An archivist at Harvard University and a renowned novelist, Preston talks about the creation of the work and how her own background as an archivist took her there.
In The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, novelist Caroline Preston created something wholly original: A novel in the form of a scrapbook. Not a graphic novel, and not simply a novel with illustrations, the book is a visual and narrative journey. Preston is the author of three previous novels. Jackie by Josie, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, was drawn from her (brief) researching stint for a Jackie O. biography. Gatsby’s Girl chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first girlfriend who was the model for Daisy Buchanan. She speaks with Mount Hope’s Nicole Haylon about the creation of the work and how her own background as an archivist took her there.
Mount Hope: You have published other, more traditional-style novels. What about the scrapbook form was so appealing to you that it made you change your writing style?
Caroline Preston: I wrote three traditional novels. I published Gatsby’s Girl, my third one, in 2006, and then I was just casting around for an idea for my next novel. I was very interested in writing something about Ulysses and about Paris in the twenties. My mother’s godmother was Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses, and the era has always fascinated me. F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda, and some other artists all kept amazing scrapbooks about the twenties. I had always been really interested in ephemera and scrapbooks myself. I had collected vintage scrapbooks and had also worked as an archivist at Harvard and at the Peabody Essex Museum, where I’d been the curator of old manuscripts and scrapbooks. Vintage scrapbooks have a remarkable ability to capture the life and culture of the time and can read like a good novel. I thought that it’d be nice to reproduce some of this visual material in a novel—and then I just had this inspiration to create a novel that was a scrapbook.
MH: It’s really a beautiful book.
CP: I’m thrilled with the way it turned out. The publisher did a beautiful job reproducing the scrapbook pages. I have no training as a graphic artist. I had this nutty idea to create a scrapbook novel with vintage ephemera and learned as I went along. The first pages were very crude. I am still amazed that Frankie Pratt works as both a novel and as a vintage scrapbook, and that the finished product was so faithful to my original idea.
MH: How was the writing process itself different?
CP: People always ask me: what came first, the visual material or the writing? The answer is that I started with the basic idea of the story. A coming-of-age story of an aspiring writer named Frankie Pratt, and her journey from a New England village to Vassar, Greenwich Village, and Paris. Each place would be a different chapter and I assembled material for each one. For example, for Vassar I collected yearbooks and report cards, magazines of the time, dance cards, postcards. I had individual boxes for each chapter, and I’d throw things in as I found them. As I was working on a chapter, I’d spill the contents of that box across my desk and have the story emerge from the images and ephemera that I found. I was really like a girl creating a scrapbook.
MH: Did the plot change at all when you couldn’t find a specific artifact or anything?
CP: The plot did change a little. It didn’t really change because I couldn’t find something. It was more that the plot evolved as I discovered interesting items or as I did more research. The ephemera became the inspiration. I found things about, say, the automat, or the Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, or book covers.
MH: How was the experience of using the typewriter as opposed to a computer?
CP: In reality, I did use a computer. What you can do now is download the font that matches a particular typewriter so it has a very individual look. I mostly did that, because I was constantly revising it and changing the story, and I couldn’t just keep typing it up on the typewriter! Typing is hard. Vintage typewriters are really wonderful, but you’re constantly making mistakes, and you’re having to realign the lines and things like that, which I had to do plenty of times even just using the computer. Typing on a vintage typewriter requires considerable manual strength and coordination. It’s a lost art. But I love old typewriters, and do have a 1918 Corona portable that I used for a few captions. The Corona was the first portable typewriter, and it was marketed towards artists and women. It was like the first laptop computer: you could travel with it and have one of your own. It was affordable to individuals. The Corona typewriter was used by many famous writers, including Hemingway for The Sun Also Rises.
MH: What do you feel that writing in the scrapbook style says about Frankie as a character?
CP: Frankie Pratt is creating an autobiography through her scrapbook, where she glues items she finds significant, either because they are beautiful or because it’s a souvenir of an event she wants to remember. The captions tell the story, but they’re providing a kind of exterior narrative or commentary to the images. So she’s not saying, “This is a ticket.” She’s saying, “This is a ticket for the movie I saw on my first date with Will.” The1920s scrapbooks I’ve studied use this kind of breezy and informal tone of voice which really captures the irreverent spirit of the time. That’s what I was aiming to do with Frankie’s captions.
MH: Because the novel was written in a scrapbook form, the readers see different things about the characters that they wouldn’t see in a more traditional style novel. It was a different perspective, a different way to look at it. Is that what you intended?
CP: Frankie’s perceptions are different than the reader’s. For example, Oliver being gay—that’s something that the reader picks up on before she does! Or the fact that Jamie is a really bad choice. Her perceptions are naïve, but her perceptions are of the period. You would think that she would say oh, this is interesting, or This has never happened, like with the first issue of The New Yorker. Instead, she says, “They just published this boring new magazine and it’s going to be a flop.” But that’s what people thought when The New Yorker was first published. No one would have imagined that it would survive for over 80 years.
MH: I like that through Frankie’s entries, I figured out what was going on in the world around her, but at the same time, she was somewhat unaware of it.
CP: She was aware, but she wasn’t as aware as we are. She thinks Ulysses is going to be a revolutionary book, showing she realizes at least in part its significance. But at the same time, we’re much attuned.
MH: I read this book in one sitting; it’s very quick to get through, but I know I could spend hours just looking at all the visuals and detail. How did you intend or expect to have people read the novel?
CP: That is a really good question. Many readers have told me that they read Frankie Pratt the first time through in one sitting, and then read it once more at a slower pace, taking time to look over the ephemera. I don’t think all books are like this, but this is a book that can be read on different levels and multiple times.
MH: Yeah, readers will pick up on things that they didn’t the first time.
CP: By knowing how the story is going to turn out, you can see things coming a lot sooner. But I think it is more about appreciating and savoring the objects and the history of the objects.
MH: Regarding the layout of the book, was that all you or did you have a graphic designer help
CP: No, I did it all myself, which is kind of surprising. The interesting thing is that this book was not composed on the computer. I actually composed it with scissors and glue, mostly because I don’t have the design know-how to do it digitally. Also, I think that cutting things out and having the different textures and layers created an effect that would have been difficult to create digitally. I would have been intimidated to design this book with no training except the fact that this is a scrapbook. If it seems messy or lopsided, that’s the way that a vintage scrapbook looks. I cut pages that were the actual size of the book and pasted them up. I compiled these separate pages into albums. The designer at HarperCollins gave me page templates. As I did chapters, she would look them over. The understanding was if she wanted me to change the way something looked, she’d tell me, but she just said, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” There were some adjustments we made with fitting the text, and I guess I came too close to the margins, but she didn’t change anything about the design.
MH: Do you think the fact that you physically put everything together by hand made it a more worthwhile experience than your other novels?
CP: For me, yes. This goes back to a lot of my early interests in collage and collecting ephemera so there was something deeply satisfying about creating something manually. It was also rewarding in terms of working at every level of the graphic part of it and composing the pages. It was a really complete creative experience and I’m going to do a whole series of scrapbook novels.
I think not everybody would feel that way, but I do. One thing that I got frustrated with about novels is that you’re constantly having to describe with words visual things—what dresses look like, and what a book looks like, what an object looks like—and the idea that you can somehow skip that part, and that you can provide actual images was a relief.
MH: With your future scrapbook novels, are you going to make any changes to the process that you used with this one?
CP: I’m seeing the next one somewhat differently. It’s going to be a bride’s scrapbook from her engagement to her first year of marriage. In fact, it’s going to be modeled after Ann Sexton’s scrapbook. She eloped when she was 19 and during her first year of marriage, before she became a poet, she kept this really funky scrapbook. I’m also thinking that the captions will be written more as a diary, with dates, and that it will have more text in it. That’s what I’m planning, although as I work I’m finding it to be as graphic-heavy as my last book. In terms of the mechanics of it, Frankie Pratt was photographed, but I think for the next book we’ll do scans, because it will be less expensive. I was going try to compose this through Photoshop, but I’m not doing that, just because for me the process of creating the story comes from doing the actual layout. It’s hard for me to make that transition, although I suspect I will eventually. I’ll still collect original material, because I feel that’s very intrinsic to the process.
MH: I think there’s something about doing it by hand that just makes the whole process seem more rewarding.
CP: I think so.
MH: How do you think these novels will translate into eBooks?
CP: It’s already an eBook. It is on the iPad, and it looks pretty good. You can zoom in on the pages and the detail is fantastic. It’s different, but it looks beautiful. There are a lot of two-page spreads, and that doesn’t really work on an eBook. So, I am actually thinking about the next book more as one-page spreads.
So eBooks are changing my thinking. Do I see a future on eBooks? Absolutely. I mean, every author sees a future on eBooks. This type of book has a lot of high reproduction costs, and having it available as an eBook will keep the price down.
MH: Would you have any advice as a published scrapbook author for someone who is looking to tackle a graphic novel project like this one?
CP: My advice for any writer these days is to stay open to new formats. I think no one should be constrained by the idea that a novel looks a certain way, as we certainly have in the past. We tend to think of the novel being between 200 and 300 pages long, with a conventional shape and size. I think there are many ways that a narrative can be constructed and being open to combining different forms of media is what we should all be doing. Publishing is going through revolutionary changes, and writers today need to consider different modes of publishing. My other piece of advice is to be adventurous. When I told people that I was doing a graphic novel, they were flabbergasted! If you’re frustrated with your work, don’t be afraid to try a new approach. I think that’s the lesson I took away from Frankie Pratt.
Images excerpted from The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt © Caroline Preston. Permission courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.