May 15, 2011

Several of my friends and colleagues have asked me how I came to write a scrapbook novel, or what some would call a graphic novel, which was such a radical departure from my three previous novels.  In truth, the idea was forty years in the making.

I spent an unhealthy portion of my childhood rooting around in the boiling-or-freezing attic of my parent’s house in Lake Forest, Illinois.  My mother could be called a tidy pack rat—keeping many generations worth of diaries, letters, clippings, dresses and weird souvenirs in neatly labeled trunks and boxes.

Some of my favorite  discoveries:  a few pages of Ulysses corrected by Joyce himself (sent to my grandmother from her best friend Sylvia Beach), coils of my grandmother’s auburn hair which she’d bobbed in 1924, a skull my mother had picked up at Machu Picchu in 1938, my great-aunt’s suffragette sash.  These treasures seemed to tell as vivid and romantic story as one I’d find in a novel.

In high school, I moved out of the attic and started rummaging through stacks of old papers in antique shops and bookshops.  Pretty soon I had an unwieldy collection of antique valentines and scrapbooks, which I carried along with me to Dartmouth (where I majored in American Literature) and Brown (where I got a masters in American Civilization).

I turned my hobby into a vocation by becoming an archivist, first at the Peabody/Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and later at Harvard’s Houghton Library.  In fireproof vaults, I sorted through vast collections of scrapbooks, valentines, and vintage photographs piled on dusty shelves— my childhood attic times a thousand. Some of the favorite items I cataloged:  the court papers from the Salem witchcraft trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s boyhood diary, and Teddy White’s “Camelot Interview” with Jackie Kennedy a few days after JFK’s assassination.

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