How Unbroken Author's Illness May Make Her a Better Writer

NYT Magazine profiles the 'unbreakable Laura Hillenbrand'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 21, 2014 10:26 AM CST
How Acclaimed Author's Illness May Make Her a Better Writer
Author Laura Hillenbrand.   (

Casual fans will know Laura Hillenbrand as the author of Seabiscuit and, more recently, Unbroken, two of the most acclaimed nonfiction books in the last two decades. Closer fans will know that the 47-year-old suffers from a debilitating condition called chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis, that keeps her largely confined to her house and sometimes to her bed. Sample quote in a new New York Times Magazine profile: “I was nearly hit by a car the other day. I looked straight at it. It was a white car against a green background, and I did not see it. I stepped right in front of it.” But the profile by Wil S. Hylton makes a fascinating case: that Hillenbrand has become a successful writer not despite her illness but, in some ways, because of it. Her entire creative process is informed by it.

A small example: Travel is impossible for Hillenbrand, as is sitting in a library and looking at microfilm because of the severe vertigo that accompanies her condition. In researching Seabiscuit, then, she bought newspapers from the 1930s on eBay and read them at home. "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," writes Hylton. She bought more newspapers from the era, and that "elemental sense of daily life seeps into the book in ways too subtle and myriad to count." Also: One day, she happened upon a small story in one of those vintage papers about a running star named Louie Zamperini, and she scribbled his name into her research book. She would tell his full story years later in Unbroken. Click for the full profile. (More author stories.)

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