How an Illness Changed the Way Laura Hillenbrand Wrote Her Bestselling Books

Your inspirational story of the day is Wil S. Hylton’s New York Times Magazine profile of bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand, who’s written both Seabiscuit and Unbroken while suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. The illness left her unable to leave the house—which, rather than hamper her ability to do research or interview sources, gave her different advantages:

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.

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