The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Laura Hillenbrand

by | 12.22.2010 | 10:51am

The subjects of Laura Hillenbrand's two best-selling books — “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” and “Unbroken,” the story of 1930s Olympian and Japanese World War II POW Louie Zamperini – both overcame great adversity and showed tremendous courage and character throughout their lives. But the same can be said of this two-time Eclipse Award-winning author, who has written these two titanic books while having to deal with the often crippling effects of chronic fatigue syndrome, a mysterious disease that attacks the neurological or immune system of the human body.

“Seabiscuit” hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and “Unbroken” is already at No. 2 after just four weeks in stores. Hillenbrand, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, remains as passionate about horse racing as she was the day she began researching Seabiscuit and follows the sport on a daily basis. She even has opinions on the big issue of the day: the Horse of the Year debate between Zenyatta and Blame.

How did the story of Louie Zamperini come to your attention?

I learned a little about Louie Zamperini while researching Seabiscuit, who was Louie's athletic contemporary.  Intrigued by his story, I wrote his name in my research notebook.  After “Seabiscuit” was released, I tracked Louie down and wrote him a letter. He wrote a very nice note back, so I called him.  It was the most spellbinding conversation I'dever had.  This man had run in the Olympics and come within sight of the four minute mile, fought ferocious air battles in World War II, and survived a plane crash, 47 days on a life raft, multiple attacks from leaping sharks, a strafing from a Japanese bomber, a typhoon, and starvation to half his normal body weight, only to be captured and enslaved by the Japanese, whom he spent more than two years defying.  I was completely hooked, and knew immediately I wanted to dive into this story.

How was the research different from what you did on Seabiscuit?

The research for the two books was very similar.  For both books, I did a huge number of interviews with elderly men and women connected to the story: for “Seabiscuit,” they were racetrackers; for “Unbroken,” they were 1936 Olympians, WWII airmen and prisoners of the Japanese, Japanese veterans and POW camp officials, and Louie's siblings and friends going back to his childhood in the 1920s.  For both books, I pored over thousands of newspaper and magazine articles; because Louie and Seabiscuit were both Southern California-based sports stars in the '30s, they were covered by the same papers, sometimes on the same day.  (I even found a wonderful quote from Louie's coach, saying that the only runner who could beat Louie was Seabiscuit.) For “Unbroken,” I did several years of research in military records at the National Archives and archives at several military bases, going throughbattle records, affidavits of prisoners of war, and war crimes trial records.  I also read many serviceman's diaries–some of which had been secretly kept, at risk of death, in POW camps–and memoirs of airmen and prisoners of war.

After having spent my youth kicking around racetracks and my young adulthood penning articles on racing, writing aboutracehorses in “Seabiscuit” was fairly straightforward.  But in “Unbroken,” my subject was a bombardier in a B-24, a subject I knew little about.  Writing this book was a crash course in WWII aeronautics.  I interviewed quite a few B-24 pilots, studied pilot training films and flight manuals, and basicallylearned how to fly a B-24.  I found a man who had an original Norden bombsight from WWII. He brought it to my house, set it up in my dining room, unfurled a rolling aerial map of Phoenix below it, and taught me how to use it.  We spent an afternoon “bombing” Phoenix, which was an amazing experience that taught me so much about how hard the job of bombardier was.

Was it easier the second time around, or because of the expectations after Seabiscuit, was this project more difficult?

When I was writing “Seabiscuit,” I consciously avoided thinking about how it might do in the marketplace; I didn't want to hang my heart on something I had no control over. I just wanted to research the story as deeply as possible and tell it as well as I could.  Disconnecting myself from commercial aspirations took all the pressure off, and made it a joy towork on.  When it did sell so well, it was such a happy surprise; because bestsellerdom was something I never expected, the experience was all the richer.

I'm often asked if I felt pressure in writing “Unbroken” because of the success of “Seabiscuit.” Truly I didn't.  I went into it with exactly the same hopes as with the first book—to research the story completely and tell it to the best of my ability—and no worries aboutreplicating “Seabiscuit's” sales.  Sales aren't up to me; only the story is.  That “Unbroken” has done so well—in just four weeks, it has already outsold “Seabiscuit” in hardcover—is profoundly gratifying to me. But as happy as I am that it's a bestseller, I'm much more deeply moved by the letters I'm getting from veterans and former POWs, telling me I got it right.  These men gave so much of themselves in that war, and it was tremendously important to me to do justice to their experiences.

How is your health, and have there been any scientific breakthroughs for people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome?

Unfortunately, my health is very poor.  In 2007, four years into my book research, I had a sudden and catastrophic relapse of my CFS.  I was so weak that it was months before I could get down my staircase, and two years before I had the strength to leave my house.  It was devastating, and I was very afraid I would never finish the book. I had to ask for an extension on it—it was originally due in late 2007—but Random House was kind and understanding about it.  When I could sit up and get my hands to the keyboard, I worked.  I was fortunate in that the research phase of the book was done before the relapse, because there was no way I could have conducted interviews in the state I was in.  Slowly, slowly, I got it done, but I had to give absolutely everything I had to do it.

My health has been creeping back for about a year now, but the book promotion has been overwhelmingly difficult for me.  I love telling this story, and I think it's an important story for people to hear, but even on a very limited schedule of interviews done entirely from my home, I've exhausted myself so badly that on many days, I can't even get downstairs. Last week, only four weeks after the book came out, I had to stop the promotion altogether (other than written interviews like this one), possibly for good.  It's so painful for me to have to do that, but I have no choice.  I'm hoping that a few weeks off will bring me some strength, and I can resume promotion, at least in some limited way.

There have been interesting developments in CFS research.  A little more than a year ago, a research group published findings indicating that a retrovirus called XMRV is present in the bodies of a large percentage of CFS patients, but almost no controls, suggesting that it might be the cause.  CFS has a very viral fingerprint: among our symptoms are fevers, sweats, chills, swollen lymph nodes, and, of course, debilitating exhaustion, all of which look viral.  Since that first study appeared, several studies have been done seeking to replicate it, and results have been mixed.  Either way, a lot has been going on in the research world, and I'm more hopeful that a treatment will be found.

Do you continue to follow horse racing?

As passionately as ever.  I have TVG on every day, and the first thing I do every morning is check the news in racing.

Watching Rachel's sensational 2009 and Zenyatta's almost perfect career, where do you think these two will fit historically?
I don't think there's any question that they'll be remembered as two of the best females in racing history.  They'll probably enter the Hall of Fame sideby side, and that's fitting.

What's your opinion on Horse of the Year for 2010?

I was afraid you'd ask me that!  Zenyatta is an extraordinary and compelling creature; the sport has never seen anything quite like her.  Her races are among the most thrilling I've ever seen, and few horses have ever had her magnetism.  Every start she made this year was a Grade 1, she carried a lot of weight–usually much more than her opponents – and she beat every horse but one.

But the large weight disparities in her fields were an indication of how weak those fields were. Just like last year, she wasn't facing true Grade 1-level horses, the kind of horses I think you have to beat to win Horse of the Year, especially if you're competing in the female ranks. For me, had she won the Breeders' Cup Classic, she would have answered that criticism.  In the end, though she made an astonishing rally to catch up to Blame, he held her off.  Had she had a more formidable season record under her belt, I would still consider her for Horse of the Year, because her race against Blame was essentially a draw. But she did not.  Blame had the kind of campaign a Horse of the Year has. Brief, yes, but he was facing and beating true Grade 1 horses, males.  I'm not wild about Blame, but I have to go with the horse who had the tougher campaign, and who won the head-to-head meeting.

To be honest, though I adored Zenyatta and feel so grateful for what she did, I feel a trace of disappointment about her.  I think (trainer John) Shirreffs handled her beautifully, keeping a gigantic animal sound, radiantly happy, and consistently winning.  But from the point of view of history, I wish she had had campaigns more like that of Blind Luck — jetsetting around in search of a fight, losing sometimes, but being thoroughly tested by the best horses her handlers can find.  I care so much less about a perfect record than I do about the challenges a horse faces.  Sometimes horses are elevated by a valiant loss, and Zenyatta surely was.  Seabiscuit's greatest performance, for me, was his nose loss, in track record time, to Stagehand in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap, a race in which he carried a staggering thirty pounds more than the winner and set a world record for a midrace split.  I don't give a damn that he lost, because he showed who he was that day. I wish Zenyatta had had more days like that.  I would feel that we truly knew her.

Not that you don't deserve a breather, but what are you working on next?

I need a long rest, and time to regain as much of my health as the CFS will allow, and that's the first thing on my agenda.  I have an idea for a next project, but I need to do a lot of research before I know if there is enough in it for a book.  And my health has to improve a lot before I can start anything.

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