With two wildly popular bestsellers-turned-blockbuster movies, Laura Hillenbrand is achieving her author’s dream: to make her readers live the stories she writes right along with her.
Hillenbrand’s themes are deeply personal, as she has recently shared, suffering as she has for nearly 30 years with the debilitating, oft misunderstood illness Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which sharply and frequently restricts mental and physical exertion, rendering the author periodically housebound and, worse, ensnared in bed, assaulted by untenable vertigo, physical pain, and overwhelming lassitude. Feeling many, if not most, days subjugated by her illness, Hillenbrand says composing Unbroken – the thrilling, uplifting true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete and World War II veteran who endured 47 days lost at sea and then more than two years in Japanese prison camps – was a journey of self discovery, leading her to recalculate her own perspectives on living a happy life.
Millions of readers have no doubt enjoyed similar epiphanies, making the book a mainstay on bestseller lists for four years running, while Angelina Jolie’s filmed adaptation of Unbroken has grossed nearly $100-million at the box office. Last month, Random House published a Young Adult edition of Unbroken, a rousing, must-read translation that distills for teen readers the most compelling, resonant aspects of the original book. Telling the story for Hillenbrand is more than a job; it’s the path to a better life.
Your two books have sold more than 10 million copies combined. Both of them have been turned into much loved films. Unbroken, four years after its publication, is still on the bestseller lists. This is not a terrible time to be Laura Hillenbrand, is it?
(Laughs) Yep. It’s really intense. I’m living someone else’s life. I can’t believe it’s happened.
Your first book wasn’t published until you were in your late 30s. When did you know you wanted to be a professional writer?
I really don’t remember when I decided I wanted to write, because it’s all I remember doing most of my life. It’s just always been in me. My mother wrote for the Washington Post. My grandmother was an English teacher. It’s kind of in my blood. I used to blow off my homework in junior high and write short stories. I had drawers stacked full of them. It was something that gave me pleasure.
Would those stories bear any resemblance to the books you’ve written as an adult?
I used to write short stories, thick little short stories about, when I was a kid anyway, racing horses. Seabiscuit was probably always a book I was going to write, even if I had no idea that I would back then. Horses and racing were things that really caught my heart before anything else did. I recognized, right away, as a kid, that the world of horse racing is a world that is full of stories. It’s full of characters. It’s a place where people flow in flamboyantly and sometimes heroically from all different walks of life. It’s funny; at the track, you’ll be rubbing elbows with millionaires on one side and someone who works in a Laundromat on the other. Everyone has got stories to tell and everybody’s friends.
You used to go to the track a lot when you were a kid, right?
My sister and I grew up taking the Greyhound bus to the racetracks in Maryland, just the two of us. We did it a lot. We’d save up our babysitting money and then head out together. We’d have barely enough to get through the day. But we’d get there and we would sit with these retirees, who would go out to the track and place their little $2 bets here and there, but mostly, they just enjoyed a nice day out with good company. They were all amazing storytellers, about their own lives, about the horses, the jockeys, the whole culture of racing. They didn’t bet seriously, most of them, but they knew the world. It was such a rich place to be, in terms of stories and the people and the culture of the racetrack, which is completely singular. My sister and I, we never placed a bet. I’m completely disinterested in the wagering. I just go for the world, for the track. One of the things she and I were talking about recently is that we really felt we were taken care of there. If we were ever $.25 short for a Coke, somebody would always step up and cover us. People would look out for us at the track. It’s a place we loved to be.
We’re all searching for our home away from home, right?
That’s true. I had an unhappy family life. That was probably one of the reasons why I spent most of my time at the track. I felt more welcome there, happy there.
So the initial groundwork and research for Seabiscuit happened in your youth, pounding pavement, going out into the world, meeting face to face with people. Since the CFS diagnosis when you were 19, those methods have all changed, haven’t they?
Absolutely, yes, but I think there’s been a kind of strange advantage for me, in my writing, in that my world is much more limited than other people’s. I do go out, plenty, but I don’t go out often or for long or as far afield as a healthy person does. Actually, when I was writing Unbroken, that was a very bad time for me, health-wise. I was very sick and not leaving the house at all. But I think having an ascetic lifestyle with very little stimulation, which my illness has really required, has made my mind reach into Louis’ story and think about every aspect of it all day long. I would lie in bed and think about it. I would take a bath and think about it. It was just always with me. I was living in Louis’ story all the time. And all of that thinking helped me, I think, to ask the right questions and go off on the right tangents and visualize his story more fully, because there was just nothing else going on in my head. This is my life.
How do you know when you’ve discovered the “right” questions for a story you’re writing?
With Louis, we did so many interviews. It had to be hundreds of hours for the book. I wish I had counted, but we were on the phone just all the time. We would go over and over the same stories and I’d always be trying to find different angles. I would think about the things I was learning, then think about them again in different ways, and then call him again. I was always trying to imagine myself into his story, so I could think of what I might be feeling, and then I’d ask him, “Did you feel that?” I remember sitting around and thinking about what it would be like to be stranded on a raft, out there in the middle of the Pacific, in the sun for 47 days. I thought, “When you’re out on the water, the sunlight hits the water and it goes into your eyes, just so brightly.” I thought, Louis and the other guys, they all must have had eyestrain. I bet their heads really hurt. I never read Louis saying anything about that, so I called him up and asked him about that. He said, “Come to think of it, I haven’t talked about that, but you’re right. Our eyes were really tearing all the time from the light.” So I’m not sure that’s an example of a brilliant question, but it was the right question in that it gave me details that Louis himself hadn’t remembered. When I’m writing, it’s about trying to make people and places so vivid that people forget there’s a page in front of them full of words they have to process. You want a reader to be there with you. That’s always what I’m going for.
Reading Zamperini’s story in Unbroken, this was a man who was fast, fleet, agile, athletic, vital, in constant motion, who was then trapped in the middle of the Pacific for almost two months with no escape, then held captive and tortured by enemy forces. Does that imprisonment resonate for you as you grapple with your illness?
Yeah. Absolutely. The parts of Louis’ story that deal with his agitation and incarceration and feeling so alone, I can understand those things from the roots of my soul. I knew what that felt like. It was interesting for me to explore someone else’s perspective on that kind of experience; what it’s like to suffer, just terribly, right at the edge of your breaking point every day for a long time. I spent a lot of time asking Louis about his athleticism. He was so vigorous, almost larger than life, such motion in his life, and I loved jumping into that because I’d love to be the person that’s running the fastest in my mile. So I was just seeping in those stories to creep out of my own body and my own life.
You recently published a Young Adult edition of Unbroken. How did that come about, and why is Zamperini’s story important for younger readers to experience?
I had a real fire in my belly for making the YA edition because when I was researching Unbroken, I would always start talking to whoever was around me about the lives of Pacific War airmen and the lives led by the POWs, and the amount of ignorance on the subject that I came across was kind of stunning to me and kind of horrifying. People just have no idea what these men, who fought the Pacific War, had gone through. How bad it was. We tend to teach the European War, not the Pacific War. What I kept being told was that this is not being taught in school. They teach the European War and the Holocaust, which they need to, absolutely, but the Pacific War is overlooked. I didn’t want that to die with the veterans. I wanted the truth of that to be told. The best way to do that is to teach it to young people, and Louis was such a perfect entry to the larger story for young readers. Louis was someone that kids can identify with. He was not this squeaky clean, perfect kid. He was hell-on-wheels as a boy. He was bullied and he was isolated and lonely. He had a lot of the problems that plenty of kids today have. Kids can look at him and go, “I get that kid. I’m like that kid.” The YA edition was very important to Louis, too, because he believed it is so important to teach young people about being resilient, about surviving, about finding joy in life no matter what.
What did Zamperini teach you? How were you changed by writing Unbroken?
Well, Louis will stay with me forever. Let’s just say he taught me the virtuous thrill of joy. He was somebody, who, because of all he had gone through and survived, he was devout and joyful and all he saw in the world were gifts. Every day he was just full of gratitude. Everything around him was beautiful and he was appreciative and he was alive. I could be having a horrible day and I’d call him and I would be grinning from ear to ear when I got off of the phone because, well, if this man, who has endured so much in his life, can light up because he sees a cardinal outside his window, because there’s sun shining into his home, then I can do that too, or I can try better. It would be difficult to find someone who had a more difficult time than Louis did. You really can’t say, “My problems are worse than his.” He got through his problems. He found a way. When you’re dealing with something that you feel like it’s bigger than you, if you take a look at Louis and all the ways he cheated death and all of the ways he didn’t just survive, but he prevailed, you can’t help but think, “Maybe I can do it, too. He’s just a man. I’m just a person. I can do it.”
Unbroken was published four years ago. Is it too soon to ask about the next book?
It’s not too soon, but I’m not going to tell you. (Laughs) I have another book idea. I don’t know yet, for sure, that it’s going to pan out. I’ve done a little preliminary research, and I need to do a little more to know if it’s going to be out there. It’s a story that I stumbled upon while I was working on Unbroken that was a huge story once. It was the biggest story in the world at one point, but it is completely forgotten now. I had never heard of it, but I came across it in these old newspapers. So we’ll see. Both of my books have been about individuals who at one point took America be storm in some way, but then were slowly forgotten but never should be. I’m hoping this story pans out.