book 2. In Book 1, we get a glimpse of him as a young man who was perhaps not so severe, driven by desire to make something of his life and his love for a woman.
Gena Flax, the protagonist of Book 3. She has intelligence and insight, but her claustrophobic relationship with her aunt creates a psychological glass cage. She is patient, especially with her Aunt Helen, whose attempts to absorb her in a symbiotic relationship that leaves her stifling 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, polite nature, but there is underlying danger about him. He pictures himself a leader and uses his charm to manipulate others, and his intentions aren’t always transparent like Larissa’s. He is a cool, dignified man but with an empathetic side to him. These two aspects of his nature fight it out to extremes without a clear picture of which one will win until it’s nearly too late.
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