FACETIME- I love Lucey: Ghost approves of latest book

Donna Lucey doesn't believe in ghosts. At least she didn't before she started writing Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age.

While researching the tumultuous relationship between John "Archie" Armstrong Chanler, scion of the Astor clan, and Amélie Rives, whose family owned the venerable Castle Hill estate in Keswick, Lucey spent the night at Rokeby, the Astor estate in the Hudson Valley. 

"The place is thoroughly haunted," she says. "I was kept up by the ghost of Mrs. William B. Astor."

As Lucey tried to slumber in the bedroom of Archie's great-grandmother in a deserted wing of Rokeby, someone or something allegedly put a hand on her back and pushed. 

The ghostly encounter ended well. The pushing soothed Lucey's sciatica, and she took the fact that she wasn't pushed out of bed as a sign the Astor grande dame approved of her project.

An even better omen about her new book: reviews any author would die for in the New York Times and Washington Post.

"It had everything– sex, money, celebrity, and tangled psychological states," says Lucey. Amélie was one of the most (in)famous novelists of her day; Archie was rich and had been declared insane, which necessitated escape from an asylum in New York.

"The thing I like most about writing– you're always being led down paths to worlds you had no idea existed," says Lucey. In this case, it was the world of Keswick and Archie's rarefied life in New York that included pals like the treacherous Stanford White.

Lucey has a knack for finding riches in historical subject matter, but the joy of following her interests– and being married to another writer, Henry Wiencek, who does the same– "is sort of like financial suicide," she admits. "It's like a high-wire act with no net."

She met Wiencek when they both worked at Time-Life books in New York. "I was doing the West; he was doing World War II," she reminisces of their office romance.

They went freelance, and moved to Charlottesville 14 years ago. Wiencek's success with The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White was followed by a book about George Washington and his slaves. 

Lucey, 55, is astonished when people ask if there's spousal rivalry between the two writers. "We're a team," she says. "It's amazing how many people say that. I think his books are very important. I couldn't begin to tackle slavery. Writing The Hairstons almost killed him."

"She has a very deep grasp of character," says Wiencek. "When I look at material, I tend to look for story. Donna looks for character, and deeper truth lies in finding character."

And Lucey credits Wiencek with discovering the characters of Archie and Amélie after a trip to Virginia 20 years ago. "He said, 'I just heard the damnedest story...'" 

Donna Lucey