Thursday, June 3, 2021

Peter Zheutlin interview - Spin

Photo Content from Peter Zheutlin

Peter Zheutlin is a freelance journalist and author whose work has appeared regularly in The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs and a Million Miles on the Lost Hope Highway and Rescued: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach Us About Living with Purpose, Loving with Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things. Peter lives in Massachusetts with his wife, author Judy Gelman.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
Storytelling connects us to one another and to the wider world. Every day we tell stories to ourselves, to our family, and friends, and, if you happen to be a writer, to strangers. It’s how we make sense of life…we give it a narrative.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Two of my previous books were non-fiction books about rescue dogs, the hundreds of thousands of lost, abused, abandoned, and neglected dogs in the U.S. that need homes and a second chance. Many people told me those books inspired them to adopt a rescue dog and that means some lucky dog found its way out of a shelter, often a high-kill shelter where the odds of survival are low, and into a loving home. It doesn’t get much more gratifying than that.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in any of your books?
I would fix the occasional typos that seem to elude everyone from the author who pores over his or her manuscript a thousand times, to the editor, the copyeditor, and the proofreader, and find their way into the final book. Those typos drives me crazy!

Can you tell us when you started SPIN, how that came about?
SPIN is a novel, but the central character, an ancestor of mine who cycled around the world in the 1890s, was the subject of my very first book, a work of non-fiction published in 2007. The research for that first book, which began in earnest in 2003, is also the basis for SPIN. But the catalyst for SPIN itself came in November 2019 when The New York Times did one of its “Overlooked” obituaries about Annie Londonderry (my great-grandaunt and the narrator in SPIN), obituaries of women and people of color who the Times overlooked in their day. When that obit appeared my wife told me I had to write Annie’s story as historical fiction and that I was way ahead of the game having done all the research for the first book. I’d never written fiction and was sure after twenty pages that I was barking up the wrong tree. But it turned out pretty well, I think.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
About all the people whose names you will never know who did remarkable things in their lives about which you will never know. You asked about the importance of storytelling – everyone has a story to tell, but so few get told in a form, such as a movie or a book, that allows their story to be shared widely. Annie’s story is outlandish and improbable, but illuminates brilliantly a period in history. Yet, her story was completely lost to history for more than a century. Most of our personal stories will be known only to a few.

What part of your characters did you enjoy writing the most?
SPIN is written in Annie’s voice, in the form of a letter written in old age to her only grandchild Mary. You have to understand that when I sat down to start SPIN in late 2019, I had been living with Annie in my head for close to thirty years for it was in 1993 that I first learned about her from a complete stranger. Annie and her extraordinary story were unknown even within my own family. Having freed myself from sticking strictly to the historical record as I did in my non-fiction book about her, I was able to let my imagination fly. Yet, I felt like I knew Annie so well and it was great fun to pretend to be her for a while.

Did you learn anything from writing SPIN and what was it?
I learned that I can write fiction, something I doubted.

  • 1. SPIN is a novel based on a “mostly” true story. Why “mostly?” Because the real woman at the center of the novel, Annie Londonderry, who is also the narrator, was an unreliable witness to the events of her life and was writing her own historical fiction in real time.
  • 2. Annie was Jewish; her real name was Annie Cohen Kopchovksy.
  • 3. The name Annie Londonderry, by which she became famous, was taken from the first of many advertisers who purchased space on her body and her bike, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Co. of Nashua, NH.
  • 4. Annie was the author’s great-grandaunt.
  • 5. Annie appears to have been the first female athlete to secure corporate sponsors, making her a pioneer of sports-related marketing for women.
  • 6. When Annie left on her 15-month ‘round the world bicycle ride, she was the married mother of three children under the age of 6.
  • 7. Her fist bicycle, the one she rode from Boston to Chicago, was made by Columbia and weighed 42 pounds. The bicycle on which she made the remainder of her trip, a Sterling, weighed 21 pounds. The Columbia was a women’s “drop frame” bicycle. The Sterling was a men’s frame bicycle.
  • 8. While in El Paso in late June/early July of 1895, Annie crossed paths with the infamous outlaw, John Wesley Hardin.
  • 9. The New York World, the flagship paper of Joseph Pulitzer’s empire, called Annie’s bike ride around the world, “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” The World was famous for hyperbole and sensationalism, but they may have been right.
  • 10. When Annie wrote her first person account of her trip for The New York World newspaper, the byline was “Nellie Bly, Jr.,” after the famed “girl stunt journalist” Nellie Bly, the most famous woman journalist of her day. For a brief time after the bike trip, Annie became a feature writer for The New York World. Her most sensational story was about capturing a “wild man” of the woods who was terrorizing farming communities in north central Massachusetts.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
Well, I did that in SPIN! There’s a scene in SPIN where Annie meets the great women’s rights campaigner Susan B. Anthony, the subject of several books.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
My wife is an author and she’s the one who told me to write SPIN.

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Undaunted Courage: Merriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose
  • The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough
  • The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • Complete Poems of Robert Frost by Robert Frost
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald (from my early days)
What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Take a bicycle tour through France or Italy. You get to smell and feel the landscape, not just see it, and at just the right speed.

Best date you've ever had?
This has to be a trick question! If I didn’t say the first date with my wife there’d be hell to pay.

What was the first job you have had?
Working in the stock room of a women’s clothing store in high school. My first job after graduating from law school was delivering booze for Murray’s Liquor Store in Newton, Massachusetts. Seriously.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
When I was 16, I was an American Field Service Exchange student to Guatemala. One day I was having lunch in the restaurant owned by my host family on the first floor of their home. I felt someone tap my arm and turned to see an emaciated woman holding a baby begging me for food. Growing up in a middle class New Jersey suburb I had never seen the face of poverty. I remember that moment very clearly and I have an intense affinity for the underdogs in our world, human and canine.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I have never been to Africa, and would love to see the Serengeti. The place I’d most like to go back to is Italy.

What were you doing the last time you really had a good laugh?
Listening to my wife tell me I should write a novel about Annie.

First Heartbreak?
When our puppy Freddie was killed by a car. I think I was about ten.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
Is there a third option?

Where can readers find you?
Pre-pandemic, they could find me writing in my local Starbucks almost every day. Online they can find me at and

Ride away on a 'round-the-world adventure of a lifetime—with only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver—in this trascendent novel inspired by the life of Annie Londonderry.

“Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”—Susan B. Anthony

Who was Annie Londonderry? She captured the popular imagination with her daring ‘round the world trip on two wheels. It was, declared The New York World in October of 1895, “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

But beyond the headlines, Londonderry was really Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a young, Jewish mother of three small children, who climbed onto a 42-pound Columbia bicycle and pedaled away into history.

Reportedly set in motion by a wager between two wealthy Boston merchants, the bet required Annie not only to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months, but to earn $5,000 en route, as well. This was no mere test of a woman’s physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of a woman’s ability to fend for herself in the world.

Often attired in a man’s riding suit, Annie turned every Victorian notion of female propriety on its head. Not only did she abandon, temporarily, her role of wife and mother (scandalous in the 1890s), she earned her way selling photographs of herself, appearing as an attraction in stores, and by turning herself into a mobile billboard.

Zheutlin, a descendent of Annie, brilliantly probes the inner life and seeming boundless courage of this outlandish, brash, and charismatic woman. In a time when women could not vote and few worked outside the home, Annie was a master of public relations, a consummate self-promoter, and a skillful creator of her own myth. Yet, for more than a century her remarkable story was lost to history. In SPIN, this remarkable heroine and her marvelous, stranger-than-fiction story is vividly brought to life for a new generation.

You can purchase Spin at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you PETER ZHEUTLIN for making this giveaway possible.
5 Winners will receive a Copy of Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story by Peter Zheutlin.