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kottke.org posts about Seabiscuit

The unbreakable Laura Hillenbrand

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 31, 2014

Wonderful piece on Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken. Hillenbrand has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for more than 25 years and can barely leave her own house, but she has turned her illness into an advantage in some ways.

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.

After you read that, check out Hillenbrand’s piece on her illness written for the New Yorker in 2003.