About The Waxwood Trilogy

 

The Waxwood Trilogy began in 2002 as a long, 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, even after 16 years, I couldn’t let it go. I was mining my own psychological reality. Even though the trilogy isn’t autobiographical, it includes some of the psychological themes that have been a turning point in my life and understanding of my own past. The trilogy has been the most emotionally challenging piece I’ve written so far.

This is one reason why I chose to alter the contemporary setting. While I felt the story of the Alderdices, the central characters of the trilogy, fit more into a historical setting and the trilogy itself could benefit from interesting perspectives that this more specific context adds, but giving the trilogy a time frame in the past also allows distance from some of the difficult emotional and psychological conflicts that permeate the trilogy, both for myself and for readers.

The three narrative voices of the original novel become in the trilogy three different stories sharing the same location, same time frame, and similar psychological realities. Certain characters come back in all three books, though not all will appear in every book and off-shoot book of the trilogy. The trilogy’s underlying theme is the way the past injects itself into the present and will affect the future in destructive ways unless we have the courage to face those demons and embark on a journey to quiet them so we can live our lives as we please.

 The Location

The trilogy takes place mainly 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 but exclusive seaside town outside San Francisco. It has two sides – the exclusive side and the seedier side most Waxwood residents prefer to forget. Much of the action is set at The Waxwoodian, the most exclusive hotel in town. Absurdly massive and ornate in its Victorian-style, the hotel also offers the kind of luxuries that wealthy patrons living in the Gilded Age, when the stories take place, would have expected during the season. As the trilogy progresses, the hotel becomes much more than a fashionable resort establishment. It is the apex of revelation for the family and for the other characters who dwell there.

The Time Period

When transforming the stories into historical fiction, I decided to set the trilogy in the Gilded Age. I talk about this time period here and why it was so significant in the annals of American history. The Gilded Age is an ideal context because the Alderdices are wealthy and significant, players in San Francisco society and as such, they embody the kind of self-importance and privilege that the aristocracy enjoyed during this time. Thus, they fit in perfectly with the extravagances and excesses that marked the end of the nineteenth century in America. Though this time period spans from the 1870’s into the late 1890’s, I chose to set the trilogy specifically during those few years before the turn of the 20th century when Progressive Era reforms and social awareness would bring the good life Gilded Agers had called their own, especially those privileged enough to pay for it, to a screeching halt.

The Main Players

Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch of the Alderdice family. Her intelligence rises above many of her more conservative Gilded Age society friends. She has a subtle, controlling way with others, especially her children. She keeps a tight rein on them, crippling them psychologically, emotionally, and financially. At the same time, she has great plans, like all mothers, for her children’s future, none of which they have fulfilled as adults in her satisfaction. These failures (in her eyes) and other tragedies in her life have made her bitter and cold and sometimes quite volatile, a bomb constantly on the verge of exploding. However, sometimes she shows tiny glimmers of tenderness and compassion because, despite her disappointments in her life and in herself and others, not all feeling has petered out of her heart.

Vivian Alderdice, Larissa’s daughter. She has always had a rebellious streak, though her mother usually manages to temper it in social situations. She is careful in choosing her battles based on how much she knows Larissa will tolerate. In this way, she pushes the boundaries but avoids going beyond them. Unlike hr brother Jake, Vivian doesn’t retreat when faced with the threat of her mother’s rage and condemnation. Thus, she’s the only one in the family who really manages to get at hidden truths and that makes her the unofficial protagonist of the trilogy. When she was a child, Larissa nicknamed her Dagger Girl because of this. Ironically, because Vivian isn’t afraid to enter emotionally locked doors, Larissa has developed an odd respect for her. Vivian is constantly reaching toward independence and peace of mind.

Jake Alderdice, Larissa’s son and the heir to the Alderdice fortune. He is sensitive and quiet, keeping to himself most of the time, though he can become stubborn and resilient when rattled beyond his endurance. Larissa’s contempt for his “monstrous” father who left her for a younger woman is one reason why she loathes him so much. Unlike Vivian, he tries to meet Larissa’s demands and when he can’t, he stays out of her way so as not to provoke her further. Because of his conditioned passivity, he is apprehensive about moving on until circumstances in Book 1 force him to confront his own weaknesses.

Gena Flax, the protagonist of Book 2. She has intelligence and insight but her claustrophobic relationship with her aunt creates a psychological glass cage, making apprehensive about letting others into her life. She is patient but distant, especially with her Aunt Helen, whose attempts to absorb her in a symbiotic relationship leave 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 1 and becomes the protagonist of Book 3. He is about twenty years older than Jake and has a quiet nature but there is an underlying danger about him. He pictures himself as a leader and uses his charm to manipulate others, though his intentions are less transparent than Larissa’s. He is a cool, dignified man but also has 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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Photo Credit: Terrasse a Sainte-Adresse, Claude Monet, 1866/1867, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Crisco 1492/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 80