As soon as I opened Caroline Preston's The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, I was enchanted. It really felt like I had opened up a portal into the 1920s. The book, which follows Frankie Pratt through her college years and beyond, is comprised of a dazzling collection of vintage ephemera, accompanied by a very touching coming-of-age story. I was captivated by this new form of storytelling and found myself invested in Frankie's story in a way that I wouldn't have been if the book were more traditional in form. There's something about looking through someone's scrapbook that is deeply intimate, and mysteriously magical, as though you're doing something that you shouldn't be.
I also eagerly devoured Preston's second scrapbook novel The War Bride's Scrapbook, which showcases an impressive accruement of 1940s ephemera. Preston's work in the medium of the scrapbook novel also inspired me to start this blog, and to start collaging and keeping a scrapbook myself. I highly recommend her books to anyone who has an affinity for vintage ephemera, or who finds themselves gravitating towards unconventional modes of storytelling. It's sure to delight reluctant readers and those who prefer graphic novels, too.
Who are your inspirations and what lessons have they taught you?
Probably my greatest inspiration as a writer is my husband, Chris Tilghman. Chris is the author of 5 novels and 2 short story collections, and was a professor for over 20 years at UVA’s acclaimed MFA program. Chris toiled for over 15 years before he published his first short story collection in 1989. He taught me the persistence and daily discipline required to become a successful writer. When I decided at age 40 to quit my job and write a novel, he was incredibly supportive, especially considering we got our health insurance through my workplace.
My second inspiration was my mother, who died in 2011 at the age of 92.
Although she never worked professionally, she was a talented and original cartoonist. She also was an avid collector of all kinds of quirky stuff—antique cameras, Navajo pots, coral specimens, silver state spoons. I was inspired by her visual aesthetic and caught the collecting bug from her.
I know you collect vintage scrapbooks-- what's your favorite scrapbook in your collection?
I think my favorite scrapbooks are the ones kept by brides. I have several from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. These women kept meticulous scrapbooks about their courtship, marriage, and aspirations for their married lives. They included souvenirs from their dates—such as pressed flowers, movie tickets, greeting cards, menus. They included artifacts from their marriage—invitations, lists of wedding presents, fabric swatches, keys and matchbooks from the honeymoon suite. The most fascinating parts are about how they imagine their married life will be. They pasted in home decorating tips, plans for model houses, ads for the latest kitchen appliances and cars. Did any of their dreams come true? We never know because these scrapbooks tend to end there. Maybe they then devoted their scrapbook energy to baby books!
What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
I have been very lucky in my writing career. I have a wonderful supportive agent and have worked with great editors at Scribner, Houghton Mifflin and Ecco/Harper Collins. The biggest challenge in my career is shared by many other writers these days. People are buying and reading fewer books, especially novels. Publishing house have been shrunk and merged. They are far less willing to take a chance on a novel by midlist writer—they need blockbusters. Getting a book published is extremely difficult. Getting it publicized if you are lucky enough to get it published is even harder.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I wish I had not waited until I was 42 with three children to start my writing career. I would tell my younger self to take more risks and embark on a career in the arts, even if it does seem impractical. I would also tell my younger self to relish every success, because it may not come again. Oh, and open a Roth IRA ASAP!
Can you describe your creative process?
For my two scrapbook novels, I started gathering original material from the 1920’s (Frankie Pratt) and the 1940’s (War Bride.) Probably the most important items were magazines and newspapers from the time. I also gathered the type of ephemera that people glued in scrapbooks of the era- postcards, tickets, menus, letters, theatre programs, pictures from the Sears catalogs, package labels, greeting cards, matchbook covers, photographs etc. I had the basic stories of my characters—flapper Frankie Pratt and war bride Lila Jerome—in mind. I tried to imagine how Frankie and Lila would tell their life stories in a scrapbook. What would they include? How would the scrapbook change as they grew older and encountered hardships? Then I would sit down with scissors and glue and create actual scrapbook pages with original material. In other words, I cut up vintage magazines. No photocopies off the web! The final step was to glue on my text and captions. These pages were then scanned to create the books.
People have asked me if the story evolved from the artifacts or if I found artifacts to fit the story. The answer is a little bit of both. I gathered material that my characters would collect, but then I let the material inspire me about how the novel would unfold and the pages would look. I found the material in all kinds of places. Flea markets, antique malls, and on Ebay. My favorite store was Whiting’s Old Paper in Mechanicscville, Virginia which has over a million pieces of ephemera.
Do you keep a scrapbook of your own?
I have kept scrapbooks, usually from trips. I keep them in 11x14 black-bound sketchbooks. I wish I had kept a scrapbook during Covid! I never imagined lockdown would last as long as it did, and that our lives would be disrupted for two years.
What are you working on now?
I am now working on a book called “American Pooch- a Hundred Years of Canine Celebrities, Experts, Fads, and Bestsellers.” It is a decade by decade study of all the crazy trends in American dog culture including popular breeds, famous dogs, dog “experts,” dog food, screen stars, and bestselling novels. And of course, once again, I have acquired hundreds of dog-related items—from dog training manuals to dog food labels. It’s the most entertaining project I’ve ever worked on!