Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Aili and Andres McConnon

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Aili and Andres McConnon

If you've never heard the name Gino Bartali, you'll want to read brother-sister team Aili and Andres McConnon's new book, Road to Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation (Random House Canada). It tells the story of Bartali, who was not only a celebrated Italian cyclist who famously drank, smoked and caroused before races (think badboy Lance Armstrong of the 30s and 40s), he was also a secret war hero who smuggled documents for persecuted Jews in the frame of his bicycle.

Aili and Andres talk to Open Book about the amazing Bartali, the process of writing a book as siblings and why competitive cycling is the one of most hardcore sports in the world.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Road to Valour.

A&AM:

Road to Valour and it is the story of Gino Bartali, who became a household name in Italy after winning the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948, not mention three Giri d’Italia. But what few people know is that during World War II, Bartali used his cycling fame to help Jews being persecuted by the Nazis and Fascists. Risking his own life, he secretly sheltered a Jewish family in an apartment that he financed with his cycling winnings and transported false identity documents, hidden in the frame of his bicycle, throughout Tuscany and Umbria to be used by Jews in hiding. After the grueling wartime years, Bartali fought to rebuild his career as Italy emerged from the destruction of WWII. Bartali’s inspiring performance at the 1948 Tour de France helped unite his fractured homeland and restore pride and spirit to a country still reeling from war and despair.

OB:

How did you first become attracted to the story of Gino Bartali?

A&AM:

Nearly ten years ago, Andres was cheering from the sidelines as a thirty-year-old Lance Armstrong worked his way to another victory at the Tour de France. Armstrong’s age elicited discussion in the press about other cycling greats who had won the race in their thirties including Gino Bartali, the most famous Italian athlete of his era. Andres was immediately fascinated by how Bartali, who won the Tour in 1938 and again in 1948, managed to remain at the top of his sport when World War II interrupted his career.

Meanwhile, Aili was creating an anthology in New York, which brought together literature written in response to genocide and war. When Andres brought Bartali’s story to her attention, Aili was intrigued and soon discovered a short mention in an Italian newspaper about secret rescue work Bartali had done to help Jews during the Italian Holocaust. When we realized Bartali’s story combined the dramatic appeal of a sports underdog with the surprising saga of a secret Holocaust hero, we knew this germ of an idea needed to be developed into a book.

OB:

You had the opportunity to speak with friends and family of Bartali. How did that come about and how did you find the experience?

A&AM:

From the beginning we knew we needed to interview Bartali’s family and friends to really understand his personality, his noble qualities as well as his quirks and foibles so that we could depict him as a three-dimensional character. To find these people we started by reading every last article and book in French or Italian about Bartali and compiling a list of family, former teammates, friends and others who we thought might still be alive. Then we dug through the phonebook, and if that didn’t offer up any details, we called various town halls, which keep birth registries of everyone born in a given town or province. And if that didn’t work, we went to the towns themselves and started asking everyone we could if they could help track down whomever we were trying to reach. When we spoke with people we were straightforward and explained that while most Italians knew the name Bartali, we wanted to introduce him to an English-speaking audience. We were welcomed into people’s homes and those conversations — often over delicious Italian feasts like a homemade Tuscan rabbit stew with a glass of Chianti or a slice of olive oil cake and an espresso — were some of the most memorable moments of writing the book.

OB:

How did the process of co-writing work for the two of you?

A&AM:

Practically, we divided up the work evenly so that when we were researching, we would often separately tackle interviews in different places. When it came to the writing, we outlined drafts in great detail together, and then we took turns writing the first draft. These drafts went through many iterations so that any given chapter went back and forth between us at least a dozen times, and it’s hard to remember now who wrote what!

Being siblings definitely adds an extra twist to the co-author relationship. We had a strong sense of each others strengths and weaknesses going into the project and we found we had an extra level of freedom to debate topics rigorously and be more candid than you might be with another colleague whom you were worried about offending.

OB:

Do you have a personal connection to cycling? What sets it apart, in your opinion, from other athletic contests?

A&AM:

We are both recreational cyclists and love watching the Tour de France and other cycling competitions. What sets apart cycling is how gruelling a sport it is. To perform at maximum athletic capacity for more than five hours a day for three weeks, as you would do during the Tour, is nothing short of super-human. It’s even more amazing when you consider the fact that riders in Bartali’s era routinely raced for more than eight hours a day on poor roads and often against the full fury of the elements. The other wonderful aspect of races like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia or the Tour of California is that you get a wonderful view of the varied landscapes and towns of any given region or country.

OB:

Were there any books you read prior to or during the writing of Road to Valour that you found inspiring?

A&AM:

There were several non-fiction writers we turned to again and again. Erik Larson and Nathaniel Philbrick are both masters of crafting books that read like action-packed novels and bring to life overlooked moments of history. Other authors we turned to included Rebecca Skloot, Diane Ackerman, David Remnick, Benjamin Wallace and Laura Hillenbrand.

OB:

What are you working on now?

A&AM:

Bartali’s story fascinated us because it combined this incredible sports comeback story and an untold tale of wartime heroism. At the core, however, it was his rich character, with all its contradictions, that drew us in. For example, Bartali was the ultimate endurance athlete, racing for much longer than most of his rivals, and yet he was a chain smoker who wasn’t afraid to drink a generous amount of Chianti with friends late at night, just hours before an important race in the morning. Bartali also made the newspaper headlines for how devoted he was to his faith. Yet he also frequently got into loud arguments and wasn’t afraid to hit his foes — or over-eager fans — if they angered him.

So we’re both currently on the lookout for another story with an equally nuanced character who lived in an exciting historical moment that could anchor a compelling narrative.


Aili McConnon is a Canadian journalist based in New York. She has written for BusinessWeek, the New York Times, theWall Street Journal and the Guardian. She has appeared on ABC, MSNBC and CNN, and has earned degrees from Princeton University, the University of Cambridge and Columbia University.

Andres McConnon graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, where he majored in history. He previously worked as a historical researcher for several books. While researching and writing Road to Valour, he lived for a period in Paris and Florence, and on the Italian Riviera.

For more information about Road to Valour please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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