Scrappy work: Preston recreates '20s in graphic book

If Caroline Preston had a time machine, she'd take it back to the 1920s. Instead, the Charlottesville author has brought the 1920s to today by channelling a lifelong collecting habit into a new book called The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, which– to use the parlance of the era– is getting a bee's knees roll-out.

"It'll be in the New York Times this weekend, and Women's Wear Daily and the Oprah magazine," Preston tells a reporter recently in her Rugby Road-area home, where vintage bubblegum toys vie with antique dollhouses and the vintage valentines she collected in college.

Little wonder Preston would work as an archivist at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and at Harvard's Houghton Library.

"Mark Twain was so avid," she says, as she grabs her great-grandmother's 1870s scrapbook, "that he patented a scrapbook with gummed pages."

Her debutante mother followed in her grandmother's footsteps by detailing South American travels in 1939-40. "I love the way the scrapbook told a story," Preston says. "It was a way to know my mother."

Scrapbooks were such the jazz-era rage that the period's icons, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, kept them. (This isn't the first time Preston has visited the Roaring '20s: Scott Fitzgerald was central to her 2006 novel, Gatsby's Girl.)

"What you find about scrapbooks is people documented their happiest periods of time, the weddings and babies," says Preston. "They have a feeling of exuberance."

Enter Frankie Pratt, Preston's character who gets a scrapbook for her 1920 high school graduation and uses her father's old Corona portable typewriter. ("It was like the first Mac," explains Preston, suddenly wielding a Corona of her own.)

The book has Frankie documenting her journey from New Cornish, New Hampshire, to Vassar College, where she runs into Edna St. Vincent Millay, on her way to becoming a  flapper in Greenwich Village, as Harold Ross is starting The New Yorker. Later, in Paris, she lives in the garret of Ulysses-publisher Sylvia Beach, with whom Preston has a real-life connection.

"My grandmother was a really good friend of hers," says Preston, explaining that her forebear distributed smuggled copies of the banned James Joyce masterpiece from her house in Highland Park, Illinois.

Preston illustrates Frankie's journey with real magazine cutouts, photographs, and ticket stubs– about 600 pieces of ephemera from the era. "It was the only way it was going to look authentic," she says.

She's getting ready to embark on a hefty book tour, and has a two-book deal with HarperCollins. "The next one will be a bride's scrapbook," says Preston.

"I basically think she's reinvented the wheel," says Donna Lucey, author of Archie and Amelie. "She's taken the best of the classic novel, the graphic novel, and collage, and turned it into an evocative memory piece.

"I reconnected to my past and to my early interests,"  says Preston. "How often do you get to do that?"

Caroline Preston will launch The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt at 8pm October 25 at the UVA Bookstore.