Laura Hillenbrand – Bestselling Author
Strength of Body, Strength of Mind
By Caroline Cox
Widely known as author of the bestselling Seabiscuit and current summer mega-hit and bestseller Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand is no ordinary career woman. She is confined to her home, rarely leaves her bed and once explained the severity of her condition – chronic fatigue syndrome – by saying that if her house was on fire she would still be unable to lift her head.
Until age 19, Laura Hillenbrand was just a typical student at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. She was stricken with the debilitating disease that remained a mystery to herself and doctors for years until finally diagnosed her properly in 1987 – a discovery solidifying her condition was real, and not in her head like so many physicians had told her.
There is no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, an incapacitating and isolating disease that Hillenbrand says is “terribly misunderstood and trivialized.”
Like those she features, her own story is one of great obstacles and triumph. Seabiscuit was made into an Academy Award nominated film. Her second book, Unbroken, is a biography of World War II hero Louis Zimperini. It’s clear why Hillenbrand, through months of thorough research and her detailed-oriented writing style, chooses to write about subjects who require physical strength. It’s their mental perseverance that makes the difference. And that’s something Hillenbrand knows better than most.
Here, Hillenbrand talks to PINK about why she became a writer, how she stays motivated and the legacy she hopes to leave.
PINK: What has been the secret to your success?
Laura Hillenbrand: I can’t stress enough how important it is to do what you love. To do anything well, you have to be willing to work exceptionally hard at it, chase down every detail, give all of yourself to it. All of that effort comes so much more easily when you have passion for your work, and the result is so much better.
PINK: How do you define “success?”
LH: I try not to hang my heart on things I can’t control. So many elements go into a book becoming a bestseller, and many of them are out of the control of the author. That’s true of so many things in life. When I began writing my first book, Seabiscuit, I consciously separated myself from ambitions of commercial success. I simply devoted myself to researching the story as fully as I possibly could, and telling it as well as I could. The rest wasn’t up to me. If it became a bestseller, that would be wonderful, but I didn’t need that to happen to feel I had succeeded. When I finished writing the book, I felt complete satisfaction: I had done my best, given it everything I had. I didn’t need anything more. That mindset made the commercial success so much sweeter.
PINK: What about your second book?
LH: I had the same approach with my second book, Unbroken. People often ask me if I felt intense pressure to repeat the commercial success of Seabiscuit, but I truly didn’t, because my ambitions had nothing to do with sales.
PINK: How has your background resulted in your success?
LH: Odd twists of fate have landed me in my career. When I was an English/history major at Kenyon College, I intended to go on to graduate school, and then possibly become a history professor. But near the end of my sophomore year, I became seriously ill with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome), and had to drop out. I never recovered, and was never able to finish school. Because I was severely incapacitated, everything I had planned for myself became impossible; I was going to have to find a fulfilling life within the confines of illness.
One thing I could still do was write, so after being sick for about two years, I began penning magazine articles on horse racing, a sport I knew very well. I worked entirely from home. I earned very, very little money, and couldn’t get any benefits. But writing suited me, and I loved it.
PINK: How did you go from article writer to author?
LH: My career as an author came out of a disappointment. I wrote a piece on the 1930s racehorse Seabiscuit, hoping to sell the article to a racing magazine. But the article was rejected; the editor said he liked the piece, but it wasn’t timely. I was pretty crestfallen, but decided to research the story more deeply and submit it to American Heritage, a marvelous history magazine that I’d been reading since I was a kid. To my joy, they hired me to write the story.
In the months that I spent working on it, I unearthed a much deeper and more fascinating narrative about Seabiscuit and the unlikely team of men who campaigned him, a story that had never been told. It occurred to me that this was worthy of a book. I spent four months writing a book proposal, and in the span of three days in August 1998, I had a contract with Random House and a movie deal with Universal. I owed all of that to the racing editor who had rejected me. To this day, I think of that turn of events when I’m dealing with setbacks. So often, disappointments can put you on the path to much better things. Sweet are the uses of adversity.
PINK: Why were you so passionate about writing your second book on Zamperini in Unbroken, since he already had previous books written on him?
LH: In the 1950s, he hired a writer to pen his autobiography, and he was very unhappy with the result. About 10 years ago, he and writer David Rensin teamed up to update and revise that autobiography, Devil at My Heels, which came out in 2003.
Autobiography and biography are equally worthy but very different genres: autobiography tells a story from the subject’s point of view; biography tells it from numerous perspectives. When I began looking into his story from a biographer’s point of view, I found an extraordinary breadth of material, offering a startling new look at this extraordinary man and the era he lived in. So many times, I found fascinating facts about Louie’s story that he didn’t even know himself. “When I want to know what happened to me in Japan,” Louie once joked, “I call Laura.”
PINK: Your husband’s reaction to Seabiscuit becoming a bestseller is often brought up in articles [he flung open the window and shouted the news to the neighborhood]. What was your reaction or first thought?
LH: I let out such a scream! I felt the purest jubilation. I’d been told so often that no one would be interested in reading a book about a horse who lived so long ago. In the weeks that the book was at #1, I used to sit in an Adirondack chair in my yard and think about the accomplishment, savoring how it felt, because I knew it was fleeting, and might never happen again.
PINK: You’ve said you don’t allow yourself to have aspirations. Yet, the thoroughness of Unbroken appears to have been an extremely ambitious undertaking, which seems like a contradiction.
LH: In my early years with this disease, one of the ways I coped with feeling so wretched, and being so incapacitated, was to imagine a healthy future for myself. I wanted to get into cycling, so I cut out a picture of a bike and stuck it to the wall beside my bed. I would think, next year, when I’m well, this is where I’ll be. But my health didn’t improve, and sometimes got much worse. I kept falling into the most profound disappointment.
Emotionally, I couldn’t live that way. Without my making a conscious effort to change my thinking, my mind began curbing itself from meditating on my future. It wasn’t just that I stopped making plans for a healthy future; I stopped thinking about the future at all. My health was too precarious, and my relapses too frequent and severe, for me to be able to [make] out any sort of image of what was ahead. I think I found a better replacement, though. Instead of thinking on an intangible future, I thought about my concrete present, and contemplated what I could do with myself now, with the body I have. I think this has made me a much more grateful person, and has helped me cope with the realities of this cruel and volatile disease.
PINK: How has writing helped?
LH: One thing I have always found a way to do was write, even when I’ve been stuck in bed, so that’s one part of my life for which I allow myself to dream a little. I allowed myself to imagine writing Seabiscuit, and in four years, I was able to do that. And when the story of Unbroken came along, I gave myself that dream too. My literary aspirations extend only to writing the story: I don’t set my heart on being able to promote a book, or anything else.
With Unbroken, I only accepted a small part of my advance up front, so I would feel no pressure to push myself beyond my limitations if my body failed during the writing process, which it did, delaying the book’s completion for two years.
PINK: What is your favorite book?
LH: I have two favorite books: Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace. I listen to them over and over in audio form. For me, they are inexhaustibly pleasing: enthralling, insightful, flawlessly executed storytelling.
PINK: What is the secret to writing a bestselling book?
LH: I don’t think there’s a formula for it. Obviously, a rich, salty, involving story is indispensible. It can’t simply be a story that you think will appeal to readers: it has to capture your imagination, as a writer, or you won’t do it justice. I think the best books come from writers who are obsessed with their subjects.
As a writer of nonfiction, I want to climb all the way into a subject’s time and place, to convey to the reader the sight and sound and smell of it, to make it real. That immediacy comes from exhaustive research, often on tangential paths. The final task is the crafting of the narrative. For me, that involves writing and rewriting over and over and reading the text out loud to get the feel of its rhythm.
Still, you can do all of that brilliantly and not have a bestseller. There are so many things that influence the sales of a book, and as I said, so many of them are out of the hands of the writer.
PINK: What was your biggest career mistake? Your best career move?
LH: The thing I struggle with most in my career is balancing my work with the rest of my life. I tend to get deeply absorbed in my writing and research, to the exclusion of all else, including my health. I need to learn how to walk away sometimes to nourish my relationships and myself.
I think the best decisions I’ve made in my career have involved the people I have chosen to have around me. My literary agent, my editors, my foreign rights agent, my film rights agent – all are brilliant and wise, but also kind, compassionate people who always have my back. They guide me through the difficult times in my career, share their wisdom, cheer me on, and look out for me. I’d be nothing without them, and I’m grateful for them every day.
PINK: What sparked the idea for you and actor Gary Sinise to create Operation International Children, formerly Operation Iraqi Children?
LH: In late 2003, while on a USO tour of Iraq, Gary saw the appalling condition of schools there. That same week, I received an email from a lieutenant colonel stationed in Iraq, and he told me about how dire the situation was for Iraqi schoolchildren. Separately, Gary and I contacted the American army to see what we could do, and an officer put us in touch with each other. Gary and I decided to join forces and found a charity to help American troops get school supplies and other necessities to kids in Iraq.
More than seven years later, OIC is flourishing. Now operating under the umbrella of People to People International, an organization founded by President Eisenhower and now run by his granddaughter, Mary Eisenhower, we’ve expanded to Afghanistan, the Philippines, Haiti and other areas served by American troops. We’ve delivered school supplies, sports equipment, shoes, toys and other goods to hundreds of thousands of children. The program has not only provided children in war torn regions with the basic tools of education; it has fostered goodwill between civilians and American troops.
PINK: Why have you decided not to write a book about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, in light of how widely misunderstood the illness is?
LH: In the last 10 years, since Seabiscuit came out, I’ve devoted myself to helping the public understand this terribly misunderstood and often trivialized disease. I’ve probably done two hundred interviews about it, and spent many months writing a comprehensive New Yorker piece on my experience with it. I really want to save other patients the anguish I experienced when people dismissed and derided my illness. But I can’t see myself writing a book about it. This disease is so all-consuming that it demands constant effort and attention just to hold my body together.
The only time I am out of my sick body is when I’m absorbed in storytelling. If I write a book about this disease, then my writing life will be about this disease. That’s just too sad and difficult a prospect for me. I will always be here to explain this disease to others and further the cause of patients, but I need to keep my writerly life separate from it as much as I can.
PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
LH: I’ve written about some very sobering subjects. I think my readers—especially those who read Unbroken – might be surprised at how silly a person I am. I have a very irreverent sense of humor, and it’s a big part of my personality and my relationships.
PINK: Do you have plans for a third book?
LH: With the guidance of some wonderful educators and librarians, I’m about to adapt Unbroken for middle school readers. I have an idea in mind for another book after that, but I have to do more research to find out if the subject is something I want to devote myself to. For now, I’m keeping that subject secret.
PINK: Do you have a favorite quote?
LH: I’ve always loved the E.M. Forster quote, “Only connect,” from Howard’s End. I try to keep it in mind when I’m remembering what’s important.
PINK: What do you want your legacy to be?
LH: I hope that through my writing, I can help people see history as a part of themselves. Our past is thick with fascinating people and spellbinding stories that have great relevance to our lives now. These are the stories of how we got to where we are. We can identify with those who came before us, draw insights into the human character, be inspired by their perseverance and cautioned by their failures. And the best thing about it is how fascinating and thrilling many of these stories are.
PINK: What has been your primary motivator at times when you might have wanted to give up or felt overwhelmed?
LH: There is an old adage in the horse show world, and I first heard it when I was a girl: “Throw your heart over the fence and the horse will follow after.” When I rode in shows as a teenager, this phrase would run laps in my head, and it helped me find courage and calm when I felt out of my depth. Sometimes I still draw on that adage to help me focus on the things I can control, and let the rest happen as it will.
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