Boardwalk Summer is the perfect summer novel and not just because its title includes summer. The novel features two timelines of young women in Santa Cruz. In 1940, Violet Harcourt is crowned Miss California and wants to pursue a film career in Hollywood. In 2007, Marisol Cruz begins working for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for its Beach Boardwalk Centennial Celebration. While doing research she discovers Violet Harcourt’s obituary and becomes intrigued.
“With her light skin and dazzling green eyes, Lily likely wouldn’t experience the same level of discrimination that Mari had. In fact, most kids at Lily’s preschool thought she was white. Your father is white, Mari had offered to Lily in explanation. Her whole body tensed whenever Lily asked about her dad.”
As the novel unfolds, readers discover the connection between the women. Marisol learns that Violet knew her late grandfather Ricardo who worked as a performer on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Both women face varied obstacles in pursuing their goals. Violet’s possessive husband keeps close ties on her. She’d entered the pageant without his knowledge. The prize included a screen test. Marisol struggles as a Latinx single mother who had to give up her academic aspirations to care for her daughter. She also doesn’t have a relationship with her daughter’s father although they both live in Santa Cruz.
There are plenty of twists and the novel topically delves into domestic violence, sexual assault, immigration and racial discrimination. It’s the perfect novel to sink into at the beach or at a café. Author Meredith Jaeger takes readers to Santa Cruz during two different time periods and effectively links the women. As a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz, Jaeger is familiar with the setting. I recently spoke with her about Boardwalk Summer.
Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?
Meredith Jaeger: I got the idea for this novel from a newspaper article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Lively History Lives on.” It featured a photograph of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk archivist standing in a windowless room full of boxes and memorabilia collected over a century. The archivist was standing in front of a photograph of the first ever Miss California pageant held on the beach in Santa Cruz in 1924. That gave me the idea of Violet being a participant in the pageant. Also, as soon as I saw that windowless room, I had an image of my modern character, Mari, coming into contact with one of the artifacts from the Boardwalk (Violet’s obituary) and unraveling a 70-year-old mystery.
Amy Steele: You went to UC Santa Cruz and grew up in the Bay Area, how did that influence you? Were you drawn to the place and setting and then added the characters or did you come up with the characters first?
Meredith Jaeger: I love to write what I know and I’m influenced by the world around me. Growing up in the Bay Area, I often visited the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I have fond memories of riding the Giant Dipper rollercoaster and the Looff Carousel as a kid (and eating funnel cake!). It’s the oldest surviving amusement park in California, so any old timer will tell you all about their favorite childhood memories at The Boardwalk. I choose my setting first, and then the characters populate that setting. Because I set my first novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry in San Francisco, I wanted to set my second in Santa Cruz, a breathtakingly beautiful place I was once lucky enough to call home. I like to write dual narrative fiction, so Mari and Violet came into my head as soon as I knew where my story would take place.
Amy Steele: How much do you draw from your own personal experience do you bring in and how much research do you do?
Meredith Jaeger: I wrote two novels that were never published before I sold The Dressmaker’s Dowry. Those novels drew heavily from my personal experience because I think it’s natural to do that when you’re first starting out as a writer. My novels now are influenced by places I’ve lived and issues I’ve read about, but they don’t necessarily feature things that have happened to me in real life. I put a lot of research into my work, involving hours of reading historic newspaper articles which have been scanned into the California Digital Newspaper Collection online, watching YouTube clips of films, advertisements or anything I can find from the era I’m researching, reading library books and poring over old photographs.
Amy Steele: In your notes at the end you say that you weren’t initially interested in Hollywood’s Golden Age until your editor suggested it and then you became intrigued by its “dark underbelly.” Could you explain a bit more how that aspect captivated you and work into Violet’s journey?
Meredith Jaeger: My editor was the one to suggest that Violet should go to Hollywood. Growing up in California and being in close proximity to Hollywood, it never held the sort of magic for me that it might for other people. When I was eighteen, I took a Greyhound bus to West Hollywood with my friends to go to a Halloween party on Sunset Boulevard and I definitely saw the sleazy side of Tinsel town! (I made out with a B-list celebrity that night). I’m drawn to the gritty underbelly of cities in contrast to their glitz and glamour. With my first novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, which is set in Victorian Era San Francisco, the photojournalist Jacob Riis and his nineteenth century photographs of impoverished New Yorkers living in tenements inspired me. With Boardwalk Summer, I took my memories of Sunset Boulevard and then combined them with research from a fabulous book called The Story of Hollywood by Gregory Paul Williams. Everything I describe about Hollywood Boulevard from the scam artist agents to the panhandlers, to the disheveled men wearing advertisements for plays and psychic shops posing as churches came from my research. The second aspect to Hollywood’s dark underbelly comes in the form of powerful men in the industry committing sexual assault. I worked this into Violet’s journey and it was very timely in terms of the #MeToo movement.
Amy Steele: You bring in many topical themes including the immigrant experience, domestic violence, single mothers. Why did you want to write about these issues?
Meredith Jaeger: Social justice is important to me. Though I’m not an immigration lawyer or a social worker, I have the ability to reach readers through my books and to potentially open their eyes to what’s going on in our country. It can be so painful to watch the atrocities taking place that it’s tempting to look away. But I urge readers to look closely at themselves and how their actions impact the world. I’m the daughter of an immigrant, so the immigrant experience will always be important to me. The link between mass shootings and men with a history of violence against women is something I find very disturbing. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, an estimated 45% of female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner in 2007. I hope readers will be encouraged to read not only my books (I’m a white cisgender woman fully aware of my privilege), but also books by marginalized authors: people of color, LGBTQ authors and authors with chronic illness and disability. Reading opens your mind.
Amy Steele: Did the story unfold as you wrote it or do your map it out ahead of time?
Meredith Jaeger: I mapped it out ahead of time. I used to be a pantser (as in flying by the seat of my pants!) but because my first two novels never found me an agent and never sold, I have since turned into a plotter! I write out a detailed synopsis and chart out my story on butcher paper so that I can visualize the dramatic action. I use Post-Its for different character arcs and I have different colors for each character. I admire anyone who can successfully allow the story to unfold without plotting.
Amy Steele: I like the 1940/ 2007 connections and POVs. You used first person for Violet and third person for Mari. Why did you decide on that?
Meredith Jaeger: Before I signed with my agent, Jenny Bent, I sent her my dual narrative POV novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry. She suggested I change one of the voices to third person to help differentiate them. Jenny is a fantastic agent and she gives great advice, so it was a tip that I stuck with for Boardwalk Summer!
Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing historical fiction?
Meredith Jaeger: I’m a very nostalgic person. I find myself staring at old houses, or antiques, and wondering about the people who once lived there, who once owned these things, and what their lives were like. I love how writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to lose myself in the past. And the fashion! Though I’m grateful we live in an age where I can wear flip-flops and yoga pants to the grocery store, I love researching the incredible fashions of the late 1800s and early 20th century. I go a little nuts on Pinterest.
Amy Steele: What’s your greatest writing challenge?
Meredith Jaeger: Finding the time! I worked full-time for a San Francisco startup when I wrote my first novel, so I was only able to write on weekends. Now I’m the mother of a very feisty almost two-year-old, and that presents its own challenges. I plot so heavily because it means I don’t get writer’s block, and I can make the most of the time I do have, when I get a few hours during my daughter’s nap, or I have a babysitter.
Amy Steele: When and where do you write?
Meredith Jaeger: I write at home, in the library or in a café, and I write whenever I can! I write when I have a babysitter for my daughter, and I write whenever I have an uninterrupted stretch of free time, like getting my car serviced. They have Wi-Fi at the dealership and coffee, so what’s not to love?
Amy Steele: What’s on your summer TBR?
Meredith Jaeger: Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman, The Lost Family by Jenna Blum, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim. (And the other books on my shelf I haven’t gotten to!)