Hillenbrand tells the story of an American hero
It's a story almost too amazing to be true: An Olympic runner serving as an airman in World War II is marooned on a raft after a plane crash. He and his companion are rescued—by the enemy—and held in a POW camp. But even the remarkable bare bones of the story don't convey all of what there is to discover in Unbroken, a true tale of survival, strength and resilience that Laura Hillenbrand's fans have been waiting for ever since they turned the last page of Seabiscuit. Unbroken is our top pick in nonfiction for November, and Hillenbrand answered a few questions about her new book from her home in Washington, D.C.
First, we have to ask: How did your life change after Seabiscuit?
The success of Seabiscuit was a startling experience. Thanks to a chronic illness, I had been largely isolated for many years. I wrote this book without any expectation of great success with it—I was just trying to tell the story as well as I could. The book was published, and suddenly found this huge audience. I went from living in obscurity and isolation to having TV crews in my living room, literally overnight. It was a lot to take in all at once, but it was wonderful. Since then, it has brought me only joy: amazing experiences, so many new friendships. It has enabled me to connect with the world in a way I never imagined. I am still in wonder over what happened, and I am immensely grateful.
"I'm drawn to subjects whose lives are a study in resilience, and I'm fascinated by the attributes that enable men to survive."
Louis Zamperini has already told his story in two autobiographies. How does Unbroken add to or differ from his accounts, and what was his reaction to your interest in writing about his life?
When Louie first told me his story, I was struck by its wealth of narrative possibilities. Autobiography is a wonderful and worthy genre, but it is a narrow one, offering only one perspective on a life. I wanted to open up the narrative to include the perspectives of Louie's fellow Depression-era Olympians and WWII airmen, the men on the raft with him and the airmen searching the ocean for him, his fellow POWs and the family he left behind. I wanted to place Louie in his historical context and present him as a representative of the broader experience of WWII airmen and prisoners of war, and the hardships they faced. Along the way, I learned many things about Louie's life, and the surrounding events and personalities, that he never knew. When I was done, Louie joked, "When I want to know what happened to me in Japan, I call Laura."
When I initially approached Louie, he assumed I wanted to write his autobiography with him, something he had recently done. But I mailed him a copy of Seabiscuit and explained the different direction I wanted to take his story, and he was game.
One thing your books have in common is their focus on resilience—people overcoming the odds, etc. Many of your readers see the echo of that spirit in your struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Do you feel that experience has helped you identify with the people you write about?
Because I've been struggling with a terrible, intractable disease for nearly 24 years, I identify very strongly with people who find a way to endure, and overcome, extreme hardship. Of course I can't compare my experiences to Louie's, but my history has given me an intimate understanding of suffering, and that understanding helped me commune with him as he moved through his most difficult hours. I'm drawn to subjects whose lives are a study in resilience, and I'm fascinated by the attributes that enable men to survive. In that sense, I couldn't have found a richer subject than Louie. As I worked on this book, my health collapsed once again. At times, I couldn't find hope in my life, but I always found it in his.
With fewer and fewer World War II veterans remaining to tell their stories, did you feel a particular urgency for writing about this topic? What was it like to hear accounts of the events they experienced firsthand?
I caught this story just as the living memory of it was slipping away. A number of my interviewees, including all of Louie's siblings, his lifelong best friend, one of his high school classmates and several men who were airmen or POWs alongside him, died before my book went to press. This broke my heart; I wanted so badly for them to see their stories told.
I was nervous about asking men to walk me through their memories of being tormented in POW camp, or enduring hellish combat—it felt like a terrible imposition. One or two men whom I approached said they just didn't want to talk about those events, but to my surprise, most were eager to talk. During a few of my interviews, men cried as they spoke. But even these men wanted to tell me these stories; they wanted this history to be recorded, and they wanted the world to understand the price they had paid to save the world. It was deeply moving, and I feel honored that they shared their memories with me. They had incredible stories to tell, and I took very seriously the responsibility to get those stories right.
Your chronicle of Zamperini's days on the raft is especially harrowing, and his survival seems almost miraculous. What qualities would you say allowed him to survive when others did not?
Physically and mentally, Louie was singularly well prepared to endure 47 days on a life raft. He was in world-class running condition when his plane crashed, and this surely helped. But his biggest attribute was mental. Louie was a born optimist, and his childhood as an artful dodger, using his clever mind to get himself out of trouble, gave him the conviction that he could think his way out of any problem. He simply refused to believe he was going to die out there. It was a completely unrealistic belief—the odds of being rescued when down at sea were very poor—but it carried him forward and gave him the impulse to keep working for his survival. He was also a tremendously resourceful person. He devised ways to fish using hooks tied to his fingers, and a hook made from his lieutenant's pin. He came up with a way to save rainwater. He even figured out how to wrestle sharks aboard the raft and kill them. And, knowing that it was very common for raftbound men to go insane, he and his raftmates played memory games hour after hour to keep their minds sharp.
On a related note, even before his wartime travails, Zamperini's athletic abilities had already guaranteed him a notable life. Do you think certain people are predisposed to greatness, or do situations bring it out in them?
I think there is greatness in many of us, but we have to be thrown into extreme hardship to discover it. That's the fascinating thing about extremity: It unveils the true character of people, and finds in them attributes, or weaknesses, that they didn't know they had. This book explores that issue. Louie was an extraordinary athlete, but that didn't necessarily mean that when he got out on a life raft, he would have the character to endure it. Phil, his raftmate, was this quiet, recessive, unassuming man. No one could have guessed that in combat, his veins would run icewater, or that on the raft, he would prove just as resilient and enduring as Louie. And earlier, when Phil, Louie and their crew were caught in ferocious combat with Zeros, no one would have thought that the hero would turn out to be a sweet-tempered kid from Shapleigh, Maine, top turret gunner Stanley Pillsbury, who ignored the horrendous cannon wounds to his leg and shot down a Zero that was an instant from downing their bomber. It took extremity to reveal these things in these men.
You have a talent for describing historical events vividly. Tell us about the research this requires.
Thanks for the compliment! I think the secret to vivid storytelling is detail-oriented research. The more telling detail you can provide, the more vividly the reader can see the story. When I do interviews, I ask a huge number of questions, often going over and over an event to mine my interviewee's memory for every tidbit they can recall. I did this a great deal with Louie, and he was very patient with me. With this story and with Seabiscuit, I tried to get as many perspectives that I could on each event, and when one source yielded a detail, I'd run that detail past the other living sources to see if that would jog their memories. It often would, and new memories would emerge. Eventually you have a mosaic that you can piece together. I was fortunate in that there were many witnesses to Louie's life—some living interviewees, others who had left their accounts in diaries, letters, memoirs, affidavits and military reports—enabling me to put together a remarkably complete picture of many of the events, even though they took place as long as 70 years ago.
If you could go back in time to observe any historical event, what would it be?
That's a tough question! There are so many things I would like to see. I'd like to see the Colossus at Rhodes. I'd like to walk the deck of the Titanic. I'd like to see Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address. And I would love to see the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race. But the first thing that comes to mind, in the context of this book, is the end of the war. I would love to have been there when Louie was finally free. I won't give anything away, but it happened in a manner that was breathtakingly dramatic.
Are there plans to turn Unbroken into a movie?
There has been a lot of talk about that, and we are looking into it. I would love to see Louie's story told on film. So much of his life is spectacular—his races, air combat, a plane crash, his time on the raft—and would translate beautifully to film.
You've said you didn't intend to write another book after Seabiscuit, so maybe this question can't be answered right now—but do you see a third book in your future?
I always wanted to write another book after Seabiscuit, but didn't know if my health would allow it. I feel so blessed that my body held up enough to get me through Unbroken, and body-willing, I will write another book, if I can find a story that engages me as the first two did.
Author photo by John Huba.