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An Interview With Sue Macy, YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist

On December 7th, 2011, YALSA announced five books as finalists for the 2012 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, which honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18) during a November 1 – October 31 publishing year. Today’s post features an interview with one of the Award finalists, Sue Macy, who is the author of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

Congratulations on Wheels of Change being selected as a finalist for the 2012 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction! What was your reaction when you found out your book was a finalist?

I was thrilled! Working on Wheels was an unusual experience for me because everything just seemed to click. I found great anecdotes, wonderful collections of memorabilia, terrific news clips, and very relevant quotes from prominent feminists attesting to the impact of cycling on women. Plus the folks at National Geographic were as excited about the book as I was, and that shows in the wonderful design and production values. I guess our enthusiasm was contagious. The fact that YALSA chose Wheels as a finalist is a tribute to everyone’s efforts, and on a personal level, I really appreciate it as a validation of my work.

I was fascinated by the idea of the humble bicycle as a catalyst for so much change.  You posit that many of the major social shifts in American history during this time were a direct result of the increasing popularity of bicycles.  What if the bicycle as we know it had never come to be? Would we be wearing hoop skirts right now?

Gosh, I hope not. In the late 1800s, women were organizing for change on many fronts, fighting for married women’s property rights, for temperance, for workers’ rights, for suffrage. During this time of social upheaval, the bicycle helped empower women both physically and emotionally across all classes of society. If the bicycle hadn’t provided this push for change, the forces already in motion would have reached their goals eventually. Perhaps the catalyst for dramatic change might have been the public schools. As girls became more educated, the balance of power between males and females slowly started to shift. But without the bicycle, the evolution might have taken longer.

There are so many stories of remarkable women in this book.  Which is your favorite?

More than anyone else, it’s Dora Rinehart whose accomplishments blew me away. She lived in Colorado, where many of the roads were unpaved, yet in 1896 she rode 17,196 miles through mud and snow and everything else imaginable. That included stretches of 10 and then 20 days of riding at least 100 miles per day. Plus she had one of the best quotes in the book, explaining why she didn’t like to ride with her husband. “You know it does take so much starch out of a man to ride a century (100 miles), especially if he be not in the best of shape.”

You have published many books exploring the ways in which women, sports and history intersect. What is it about these subjects that draw you to write about them?

Sports is a great framework for studying women’s history because it allows you to examine women’s relationships and achievements in the context of very compelling situations. There’s inherent drama in a bicycle race or a baseball game. If it’s a women’s bicycle race in 1891 or a women’s baseball game during World War II, there’s also a great opportunity to shed light on the social history of those eras.

As a feminist and a sports fan, I also find the interrelationship of sports and women’s history fascinating. I once heard Betty Friedan say that she had no use for sports and the only thing she used the sports pages of her newspaper for was to line her bird cage. I was shocked because to me, competing in sports is the ultimate feminist act. When you run or jump or hit a ball, you’re marshalling control of your body and displaying your strength for all to see. And when women work together as a team, it’s the ultimate example of sisterhood.

I’m sure our readers would be interested in hearing about your writing process as a nonfiction author. Do the ideas come first, or do you tend to discover your next subject while doing other research?

More often than not, I’ll get the glimmer of an idea while working on something else and then do a lot of research to try and lock it down. I love U.S. history and tend to follow facts wherever they take me, but ultimately, I need to figure out what story I’m trying to tell. With Wheels of Change, I started with Susan B. Anthony’s quote about the impact of the bicycle and Frances Willard’s book about learning to ride, and then I fleshed out the story by collecting documents about early bicycle culture and early cyclists, commentaries from doctors, the clergy, and other observers, and background on the development of the bicycle and the history of women’s fashion. I keep researching even after I start writing, fleshing out the story on a chapter-by-chapter basis. It also helps that I do my own photo research, because often the images I find inform the story. In Wheels of Change, I decided to include features on cycling songs, the cycling press, and the use of bicycles in advertisements because I found such great visuals.

In the book’s introduction, you talk about the freedom you felt your bicycle offered you as a child.  Do you find yourself tapping into those feelings when you get on a bike now?

Absolutely. There was a long period of time, almost 25 years, when I stopped riding, but then I decided to enter a sprint triathlon. In preparation, I dusted off my old hybrid bike and started riding around my neighborhood. I loved how strong I felt, traveling under my own power, and I was amazed at how different it was to interact with my environment from the seat of a bicycle. I could feel the air rushing past me, could see the colors around me so vividly. I definitely accessed those experiences while writing Wheels of Change.

YALSA will name the 2012 award winner at the Youth Media Awards on Jan. 23, during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Dallas.

— Summer Hayes, currently listening to Across the Universe by Beth Revis

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