Adin Dobkin’s debut Sprinting Through No Man’s Land (Little A, 2021) covers the cratered ground that nearly seventy cyclists embarked in the thirteenth Tour de France. To the uninitiated, the race took place on June 29, 1919—just one day after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, bringing World War I to an end.
But Sprinting is more than just a book about a cycling competition. With intricate, sensory-rich layers of world-building and a dynamic cast of characters—from l’Auto’s virtuoso editor-in-chief Henri Desgrange, to twenty-seven-year-old Belgian Tour de France rookie Alfred Steux—Dobkin explores a story of human endurance through a turn-by-turn itinerary of the cyclists.
I recently spoke with Adin online about the 1919 Tour de France, his research process, and the art of balancing two separate yet inherently connected narratives.
Adin, thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
Of course, Gauraa! I’m writing in my Brooklyn apartment right now, waffling between side projects that I let sit around in the run up to Sprinting’s launch. I’m doing alright, though, trying to use some of that time to catch up on reading and movies and playing with the cat.
Congratulations on the release of Sprinting Through No Man’s Land! What was your experience like working with Little A? How does it feel to have your debut full-length out in the world?
It’s odd, and admittedly a bit difficult. I love hearing from people who are getting something from the work, but I’m so obsessive about a project for so long that once it’s out in the world, my energy is gone and I just hope that my best readers get what I’m trying to do. Often, that’s been the case here, but it’s still draining.
I partly have my editor, Laura, and Little A to thank for however much that strain has been minimized. There are a lot of things–fact-checking, securing the rights for photos, publicity, etc.–which writers have become accustomed to having on their backs, which really shouldn’t be. From the start, Little A said they were going to be responsible for them, which I really appreciated, and which makes a meaningful difference for a nonfiction book with intellectual and aesthetic aspirations.
What originally drew you to the 1919 Tour de France?
Once I knew of the 1919 Tour’s existence, the cyclists’ geographic movements pulled me along. From a practical narrative perspective, the 1919 race checked the boxes of having interesting human moments, of being especially arduous (possibly to a fault, if you’re in it for the cycling itself), of having a dramatic whittling down of cyclists. But the path from Paris to the Northwest, then to the south and the Pyrenees before the Alps and the Western Front–that advance compelled me. And the opportunity to use that shifting ground to talk about humans’ relationship to the land during and after war.
You also host a podcast called War Stories—I’m curious, what compels you to times of conflict at large, from a narrative standpoint?
I don’t know whether there’s anything specific about war that compels me from a subject matter standpoint. I began my freelance career there because it was the area I was tangentially working in, so I could get my foot in the door. But of course war is also one sort of moment, often well recorded, where conflict is physically manifested and in those moments, humans accomplish great and terrible things–something plenty of others have said before. And I suppose I don’t want to cede the discussion of those particular moments to warmongers, which there are plenty of, and who are only too happy to take that ground.
When did you start work on the book, and how long did it take you to write?
I started work on the proposal in March of 2018 and we sold it in November. I spent a little over a year just conducting research, apart from writing a sample chapter or two for the proposal and for a workshop. Drafting began after I came back from France in the summer of 2019. I finished up a complete–or almost complete–draft before heading back to grad school in August, then revised a dozen or so times up to April, when I handed it off to my editor.
Sprinting Through No Man’s Land is rich with layers of intricate world-building: war-torn borders, a cast of complex athletes, the route itself—it’s evident that the research conducted was extensive. Could you tell us about your investigative process? Were you able to incorporate all your findings into the final draft?
I knew that balancing the scope of the work was going to be one of, if not the issue I would confront. I wanted to use the race as the narrative backbone for so many practical and intellectual reasons, but this is a story of how people rebuild after war and it’s hard to think of these athletes, who have tunnel vision for a month, as rebuilding. I wanted to recreate the experience of watching them instead, so that first moment after the war’s end could be discussed–the opportunities and the failures. And to do that, I tried to ground the narrative and the flow of information as if you had a knowledgeable traveling companion riding alongside you as you watched the race.
My research process reflected that: I began by putting together a turn-by-turn itinerary of the cyclists, which helped me think about what sights, sounds, smells, etc. they would have encountered, what would have been new about the areas they were riding through, what would have been old. I understood their backgrounds and what sorts of individuals they were by then, and I began to gradually describe them as their standing in the race rose and fell.
I’m especially curious about the research that went into writing Henri Desgrange, and l’Auto. Did you fall down any rabbit holes while making your way through old issues of the magazine?
When writing about Henri, it’s difficult not to make him out as some sort of absurd caricature. He treated cyclists mercilessly, was wildly ambitious at times and cautious to the point of cowardice at others, he held views we’d find abhorrent today, xenophobic ones, particularly toward Germans. I encountered him first and most frequently through his columns in the pages of l’Auto, which had fortunately been digitized by the French national library. I don’t think there are rabbit holes when you’re trying to understand a subject who once lived; everything could be important. But when I was trying to set a particular day or time, seeing those first events–public readings, get togethers at cabarets, etc.–that existed after a war always drew my attention, even when I had no plans to do anything with them.
The book covers a lot of ground, and masterfully, balancing two separate yet inherently connected narratives: the 1919 Tour de France, and the aftermath of World War I. This is a difficult equilibrium for most writers—was it an instinctual feeling for you, or was it refined in revision?
The book wouldn’t exist without the existence of both of those threads. Or at least I wouldn’t have had any interest in this story without both. The Tour de France, particularly back then, is this massive and unique event. Its particular construction, of existing around the entire border, of maintaining a close proximity between fans and cyclists, feeds into this notion of a sporting event that’s bigger than just a sporting event. A myth, as Barthes has said. This quality becomes more important when those who watch the race are going through this simultaneously exhilarating and devastating moment: just after a war has ended, which is good and exciting, but also forces one to reckon with all the devastation that remains.
Sprinting Through No Man’s Land begins (fittingly) the day after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. It’s a vibrant, impactful opening—did you know from the very beginning it would be the framing event? Was the book written chronologically, or did the order shuffle as the book came together?
That first section existed in the proposal we sent out to publishers and, apart from some additional context, remained more or less consistent. It sets the tone–of that simultaneous exuberance and tragedy–but is just as important in understanding Henri as a subject: as someone who would have seen the end of the war and almost immediately started thinking about how to bring back this race, this event he knew would be the first line in his obituary. I drafted linearly from there, though I skipped the interludes and went back to those later, though I had their place set aside in my document.
Was does your editorial and revision process typically look like?
For this book, it was like putting layers of paint on a wall. My first draft focused on the action of the race and any other big moments. Just to have that narrative backbone I could return to, and so that I wouldn’t get lost when attempting to add detail through research. Then I tried to fill in those experiences and sensations that required a bit more care. So it was very much a process of getting something down on the page before returning to it. I don’t like the process of drafting; I like the process of needling what I’ve written and getting it right, so I’m often in the mindset of writing a certain number of words and just moving on, unless it’s a short enough work that I can start each day by reading and revising what I’ve written the preceding one.
When does a piece feel “done” to you?
Never. I recognize I’m no longer helping a piece at some point. But I don’t know that a work is ever done. At least for me, when I’m starting with a question or a thought, your thinking changes, develops, adapts. Maybe if and when I get to 80 I’ll have that luxury.
I read elsewhere that this book was born from an idea for a novel set in L’Isle sur la Sorgue. As a writer of fiction as well as nonfiction, how do the processes differ for you at the onset and developing stages?
I think they’re similar in their large strokes, but less so in their granular details. Good nonfiction has some amount of artistry, but you essentially have a practical problem you’re trying to resolve which is conveying this story or this idea that you yourself haven’t thought up and you can’t just rewrite for your own ends if you find it limiting in one way or another. So a lot of early time with a nonfiction project I spend reading in order to understand the story but also figure out a way in which I can tell this story that will satisfy my artistic and intellectual desires. Or perhaps there isn’t one, and I set it aside. With fiction, there’s some core–a character, a particular starting situation–but so long as there’s some coherency between the beginning and end, you’re probably going to be alright. I suppose if I had to quickly summarize, I feel like those early steps of nonfiction are attempts at answering questions and in fiction, it’s trying to think up interesting questions.
When you have two ideas competing for your attention, how do you decide which one to pursue?
It’s difficult. I don’t do a good job at it. I try to pick away at both for some time if I don’t have a concrete deadline I’m facing. That tends to give me an idea of how much I really want to be working on the project versus just thinking about an idea.
Do you have a time of day or place where you prefer to write?
I’m an early morning writer. Which is unfortunately also when my cat most likes attention. I try to start working between six or seven and then work on and off until one or two unless I’m on deadline for something and can push myself. Research is a bit less draining, so I sometimes move over to that later in the day or just read.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is how frequently the cyclists in the 1919 Tour de France bring up the jobs they work when they’re not competing, as a source of hustling pride. What is a non-writerly position you’ve held that you’re especially proud of?
Line cook for sure. I think I’m too far out of the game to do it again, but the lessons are everlasting.
Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m taking some time to work on what might be a novel while I have my second nonfiction book proposal out to my publisher. Both are still in the early stages. One involves a favorite subject: libraries and archives.
Lastly, I know you’re a voracious reader, so I feel compelled to ask: what have you read and loved recently?
It’s a bit of an odd reading time for me. I have more time than I did in the preceding months, but also a temporary shifting in taste. Or more specifically, I want to read, but I also feel as though my attention while reading is flighty. I’ve been working my way through Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I’m not usually into crime or mysteries, but I’ve really enjoyed them. I also just read Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador and Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, which were both fantastic.
Sprinting Through No Man’s Land is now available from Little A. Pick up your copy here.