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12.21.11

Laura Hillenbrand's Acclaimed Bestsellers Haven't Changed Her

“Unbroken” will enjoy a second Christmas on the bestseller list, but her success and her wealth, like her poor health, are just obstacles in this author’s way—for her, the work is everything.

Laura Hillenbrand is the antithesis of the popular concept of a world-famous, bestselling author. No celebrity photos, awards, or elaborately framed book jackets adorn the walls of her unprepossessing, two-story, yellow-clapboard row house on a quiet side street in Washington, D.C.

She doesn't travel the globe to embrace her millions of fans, nor does she appear at the social soirees of the literary circuit. Instead she relies mostly on Facebook, a landline phone and old newspapers, letters, and diaries purchased on eBay as her source of contact with the outside world. She doesn't own a cellphone and, except for rare occasions when friends picked up documents from the National Archives, doesn't use a researcher. (“I’m a perfectionist and couldn’t trust anybody else,” she says). She relies on her college sweetheart and husband, Borden Flanagan, a professor of government at American University, to be her editor.

There is no indication in her home, her lifestyle, or even her wardrobe—jeans, a scoop-neck gray sweater, and a pair of comfortable flats on the day of this interview—that this slender, porcelain-like woman with glossy, shoulder-length chestnut hair is a supernova in the literary firmament. That's the way this self-made millionaire prefers it.

If she insistently controls what she can about her life, it may be because she has control over so little. For the harsh reality is that almost nothing about the way Hillenbrand lives is by choice: for 25 years, since she was a teenager, the 44-year-old author has wrestled with chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease so debilitating that it often leaves her too exhausted to move for days. There have been periods when vertigo made it impossible for her to look at a computer screen. So she wrote with her eyes closed, scribbling on a pad.

Despite her infirmity, she has managed in the last decade to produce two enormous nonfiction bestsellers, Seabiscuit in 2001, followed by Unbroken in 2010. Seabiscuit, her thrilling tale of the great Depression-era racehorse, has sold more than 6 million copies and became an Oscar-nominated film. Unbroken, the gut-wrenching account of one man’s incredible endurance in the Pacific during World War II, shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list shortly before Christmas last year and has remained there for 56 weeks.

According to Mark Laframboise of Politics & Prose, an independent Washington bookstore, hardcover biographies are among the season’s hottest items and Unbroken is more than holding its own. “I think Laura Hillenbrand is celebrating a great second Christmas,” he says.

Unbroken continues to sell in staggering numbers. It’s one of those books that comes along and defies every conventional rule of publishing--it was not an obvious best seller,” says Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes and Noble. “It’s an incredibly compelling story well told.”

Sitting at a small refectory table in her snug kitchen, with a bottle of water and her cats, Tater and Pork Chop, on patrol, Hillenbrand says her books have taken her out of isolation and sickness and allowed her to redefine herself and live a meaningful life.

“I really don’t want to have any more than I need.”

The story of Seabiscuit was one of her childhood favorites. She discovered Louis Zamperini in an old newspaper clipping unearthed while she was researching Seabiscuit. Both were champion runners. Louis was an American track star at the Berlin Olympics. “I feel fortunate to have stumbled on both of them,” she says. “They had sort of fallen out of history. As a writer you look for that and I lucked out.”

It took Hillenbrand seven years to chronicle Zamperini’s heroic struggle as a World War II airman who survived unspeakable horrors as a Japanese POW and came home to seek redemption and salvation. “I must find something I fall madly in love with and I'm not going to fall out of love with,” she says. “I need to be so passionate as to follow every lead, go off on every tangent. Seven years is a long time to spend on one man's life, but I was passionate every single day. I'd have gone on another seven if the research had been there, because I loved it so much.”

Curiously, in all that time, Zamperini (who turns 95 in January) and Hillenbrand never met face to face, because he lives in California and her illness prevents her from traveling. Then, last fall he came to Washington for a conference, and they finally met in what she calls “the most perfect punctuation mark at the end of this whole experience.”

In the 13 months since it was published, the book has sold 2 million copies and been optioned by Universal Pictures (Hillenbrand has no say in the casting, but believes Ryan Gosling would be a great Louis: “He has a certain electricity and alacrity about him that Louie also has. I'd love to see him in the role”).

The problems faced by Seabiscuit and Zamperini were radically different, but the racehorse and the POW both became inspiring figures. “Seabiscuit became the proxy for a nation during the Depression. He was the underdog who could win,” Hillenbrand says. “Louis has that kind of appeal. People see him as a proxy for themselves as they go through their hardships. They prevailed and people feel inspired by both of them.”

Zamperini’s universal tale of resilience and forgiveness has resonated with a diverse and devoted audience: Christians who find it reaffirming to their faith; veterans of the Greatest Generation who lived through the hell she describes; the military (the book is in most of the dorm rooms at the Naval Academy); baby boomers rediscovering their fathers’ lives.

“It’s one of those books that comes along and defies every conventional rule of publishing—it was not an obvious bestseller,” says Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes & Noble. “It’s an incredibly compelling story well told.”

Perhaps the most surprising audience for the book has been teenagers. Hillenbrand has received so many requests from teachers and libraries that she is currently refashioning and simplifying Unbroken to meet the young-reader niche. She plans to finish that version in May. “It’s an interesting challenge. I’ve never written for young readers before,” she says.

On good days when she is feeling well, which come more frequently now—she recently attended a holiday party—she sifts through the past and writes in her inner sanctum upstairs. She tries to work seven days a week, and she does it all alone—her success has come with no research assistance, except for translation of Japanese documents, no one-on-one interviews, no on-site visits, and no secretarial help. Her private aerie is filled with a refrigerator, electric teapot, stacks of files, archival finds, books and scrap books, plus a massive collection of vintage newspapers, memoirs and magazines—even some hidden nuggets found in porn. “The detritus of history and of people’s lives,” she calls it.

Although she is reluctant to disclose her next endeavor, except to say the time period is pre-1930, she is already underway. Once again the idea came from a tangential story she came across researching Unbroken.

“It’s another event in history that has completely fallen out of public memory,” she says. “At the time it was a huge story, and it fascinates me. I need to make sure there is enough material for a book because there will be no living witnesses to talk to.”

No matter how successful she becomes, Hillenbrand’s recollections of her post-college poverty remain strong, and she harbors fears of returning to it despite her stunning success.

“We used to be very, very poor, and I was afraid I would end up destitute, unable to earn any money,” she tells The Daily Beast. “That stays with you. It was a scary feeling. It’s nice to no longer have to think I might end up on the street some day.”

She admits that, like it or not, her own life has changed dramatically over the 11 years since Seabiscuit galloped back into public consciousness. She has become wealthy and a philanthropist involved in a number of charities, one of which rescues horses all over the country who are headed for slaughter. With the actor Gary Sinise, she also established Operation International Children. It distributes school kits, athletic equipment, and toys to children in conflict zones and Third World countries through American soldiers. “People have been so generous, that’s flourishing,” she says. ”It’s been amazing.”

But has the money changed her? “Besides being able to do things charitably, we don’t spend money. You can see we’re in our modest little house. No second homes, no yachts, those things don’t appeal to me. I really don’t want to have any more than I need.”