Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Laura Hillenbrand
Laura Hillenbrand is the author of two blockbuster bestsellers, 2001's Seabiscuit and 2010's Unbroken. A brilliant storyteller, she brings her books' subjects Seabiscuit, a champion Depression-era racehorse, and Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived brutal treatment in a Japanese POW camp during World War II vividly to life, an accomplishment that's all the more remarkable given that for more than twenty-five years she's suffered from a debilitating case of chronic fatigue syndrome that's left her largely confined to her home. Delacorte Press has now published this young adult version of Unbroken, which includes the last interview Hillenbrand conducted with Zamperini before his death in July. I spoke to Hillenbrand by phone about adapting the book for young readers, working with director Angelina Jolie on the film version, and continuing to speak out about her illness. Barbara Spindel
The Barnes & Noble Review: I reviewed Unbroken for the B&N Review upon its release in 2010, and I remember it well Louie's story leaves an indelible impression. When I read the young adult version in preparation for our interview, it didn't strike me as very different.
Laura Hillenbrand: No, it's really not.
BNR: I noticed some places where you might explain a reference like when Louie was forced to shave his prison guards, you write that he gave one particularly cruel guard eyebrows like Marlene Dietrich's, and you explain that she was a movie star with famously slender, feminine eyebrows. And the new version is shorter. But overall I didn't feel like I was reading a YA book, which suggests to me that you were confident that young readers could handle the difficulty of the material. Can you talk about your approach to adapting the manuscript?
LH: I don't have children myself and I don't have a whole lot of experience with kids, and I was very mindful of that going in. I wanted to be sure that I learned from people who did know what they were doing. And so I talked to a number of teachers and middle school and elementary school librarians and some parents. I had questions like how graphic can I get in terms of what happened to Louie because of course some of the things that happened to him are quite brutal. I expected to get diverse opinions, but I didn't. I got an almost unanimous response that young readers are really ready for that kind of thing. They're studying things like the death of Emmett Till, a lot of tough things. So I really didn't tone it down. I did shorten some scenes, just because this needed to be shorter. But I pretty much left in everything that happened to Louie.
There was one thing I took out, and that was another point of unanimity among the young reader experts, and that was the death of the duck Gaga, who was sexually violated by one of the prison guards. That was very painful for a lot of adults I'd gotten a lot of feedback about that and Louie said it was the worst thing he witnessed in the war. I thought of myself as a kid and I thought, that would be too hard for me because I love animals so much. Pretty much everything else stayed in.
BNR: Whose idea was it to publish a YA version?
LH: I started thinking about it because I was seeing other authors doing it. It was important to me that this story be known to young people. Louie was very devoted to teaching kids and to helping them be inspired about their lives and understanding how much potential they carry within themselves. He had this children's camp that he ran, and he often spoke to kids. I had the idea and contacted him, and he was thrilled. I think it was the audience he wanted to reach more than anybody else. So we talked quite a bit about it and we did the interview for the end of it, which was the last interview I ever did with him. The things he had to say to young readers were great.
BNR: As a child, Louie wasn't that promising. He was constantly getting into trouble, so the way he turned himself around and overcame extreme adversity might be of interest to kids, too.
LH: He's not this model child that nobody can identify with. He was a kid with a lot of troubles, with very low self-esteem. He was bullied, he went through a lot of hard things, and I think a lot of young readers can say, "You know, that looks like me," and then they can see "if this guy came from the place I am now, and look what he made of his life, look what he got through," I think it's going to be inspiring for young people. I really hope it is.
BNR: Was it difficult to make the cuts, or did you have an instinct about the appropriate length?
LH: I thought that cutting it in half was about right, and my editors agreed. I was a little concerned it might still be kind of long, but they were not concerned about that, and I didn't feel that I could shorten his story any more than that. It felt right in the end, and when I finally got the printed copy, it looked right to me. I kept taking myself back to when I was 13 or so reading books would I have picked up this book and read it? What impression would I have had of it? and the size of it seemed about right.
BNR: The YA version has more photographs than the original, and some of the new images, like of a dead American POW and two emaciated POWs, are quite disturbing. What was your thinking behind including them?
LH: That was a big decision. When I was doing the research, I was coming across images like that and I didn't know whether I should use them or not, especially the one of the prisoner of war who was dead leaning over into the sink. It's probably the most disturbing photo I've ever seen of the Pacific war. But it was also very moving to me because I felt this captures exactly what these men went through. And you can talk about it in words, but there's something about an image that shows you this is real, this really happened. I wanted to include it because I wanted to honor the man in it, and I wanted to truly convey to young readers what the history is here. I put a post up on my private Facebook page I have a lot of friends who are parents and I said, "I have an image that I want to use, and I don't know if it's too harsh for young people, and I'd really like the input of parents. If you write me privately I'll send you the picture and you can tell me what you think." Sixty or seventy people responded, and I think maybe one person said don't include it, and everyone else said do. They all felt it would illuminate the story for young readers and stay in their minds.
I remember when I used to read books at that age, the images were very important to me. When I was a kid I had a copy of Life magazine's, I believe it was the 40th anniversary, a book they made of some of their best images, and I spent hours and hours going through these pictures. Some were terribly arresting and disturbing, but they also gave me a real sense of history. There were a lot of pictures from World War II and some from Vietnam, and those images are kind of tagged in my mind in terms of how I think about those periods of history. I think it was important to me in becoming a historian to have looked at pictures like that when I was younger. So I made the decision to include it. I hope it was the right choice.
BNR: How did it feel to go back to this material? I assume that you thought you were done writing about Louie's life.
LH: I had a great time working on this. I liked having the challenge of telling the same story with more concision. The hunt for photographs was what took the most time with it. I was working with someone else, David Mackintosh, on this, and we were searching for pictures of all kinds, B-24s and POWs and all kinds of things. He went and archived about a thousand of Louie's private photographs at his house.
BNR: I loved those photographs.
LH: I learned more about Louie's story that way. I saw pictures I'd never seen before. It was difficult to narrow the pictures down to the right number I think we have about 110 in there and to think about what pictures would most capture a young mind. I really enjoyed the process. I recommend anybody who writes a nonfiction book and thinks that the subject is applicable to young readers do it. It's wonderful to open up nonfiction to young readers who usually stick to fiction. I hope that they will read more nonfiction because there's a lot of great stuff out there.
BNR: Did you get the sense that many young readers were reading the book in its original form?
LH: Yes, a lot. It's being taught in schools all over the place, and I did, via telephone, appearances at these schools and got to talk to these kids who were reading it, usually 11th and 12th graders. That was a big help to me in working on this book. With several of the schools I asked the students to submit questions to me to ask Louie for the interview I was going to run in the YA edition, and I got questions from lots of young people. I was able to take those and look for the things they consistently asked about and formulate questions from there. The questions I ask are really young people's questions, not mine.
BNR: Well, you knew everything about him already!
LH: Yeah. And I'm 47. I don't have the mind of a 13-year-old.
BNR: Is it a coincidence that the YA version is being published just as the movie is being released?
LH: It sort of is. It was the next thing I moved on to when I was done with the book in the adult form. I think they were working to get the publication date around the movie, so it's sort of a semi-coincidence. Even without the movie it would have come out more or less around this time.
BNR: Angelina Jolie directed the movie, and she's one of the biggest celebrities in the world. I wonder if it's strange for you, after several years of "Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken," to now see references to "Angelina Jolie's Unbroken." It's probably hard to feel proprietary toward the story once someone like Angelina Jolie becomes linked to it.
LH: You know, I'm happy about all of that. It's been a great experience. I never owned this story. It doesn't belong to me; it belonged to Louie. It's his life, and I was so happy to pass it off to Angelina. She is so fanatically devoted to getting it right and honoring Louie and the truth of his life. Once I started talking to her, I was absolutely confident she was going to do a great job. So it really isn't weird. She's a wonderful person, such a sweet, kind person. We started to talk about how we felt like sisters working on this. We were carrying on his legacy, and so I feel a great kinship with her. I'm just very happy that she's the one who's done it.
BNR: You've seen the movie, right? What was it like for you to see scenes you'd written brought to life on film?
LH: It is a surreal experience and I had it before with my first book, Seabiscuit to be watching the screen and to see actors saying lines that are quotations that I got from sources or doing things that I learned from the research I'd done. It is a very strange experience, but it's also really thrilling. The movie opens with the air battle over Nauru, and it is absolutely breathtaking and so exciting. It was just what I was trying to convey in print. It was also thrilling because Jack O'Connell, who plays Louie, absolutely got him right. That is Louie up there on the screen. All of his electricity and alacrity and his fire and his defiance and his sweetness and his humor it's all there. Jack went to visit Louie before shooting the movie, and Louie brought out his military uniform and he put it on Jack, and it was a perfect fit. That's become kind of a metaphor. Angie picked the right actor.
BNR: As you said, you've now had both of your books turned into films. Were the experiences different in terms of the process or how involved you were?
LH: I was involved with both of them as a consultant. With Seabiscuit it was more in terms of helping them verify facts. It was a great script, and I really loved the movie. I was much more deeply involved with this project. Angie really wanted me to be more central. We had a lot of epic phone conversations about Louie and the war and the parts of the story that were so difficult to tell, how to get the whole story into two hours, which is the hardest thing that she had to face. Angelina was so devoted to getting every single little detail correct that they needed to call on me a lot. The first call I got, I think it was directly from Angie, was they wanted to know what the track uniforms for the high schools around Louie's high school would have looked like because they wanted to get exactly the right uniforms on the rival runners when they showed him running in high school. And I was like, "I saw some pictures, but honestly it was years ago, and I don't remember." But I was so impressed at that question. Most people would be like, "Oh, you can put in anything, it doesn't matter," but she was like, "No, he ran against a kid from Bell High School, and I want to know exactly what a 1932 Bell High School uniform looked like." I didn't know the answer, but she hunted it down, and all those uniforms you see when he's running in high school, they're exactly right. And that's true of everything.
BNR: Would you ever be interested in adapting your own work for the screen?
LH: I think that might be something best left to people who are experts at it because there's a real art to that. It's a very different thing than writing straight narrative. It's also something I was warned about when I was first getting into Seabiscuit and we were talking about its movie prospects. I kind of wondered aloud to somebody, should I be thinking about making this into a screenplay myself? And the person I talked to said that she had known several people who had tried to do that with their own work, with novelsand with nonfiction, and it was a horrible experience. When you write your own book, you're entirely in control of what you write. When you write a screenplay, there are a million people in control of what you write and it's not going to come out the way you write it. It's going to be changed and changed and changed. That would probably drive me crazy. But mostly I would want it in the hands of somebody who really knows what they're doing. The Coen brothers wrote [the Unbroken screenplay]. I certainly wouldn't say, "The Coen brothers shouldn't do this I should!" I thought they did very creative, interesting things with a very, very difficult story to tell onscreen because it's so big.
BNR: There's so much interest in your illness and how it affects your research and writing process, in part because of that contrast of you writing these very big, sweeping stories while confined to your home. Are you pleased with this interest, because it brings attention to a misunderstood and often maligned condition, or are you simply resigned to the interest, or are you uncomfortable with it or none of the above?
LH: That's a really good question because I do have mixed feelings about it. I had to make a decision when Seabiscuit came out, you know, do I talk about this publicly or not? At the time it was much earlier in the course of my illness I'd been sick a long time, but I've been sick much longer now. And it was a lot fresher in my mind how horribly I'd been treated when I first got sick. I was treated with a great deal of contempt and a lot of doubt. So I was afraid of going out in public and being mocked and dismissed and that kind of thing. But on the other hand, no one had been very prominent speaking about this disease, and it was a disease that really needed some public understanding, so I decided okay, I'm going to just bite my lip and talk about it, and whatever people think is what they're going to think. I ended up writing a huge piece for The New Yorker that actually took me a whole year to write. I went on 20/20 and talked about my illness, and the next morning there were some radio hosts in Chicago making a big joke of it. It's hard, and it's hard to be thought of as a disease and little else, to be the sick girl when I'm so much else, especially now, because I'm much healthier than I used to be. But it has helped a lot to educate the public, and we've needed that so badly. I am glad to have done it even though it's been hard.
BNR: Well, online comment sections are not generally known as compassionate spaces, but the comments on the recent piece about you in the New York Times Magazine were, by and large, supportive and grateful to you for speaking out. Did you read them?
LH: I read some of them, and that's really nice to see. When I wrote Seabiscuit I was much more sensitive, so if somebody wrote something nasty, you know, "I think she's faking or a hypochondriac" or whatever, that would really get under my skin. Now people can write whatever they want and I feel like that person doesn't know who I am, and I don't need to worry about this. There were a few people who said some nasty things, but it doesn't bother me at all. It is really nice to see the atmosphere changed. It wasn't very long ago Jay Leno was calling this "the yuppie flu" on The Tonight Show. This disease was a joke, and this disease is a disaster. When it gets you badly, it takes everything from you. I've been bedridden probably a total of six years. For two years when I was working on Unbroken I didn't leave the house once because I wasn't strong enough to walk to my car. It's a terrible disease, and it's very difficult to be joked about or treated with contempt when you're suffering this badly.
BNR: Louis Zamperini died in July at age 97. Given that he was elderly when you began researching Unbroken, I imagine that it's incredibly gratifying for you that he not only lived to see the book published and become a bestseller but lived long enough to see at least parts of the movie.
LH: I feel like he died right when he realized that his legacy was truly being carried on, which is what he wanted. I didn't meet him over the whole course of the time I was working on the book, but I did meet him after I was done. He came to visit, and we had this wonderful time together, and when I walked him back out to his car, I knew I was never going to see him again, that it was very unlikely. And he gave me this big hug, and he said, "I want to tell you, Laura, I understand now why I've lived so long, and it was to see you write this book. And I feel that in writing it you've brought me to the crescendo of my life." I was fighting back tears, and hugged him goodbye, and went back and sat on my front porch and cried. It was the most moving thing anybody's ever said to me. It meant so much, and I know that when Angelina started working on the movie and he got to see how devoted she was to getting it right, he started to feel a lot of peace about how his story was being carried on. And he did get to see, not 100 percent of the movie but a whole lot of it. Angelina went to what turned out to be his deathbed in the hospital, and she brought her laptop and set it up on his lap and played the movie for him. It was a rough cut, but it was getting near to being finished. She said he had a pulse oximeter on him. He couldn't talk then, but his mind was clear, and when he would see his family on the screen or see himself running, his heart would beat faster. She was so gratified by that. He was able to convey that he was really thrilled with what she'd done. I think he felt that his life was now really complete and it was time for him to step away. He was not afraid of death. He almost, I think, looked forward to it because he felt he was going to be going to a paradise. I think he felt, "Okay, my work here is done. I'm ready to go."
BNR: You've said that you have an idea for your next book, but you're not yet saying what it is.
LH: My publicist doesn't even know! I've told pretty much nobody. I need to do more preliminary research to know whether this is something that is going to pan out for me, but I think it will. But I'm going to keep it secret for a while. I like to work in privacy. I don't want anyone else to take the idea either, because I'm slow.
BNR: Do you go into the process with any expectations of how long the project will take and whether you'll be well enough to do any work on it outside of your home, or do you just begin and see how things progress as you go along?
LH: I'll just see how it goes. I try to live in the moment with my work. I try not to give myself expectations of when to get it done because I never know. It will take as long as it takes. I will work until I feel the research is truly complete and the writing is as good as I can make it, and then I'll turn it in. I try not to attach myself to how it will do or anything like that. I will just write to tell the story the best way I possibly can and then send it into the world and be at peace with it that way.
December 29, 2014