AUTHOR INTERVIEW: PETER ZHEUTLIN
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.