Ask Laura Hillenbrand to pick a favorite character from her new book, and she answers
It’s Johnny "Red" Pollard, the hard-luck jockey who rode the racehorse Seabiscuit to
glory in the late
1930s. Pollard battled through a series of racing accidents that blinded him in one eye, nearly tore off
his right leg and left him in constant, agonizing pain for the rest of his days.
Why the attraction to Pollard? Hillenbrand says she and the jockey both chose to make
the same sacrifice.
Pollard gave his body to chase his dreams of racing horses. And she gave hers to tell the story of Seabiscuit.
"I have absolutely destroyed myself writing this book," says Hillenbrand, whose project,
An American Legend," has been a fixture on national best-seller lists for months.
"I knew I was going to, but it was something I had to do anyway. For me, it was a matter
Hillenbrand has struggled with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS)
for the past
14 years. A morning shower can exhaust her for hours. A short stroll outside her Washington, D.C. home
often leaves her too weak to prepare dinner. She fights intense bouts of vertigo that prevent her from
reading or writing for months at a time.
Yet the drive to complete "Seabiscuit" has kept her going. She has called the book "the
baby I’ll never
have," and says she has no regrets about the price her body has paid.
"It wasn’t even a matter of choice. This illness wasn’t going to take away my last joy,
to write," Hillenbrand says.
Searching for an answer
CFIDS struck Hillenbrand in early 1987. She was a
student with perfect grades and an eye toward becoming a history professor. Hillenbrand says her problems
began after she developed a case of food poisoning on a car trip between her Maryland home and the college
campus in Ohio.
By the time she reached Ohio, she was so ill that her friends called paramedics. Hillenbrand
to fight through the sickness for more than two weeks, but gradually grew weaker. Finally, barely able
to crawl out of bed, she was forced to withdraw from school and move back home.
During the first few weeks of her illness, Hillenbrand lost 22 pounds. She went from
doctor to doctor,
desperately searching for a diagnosis, but was disappointed at every turn. Some physicians simply told
her that she was making up her illness. After measuring Hillenbrand’s blood pressure at a dangerously
low 70 mm Hg/50 mm Hg, one doctor left the room, told Hillenbrand’s waiting mother that Laura’s problem
was psychological and abruptly walked away.
Another doctor told her she had an eating disorder, bulimia, even though the diagnosis
wrong. Hillenbrand used the rest room after the appointment, started to walk out--and was shocked to find
the doctor standing there with his ear cupped to the bathroom door, listening to determine whether Hillenbrand
was forcing herself to vomit.
Personal relationships also started to fray as her health declined. Many people remained
her, especially her boyfriend, Borden Flanagan. But Hillenbrand felt that others kept their emotional
distance, doubting that her symptoms were really that bad.
Finally, after 10 months of searching and suffering, Hillenbrand found a doctor at The
University School of Medicine in Baltimore who diagnosed CFIDS. In a strange way, Hillenbrand was grateful.
"Here he gives me this terrible prognosis," she says, "and yet it was still better than not knowing. He
was the first medical person to take me seriously."
Seabiscuit to the rescue
Hillenbrand’s love for horses and horse racing emerged
been hooked since childhood, when her father took her to a tiny racetrack near their home. She still remembers
the first horse she saw--a big gray named Bluebonnet. The horse stopped during the post parade and stared
at the awe-struck young girl. "I was a goner right then and there," she says.
It was the power and grace of the thousand-pound Thoroughbreds that captured her imagination.
raw athleticism is astounding," she says. "I really believe that God never created a more perfect athlete."
As a young adult, after CFIDS stole much of her own physical ability, Hillenbrand again
in horses. She began writing freelance magazine articles for Equus magazine as her condition permitted.
While she was not able to return to school, Hillenbrand at least felt productive working out of her house.
But then she overreached. A 1991 trip to Saratoga racetrack in upstate New York triggered
relapse. Vertigo robbed her of her biggest pleasure, reading and writing. Unable to even sit up in bed,
Hillenbrand simply listened to the ticking of her watch, counting off the minutes as she lingered, unsure
of what, if anything, the future held. It was, she says, her darkest time.
When the symptoms finally eased, Seabiscuit entered her life.
Hillenbrand remembered reading a book as a child about a small horse from the Great
Depression, a castoff
who became America’s darling when he beat the famous horse War Admiral in a head-to-head race back in
1938. Looking for freelance material, Hillenbrand did some research on the horse, Seabiscuit, and wrote
a story for American Heritage magazine. The piece was an instant sensation, and in 1998 Hillenbrand won
the Eclipse Award, the biggest prize in horse racing journalism. A book proposal attracted several publishers,
and Hillenbrand agreed to write Seabiscuit’s tale for Random House.
Hillenbrand knew that the book would require a massive research effort, plus countless
hours of writing
and re-writing. She thought hard about what the project would do to her health, and wondered whether she
could pull it off. In the end, she decided to accept the risks.
"Actually, it wasn’t even a matter of choice," she says. "Anything was better than just
my room and metabolizing."
Seabiscuit, like Hillenbrand, was an immense talent looking for a chance to show his
he came from decent stock--his father, Hard Tack, was a brilliant if ill-tempered Thoroughbred, not to
mention a son of the legendary Man o’ War--Seabiscuit was never much to look at. He ran with a peculiar,
mismatched stride and usually appeared much more interested in sleeping than racing. As a result, he was
poorly trained and handled, and never rose above low-stakes races.
It wasn’t until he was sold to automobile magnate Charles Howard in 1936 that Seabiscuit’s
to rise. Howard’s enigmatic trainer, Tom Smith, convinced Howard to buy the animal for $8,000. Smith was
smitten, much like Hillenbrand was with Bluebonnet, when Seabiscuit stared at him with his expressive
Hillenbrand tells Seabiscuit’s story with mesmerizing attention to detail. She recounts
how many miles
Seabiscuit traveled by train in the years before his race with War Admiral--24,265. She talks about the
unconventional and dangerous methods old-time jockeys used to lose weight, including burrowing into mountains
of steaming horse manure while wearing rubber suits. And she even unearthed a light-hearted telegram that
the injured Pollard sent to his replacement jockey on the eve of the big race. "There is only one sure
way of winning with the Biscuit," he wrote to George Woolf. "You ride War Admiral."
CFIDS meets Seabiscuit
Between the magazine article and the book, Hillenbrand
years working on the Seabiscuit project. It was her only activity, her only focus, and it took an indescribable
effort to bring her "baby" to life.
Hillenbrand rarely left the upstairs room in the home she shares with her boyfriend,
conducted all of her research by phone, fax, e-mail and letter. She collected thousands of pieces of Seabiscuit
memorabilia, from photos to race programs to a Mexican work visa Pollard once used while racing in Tijuana.
She ordered countless library books and often resorted to buying old racing items on Internet auction
"This project cost me a fortune," Hillenbrand says, laughing. "It would have been much,
if I had been able to go out and collect these things."
Hillenbrand set up her bedroom/office as efficiently as possible. Nothing was more than
an arm’s length
away, from the fax machine to the small refrigerator that held enough food to last the entire day. If
she felt up to it, Hillenbrand would rise early to shower, then would rest from the exertion for as long
as necessary. Though she would take breaks, she tried to work straight through to lunchtime. If she had
enough energy at the end of the day, she’d take a brief walk outside. She kept up this routine seven days
a week, 365 days a year, through night sweats, crushing fatigue and growing vertigo.
"It was the only thing I could have possibly done with myself," she says. "I’m built
for writing. I
ask myself sometimes what would have happened if I’d been an athlete or a mathematician. I would not have
been able to work."
"Seabiscuit" hit the shelves earlier this year to universal acclaim. Like its namesake,
book has created a bit of a sensation. It climbed to the tops of dozens of national best-seller lists,
and has remained there for months. In fact, "Seabiscuit" might become the biggest selling nonfiction sports
book of all time. The book has proved so successful that Universal Studios purchased the rights to the
movie. When the time comes, Hillenbrand will serve as a consultant, though she will not write the script.
Although the book is finished, Hillenbrand has found little time to rest and enjoy her
Immediately after the book hit the best-seller lists, she was besieged with requests for interviews. She
has spoken with dozens of radio stations, more than 100 newspapers and magazines and several major television
shows. Recently, she talked with Bryant Gumbel on CBS’ The Early Show.
Hillenbrand has only one rule for interviewers: they must come to her. She simply doesn’t
strength to travel to New York or even to downtown Washington. Most times, she talks to reporters on the
telephone. When the TV crews arrive for a remote broadcast, they turn her house upside-down with wires,
lights and cameras. But since that’s the only way she can promote her book on screen, she says she’s learned
to live with it.
Hillenbrand relishes the parallels between her struggles and those of the characters
in her book. Her
Random House editor, in fact, calls the book a metaphor for her life. "I identify with them," Hillenbrand
says. "This is a story of hardship. For me and everyone else with CFIDS, it’s the story of your life,
to get up and gird yourself for each and every day.
"Red Pollard’s biggest hurdles were the limitations of his body. There’s nobility to
him. So many times,
it seems like he’s finished. Yet he always fights back, overcomes and finds a way."
There are no plans for another book, not yet, anyway. And that’s fine with Hillenbrand.
She knew the
toll "Seabiscuit" would exact on her body, and she’s willing to deal with the consequences. Besides, she
says, she’d be hard-pressed to find a subject that captures her imagination more than the tale of the
plucky little Thoroughbred and the ragtag group of people who coaxed him to glory.
"I’m a sucker for an underdog," Hillenbrand says. "And this is the best underdog story
Success & CFIDS:
Fighting the public
Laura Hillenbrand knows she walks a fine line as a spokesman for people with
chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome. She’s thoughtful, articulate
and more than willing to share her struggles with the disease with a nationwide
audience. Yet sometimes she worries about appearing too successful for the good
of the cause.
"I know that some people are out there thinking, ‘How sick can you be? You just wrote
a 400-page book,’"
says Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller "Seabiscuit: An American Legend." While almost everyone has
responded well, she knows there’s still a lingering perception that CFIDS should not be taken seriously.
Hillenbrand does not push her illness on interviewers. If they ask, however, she tells
her tale unflinchingly.
She recounts a typical day--struggling to shower, rarely venturing downstairs from her office/bedroom,
dealing with an onslaught of vertigo that now keeps her from reading the very stories the reporters write.
Though she appears on radio and television shows across the country, in reality she has not left her house
in Washington, D.C. for a single book signing or media event. If anyone wants to talk to her, they must
either call or come to her personally.
During an interview on National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show, for instance, Hillenbrand
that she was not able to make the five-minute trek to the studio due to her condition and instead had
to call in from her home.
Almost without exception, Hillenbrand says, the response from fellow persons with CFIDS
has been positive.
A member of a local CFIDS Support Network group, Hillenbrand often hears from people who appreciate the
work she’s doing.
"Overall, it has been a wonderful experience," she says. "Everyone has been sympathetic
I hope that things are improving with respect to public opinion about the disease."
Still, Hillenbrand knows that some work remains before the general public completely
disease. She tells about one piece of e-mail that she received shortly after "Seabiscuit" was published.
"You wrote a great book," it says. "Too bad you had to fake an illness because you’re lazy."
Hillenbrand says she would change nothing about her "Seabiscuit" adventure. But she
would like to change
the name of the disease that so limits her life.
"‘Chronic fatigue syndrome’ just doesn’t cut it," she says. "They might as well call
it ‘crybaby syndrome’
for the perception it creates. People don’t really understand how it can destroy someone’s life. It’s
not fatigue. It’s far, far worse than most people can even imagine."