Laura Hillebrand overcame a profound disability when she wrote two best-selling works of non-fiction, both of which became popular movies. Seabiscuit is the story of a record-setting racehorse, the most popular athlete of the late 1930’s. Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic Champion and World War II hero who survived 47 days in a raft on the open sea after his bomber plane was shot down. He then endured the cruelty of a Japanese prison camp. Writers can learn much from Hillebrand herself, who gives us a powerful example of persistent achievement by writing these remarkable books.
Here are three reasons why I call these books “remarkable.” First, Hillebrand filled both stories with captivating bits of information that resulted from her meticulous, determined research. She went beyond the headlines of her famous subjects to find fascinating story elements that reveal intimate personal details as well as the larger social landscape. We learn that horseracing was the most popular sport in the country throughout those Great Depression days. In 1938, Seabiscuit received more newspaper coverage than President Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. Reading her narration of several races makes us feel Seabiscuit’s powerful muscles straining between the jockey’s legs when they ignore the risk and charge through the crowded track to take the lead.
In Unbroken, we agonize with Zamperini day after day, surviving thirst, hunger and heat until his capture by the Japanese. Then we wince repeatedly while reading the vivid descriptions of his torture sessions during his two and a half year imprisonment. Later we thrill to Billy Graham’s message (quoted from a transcription) that changed Zamperini’s life. Neither book is “creative non-fiction,” since Hillebrand authenticated every detail with her exhaustive research (50 pages of footnotes in Unbroken and 42 pages in Seabiscuit).
The circumstances under which Hillenbrand wrote these books make them even more remarkable. A case of food poisoning in 1987 led to the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome that in turn brought on a condition of vertigo and extreme exhaustion. During the four years (1996 to 2000) she spent researching and writing Seabiscuit, she was confined to her home, and, to conserve her strength, eliminated nearly everything else from her life.
When she began writing Unbroken, Hillebrand was still under siege by this mysterious disease. Yet she overcame pain and darkness to write a story of courage, recovery, and redemption. During her seven years of working on Unbroken, the affliction subjected her to months-long bouts of tormenting disability. She used all her diminished strength to keep writing. Nothing prevented her from relating a story she had to tell.
Sales of Hillenbrand’s two books have reached 13 million copies worldwide. That remarkable figure underscores the appeal of compelling stories that are well written.
Many writers have a best-selling book within them they will produce only when they determine no obstacle will keep them from writing. A few will put themselves to work on a manuscript that will inspire, inform, and transform lives. An even smaller number will do the impossible and produce a work of art that required a staggering amount of resolve and sacrifice.
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