Thursday, December 7, 2017

Caroline Preston talks about her extraodinary memorabilia-as-novel, THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK

I'm not sure how or where I met Caroline Preston, except I've known and loved her for a long time. She's is the author of three previous novels, Jackie by Josie (a New York Times Notable Book), Lucy Crocker 2.0, and Gatsby’s Girl, and her first scrapbook novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. She has collected antique scrapbooks since she was in high school, and has worked as an archivist at the Peabody/ Essex Museum and Harvard University. Her latest book,  THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK is both a fascinating exploration of a long gone time, and a very personal narrative that reads like a novel. I loved it, I love Caroline, too.
      This is your second scrapbook novel. What first gave you the idea of creating a novel in the form of the scrapbook?

I like to say that the idea of making a scrapbook novel was 40 years in the making.  As a little girl, I used to pore over my grandmother’s flapper scrapbook filled with dance cards, ocean liner tickets, and even long curls snipped when she got her hair bobbed.

My first three novels were what I guess you’d call “conventional” format—i.e. just words.  My third novel Gatsby’s Girl was inspired by the meticulous scrapbook F. Scott Fitzgerald kept about his first love, Ginevra King.  Later he would turn the story of his unrequited crush into The Great Gatsby.

When I was casting around for the idea for my fourth novel, I wanted to create something that was as visual and powerful as a scrapbook.  And then I had a crazy idea—why not make a novel that WAS a scrapbook. Not a digital scrapbook, but an actual one made of real stuff that I cut up with scissors and pasted together with glue.  And so I created The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt.

The War Bride’s Scrapbook is a scrapbook kept by a young bride while her husband fighting overseas. What inspired you to make a WWII era scrapbook?

I have a large collection of vintage scrapbooks.  Some of the most fascinating ones are the scrapbooks kept by wives while their husbands were overseas during WWII. They are an odd combination of touching love letters, cheerful home front memorabilia such as ration stamps, grim war clippings about battles and casualties, and  military souvenirs such as dog tags and discharge papers. 

These “bride’s scrapbooks” provide an interesting glimpse into the reality of wartime marriages. Many couples had gotten married only a few weeks after they’d met and then were separated for years. Letters were often their only means for getting to know one another and forming an actual relationship.

The scrapbooks kept by war brides are often sweetly hopeful and aspirational. They draw an idealized image of what their marriage and life will be like when their husbands return from war-- babies, new houses, new appliances and cars, domestic routines and jobs picked up again.

Most WWII scrapbooks tend to end abruptly in August, 1945 with headlines about the atomic bombs. It seems like the scrapbooks were put away, never to be looked at again until they turned up on eBay.  We don’t know what happened when (or if) the husbands returned home after the war.

In The War Bride’s Scrapbook, I’ve tried to write the whole story behind one of these bride’s scrapbooks. Why the bride (Lila Jerome) started to keep it in 1943, why she stopped keeping it in 1945. And what truths her daughters discover about their mother when they find the scrapbook 70 years later.

Are Lila Jerome and Perry Weld based on your own parents?

Not at all.  My father was 4-F because of terrible eyesight and spent the war in San Diego as a Navy Jag throwing drunken sailors in the brig. My parents didn’t get married until 1947. But Lila and Perry’s story was inspired in part by real people and real events.

 My last surviving WWII-generation relative, an aunt, dropped out of Vassar at 20 to marry her college boyfriend before he shipped out.  She wrote me some very candid emails about how she came to regret her wartime marriage almost immediately but felt economically and socially obligated to stick it out for 20 miserable years.

I had Perry serve with the much-decorated 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. The 291st managed to halt Nazi assault in the Battle of the Bulge by blowing up bridges. It also built the first tactical bridge across the Rhine River.

How did you go about creating Lila’s scrapbook?

The War Bride’s Scrapbook turned out to be a much more complicated and time-consuming undertaking than I originally imagined.  I spent four years collecting WWII ephemera and doing research.  I was fortunate to interview several WWII veterans including combat engineers and the author James Salter. Many friends shared caches of their parents WWII letters, and I research 291 Combat Engineer records at the National Archives. I went to WWII reenactments and befriended combat engineer reenactors who educated me about supplies and equipment used in the European Theatre. My husband and I toured sites visited by US combat engineers including Normandy. I interviewed orthopedic surgeons and trauma doctors about Perry’s war wound and recovery.  

Are the items in the scrapbook original or are the images from the web?

Almost all the items in the book are original. I collected hundreds of WWII-era publications and objects to create my scrapbook.  My office looks like something out of the Hoarders show.

The primary sources that I started out with were magazines from 1940-1946. Life and Time  provided a weekly timeline of war headlines and everyday life on the home front. Women’s magazines (McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal) were chock full of wartime illustrations, advice columns, fashion spreads, and ads.

I collected boxes of V-mail stationery, picture postcards  and telegram paper for Lila’s and Perry’s correspondence. I assembled all the “scraps” that a bride in the 1940’s would glue in a scrapbook: menus, movie tickets, ration stamps, book jackets, train timetables, war bonds, maps, and matchbooks.

I found military memorabilia such as combat engineer manuals, k-ration boxes,  uniform patches, and the French phrase book the army handed out to soldiers on their way to the Normandy Beaches (with handy phrases such as “Please don’t shoot me.”.)

 Where’d you find all this stuff?

A lot of oddball places. A retired couple down the road from me in Charlottesville had built an entire Home Front museum in the basement of their ranch house and lent me things from their collection, such as the French phrasebook. One of my favorite vintage stores is Whiting’s Old Paper in Mechanicsville, Va. which has over one million pieces of ephemera. There is a huge military flea market at the annual Battle of the Bulge reenactment. (Yes, such an event really happens--in January in the Pennsylvania woods!) And I was almost always able to track down something I needed on eBay—from a knitting pattern for GI sweaters to 1946 Chevy manual. I got so many packages my mailman started to complain.

How does a scrapbook create a different narrative of World War II than a conventional novel?

I really see The War Bride’s Scrapbook as containing three separate narratives. The first is the story of Lila and Perry’s marriage, told through Lila’s captions and their letters.  The second is a timeline of the war from Pearl Harbor to J-V day told through magazine articles and newspaper headlines. The third is a social and cultural history of the WWII era revealed in magazine art and ads. Cigarette, girdle, and appliance ads tell us as much about the role and expectations of a wartime bride as a 300-page novel.

Without giving anything away, I have to tell you that the ending gobsmacked me. I was weeping and shocked and yet, it felt like the exactly right ending. Did you always know it would be that way?

When I started the scrapbook, I didn’t know how Lila’s and Perry’s story would end after the war and I struggled over it for almost 3 years! I found my ending in the WWII letters of some of my friends’ fathers. These were men I had known growing up—silent, remote, strict 1950’s dads. In their letters, I saw glimpses of their younger selves—full of passion and optimism—that had been extinguished by war. They were probably suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.

I was also inspired by James Salter’s description of a reunited wartime couple--What would they be like now…? ..there was the power of all the letters, of being  apart, the denied love that reality cannot equal.

The addition at the end of the American Studies material is also pure genius, and I think could be used to study this book , and it asks the question, what really is the truth? Is it the artifacts we leave behind? The stories? Or how we choose to tell them?
Lila’s scrapbook is an ahistorical artifact, like a diary. It’s found by her daughters after her death and it upends everything they knew, or thought they knew, about their parents. I had a lot of fun writing the daughter’s email and interview at the end. She has the same smug, know-it-all tone that I once used with my mother!

What are you working on now?

An illustrated history of dogs in American culture.  I’ve already found some treasures at vintage stores and, of course, on eBay. A Simplicity pattern for plaid dog coats, postcards of dog cemeteries, publicity stills of Rin Tin Tin performing on the radio…

Eric Rubin talks about his brilliantly unsettling novel SCHOOL OF VELOCITY, playing piano as an amateur, and so much more

Writers know writers know writers. I met Eric Beck Rubin through my screenwriting partner and fellow novelist Gina Sorell (If you haven't read Mothers and Other Strangers, what the heck are you waiting for?)  Eric sent me his book, SCHOOL OF VELOCITY and I went crazy for it.

 He is a cultural historian who writes on architecture, literature, and psychology. SCHOOL OF VELOCITY is Eric's first foray into fiction, and he is currently at work on a second: a family saga spanning several generations, from pre-World War II Germany to present-day Los Angeles and Western Canada.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so disturbed or unsettled by a novel in years and years. Were you unsettled writing it? Did you know what was going to happen?

Oh, I’m very happy to hear that. I wanted this book to churn up those kinds of feelings in the reader. From my side, though, I wasn’t unsettled while writing. I adopted the narrator’s demeanor: deliberate, reserved, on guard for the surprise that might be around the corner (not that it helps him see what’s coming). As for the ending – I always had a vision of the final scene, and stayed faithful to it. But in one of the later drafts I added something. It took me by surprise, and I figured it would probably do the same for the reader.

What kind of writer are you? Can you tell us about your process?
I learned to write by imitating what I read. I adopted styles and forms from others and gradually the edges softened enough for me to develop something different. The way I see it, fiction closely resembles life, except that while there are no limits to what happens in life, there are limits to what you can put in a novel. So I start by trying to remember as much as possible about ‘what happened’, to take in the full spectrum of life, then shave the corners when pace and plausibility call for it.

I always want to know the why now moment when you felt you absolutely had to write this book. Can you talk about this please?

That I can answer. I was in the Netherlands, at a language school, when a Dutch friend told me to visit his old friend, who was living in the city of Maastricht. All I knew was that the two of them used to be best friends, and this person (in Maastricht) was the one who initiated my friend into music, girls, life, etc. When I went to this person’s apartment, what I saw was a version of my own friend’s apartment, but a pathetic and impoverished one. Bookshelves, but half empty. Art, but poorly framed. A piano, but missing keys. It was like an illustration – or x-ray – of what goes into a best friendship: closeness, competition, striving, failing. It was fascinating, and I didn’t sleep at all that night because I thought I had the heart of a story.

I love all the music material. Are you also a musician, and if not, what was your research like?

I’m an amateur pianist; all I play is classical music, off a sheet, as my ear is terrible. In all the practising I did, though, I learned to love that kind of music, and one of the pleasures of writing School of Velocity was re-acquainting myself with my classical music collection and memories. I also sent the manuscript to a friend who is a professional musician, to get his two cents. As for the other type of music in this book – funk and soul – that was something I was introduced to as a teenager. It still has a strong effect on me – as it would anybody, I think. James Brown, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Curtis Mayfield – hello!
(Both sides of the novel’s soundtrack can be heard here:

The novel is also very cinematic. Do you write with images in your mind?

What you’re getting is the strong impressions that landscapes make on me. In the case of the Netherlands, it’s the perfectly flat fields, the hoarfrost, the fog. It’s all very suggestive – the story emanates from it.

What is obsessing you and why?

If I can go off to the side, what I’m thinking about most right now is form. The story I’m currently writing is in many ways the opposite of School of Velocity: many characters, generations, locations. So how do all these pieces fit together? What does the shape say about the content, and vice-versa? Once again, I’m looking to others to see what they’ve done, and how I might find room in it for something new. 

What question didn't I ask that I shoul
d have?

A-ha. There are general questions – can you name some of those authors you admire? There are particular questions – what have you read lately that’s been great? There are questions related to SoV – do you think a true best friendship can outlast the time in which it was formed? Do you think the ‘other side’ of School of Velocity, which is written in first person, will ever be told? But I’m not feeling short-changed.

Christina Adams is a leader in Autism and Camel milk and the author of A REAL BOY: A TRUE STORY OF AUTISM, EARLY INTERVENTION AND RECOVERY. You KNOW you want to read this interview


Christina Adams first attracted my attention on Facebook because she was just so freaking fascinating. And be prepared. She gets even more incredible.

Her essays and reported pieces have appeared in the LA Times, The Washington Post, NPR, OZY, Open Democracy, Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County Register, Global Advances in Health and Medicine and literary magazines. Perhaps more unusually, her work with autism and camels has been featured by Dubai One, Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Tata Sky Channel, Epocha, GOOD, Farming, radio and more. She’s spoken at Sarah Lawrence Writer’s Program, CSULB Distinguished Visiting Writer’s Program, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, international health and disability conferences, and just spoke at the Marwar Camel festival hosted by HRH The Maharaja of Jodhpur. She wrote A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery.

You’re a writer, but you have this other side. I’ve seen the photos.  You’re in India or Dubai or Cuba, or on some Amish farm. Is this related to your writing?

Yes, and it’s all because of my bedeviled writer’s mind. After writing in the corporate and government world, I got an MFA in fiction and wrote a novel. It won an award, but before I could publish it, my son was diagnosed with autism. So I worked hard to get him better and wrote a memoir about that (A Real Boy).  After it came out, I was at a children’s book fair. I got bored and my mind started turning when I saw a camel there, but no kids were riding it. I went over to chat with the owner and got an intuition that camel milk might help my son. After a lot of research and guesswork, I flew in some frozen milk from Bedouins in Israel. He drank it and got better overnight. That set me down the path into this strange world. Sort of my own Silk Road.

That’s an incredible story. How do you balance being a writer with your research and advocacy work? Do your two lives get along or conflict with each other?

I’m a literary writer at heart—I wrote my first short story at nine. I was so devastated when my son was diagnosed, and I swore that autism wouldn’t stop me from writing, but slowly you turn toward your lived story. Autism became a window on the world and informed my writing—it taught me biology, nature, law, psychology, medicine. And I had to try to help others. So I’ve written memoir, essays and reported pieces and do TV, radio and conference speaking. My first piece about camel milk and autism went viral and helped start the industry. Then I published a medical journal article on it. It’s cited a lot, but it’s a weird success for a writer since only scientists see it (it’s cute how many assume “MFA” is some kind of scientific credential!). That piece led to international speaking and advising. I’ve always had a knack for putting advanced concepts into explainable terms. I guess the takeaway is that life happens and since we chronicle life as writers, we have to chronicle what it does to us. Whether it’s overt or unconscious.

So your work energizes your writing?

Definitely. I just returned from a month’s speaking tour in India, and had overflow crowds on the topic of autism, camel milk and the value of camels to society.  Being barefoot in the TV studio was a fun new thing, wearing glam Indian clothes but no shoes. I wrote an essay for the Rajasthan Patrika (newspaper) and got a lot of press, which triggered a lot of interest. Being treated like a celebrity was really unexpected. A policeman showed up at my hotel at night, and I asked, am I in trouble? Turned out a VIP wanted to talk about camel milk!  Having people drive so far to meet me, being honored at a village temple, seeing my work in Hindi and Portuguese, was all gratifying, but once I got back home it was humble pie as usual. My favorite part was hanging out with the Raika camel herders, a reclusive camel caste I’ve gotten to know as we try to save their camels. Blowing smoke from a bedi (leaf cigarette) out my nose, like they did, won me some points--a guy wanted to trade rings with me. 

Camels are amazing creatures and more useful to humans than you could dream, almost sci-fi stuff. They have unique abilities found in no other creatures. Now the price of a pregnant camel has doubled in the US since I started, but camel cultures are under pressure. I just read my new piece about this at Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute’s series on Democracy and Education. These herders have never shared their ancient wisdom, so I help bridge the two worlds. Camels can help human health conditions like diabetes, STDs, snakebite, and cancer now, so I work with scientists and spend time with Somali, Tuareg, Amish, Indian and Arab cultures. I’ve seen 2,000 pampered camels gleaming in red desert sand, and fed bottles to bleating, curly-haired baby camels. My videos were translated into Malay this month. Some things you just can’t see coming.

Maybe not! So what stories have yet to come from all this?

I’ve been on this wild ride for over 10 years, so now I have a book proposal I’m finishing. It’s a great emotional subject. The camel world is super visual, hidden, magical and political. Camels mean different things to people: family member, heritage or ego symbol, currency, luxury pet or work animal. Also, this year I published print magazine essays, one about my “divorce apartment,” a place I rent to divorced people, framed by the story of my own divorce and remarriage, as well as a long feature on an autism school. Other things I want to write are about being an Appalachian that breaks tradition to leave home but finds out you never really can, with some sensitive family history about the Civil War and its aftermath. And one about marriage and divorce, a subject I finally mastered in real life.  But so many of my readers want this camel book, and I hope I can get it out there.

What are you obsessing about now?

Indian fabrics. I wore Indian clothes for my events and I’m missing getting up and choosing a dupatta (scarf), embroidered tunic, leggings and sparkly jewelry every day. I love the care women take with their daily style. I visited female sheepherders who wore ruffled bodices, armloads of bracelets and pink toenail polish.

Also people give me camel statues, art, chocolate and hats. So I’m facing ‘creeping camelization’ in my life, but trying to keep it micro.

What question did I fail to ask you?

The word ‘fail’ doesn’t apply to you! I love how real and friendly you are on Facebook and the NYC vibe is a bonus. People often ask how my son is. He’s doing great. Got a job without help, at a big employer. Taught a lesson in class. He even asked me what I wanted for Christmas. He never ends a call to me without saying, “Love you.” So that’s what it’s all about. A producer just finished a short documentary about him. He even did a radio show, discussing the ‘toxic masculinity’ of frat culture and why guys with autism are more logical than that. Like they say here in Orange County, Dude, that’s sick! (A compliment.)