This article originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
LATE ONE AFTERNOON in the summer of 2004, an aviation enthusiast named Bill Darron drove down the alley behind Laura Hillenbrand's house in Washington. He parked his car at the rear entrance and popped open the trunk. Inside were three large boxes filled with destructive implements: bomb fuses, a flare gun, a black metal device called an intervalometer and a hulking 50-pound contraption known as a Norden bombsight.
The Norden was among the most sophisticated pieces of combat equipment in World War II. Mounted inside the nose of a bomber, it could take control in midflight, steering toward an enemy target to release a payload with unprecedented accuracy. It was said that on a clear day the Norden could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet.” To operate it, bombardiers trained in secret for months, learning to lock its delicate cross hairs onto a target several miles away; once their training was complete, they swore an oath to protect the Norden with their lives. “It was the first secret weapon of the war,” Darron told me. “It’s the combination of a telescope, a gyroscope, an adding machine — it’s just an amazing piece of gears and optics.”
Darron hauled the boxes across Hillenbrand’s yard and up the back stairs of her home. She met him at the door and guided him into the dining room. Then Hillenbrand disappeared into another room, and Darron began to assemble the bombsight in silence. He rested the base unit on a high surface, attached the upper unit known as the football and placed a large map of Arizona on the floor a few feet away. The map was coiled around two window shades like an ancient scroll, and one shade was attached to a small motor, so that when the power came on, the map would slowly unfurl — allowing Darron to peer through the bombsight as if gazing down from an airplane in flight.
Darron had never met Hillenbrand or read any of her work. He knew that she had published a book on the racehorse Seabiscuit and that she was working on a second about the World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini, who was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war for more than two years. Other than that, he knew almost nothing about Hillenbrand herself. When she first wrote to him with aviation questions a few weeks earlier, he suggested that she visit the annual gathering of World War II buffs in Reading, Pa. “I said, ‘If you’re trying to do research on World War II, you’ve got to go there,' ” Darron recalled. “And she wrote me back, and she said, ‘I can’t.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, you can’t?' ”
Since 1987, Hillenbrand has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome, which has mostly confined her indoors for the last quarter century. When she explained this to Darron, he agreed to bring the Norden from New Jersey on his next visit to Washington. Now, as he made the final calibrations, Hillenbrand returned to the room, and he offered her a brief tutorial. He showed her how to position herself above the monocular eyepiece, guide the cross hairs toward a target on the map, then lock the sight into position and wait for the twin indicators to align — until, with a satisfying click, the salvo mechanism released. Hillenbrand spent more than an hour crouched over the bombsight. Each time she came to the end of the map, Darron would reset the system to begin again.
“I spent the afternoon bombing Phoenix,” Hillenbrand told me. “I’d seen photographs of the Norden bombsight, but it’s an irregular-shaped lump of metal, and I couldn’t make any sense of it from photographs. I wanted to have as much tactile experience as I could, of what Louie did. I wanted to understand physically: What do you do when you operate a bombsight?”
As evening fell and Darron packed the Norden back into his trunk, he was still unsure what to think of Hillenbrand. He admired her commitment to detail, but he wasn’t convinced that it would be enough. The idea of writing a book about the war, the bombers, the airmen and the Pacific islands without traveling to any of the major battlefields or meeting with veterans and historians firsthand struck him as questionable at best. “Think about it,” he said. “You’re a reporter — you get in a car, you get on the subway, and you go, right? No! She’s been stuck in that house in D.C. for years.”
ONE DAY RECENTLY, I visited Hillenbrand at home to discuss the unusual way she works. We had been in touch for several months, trading pleasantries by email, and I was curious to learn more about the way her illness has shaped her creative process.
Hillenbrand’s biography of Zamperini, “Unbroken,” was released in 2010. The hardcover debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list and remained on the list for nearly four years. This week, a movie adaptation of the book, based on a script by the Coen brothers and directed by Angelina Jolie, will be released amid a flurry of early Oscar attention. The story follows Zamperini’s rise as a competitive runner in the 1930s, his induction into the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, his crash at sea and 47 days aboard a life raft, then his capture and torment by the Japanese. In other hands, the story might have proved unrelievedly grim, but Hillenbrand leavens the account with colorful anecdotes and sardonic asides: Zamperini entertaining the other men aboard his raft and joining small insurrections with his fellow prisoners.
Hillenbrand recently separated from her husband, Borden Flanagan, after 28 years as a couple, and she no longer lives in the same townhouse Darron visited in 2004. Her new home, a dozen blocks away, still had the airy, unworn feeling of a space that had been furnished but not yet lived in. There was a statue of a show horse in the foyer and a huge photograph of Zamperini leaning against a wall. We crossed an eternity of polished hardwood to fetch a slice of apple pie from the kitchen, then made our way to a set of wooden chairs parked by the bay windows.
Afternoon light streamed through the Venetian blinds, and Hillenbrand sat with perfect posture, as if held upright by strings. She is 47, with pale skin, palomino hair, an open face and probing eyes. At 5-foot-5, she has a muscular physique honed by yoga and physical therapy. One peculiarity of chronic fatigue syndrome is the degree to which it can remain invisible: A patient may be in excruciating pain without showing any outward sign of illness. There is still no simple laboratory test for the disease, nor any way to confirm its diagnosis. There is even some debate over what to call it. Many doctors and patients, including Hillenbrand, believe the words “chronic fatigue” sound trivial. They prefer the term “myalgic encephalomyelitis,” or M.E., which refers to inflammation in the brain and spine. Other doctors resist this name, questioning whether patients with the disease reliably exhibit this inflammation. Dr. Charles Shepherd, a medical adviser to the ME Association in Britain, told me that decades of mystery around the illness have only worsened the suffering of victims. “I was taught at medical school 40 years ago that this was all hysterical nonsense,” he said. “It was an illness which was either ignored, or dismissed, or regarded with extreme skepticism.”
When Hillenbrand first developed the syndrome during her sophomore year at Kenyon College, she experienced the stigma firsthand. Racked by exhaustion and too sick to attend classes, she moved back into her mother’s home in Bethesda, Md., where she soon lost touch with nearly all her friends and plunged into a combination of physical and emotional distress. A string of doctors tried to convince her that the illness wasn’t real — it was all in her imagination, they said, or maybe it was delayed puberty, or perhaps heartburn, or an eating disorder. After one examination, she asked to use the bathroom, only to discover the doctor listening at the door for signs of a bulimic purge. Even her mother wasn’t sure what to believe. “She was not supportive, and that was the hardest thing of all,” Hillenbrand told me. “When almost everyone in your world is looking down on you and condemning you for bad behavior, it’s very hard not to let that point of view envelop you, until you start to feel terrible about yourself. I just began to feel such deep shame, because I was the target of so much contempt.”
These days, doctors remain baffled by the illness, but there is no longer much doubt of its existence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that “more than one million Americans have C.F.S.” and say that “this illness strikes more people in the United States than multiple sclerosis, lupus and many forms of cancer.” Through a combination of new drugs and physical therapy, Hillenbrand has suppressed many of the worst symptoms, but she is still plagued by chronic vertigo. As we settled into our seats by the window, I asked her what this feels like. She paused for a moment, then began to sway back and forth in her seat.
“I feel like I’m doing this,” she said.
“Right now?” I asked.
“All the time,” she said. “Everything feels like you’re on a ship, and when it’s really bad, everything is whirling. I don’t know which way is up, and I’m grabbing onto things.”
“So . . . if you want to go for walks?” I asked.
“I was nearly hit by a car the other day. I looked straight at it. It was a white car against a green background, and I did not see it. I stepped right in front of it.”
Hillenbrand gestured toward a piece of tape affixed to the nosepiece of her glasses. I had assumed this was a hasty repair, but it turned out that she was using the tape as a visual reference for balance. “It gives me a vertical,” she said with a shrug. “My optometrist thinks it will help.”
Somehow, through the dizziness and disorientation, Hillenbrand has managed to produce two of the most critically and commercially successful nonfiction books in recent decades. “Seabiscuit” and “Unbroken” have together sold more than 10 million copies, and the hardcover edition of ‘'Unbroken” remained on The Times’s best-seller list for 185 continuous weeks, which by some accounts is the fourth-longest reign of all time. In fact, the hardcover was so successful that Hillenbrand’s publisher, Random House, waited nearly four years before releasing a paperback edition this summer; since then, the paperback has held the top position on The Times’s list every week except one. Sallye Leventhal, the book buyer for history and politics at Barnes & Noble, told me that Hillenbrand’s commercial success is unparalleled. “There are other phenomenal best sellers, but not this phenomenal,” she said. “Not with this velocity, year after year after year.”
What’s startling to consider is that Hillenbrand has done this with little access to the outside world. She is cut off not only from basic tools of reporting, like going places and seeing things, but also from all the promotional machinery of modern book selling. Because of the illness, she is forced to remain as secluded from the public as the great hermetic novelists. She cannot attend literary festivals, deliver bookstore readings or give library talks and signings. Even the physical act of writing can occasionally stymie her, as the room spins and her brain swims to find words in a cognitive haze. There have been weeks and months — indeed, sometimes years — when the mere effort to lift her hands and write has been all that she can muster. “In the middle of working on ‘Unbroken,' ” she told me, “I went just off a cliff and became very suddenly totally bedridden — I didn’t get out of the house for two years.” To function as an author, Hillenbrand has been forced to develop a unique creative process. Everything in her working life is organized around the illness: the way she reads, the way she thinks about language, even the way she describes familiar places. When Hillenbrand writes about the “rough, rasping tremor” of the Pacific and the “smoky brown oval” of Pimlico, her readers feel closer to the ocean and the racetrack than Hillenbrand is ever likely to be again.
HILLENBRAND GREW UP in a clattering white colonial-style house in Bethesda, half a block from the local elementary school and two blocks from the neighborhood pool. In the summer, she swam backstroke on a club team and played competitive tennis, but her happiest moments came on weekend visits to the family farm an hour away.
There, on the banks of the Potomac River, the Hillenbrands kept a stone cottage surrounded by more than 300 acres of pasture and woods. Centuries of history lay embedded in the surrounding hills. The original deed for the property was measured in lengths of an arrow’s flight; the home was used as a hospital during the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of fighting in American history; and the folds and gullies of the adjoining forest were dotted with relics of Native American settlement and the Civil War.
Hillenbrand was the youngest of four children born over the span of a decade. Her father, Bernard, was a World War II veteran, deeply scarred by the long and brutal trench fighting in Hürtgen Forest. The longtime executive director of the National Association of Counties, he was known in Washington as a powerful lobbyist for the interests of local governments. He was often traveling for work or cajoling congressmen on the Hill; a 1981 feature in The Times called him “one of the shrewdest, toughest operatives that Congress and the White House have to deal with.” Hillenbrand’s mother, Elizabeth, was a reporter at The Washington Post but left the profession as a young mother to study psychology. Her dissertation, published in 1970, examined the damage caused by “father absence” in military families. Hillenbrand’s sister Susan Avallon told me the dissertation was partly inspired by their father. “She was concerned that my dad spent so little time with us,” Avallon said. “She was concerned about what impact that would have.”
By the time Hillenbrand was in grade school, her parents had drifted apart. The country home offered refuge from the strain of life at home. On weekend visits, Hillenbrand would ride one of the family’s horses, most of them decrepit castaways from the neighbors, or she would wander into the woods alone to search for arrowheads and bullets, pretending to be a Union soldier on fanciful expeditions. “My family wasn’t very happy, and so I preferred to be at the farm,” she told me. “I would come home with straw in my hair and the tops of my knuckles all covered with horse dust.”
The Hillenbrand household in Bethesda seemed to grow smaller every year. Hillenbrand was 8 when her oldest sister left for college; just over a year later, her parents separated and her father moved out; her brother departed a year after that. By the time Hillenbrand entered high school, her other sister was gone, leaving only Laura and her mother in the house. “I think it just didn’t feel like a home anymore,” her sister Susan told me. “Our mom, she withdrew quite a bit. She tended toward being rather depressed, and I think Laura experienced more of that than any of the other three of us did.” After school, Hillenbrand would find reasons not to go home, often staying out with her friends into the evening. “I didn’t have a good relationship with her, so I felt more comfortable outside the house,” she said.
In her senior year of high school, she visited Susan at Kenyon College. The school is perched on a remote hilltop in the village of Gambier, Ohio. A long, wide footpath sweeps through campus, with shops and dorms to either side. Draped in moss, bursting with spring ephemerals, Kenyon seemed an idyll — the Hillenbrand farm, but filled with other young, inquisitive people bustling across lawns with armloads of books. She had planned a two-day visit but kept extending her stay; when she finally left two weeks later, her new friends covered her sister’s door with goodbye messages. “I just felt so loved,” she told me. “It had such a family feel.”
Hillenbrand entered Kenyon as a freshman in 1985. She took up cycling in the nearby hills, broke her nose playing football in the quad and became such an avid tennis player that she arranged to live by the courts for her sophomore year. She seemed to be in optimal health until the illness struck — suddenly, feverishly, doubling her over in the passenger seat of a friend’s car on a drive through the woods at night. Hillenbrand spent the next three weeks in her room, too sick to keep down food, too weak to stand up. Terrified, confused, she dropped out of school. Her sister drove her home.
She spent the next 18 months confined to her childhood bedroom. “I almost couldn’t move,” she said, “and it has cognitive effects, so it becomes difficult to think as well — it really felled every pillar of my life all at once.” If the pain was shattering, the social rejection was almost worse. As the months ticked by, her doctors, her family and virtually all her friends pulled away. “The whole family, all of us — shame on us — didn’t reach out to her and help her the way we should have,” Susan said. “It’s something I can only apologize for now.”
Hillenbrand sank into a morbid depression. One afternoon, she dumped a bottle of pills onto the bed and stared at them for an hour. She couldn’t bring herself to die, but she had no idea how to live. Even now, she wonders about the lasting impact of those years. As she recalled them, her body tensed and her eyes narrowed. “I was not taken seriously, and that was disastrous,” she said indignantly. “If I’d gotten decent medical care to start out with — or at least emotional support, because I didn’t get that either — could I have gotten better? Would I not be sick 27 years later?”
HILLENBRAND'S OFFICE on the second floor of the new house is a small nook with a single window. After a while, we wandered upstairs for a look, but there wasn’t much to see. A small wooden desk was pressed into the corner, with a computer on top and not much else. The window faced a brick wall. Hillenbrand laughed. “I don’t like big spaces,” she said. “I like being able to reach everything easily.”
Hillenbrand began to write professionally in the late 1980s. She had briefly rebounded from the illness and moved to Chicago with Flanagan, where she began to publish articles on horses and equine medicine in obscure titles like Equus and Thoroughbred Times. But two years later, while flying home for Christmas, she collapsed on the airplane. Once again, she found herself stranded in her childhood bedroom. Now the symptoms of vertigo appeared. “I was in hell,” she said. “The dizziness, everything moving all the time, it was terrifying. My dreams were all on roller coasters and falling elevators.” It wasn’t until 1995, at age 28, that she felt healthy enough to rent a small apartment with Flanagan in Northwest Washington. There she began to dream of more ambitious projects. In 1997, she approached American Heritage magazine with the idea for a feature on Seabiscuit.
Hillenbrand had been interested in the quirky little racehorse since childhood, when she read the illustrated paperback “Come On, Seabiscuit!” so many times that the pages fell out. But as she delved into research for the article, she discovered that the story was much richer than she realized. In a country saddled by the Great Depression, the tale of an unlikely champion struck a symbolic chord: Newspaper writers recorded his triumphs and setbacks in exquisite, exhaustive detail. By the time the article appeared in the summer of 1998, Hillenbrand was determined to write a book.
A friend introduced her to the literary agent Tina Bennett, who helped her develop the idea into a proposal. Four months later, over lunch in Manhattan, Bennett mentioned the idea to Jonathan Karp, an editor at Random House. Karp had no particular interest in horses, had never been to a race and had been in publishing long enough to know that certain subjects were notoriously hard to sell. On the list of topics a savvy publisher should avoid, horse racing was pretty high. “Tina asked me if I’d ever heard of Seabiscuit, and I said no,” Karp recalled. “She said, ‘Do you want to read this?’ And I said, ‘No.' ” Bennett told him that in 1938, the horse received more newspaper coverage than President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Karp agreed to read the proposal.
He was impressed but still had questions. “All the characters were dead,” he told me, “so it wasn’t clear how deep into character she would be able to go.” Karp bought the rights for just over $100,000. (The same week, he purchased another writer’s first book for $700,000.) Hillenbrand delivered the manuscript in 17 months. When Karp reached the final pages, he dashed off an email to Hillenbrand. “Dear Laura,” it began. “In terms of pure narrative, this is the most satisfying story I have encountered in my 11 years as an editor. Reading it wasn’t even work; it was pleasure.”
Fourteen years later, Karp told me that he could write the same letter today. Although he left Random House in 2005 and is now the publisher of Simon & Schuster, where he oversees several of Hillenbrand’s competitors, including David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, he said the first draft of “Seabiscuit” is still the best he has ever received. “And it’s been a long time, I regret to say,” Karp told me. “I keep waiting for somebody to do what Laura did.”
THE RELEASE OF “Seabiscuit” in 2001 coincided with a shift underway in nonfiction writing. Hillenbrand belongs to a generation of writers who emerged in response to the stylistic explosion of the 1960s. Pioneers of New Journalism like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer wanted to blur the line between literature and reportage by infusing true stories with verbal pyrotechnics and eccentric narrative voice. But many of the writers who began to appear in the 1990s — Susan Orlean, Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer, Katherine Boo and Nathaniel Philbrick — approached the craft of narrative journalism in a quieter way. They still built stories around characters and scenes, with dialogue and interior perspective, but they cast aside the linguistic showmanship that drew attention to the writing itself.
“There definitely was a generational shift,” Mark Bowden, the author of “Black Hawk Down,” told me. “One of the most obvious things about the New Journalism was the voice, but writers like me and Sebastian Junger were less interested in being either participants or very distinctive narrators. We’re just interested in telling great stories.” David Grann, the author of “The Lost City of Z,” told me that he makes a conscious effort to avoid stylistic flourishes. “The thing that is most important to me is I want to get out of the way,” he said. “I mean, I am very conscious of that. I’m not indicting people who have great voices, but in the stories I’m writing, the last thing I want is for the voice to get in the way or call attention to the author.” Hampton Sides, who wrote this summer’s blockbuster “In the Kingdom of Ice,” put it bluntly: “This generation has discovered that you don’t have to grab the reader by the lapels if you have a good story to tell.”
As much as any author working today, Hillenbrand embodies this stylistic discipline. She writes with the calm confidence that the careful arrangement of facts and details can impart the same narrative urgency as kandy-kolored adjectives and verbal pirouettes. Early in “Seabiscuit,” she introduces the jockey Red Pollard with a constellation of small observations to evoke a universe of inner conflict:
He was an elegant young man, tautly muscled, with a shock of supernaturally orange hair. Whenever he got near a mirror, he wetted down a comb and slicked the hair back like Tyrone Power, but it had a way of rearing up on him again. His face had a downward-sliding quality, as if his features were just beginning to melt.
He was, statistically speaking, one of the worst riders anywhere. Lately, at least. Once, he had been one of the best, but those years were far behind him. He had no money and no home; he lived entirely on the road of the racing circuit, sleeping in empty stalls, carrying with him only a saddle, his rosary, and his books: pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Omar Khayyám’s “Rubaiyat,” a little copy of Robert Service’s “Songs of the Sourdough,” maybe some Emerson, whom he called “Old Waldo.” The books were the closest things he had to furniture, and he lived in them the way other men live in easy chairs.
In “Unbroken,” Hillenbrand blends the same intimacy with a technical mastery of wartime equipment. While writing my own book on the Pacific air campaign, I spent countless hours in the islands, with American airmen and even flying on old bombers, so I approached “Unbroken” cautiously. But I quickly found myself mesmerized by Hillenbrand’s ability to convey the texture of B-24 combat — the “broad, quick throbs of light in the clouds” and the “blaze of garish light” on the horizon and the way the tracers “streaked the air in yellow, red, and green.” Even in the heat of a battle sequence, Hillenbrand never loses sight of the individual men trapped in the fighting. After the assault on Wake Island of Christmas 1942, she describes the Japanese soldiers below “wearing only fundoshi undergarments, sprinting around in confusion,” while Zamperini’s crew, exhausted and battered, barrel away from the devastation with the retractable bottom of their plane jammed open, the wind roaring in and their fuel running out, even as the men themselves “could do nothing but wait and hope. They passed around pineapple juice and roast beef sandwiches.” This was the airman’s reality at war, caroming mercilessly between death’s edge and deadly boredom.
Hillenbrand’s approach has already begun to influence leading writers. The author Daniel James Brown has spent more than six months on The Times’s paperback list for his book about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, “The Boys in the Boat.” Over the past four months, he and Hillenbrand have held the top two positions nearly every week. Brown told me that even before he began writing his book, he had Hillenbrand’s in mind.
“When I first started ‘The Boys in the Boat’ — I mean, the day after I decided to write the book — I had an old paperback copy of ‘Seabiscuit,’ and we were going on a vacation,” he recalled. “So I threw it in my suitcase, and I spent the whole vacation dissecting it. I put notes on every page in the book, just studying all the writerly decisions she had made: why she started this scene this way and that scene that way, and the language choices in how she developed the setting.” Brown told me that his notes in “Seabiscuit” even influenced his reporting. “One of the things I wrote down in the margins of the book was that I needed to do this or I needed to do that,” he said. “I went into the whole research project with a list of guidelines, which were drawn from this close study of ‘Seabiscuit.' ”
After the release of Brown’s book last year, he received a friendly note from Hillenbrand, and they have struck up a correspondence. Even so, Brown said, he has trouble regarding her as a rival. “I see her as a model to aspire to,” he said. “I also admire Tim Egan and Krakauer and Philbrick and Larson. I mean, I read all of these people. But in terms of what you can do with this form, I think she is the best.”
IT MAY BE tempting to think of Hillenbrand as someone who has triumphed in spite of her illness. The truth is at once more complicated and more interesting. Many of the qualities that make Hillenbrand’s writing distinctive are a direct consequence of her physical limitations. Every writer works differently, but Hillenbrand works more differently than any writer I know of. She has been forced by the illness to develop convoluted workarounds for some of the most basic research tasks, yet her workarounds, in all their strange complexity, deliver many of her greatest advantages. When I asked, for example, how she reads old newspapers on microfilm without traveling to a library, I was stunned to discover that she doesn’t. “I can’t look at microfiche,” she said. “I couldn’t do that even in my good vertigo years.”
Instead, Hillenbrand buys vintage newspapers on eBay and reads them in her living room, as if browsing the morning paper. The first time she tried this, she bought a copy of The New York Times from the week of Aug. 16, 1936. That was the day Seabiscuit’s team — his owner, Charles Howard; his trainer, Tom Smith; and his jockey, Red Pollard — first collaborated at the Detroit Fair Grounds. Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period — the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.
“There was so much to find,” she said of her reading. “The number-one book was ‘Gone With the Wind,’ the Hindenburg flew over Manhattan with a swastika on it and Roosevelt made a speech saying America would never become involved in foreign wars.” Soon she bought another newspaper, and then another. “I wanted to start to feel like I was living in the ’30s,” she said. That elemental sense of daily life seeps into the book in ways too subtle and myriad to count.
It was in those vintage newspapers that Hillenbrand discovered her next book. “I happened to turn over a clipping about Seabiscuit,” she said. “On the other side of that page, directly the opposite side of the page, was an article on Louie Zamperini, this running phenom.” Hillenbrand had no idea what became of Zamperini in the years to come, as the war broke out and young men gathered on Hamilton Field near San Francisco to fly B-24 bombers across the Pacific, but something about the young runner caught her attention. Maybe it was the mischievous look in his eye or the way he tipped forward when he ran, as if falling toward the finish line. Maybe it was the way, as she would later write, “his ears leaned sidelong off his head like holstered pistols, and above them waved a calamity of black hair.” Whatever it was, Hillenbrand jotted Zamperini’s name in her research notebook on Seabiscuit and promised herself, “I’ve got to find this guy when I’m done.”
Hillenbrand tracked Zamperini down in 2003. He had just published a memoir, but the more she learned about his story, the more eager she was to tell it. She had always been fascinated by her father’s experience in World War II — dug into foxholes deep in the forest and shelled by mortars through the night, while the trees shattered overhead and his fellow soldiers descended into madness. He remembered opening a can of rations just as the world went black, then awaking in the snow with his hand shredded and blood all around. He was trying to reach a medic when another mortar lofted overhead, and he dove into a ditch for safety, feeling another man jump in after him and the unforgettable vibration of the man’s body exploding as the mortar detonated on his back. Bernard Hillenbrand returned from Europe with a rebuilt hand and scars across his shoulder, but he was never able to discuss the emotional impact of the war, or the year and a half he spent in the hospital coming to terms with his wounds. In Zamperini, Hillenbrand found another way to access her father. “I’d always wanted to understand how hard it must have been for my father, because he doesn’t talk about the emotional consequences,” she said. “Louie was good at really capturing in words exactly what something felt like. I think that was probably, in an unconscious way for me, a way of understanding my own dad.”
Zamperini was happy to cooperate with Hillenbrand, but he was 86 and living in California. Once again, Hillenbrand’s illness posed a reporting conundrum. Neither she nor Zamperini could easily fly to meet each other. Over the next seven years, as she researched and wrote “Unbroken,” they would speak by phone hundreds of times but never meet in person.
This would seem to almost any reporter a terrible handicap. One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation. But Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote. Gross told me that she began this habit, as Hillenbrand did, by necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Over time, she said, she has come to believe that there is intimacy in distance.
“I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she said with a laugh. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.” Gross also said the remote interview makes it easier to steer the conversation. “I can look at my notes without fear that the interviewee will assume that I’m not paying attention to what they’re saying,” she said. Finally, the distance eliminates nonverbal cues, which can interfere with good quotes. “A hand gesture might be helpful to communicate something to me. It communicates nothing to my listeners.”
Hillenbrand, who recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with Zamperini, experienced a similar effect. “I thought it was actually an advantage to be unable to go to Louie,” she said. Because neither of them had to dress for the interviews and they were in their own homes, their long phone calls enjoyed a warmth and comfort that might otherwise be missing. She could pose the deeply personal questions that even her father had trouble answering. “I would ask a lot of questions about his emotional state,” she said. “ 'What did you feel right in this moment? Were you frightened?' ” The distance also allowed Hillenbrand to visualize Zamperini in the time period of the book. “He became a 17-year-old runner for me, or a 26-year-old bombardier,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at an old man.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Hillenbrand as a reporter are the periods when she cannot read. When the vertigo surges, as it has in recent years, she has trouble focusing her eyes on the page without dizziness. Over the last 15 years, she has listened to hundreds of audiobooks, taking in history tomes like the World War II series by Winston Churchill, contemporary nonfiction works and classic literature by Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Early this year, she listened to eight Edith Wharton novels in a row. Hillenbrand sometimes longs for the tactile pleasure of the printed page, but she believes her immersion in audiobooks has actually improved her writing. “It has taught me a lot more about the importance of the rhythm of language,” she said. “Good writing has a musical quality to it, a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm. You can feel that much better when it’s read aloud.”
EXCEPT FOR EMAIL and posts on Facebook, Hillenbrand has written very little for the past four years. She has not begun a new book and has instead worked on a medley of smaller projects: preparing the paperback edition of ‘'Unbroken” for its July release, trimming and modifying the text for a young-adult version that was published last month and consulting on the film. Hillenbrand is not formally credited as a writer on the adaptation, but Jolie told me that she was involved at every stage: “We were bugging her all the time!” she said. “Somebody from production was on the phone with her once a week.”
Early this month, I watched a preview of the movie and stopped by Hillenbrand’s house to discuss it. It had been two months since our first meeting, and the home was beginning to show little eccentricities and personal touches: a newsboy cap perched on the head of the carved horse by the front door, a pair of large wicker dogs sitting at attention in the living room.
The movie offered a revealing contrast to Hillenbrand’s book. On the page, Zamperini becomes a small riot of gleeful mutinies: forever scheming and conspiring against his guards, referring to them with nicknames like Termite and Weasel and finding ways to pass secret messages to his fellow inmates, so that when they all bow for the emperor, they can “pitch forward in concert and let thunderclaps fly.” On-screen, these touches of joy vanish in the greater horror: Zamperini is beaten, bloodied, starved, humiliated — one might even say broken.
As we settled into our chairs, I realized that for Hillenbrand, the film represents a letting go — not so much of Zamperini, who died this summer at 97, but of his story and her custody of it. There are no more editions to revise, no more adaptations, and as the new year arrives in her new home, she faces a new chapter in her life.
I asked whether she was ready to begin thinking about a new book, and she smiled. “Yeah, I feel so fully alive when I’m really into a story,” she said. “I feel like all my faculties are engaged, and this is where I’m meant to be. It’s probably what a racehorse feels like when it runs. This is what it’s meant to do, what its body is meant to do.” She paused. “This is what my mind is meant to do.”
“Does that feel close?” I asked.
Hillenbrand nodded. “Yesterday, I felt so good, and I was thinking, You know, you might be able to start.” she said. “It was the first time I had the thought, Maybe you can begin now. It might be in fits and starts, and I might have to quit for a while — but I think I’m going to begin again.” She said she knew the subject of her next book but wasn’t ready to make it public.
“It was a big story, a long time ago, that’s been completely forgotten,” she said. “I had never heard of any of it, and I just accidentally stumbled upon it in an old newspaper.”