Laura Hillenbrand has written two nonfiction books: Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Each is a major work, and they’ve sold ten million copies between them; they’ve also both been turned into movies, the latter serving as the basis of this year’s Angelia Jolie-directed Oscar-bait. I wrote earlier this year that Hillenbrand is the greatest nonfiction writer working today, and I stand by that assessment.
In a fascinating profile in the most recent New York Times Magazine, writer Will S. Hylton speaks to Hillenbrand to get a deeper idea of her process. Any digging will reveal that Hillenbrand has chronic fatigue syndrome, which leaves her confined in her home. She thus conducts all of her research at home, doing in-depth interviews with people like Louis Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, and countless others.
What comes up, at least as the thesis in Hylton’s piece, is that Hillenbrand’s process is remarkably immersive. When she needed information on World War II aviation, her CFS meant that couldn’t travel to a convention of WWII geeks. Instead, she was able to convince one of these experts — Bill Darron, described as an “aviation enthusiast” — to visit her at her house. He brought “bomb fuses, a flare gun, a black metal device called an intervalometer and a hulking 50-pound contraption known as a Norden bombsight.” She spent the day “bombing Phoenix,” as Hillenbrand put it. Interviewing Darron at her home gave the writer invaluable tactile experience, putting her, ever so carefully, inside Zamparelli’s shoes.
Sometimes work-arounds provide another way to insight. The detail that blew my mind in Hylton’s piece was how Hillenbrand does her historical research from the era she’s writing about. She can’t go to the library to hunch over old newspapers, and she doesn’t send a research assistant along to do the work for her. Rather, she buys newspapers from the 1930s, or whatever era she’s writing about, on eBay and has them sent to her house.
“There was so much to find,” she said of her reading. “The number-one book [at the time] was Gone With the Wind, the Hindenburg flew over Manhattan with a swastika on it and Roosevelt made a speech saying America would never become involved in foreign wars.” Soon she bought another newspaper, and then another. “I wanted to start to feel like I was living in the ’30s,” she said. That elemental sense of daily life seeps into the book in ways too subtle and myriad to count.”
I can imagine a future where writers steal this technique right and left, a virtual run on all sorts of crispy, vintage newspapers. It’s brilliant. Later in the piece, Hylton notes that Hillenbrand’s style is not the flashy, voice-y New Journalism that rests on the charisma of the writer calling attention to himself — a sort of egoistic tap-dance that has recently come back in fashion due to the specific demands and the many, many voices fighting for your time on the Internet.
Rather, Hillenbrand excels in a particular sort of intimacy, and that intimacy drags you into the story. It’s proven remarkably effective in the cases of Seabiscuit and Unbroken. Hillenbrand’s work is proof that you don’t need to travel the world to have an adventure. What you need is endless curiosity, and I’m excited to see what story Hillenbrand will land upon in the future.