‘Unbroken’ and ‘Seabiscuit’ Author Laura Hillenbrand Is America’s Greatest Working Nonfiction Writer

Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (now available in paperback, years after its 2010 release — which means it has been steadily selling many, many copies) is simply one of the best nonfiction writers we have working today. She has a knack for finding incredible stories, a genius for thorough research, and all that work comes together in seamless, gripping storytelling.

Both of her books are fascinating period pieces, one following the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit and the other telling the story of American hero Louis Zamperini, who recently passed away at 97. Each sheds light on America by diving deeply into the eras and marginalia that came from these gripping stories. They have been bestsellers, and they have been adapted into films, the former an Academy Award-nominated drama starring Tobey Maguire and a horse, the latter due at the Oscar-friendly end of 2014 with a script by the Coen Brothers and direction by Angelina Jolie.

One aspect of Hillenbrand’s writing that is so delicious is the voice — the hack slide into “period writing” schtick, with guys and dames and dolls afoot, doesn’t cut it for her. (“Period writing” voice is the scourge of much fascinating nonfiction, where authors who don’t trust the validity of their tale instead choose to tap dance wildly.) Rather, Hillenbrand leans towards fluid sentences, full of facts. From Unbroken:

Focused on winning in Tokyo in 1940, he smashed record after record at multiple distances and routinely buried his competition by giant margins, once winning a race by one hundred yards… His coach predicted that Louie [Zamperini] would take that [world] record down. The only runner who could beat him, the coach said, was Seabiscuit.

Besides exemplifying the author’s style, this quote clarifies the connection between her two books — Hillenbrand actually heard about Zamperini, the remarkable subject of Unbroken, while she was researching Seabiscuit. She saw Louie mentioned as a possible rival to Seabiscuit and then went further into research, learning that Zamperini was a 93-year-old with an epic story about running, flying, the war, sharks, and something approaching grace.

Hillenbrand is not the showiest of writers. She does not tweet, she does not tour; rather, she keeps her head down and does her (amazing) work, with results that speak for themselves. Some of this is due to the particulars of her life — diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at 19, Hillenbrand can’t do much in her day-to-day life when she’s ill, something she wrote about beautifully for The New Yorker and discussed in a Washington Post profile. Instead of promoting her work, she’s in her house and she’s calling and emailing people for research. In order to write Unbroken, she conducted 75 interviews with Zamperini, many on the phone. The amount of time that entailed is not specified, but one imagines that it comes to full days’ worth of conversations.

There’s a magic to Hillenbrand’s first two books, that perfect alchemy of a brilliant mind making major American stories sing with writing that looks easy. She’s a historian with the soul of a storyteller, and you barely even realize the level of detail with which you’re absorbing facts about Depression-era America and beyond due to the nimbleness of her words. She will never be the fastest writer, one imagines, between the thoroughness of her research and the various particulars of wrestling with CFS. But whenever the next story sparks Hillenbrand’s vision, I can’t wait to read it.