FACETIME- Cataloguing Caroline: Preston delves writers' worlds

The phone rings while Caroline Preston is talking to a visitor, and it's another local author, Donna Lucey, who, like Preston, is one-half of a writerly couple. 

Is this Charlottesville's secret writers' club, where writers marry writers, go to the movies with writers, and figure out over dinner how they're going to kill off a tiresome character? (Wait, the latter would be the secret mystery writers' club.)

"A lot of our good friends are writers," admits Preston, who published her third book, Gatsby's Girl– a book about another writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald– last spring. "It's a hard way to make a living with a lot of disappointments." 

And, she notes, "The sale of novels is going down."

That's not necessarily why her new book will be a nonfiction story about the expatriate life in Paris in the 1920s. "When I read Donna Lucey's book [Archie and Amélie], that inspired me that nonfiction can be as good as fiction," explains Preston.

And she has lived the past few years in Fitzgerald's world, which took in her hometown of Lake Forest, Illinois. That's where Genevra King dumped Fitzgerald before ending up as the model for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby– and the model for the lead character in Preston's book, which was published by Houghton Mifflin and garnered around 20 reviews.

 "I thought, how weird to have an ex-boyfriend write about you," says Preston. "I tried to recreate what she would have thought. He was really famous." 

Preston sits in her office looking out on a deck over husband Christopher Tilghman's office in the writers' wing of their house.

Tilghman, who teaches creative writing at UVA, was the original writer in the family, and he struggled with it for years before Preston took up the pen– while pregnant with their third child.

"When you're 40 years old, quitting your job and writing a novel, nobody tells you, 'That's a great idea,'" says Preston.

She left her position– and her health insurance– as an archivist at Harvard's Houghton Library. "Chris was supportive– he said, 'You have to have childcare; you can't write a book while the baby's napping,'" she recalls.

In the course of working on her first book, she got a call from celeb biographer Edward Klein, who asked if she'd ever come across anything on Jackie Onassis when she'd catalogued Kennedy chronicler Teddy White's papers at Harvard.

"I thought, how can you ask a high-brow, unpublished writer like me to do research?" says Preston. "Instead, I found myself asking, 'How much would it pay?'"

The Jackie research inspired Preston's first book, Jackie by Josie, which she cranked out in short order to critical acclaim. That was followed by Lucy Crocker 2.0. 

"She has an ear for ordinary heartbreak," says Tilghman. "She's not melodramatic." 

 Preston, 53, insists there's no inter-spousal rivalry, despite her immediate success. "It's not like one of us is out there on the best-seller list," she notes. 

Now she's eyeing her new book– but not saying much about it. What are the odds it's going to have something to do with writers?

Caroline Preston