Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Peter Zheutlin, Author of SPIN: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story -- AUTHOR INTERVIEW


Peter Zheutlin has written several books, including three about the world of rescue dogs and one nonfiction book about his ancestor Annie Londonderry. His new novel SPIN (2020, Pegasus Books) is a fictionalized account of Londonderry's life and adventures. 

Peter talked with Rose City Reader about SPIN, Annie Londonderry, and his own favorite books and authors:

Who was Annie Londonderry?

Annie Londonderry was the alter ego of a Boston housewife and mother whose real name was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky. In June of 1894, leaving her husband and three small children behind, she set off from Boston to go around the world by bicycle, ostensibly to settle a wager over whether a woman could do so. To help finance her trip she solicited corporate sponsors (she was way ahead of her time in many ways) and the first was the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Co. of Nashua, NH. In exchange for $100 she affixed a placard bearing the Londonderry logo to her bike and called herself Annie Londonderry.

What drew you to Londonderry’s story and made you want to write SPIN, a historical novel about her life?

Annie was my great grandaunt, but I learned about her not from anyone in my family, but from a stranger back in 1993 who was researching her story and thought my mother might be connected to her. She was, but my mother had never heard of her. In 2003, I decided to see if I could learn more about her and four years of research led to my first book about Annie, non-fiction, called Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride (2007, Citadel Press). In 2019, as part of a special series of obituaries called “Overlooked,” the New York Times did a long piece about her. At that point my wife Judy, who produces a newsletter for book clubs, told me (ordered me, actually) to revisit Annie’s story as a work of historical fiction. I’d written eight books, but never a novel, so I doubted I’d get very far. But, like Annie, I pushed on and finished the journey with the publication of SPIN.

How much of your novel is based on true, historical events and how much did you have to imagine? How much is really known about Londonderry’s bicycle tour, her encounters with famous people like Buffalo Bill, and the other adventures depicted in your book?

The book bears the subtitle A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story because Annie, I learned from my research, was quite a storyteller and raconteur who had a casual relationship with the truth. She embellished freely with her accounts of her travels, always ready to entertain a reporter or an audience. You could say that SPIN is historical fiction about a woman who was writing her own historical fiction in real time. That said, and because she was such good copy, she left an extensive trail of newspaper coverage. So SPIN is absolutely based on her bicycle trip around the world, but liberated from the historical record by writing the story as a novel, I was free to fill in a lot of blanks and to imagine the nature of her relationships with real people in her life and even some she never encountered. Book clubs that have read SPIN really enjoy trying to sort of fact from fiction so if I give too much away it will ruin the fun!

How did you research the historical information and detail found in your book? Did you have family access to primary source materials?

The vast majority of what can be known about Annie’s trip comes from contemporaneous newspaper accounts, many hundreds of them from all over the world, including a first person account she wrote (and the only one she ever wrote) for The New York World in October of 1895. But that account is riddled with her exaggerations. In the process of my research, with the help of a specialist in Jewish genealogy, I found Annie’s only direct living descendent, her granddaughter Mary (my second cousin once removed). Mary knew Annie and had many artifacts of her trip, souvenirs and so forth, but no diary, if there ever was one, survived.

You earlier wrote a nonfiction book about Annie Londonderry. Why did a new novel appeal to you as a writer and what new does it offer your readers?

I touched on this earlier. I resisted suggestions when I was working on the first book to write it as historical fiction because I was resurrecting a completely obscure piece of history and didn’t want to cloud the issue. I wanted to tell the story, as best I could with limited information, as it really happened. As it turned out, the “true” story of Annie Londonderry includes her own fabrications and tall tales. Writing it as a novel was, I realize in retrospect, my way of fulfilling a wish I had had since I first started looking into the story – I wished I could sit down with Annie for an hour or a day and have her tell me her story. That’s why SPIN takes the form of a letter written by Annie in old age to her granddaughter Mary. SPIN, I think, brings the story to life in a way that sticking strictly to a rather incomplete historical record could not. And for me, as a writer it was great fun to be freed from a “just the facts” approach. Real-life characters can be brought to life through imagined dialogue, for example.

What did you learn from writing SPIN – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

Ha! That I could actually write a novel when I was sure I couldn’t! Whether I wrote a good one is up to each reader to decide, but so far the response has been very positive. People often ask writers about their “process,” a question that always flummoxes me. I’m not aware of having a process other than opening my laptop and writing words that turn into sentences that turn into paragraphs and then chapters so on.

Are there any themes you hope readers will find in your novel?

Annie’s is much more than one woman’s idiosyncratic story; it’s very much the story of the times in which her bicycle trip took place, the women’s movement for social equality and the vote, and the underappreciated role of how the bicycle radically transformed the lives of women in the late 19th century. In 1896, a few months after Annie finished her circuit of the earth, Susan B. Anthony said that “bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” That quote is on the cover of SPIN.

Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?

Oh, goodness, yes, although I didn’t become an avid reader until I was an adult. My mother Baila, Annie’s grandniece, was a voracious reader. She was never without a book. So many days I came home from school as a kid and she would be in the backyard on a lawn chair reading.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?

The best way to answer this, in part, is to name some of my all-time favorite books. My top three novels are William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Steinbeck directly influenced my previous book before SPIN. At the age of 63 I re-read his Travels with Charley and that inspired to me take a cross country road trip with our (late) rescue dog, Albie. That journey became The Dog Went Over the Mountain: Travels with Albie – An American Journey (2019, Pegasus Books). Another favorite author is Bill Bryson. Some of his books are serious inquiries into all manner of things, but his travel books such as The Lost Continent and A Walk in the Woods make me laugh out loud.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?

I enjoy history, especially the work of Joseph Ellis about the founding fathers, and Robert Caro’s monumental multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Books about racial justice and the never-ending struggle for equality also appeal to me, books such as David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. I am between books at the moment but next up is Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters” by Kim Todd. You see, after her bike trip Annie became one of those “girl stunt reporters,” the most famous being Nellie Bly whose ‘round the world jaunt in 1889-90 to break the fictional record of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days almost surely inspired Annie’s bicycle journey. In fact, that first person account of the bike trip she penned for The New York World was bylined “Nellie Bly, Junior.”

Do you have any writing rituals, odd habits, or superstitions?

I’m sure I have some odd habits, but none that pertain to writing! Well, actually, people who know I am a writer and then see me working, at Starbucks, for example, are shocked that I type using only my two index fingers. I never learned to type properly.

What advice has helped you the most as a writer?

The advice I give myself: just do it.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

Well, one of the reasons I picked up Sensational is that I think there may be another novel to be based on Annie’s brief career as stunt reporter for The New York World, but I’m not sure yet.



Thursday, July 22, 2021

Cheyenne Summer: The Battle of Beecher Island: A History by Terry Mort -- BOOK BEGINNINGS


It's Book Beginnings on Fridays! Time to gather with our fellow book lovers and share the opening sentence (or so) of the books we are reading this week. Or share from a book that is on your mind right now -- whatever catches your fancy. 


My fancy is caught by Cheyenne Summer: The Battle of Beecher Island: A History by Terry Mort (Pegasus Books):

In the summer of 1868 General Phillip Sheridan was commander of the US Army's Department of the Missouri. He was responsible for the vast Plains that were the homelands of some of the most warlike and troublesome of the Native tribes.

-- from the author's Introduction.

The tribe popularly known as Cheyenne called themselves Tsistsistas. The word means, roughly, "people."

-- from Chapter 1, The Cheyenne.  

Cheyenne Summer is a new nonfiction history book about a battle in eastern Colorado during the Indian Wars of the late 1800s. In the Battle of Beecher Island in 1868, Cheyenne and Sioux warriors fought US Army scouts, including two battalions of Black "Buffalo Soldiers." 

Although Mort describes the battle as not strategically significant, he concludes that it was culturally and historically important. He uses the battle to frame a discussion about one of the most transformative periods in America's history -- including a discussion of what motivated the white settlers, the Cheyenne, and the US soldiers, both white and Black.

Having grown up at both ends of the Oregon Trail -- Nebraska as a child and Oregon from a teenager on -- I've picked up some of the sad history of how our country treated the Native Americans during the settlement of the Western frontier. But there is a lot to learn. This new book is an interesting place to start.  


Please add the link to your Book Beginnings blog or social media post in the Linky box below. If you share on social media, please use the hashtag #bookbeginnings. 

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Freda at Freda's Voice hosts another teaser event on Fridays. Participants share a two-sentence teaser from page 56 of the book they are reading -- or from 56% of the way through the audiobook or ebook. Please visit Freda's Voice for details and to leave a link to your post.

From Cheyenne Summer:
Not surprisingly, Texas was a particularly thorny problem -- not only did Texans dislike Reconstruction, but the Comanche and the Kiowa and some Kiowa Apache were continuing their own form of resistance and depredation. . . . On one of his visits General Sheridan once said if he owned both hell and Texas, he'd live in hell and rent out Texas.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Four New Books: Memoir, Novel in Stories, History, Poetry -- MAILBOX MONDAY



I've been Mailbox Monday MIA for a few weeks while getting ready for a trial. In the meantime, several new books have come my way and stacked up on my desk. What do you think of these new releases? Does anything catch your eye? 

What new books came into your house lately?

I Have Not Loved You with My Whole Heart by Cris Harris (OSU Press). This gripping memoir came out in June and I can't wait to read it. 

Cris Harris grew up in a difficult household with an alcoholic father, learning to live with the uncertainty, chaos, and neglect of living with addiction. What he didn't expect was that his father, an Episcopalian priest, would come out as gay during the height of the AIDS crisis and die of HIV in 1995. 

The Image: A Novel in Pieces by Steven Faulkner (Beaufort Books). This short novel launches today!

The Image is the tale of a timeless work of art told in three linked stories. It's a story of how art and faith are often entwined and what it takes to cherish both.

Darrow's Nightmare: The Forgotten Story of America's Most Famous Trial Lawyer: (Los Angeles 1911-1913) by Nelson Johnson (Rosetta Books). This one came out in April. Nelson Johnson wrote Boardwalk Empire that was made into such a terrific TV show. 

Darrow's Nightmare is the nonfiction account of how America's most famous criminal trial attorney was almost a convicted criminal himself. in 1911, Darrow went to Los Angeles to defend two union agitators on trial for mass murder. While there, he was indicted and tried for bribing a juror. A conviction would have ended his career.

Plume Poetry 9, edited by Daniel Lawless. Plume is an online magazine dedicated to publishing the best of contemporary poetry. Since 2012, Plume has published an annual anthology of new poems. 

In this 9th anthology, editor Daniel Lawless did something a little different. Instead of choosing all the poems himself, he chose 49 poems and then let those poets chose another poet to be paired with. The 49 poem pairings appear side-by-side, in dialog, as they say in artsy circles. There is also a selection of nine poems by and an interview with Diane Seuss. 

Join other book lovers on Mailbox Monday to share the books that came into your house last week. Visit the Mailbox Monday website to find links to all the participants' posts and read more about Books that Caught our Eye.

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit, Martha of Reviews by Martha's Bookshelf, and Velvet of vvb32reads.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar - BOOK BEGINNINGS



Welcome to Book Beginnings on Fridays! Please share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week. Add the link to your post in the Linky box below.

Another week of trial prep has flown by without me noticing much beyond my office. I definitely did not have time to post anything on the blog! I can't wait for this big case to be over, one way or the other. 

I can't complain about my law practice, though, because I am fortunate in so many ways. The sex abuse cases my law partner and I work on are difficult (legally and emotionally), but we get so much out of working with our clients. Most of them are adults in the 40s or 50s when they come to us to bring lawsuits for abuse they suffered as children. Many have never told anyone about their abuse until they talk to us. Many go to counseling for the first time because we "make" them. It is the combination of talking about their abuse, standing up for themselves by bringing a lawsuit, and going to counseling, that we've seen change lives -- over and over. So this is a great job to have. 

I'm also fortunate in little ways. My law partner is fun to work with and has my same off-kilter sense of humor. My husband is also a lawyer so puts up with me and has terrific ideas. I live close enough to walk to work. And a neighborhood kitty has adopted our office as a daytime hangout so we have a trial mascot!


My Book Beginning this week is from The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar:

Although it is dawn, inside Bhima's heart it is dusk.

That's an evocative opening sentence! I like it. This one has been on my TBR shelf for a long time. I am glad to finally read it.

This is the story of two women in Bombay, India -- Sera and her servant Bhima. Both are older and have lost their husbands. They have much in common but a gulf of class and money separates them. It is excellent.


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Another fun Friday event is The Friday 56. Share a two-sentence teaser from page 56 of your book, or 56% of the way through your e-book or audiobook, on this weekly event hosted by Freda at Freda's Voice.


From The Space Between Us:
Bhima walked quickly, anxious to be home. The straps of her rubber chappals dug into her feet, but she was too lost in her thoughts to notice the pain.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford, the Biography by Laura Thompson



How often do you post on your blog each week? Ideally, I like to post three or four times a week. I had a short little stretch there when I was posting several times a week. 

But now I am up to my eyeballs in trial prep for a big sex abuse trial starting September 7. My law partner and I are working seven days a week and will be through the end of September, unless the case settles "on the courthouse steps" as they say. But, that's what I signed up for when I became a trial attorney. It's not 9 - 5 and it's not for the feint hearted.

So for a while, it will be all I can do to get these Book Beginnings posts up! These have become my anchor. I enjoy seeing what everyone has posted, even when I don't have time to leave a comment for everyone. Thank you for playing along!

Please share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading or want to highlight. You can participate with a blog or on social media. Add the link to your blog or SM post in the Linky box below. 


From Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford, the Biography by Laura Thompson (2019, Pegasus Books):

The little grave at Swinbrook church is sad right now.

Starting a biography with a visit to the subject's grave is melancholy. But if you are going to write a biography of a dead person, everyone knows how the story ends. Maybe it's best to acknowledge it up front and then go back and fill in the life story.

I love Nancy Mitford's novels. And I love all the stories of the Mitford Sisters. I have a stack of Mitford Sisters books. I may dip into a few now and then, but my plan is to gorge myself on all of them at once when I get a chance.


Please add your link in the box below. If you share on social media, please use the #bookbeginnings hashtag.

Mister Linky's Magical Widgets -- Thumb-Linky widget will appear right here!
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Another weekly teaser event is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda's Voice, where you can find details and add a link to your post. The idea is to share a two-sentence teaser from page 56 of the book you are featuring. You can also find a teaser from 56% of the way through your ebook or audiobook.


From Life in a Cold Climate:
When, in Pursuit of Love, Nancy conceived the childhood of Fanny as an alternative to the one lived by the Radlett-Mitfords, she was of course having a dig at her parents for their failure to educate her. She wrote of the Radlett children that 'they never acquired any habit of concentration, they were incapable of solid hard work', and this frustration with her own mind was something real and lasting.

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