Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Story behind The Birches - Xavier Axelson

I love evolution.  I love the idea of watching things evolve, being part of things evolving, and most importantly being able to reflect and make notes on the evolution of a project.  I wrote a guest post a while back about the story behind my latest novella The Birches and focused mainly on my inspiration for the story, not thinking I would have the opportunity to explore the backdrop again.  When I discovered the title of Jadette’s Blog was The Story Behind The Story I saw it as an opportunity to explore another major theme of The Birches with the added benefit of time and readers input to help me along.

While The Birches is about food and cooking at its core it is a story about the obsessive journey towards personal and professional perfection.  I don’t believe in “effortless.”  Behind every great event, there is a ton of unseen work.  Effortless does not come easily, there is plenty of struggle and sweat behind making something appear easy or perfect.  The one thing I learned while working as an event coordinator was to accept that something would always go wrong.  It was just the way it was.  The sushi truck would show up late, the tablecloths weren’t the right size or most memorably the gold rim on the dinner plates was the incorrect width.  The last nearly sent the hostess into a tailspin and her shrieking the entire party was ruined.

Leo, the main character of The Birches is the type of high-strung person who was on the verge of turning into someone who would lose their minds over the rim of a plate.  He is angry and frustrated by people who manage to make things look effortless.  He doesn’t understand passion, only precision.  I have had readers tell me how he is angry at everything, and it’s true.  Leo wants the impossible.  He wants to be perfect.  Perfect meringues, a perfect family, a perfect career, and he foolishly believe being perfect means being the best.  I think those of us who believe these theories are in for a big surprise and many disappointments.  I illustrate this in the story with a scene between Leo and his father Graham.  They have ordered pizza from a greasy pizza parlor they’ve been ordered from for years.  When the pizza arrives Leo immediately reaches for any number of additives to heighten what is already a great slice of pizza, but he can’t accept it.  How can it be so good if it came from a local dive?  It must need more to make it perfect.  The thing he doesn’t realize until later is he is unsatisfied with himself.  He struggles against his own fear in admitting who he is and what he truly wants.

I went to junior college at a school known for culinary arts.  I met and am still friends with many chefs from school.  I know they are passionate about their craft and I remember more than once many students leaving class in tears and exhausted.  I remember many of them struggling to perfect a recipe and a technique and the agony over defeats and the crazed joy of success.  With The Birches I wanted to capture that obsessive need to be perfect that I experienced with the culinary students I went to school with and knew intimately.  I wanted to share my love of cooking and the kitchen but also the release that comes with accepting mistakes and admitting how good things really taste when you are loved.

Love The Birches and come spread some Love at my website.  Look for my new release Lily in January and all sorts of good things next month on my column over at



Perfection isn’t everything, although it’s everything Leo wants. His desire to become the perfect chef may keep him at the top of his class, but it drives his friends and family crazy while keeping love and passion on the back burner. That is until he meets Dock, owner and chef of the new and popular restaurant, The Birches. Although Dock isn’t a trained chef, Leo finds the food he cooks delectable and the man behind the food irresistible. The lessons taught at the hands of an untrained cook may be just what this uptight chef needs to let go. 


the birches

He pulled into the parking lot of The Birches and sat on his bike a minute. He felt nervous, like he was about to meet a celebrity and the self-doubt that plagued him made him queasy.   

“You gonna sit outside or come in?”

Leo jumped at the sound of the man’s voice. He pulled his helmet off and looked around, but didn’t see anyone.

“Over here.” 

Leo looked just past his left shoulder and saw a man emerging from the nearby woods that surrounded the little restaurant.

“Oh, hey,” Leo called out, his voice cracking.

“You looking for something to eat?” the man asked, coming closer.

Leo was shocked to find himself riveted to the spot, staring at the man who came towards him. 

The man offered Leo a rough, calloused hand. “I’m Dock,”

“Hey,” Leo managed weakly.

“I was out back, picking blackberries, they grow wild around here.  I thought they’d make a great dessert. Don’t know what kind of dessert, but how can you go wrong when you have stuff like this?” He said as he offered up a large, wooden bucket half-full of dark, purple black berries.

There were purple smears across Dock’s white tank top that seemed barely able to contain Dock’s impressive chest. There were several brown freckles on Dock’s shoulders, next to where the strap of tank top clung to his body.

“Lucky berries,” Leo said under his breath.


Sweat ran down Leo’s back, he felt so nervous. For a brief moment, he thought of hopping on his bike and taking off.  Instead he said, “Um, nothing, sorry, I just wanted to come by and--” 

“You want to come inside and have an iced tea or something?” Dock asked, “It’s hot as hell out here and I know I need to cool off.” He swiped a hand across his face and left a smudge of blackberry juice across his cheek.

Leo’s heart was pounding, what was it about this place, this man?

“You coming?” Dock asked.


Dock laughed, “You coming inside or you just gonna stare at the ground the rest of the day?”

Leo was still staring at the spot where Dock had been standing.  Something was happening inside his head.  He felt spellbound and excited.  He didn’t know where this sensation came from, all he knew was he wanted more of what he was feeling.  He followed Dock, who was still talking about black berries, the sun and something else that sounded perfect, into the restaurant.  When Dock stopped suddenly by a booth at the back of the restaurant, Leo almost crashed into him.

“Take a seat. I’ll be right back with some tea.” Dock said, a smile lingered on his lips.

He knows he makes me uncomfortable, Leo thought once Dock left and was sitting down. It was this realization that held him glued to the seat.  He wouldn’t give this man the satisfaction of getting the better of him.  

“So, what’s your name?” Dock asked when he reappeared and set a jam jar full of iced tea in front of Leo, there were several blackberries floating in it along with some ice and a sprig of mint.

“Leo,” he replied, taking a sip of the tea.

“You know we’re closed, right?” A woman’s voice called from behind Dock’s perfect shoulders. Leo decided right then and there he would trade his ability to beat an egg for a chance to touch those shoulders and kiss the freckles that lived there.

What was he thinking? 

He wasn’t thinking, that was just it, there was something about the place and, more noticeably, about this man that seemed to block Leo’s ability to think rationally. Where there was once thought, there was now an incredible amount of feeling. He was stunned into a stupor by this realization.

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