DATE July 29, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Laura Hillenbrand on the story of Seabiscuit
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The book "Seabiscuit" is back on top of the best-seller list. It inspired the
new film of the same name as well as a couple of TV documentaries. It was
written by a woman who often barely has the strength to leave her bed. Author
Laura Hillenbrand has been living with an extreme case of chronic fatigue
syndrome for the past 16 years. We called her at her home to talk with her
about why she devoted whatever strength she did have to the story of a horse.
By the way, there's a new illustrated edition of the book "Seabiscuit" that
includes about 150 photographs from archives and private collections.
Well, Laura, welcome to FRESH AIR. Apparently, you were just at the White
House watching a preview of the movie with the president. Did you ever think
that the Seabiscuit story would become such a phenomenon?
Ms. LAURA HILLENBRAND (Author, "Seabiscuit"): I don't think any writer
expects this kind of success. Everybody has wild dreams, but mine didn't
reach this far. I did know that the horse was absolutely wildly popular in
the 1930s, and I thought that the same things that appealed to Americans in
the 1930s could appeal to them today and most notably the fact that he's a
wonderful underdog and the people around him were wonderful underdogs.
GROSS: What made them underdogs?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: These are all very different individuals, the three men and
the horse, but all of them emerged from loss. The horse's owner had brought
the automobile to the West and become a multimillionaire, and then his son was
killed in an automobile accident, and that's what turned him to horses. The
trainer was a man who'd spent 60 years out on the mustang ranges, breaking
mustangs, and had become obsolete when the horse was driven out by the
automobile. And the jockey was abandoned at a racetrack as a boy and had been
living in a horse stall for 12 years before he found Seabiscuit.
And these guys were very, very different individuals in personality as well as
history, but they recognized the strengths in each other. And together they
really created a beautiful partnership that worked very well and brought the
world a great racehorse.
GROSS: Of course, the horse himself was an underdog. What made Seabiscuit an
underdog--or an `underhorse'? (Laughs)
Ms. HILLENBRAND: He was a horse who was pretty well bred, not very well bred,
but he was very homely. He was badly put together. His knees didn't
straighten all the way, so it looked like he was always in the process of
kneeling down. His tail was too short, his head was too big, his legs were
too short. And he had just no success as a racehorse for the first two years
of his career. He was, in fact, so bad that his owner tried to give him away
as a polo pony, and the man she offered him to turned him down. And he really
was coming from the bottom of the sport and trying to work his way up to the
top, and he needed these men to do it. His first trainer simply didn't
GROSS: Now you have a very extreme case of chronic fatigue syndrome, which
has left you unable to leave your bed for long periods of time. There have
been periods when it's interfered with your cognitive abilities, your ability
to think, read or speak. You've had this for years. You had it when you
started writing "Seabiscuit." You still have it now. In your compromised
state, why, of all the subjects in the world, was it Seabiscuit that you
decided to invest whatever energy you had?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: This story gave me the ability to climb out of my body and
into the bodies of these wonderful, vigorous individuals living in a
fascinating time and individuals who succeeded in overcoming the things that
were against them, which I've not been able to do. My physical life is very,
very difficult because of this illness. But I think I identified with all of
them, but I think the one I identified with most was jockey Red Pollard,
Seabiscuit's jockey, because his body was the obstacle between himself and
achieving what he wanted to achieve. He was too tall to be a jockey. He
really didn't suit it in his mind, really. He was a man who, in another era,
probably would have become a professor. He was a tremendously erudite man.
And he was horribly accident-prone. He was actually blinded in one eye in a
racing accident and, over the course of this story, is hideously injured twice
and spends a year of this story in a hospital bed dwindling down to 86 pounds.
And I identified with him. I understood how he must have felt lying in that
bed and watching his horse run without him. I think he and I have a lot in
common, and he was probably the main reason I invested myself so much into
this story, to the point of becoming kind of obsessed with it.
GROSS: Well, were there ways that he handled himself when he was very sick or
injured that made you think about your own, like, mental attitude toward your
Ms. HILLENBRAND: He was someone who was very inspiring because he just kept
pushing himself to do what he wanted in spite of everything, in spite of
physical pain and the derision of his peers and the other people in the sport.
And I drew a lot of strength from that. I felt very strongly for Red. He,
really, probably never should have been a jockey. He probably should have
been something else. He didn't have a great deal of talent. But you have to
admire a man who is so free of everyone's opinions and even of his own body
that he's capable of pulling himself along until he succeeds at it. He's a
tremendously inspiring man. I'd like to be more like him.
GROSS: You know, from your book, it sounds like a lot of jockeys are
basically at war with their own bodies during their career because they're
supposed to be--What?--like 114 pounds. So they starve themselves. Some of
them have anorexia, or at least this is how it was in the Seabiscuit era. And
you say that water is, like, the biggest enemy of the jockey because it weighs
so much, so a lot of the jockeys are dehydrated.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Yeah.
GROSS: Talk a little bit about some of the things that you learned about the
extreme regime that many jockeys are on, and is it still that way?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Sure. It was definitely worse in the 1930s because there
was less understanding of dieting and such, and there was also no insurance
for jockeys and things like that. But there's a paradox to being a jockey.
You have to be tremendously strong to handle a 1,200-pound animal moving at 45
miles an hour, but you have to be extremely light. Racehorses are assigned
the weights they carry in races, and the jockey is part of that weight. In
the '30s, that weight could be as low as 86 pounds, and a jockey would then
have to weigh about two pounds less than that to be able to have the saddle
and his crop.
And things that they did to get within that weight limit included burying
themselves in the track manure pit, which was fermenting, so it was hot and
they would sweat off weight. They would wrap themselves in woolen horse
blankets and run around and around the track in Mexican heat to sweat weight
off. They would drink as little as possible. The jockeys' valets would take
ice picks and puncture a hole in the top of a soda can and drink out of it
that way, so that they can only have a few drops at a time. And these men
deprived themselves of so much that some of them were hallucinating. They
would be boosted into the saddle and fall right off the other side. Bulimia,
anorexia were very, very common among jockeys, and there were things that
people did not understand and weren't sympathetic to. On top of that, it's a
very, very dangerous job. Between 1935 and 1939 alone, 19 jockeys were killed
in racing accidents.
So they put up with a great deal to do what they did, but the tradeoff was
they got a chance to ride God's most impressive athletic engine around a
racetrack. And I think the thrill of that was worth all of it to them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Hillenbrand, who's the
author of the best-seller "Seabiscuit," which has just been adapted into a
movie. There's also a new edition of her book. It's a special illustrated
edition with photographs of the period and of Seabiscuit and all the men who
worked with him.
You write that Seabiscuit had to be taught to love racing. That made me think
like, `Well, what's in it for the horse?' You know, the horse doesn't
understand medals, and it doesn't understand championships and publicity and
money. So what's in it for the horse?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I think it's not exactly that Seabiscuit or other horses
have to be taught to love racing. I think in Seabiscuit's case, his head got
kind of turned around backwards. Because he was so mishandled by his first
trainer, he forgot the natural love of running that all horses, especially
thoroughbreds, have. If you go to a thoroughbred breeding farm, you'll see
groups of horses, even just little foals, that will run flat out for long
periods every day racing each other. It's been bred into them for 300 years,
and they thrill at it. They absolutely love to do this. I've seen horses
many, many times lose their riders in the middle of races and then run the
race exactly as if a rider was on their back trying to win it.
And I think in Seabiscuit's case, he was whipped very heavily, he was
mistreated, he was not an understood animal in his first barn. And he became
very obstreperous. And what Tom Smith, his second trainer did, for him is
stop forcing him to do anything and allow him to rediscover how much he loved
to run. I think racehorses--as I said, they've been bred for 300 years to
love winning, and they do. You will see a physical difference in a horse
who's won a race vs. a horse who's lost it. They swagger. They seem to be
showing off and strutting their stuff out there when they win.
GROSS: What are some of the things that you think Tom Smith understood about
how to work with a troubled horse?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Well, I think, for one thing, he was capable of recognizing
that the horse was troubled. He was a guy--people would call him a horse
whisperer today. He was man who spent 60 years out following mustangs around
the West, and he understood horses very deeply. And he could go into a
horse's stall, and he would sit down and sit there for several hours just
squatting next to the horse watching him. And he'd come out understanding
that horse's mind. And he could read the very subtle gestures that horses
make when they're indicating that something is wrong, and he knew how to
remedy those things. And he understood that a happy racehorse is a winning
racehorse, and so the big focus of his training technique was to enable a
horse to be very comfortable around the people who would ride him and handle
him, so that the horse could feel relaxed and run for the fun of it. And
that's what he did with Seabiscuit.
When he got Seabiscuit, Seabiscuit used to throw himself around the starting
gate. He was afraid of it. He would really raise hell in there. And what
Tom did was one day he took the horse out to the gate and went into the gate
with him and stood right under his chin. And when the horse acted up, Tom
would just tap him on the chest until the horse stopped. And when the horse
stopped, he'd stop tapping. And they stood in there for something like two
hours, and by the end of it the horse was completely relaxed. He never fought
in the starting gate again. He understood it was a safe place to be.
GROSS: How were racehorses treated in the Seabiscuit era compared to how
they're treated now by their owners and their trainers?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I don't know if I'm a good person to ask for a comparison
just because I haven't been around day-to-day horses in recent years on the
racetrack. But the 1930s were a comparatively very good time for racing
horses in the earlier decades of the century. Drug use was very common.
Horses were being given cocaine and heroin and such to make them run faster.
And races were very, very roughly run, very dangerously run. It was a pretty
dirty sport in the first few years of the century, and that had been cleaned
up a great deal, in part because during the Depression, state governments got
involved in racing. They began to take a portion of betting revenue to
support their staggering economies during the Depression. And in order to
make a deal with governments to relegalize racing, after racing had been
banned in a lot of places because of the corruption, racing cleaned up its
act. And so you saw a lot fewer drugs being used on horses and things like
It's my personal opinion that trainers were probably a little bit better then
than they are now. They apprenticed for a lot longer, and I think they
understood horses a little bit better than people do today, with some
GROSS: My guest is Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller "Seabiscuit."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Hillenbrand. She's
joining us by phone from her home. And she's the author of the best-seller
"Seabiscuit," which has just been adapted into a new movie. And there's a new
edition of the book that's an illustrated edition.
You know, I don't have horses and I don't ride horses, but they're certainly
magnificent animals. And, you know, I do have a cat, and I like it when the
cat sits on my lap, and it often makes me think, `Imagine what it's like to
actually sit on the horse,' you know? If it's so pleasing to have a cat on
your lap, imagine what it's like to, like, sit on a horse and ride and the
kind of relationship that you could actually have with a horse when you ride
the horse regularly and you know the horse well. Do you think about that a
lot, about the closeness between a rider and the horse, you know, the
closeness that Red Pollard must have had with Seabiscuit?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Yeah. Before I got sick, I was a passionate rider myself,
and I had a few horses that I really bonded with and understood very well.
And you get a kind of communion going with a horse where it's understood
between you that you will take of the horse and you will make the proper
decisions, and he will let you ride him. And a lot of horses really love
being ridden and can't wait to get out and do things with their owners, and
certainly the horses I had had expressed that kind of feeling. And I write
about this in the book because when you look at the way jockeys lived in the
1930s, with the injuries they were suffering and what they were putting their
bodies through to do this sport, it seems inexplicable that anyone would want
to do it.
Red Pollard, Seabiscuit's jockey, actually apparently swallowed tapeworm
tablets so that he could keep at low weight. And he would check himself into
a hospital to have the tapeworm removed when he became too malnourished, and
it's a bad life. But from talking to these guys, it's a tradeoff. And I
think what it is is people are infatuated with freedom, especially Americans,
and we are incumbered by our bodies. We're kind of slow, we're kind of
sluggish, we're kind of small. A horse is this tremendous athletic engine.
It's so fast. It has much faster reflexes than a man. Without a rider on its
back, it can probably do well over 50 miles an hour. It's really a tremendous
And I think the tradeoff is the jockey gets to wed his mind and his desire to
the body of this animal, and it's absolutely thrilling. And that's the
feeling I get from talking to these jockeys as to why they put themselves
GROSS: Now I'm interested in your own background with horses. I think your
father had some horses when you were growing up?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: We had a farm, which my father still has, up near the
Antietam battlefield, and the family had a kind of standing agreement with
people in the county that if they had horses they didn't want or they didn't
know what to do with, they could leave the horses at this farm, which had
cattle on it. So it had an open pasture that was good for horses. And all
sorts of motley horses showed up, horses from the Humane Society and a
Chincoteague pony with founder. And it really was a motley crew, but my
sister and I would go out and ride them, and it was a real pleasure to do.
GROSS: So did you ride for speed and...
Ms. HILLENBRAND: A bit for speed, yeah. I had a horse who was a quarter
horse. That's the fastest breed. They can, even with a rider on their back,
go up to 54 miles an hour. And I certainly did a bit of that. I'm not quite
as brave as a jockey would be, but I think riding was the most pleasurable
experience of my youth.
GROSS: How much did you already know about Seabiscuit when you decided to
write this book?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: When I was about seven years old, there was a little fair at
an elementary school across the street from my house. It was held every May.
And I walked over there one year, and they were selling used books, and I
found a children's book called "Come On, Seabiscuit!" which was just
wonderful. And I read it so many times I broke the spine and all the pages
fell out. I still have it. It has to be wrapped in rubber bands because the
pages will go everywhere. But that, in just vivid prose, told the story of
the horse. It didn't talk that much about the people, but I certainly knew
about the horse. And he kind of hung around the back of my head until
adulthood. And then in 1996 I was going through some documents on racing and
came across information about the owner and the trainer and the jockey and
realized that this story had dimensions to it that no one had explored before.
GROSS: In the acknowledgements of "Seabiscuit," you write that, `Writing the
book was a lesson in how history hides in curious places.' And you say, `The
story was tucked in back pockets and bottom drawers.' What are some of the
interesting places that you found remnants of the Seabiscuit story?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Oh, it was amazing. I mean, one sort of imagines an author
going to a library and getting everything they need there or doing some
interviews. And for me, I did all those things, and I did more than 100
interviews, and those things were really wonderful. But the story was in very
strange places. I actually would go to eBay every day and type in
Seabiscuit's name and the names of the other individuals in the story and just
see what I got, and I was just periodically buying things. And I typed in the
name `George Woolf,' which George was, in my mind, perhaps the greatest jockey
who ever lived. He rode Seabiscuit when Red Pollard, his other jockey, was
injured, which was all the time.
And I typed in his name, and I got a link to a porn magazine from 1951. And
it was, I think, only $2.50, and I thought, `I have to know how George Woolf
made it into a porn magazine.' So I bought the magazine, and it's a horrible,
horrible magazine. It couldn't be worse, and it's really not much in terms of
pornography either. But there was a story in there that was, oddly, very well
written and very well researched about George, just his personality and
stories about his life. And I called up the people I knew, these very elderly
men, who had been George's friends back in the '30s and asked them about these
stories, including one story in which George had been riding in a race at the
racetrack at Tijuana and had actually ridden right out of his pants and had
been wearing nothing underneath. He had torn through them and rode a winner
naked from the waist down. And I called up his friends, and they said, `I
remember that.' And one of them had actually been riding in that very same
race. And all the stories checked out. It was a wonderful story about
George. And I couldn't believe I'd found all this information in a porn
GROSS: How did you manage to do 100 interviews when you were hardly able to
leave your house?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I did all of my interviews from home. I never met any of my
sources in person, which I would loved to have done, but I simply couldn't,
although a number of them--virtually all of my sources were in their 80s or
90s. One man was 100 years old and lived in a trailer in the desert with no
telephone. I had to reach him through somebody else. And so some of them I
couldn't have reached anyway, but it was via telephone just about entirely.
And it was wonderful because I had a lot of time to work on the book; I spent
four years on it. And I've developed terrific friendships with a lot of these
people. Unfortunately, about 12 of them have now died. Nearly all of them
got a chance to see their stories in print, which was nice.
GROSS: Laura Hillenbrand is the author of "Seabiscuit." A new edition,
illustrated with photographs, has just been published to coincide with the
release of the new movie. We'll hear more from Hillenbrand in the second half
of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Laura Hillenbrand, the
author of the book "Seabiscuit." To coincide with the new film adaptation,
there's a new illustrated edition of the book that includes about 150
photographs from archives and private collections. Hillenbrand has an extreme
case of chronic fatigue syndrome, which makes it difficult for her to leave
home, so we talked to her by phone.
What was it like trying to do the writing part with chronic fatigue syndrome?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: That was very difficult. Because of the misleading name of
chronic fatigue syndrome, people think it's just fatigue. And exhaustion is a
very big part of this disease, but there are a lot of other serious symptoms;
among them, neurological ones. And for me, for a lot of people, balance
disorders are a big problem with CFS. For me, it's a severe problem. And I
have vertigo, which means that the room appears to be moving up and down or
from side to side all the time; things appear to be flexing and bending, and
the walls seem to fold and unfold. And at times it's very bad and it's very
disorienting, and reading and writing makes it much worse. And so, obviously,
I was having to read and write a great deal in working on the book, and I was
having to work around it as much as I could.
At times I simply could not write. The room was spinning too much. I
couldn't do it. So I would get on my back in my bed with a pad and close my
eyes and just write on the pad, and I would write right over the line I'd
written before, but at least I was getting something on paper. It was
difficult to work in terms of being able to get to material I needed. I had a
lot of things requisitioned from the Library of Congress because I couldn't
get there, even though I live in Washington, DC, very close to the Library of
Congress. I would take out all the books I would need to research in, in a
particular day or week, and I would put them in a horseshoe shape around my
desk, so that I wouldn't have to get up. Sometimes I'd just sit on the floor
with them to move through them, so I wouldn't have to keep pulling books up
and down. And we actually jury-rigged a device to hold the text that I was
reading upright because I have trouble looking down; my vertigo gets a lot
worse then. So I had to do a lot of odd things.
And then, also, in terms of dealing with my exhaustion, I basically cut
everything else out of my life but working on this book. And I even went so
far as to put a refrigerator in my office, so that I wouldn't have to walk
down the stairs to eat; I could just eat while I worked. And I pushed myself
too hard, beyond what I really could stand, and the day after I turned in the
book my house collapsed completely. But I have to say it was worth it because
I had four blissful years living with these people in 1938.
GROSS: You describe them as `blissful years,' but considering how difficult
the actual writing process was, where was the pleasure?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: The pleasure was in the moments that I lost myself in the
work. I became so engrossed that I would forget my body. I've had this
disease for 16 years, and it was the first time I had really become so
involved in something that I would be unaware of what was happening to my body
and how much I was struggling through. And I really escaped myself in this
story. It's a very dramatic story. It's a story full of motion and activity.
The individuals are very dynamic in it. And it's the polar opposite of my
life, which is very, very still. And so the real pleasure in it was getting
to the end of the day and realizing I hadn't been focusing on my body all day,
that I'd been telling a story instead. It redefined me. I became a different
person with a different purpose.
GROSS: Now what about your editor? I have to say if I were an editor and
somebody brought me the outline for a book and said, `This promises to be a
terrific book, but I should warn you that the person writing it has a very bad
case of chronic fatigue syndrome, and usually the walls look like they're
bending and the room is spinning around, so it might take a while for her to
finish the book,' you know, I'd be pretty skeptical that this book would ever
Ms. HILLENBRAND: You'd really have to ask him. He really never acted like he
doubted me. He gave me all the room in the world. He let me turn in the
first piece of work that I turned in to him rather late in the game. I was so
worried about it being perfect that I wouldn't let him see anything until I
really had the whole thing done. He really let me work the way I wanted to
work, and I don't know that he did worry about it. He never indicated that he
did. And I pretty much promised him at the beginning, `I'm going to do this.
I'm going to get this done.' And I promised myself, and I thought, `If I have
to kill myself, I'm going to get this thing done, it matters that much to me.'
GROSS: What were some of the most helpful suggestions he gave you, you know,
about the actual structure of the book?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: We didn't talk a huge amount about that. The one place that
we really talked about a lot was how to start the book, and that was the most
difficult decision I had to make. I had four main characters, all of whom
needed very complicated backgrounds written. And I needed to know how to get
it off on the right foot. I tried many different things. And he said, `Look,
let's just be really simple. Let's do a preface in which we talk about the
impact that this horse ended up having on America. Let's talk about how he
was the number one newsmaker in America by newspaper column inches in 1938,
and let's explain why just very briefly and then just walk into the story.'
And I fought him on it, but he was exactly right. This was the way we should
have started the book, and we did.
GROSS: I'll read the opening sentence. I have the book right here, and this
is the opening sentence from the preface. `In 1938, near the end of a decade
of monumental turmoil, the year's number one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, Hitler or Mussolini. It wasn't Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou
Gehrig, Howard Hughes or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper
column inches in 1938 wasn't even a person. It was an undersized,
crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.' That's actually the first
paragraph, not just the first sentence, but that is effective.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: It's the most descriptive thing about him. It just says so
much about how huge the horse was that he was able to command that much
attention from the press.
GROSS: My guest is Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller "Seabiscuit."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Laura Hillenbrand, author of the
best-seller "Seabiscuit," which has been adapted into a new film.
Very recently you had a piece in The New Yorker that was about your illness,
and, oh, God, it just sounded horrible. And you had doctors who not only
misdiagnosed you and condescended to you, there was one doctor who said, `OK,
you have chronic fatigue syndrome.' Then he told you he had chronic fatigue
syndrome. Then everyone in his office told you that he had diagnosed them as
having chronic fatigue syndrome, too, which kind of casts a doubt on that
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you feel like you have good medical care now?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I do. I ended up getting my definitive diagnosis from the
head of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins. You can't do any better than
that, and that was many years ago; that was 16 years ago. And now a lot more
is understood about the illness. I have a pretty classic case. It's a severe
case, but it's pretty classic. And so we're certain about the diagnosis.
What's difficult is there's very, very little that can be done for me. The
cause of the illness is not very well understood yet. It has gotten so little
funding. It's more common than multiple sclerosis or AIDS in this country,
but it doesn't get anywhere near the money. And so the level of understanding
creeps forward at a very, very petty pace.
GROSS: Why did you decide to write the article for The New Yorker?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I had been through a terrible first year with the disease,
not only because I was rendered completely bedridden and dropped to 100 pounds
and thought I was losing my life, but also because I could not get competent
medical care. I could not get people in my personal life or in terms of
doctors to take it seriously. And I wanted the public to understand what this
disease is. People still just have no idea. When I meet people and they say,
`Oh, I heard you have CFS,' they really don't have any concept of what that
is, and because of the name, they tend to greatly underestimate what it is.
And that has an impact on the lives of patients because a lot of times we need
some consideration from people to just get around outside and things like
that. And you certainly don't need to be derided, which a lot of us have
So I wrote it to give one patient's perspective on what this disease is and
what happens to you when you have this because no one had really done that
before in a big publication. And I was very grateful to The New Yorker for
letting me writing a big, thorough piece on it.
GROSS: You know, in your New Yorker article about your illness, you describe
the onset of it, which it was sudden. It was like a flash of lightning
sudden. I mean, why don't you describe what happened?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: It was extremely surreal. I was an athletic person. I was
a straight-A student. I had swum competitively for 10 years. I was very
happy. I was at college. I was 19 years old and doing quite well and, you
know, had a big future ahead of me, I thought. And I was coming back from
spring break in March of 1987. I was in a car with my best friend, Lincoln,
and my boyfriend, Gordon, in the back. I was sitting in the passenger seat.
And it was very dark on the road, and I saw ahead of me materializing in front
of me an enormous deer on the side of the road looking our way. And we were
going pretty quickly, and I just had time to see him lift his knee up to step
into the road in front of us, and I just had time to suck in my breath
thinking he was going to step in front of the car and roll up the windshield
and kill me. And we went past him. He didn't bend his knee all the way. He
didn't step into the road, and we passed him.
And I was trying to begin to react to that when something else caught my eye,
and it was a meteor going straight over the car ahead of us, from behind us to
ahead of us. And it plunged straight into the horizon directly ahead of us,
and I don't know how many times I've seen a meteor, but I've never seen one
like that. And I just let out my breath and turned to Lincoln, my friend, and
I was going to talk about it, but I realized he hadn't even seen either thing;
he hadn't seen the deer or the meteor. I looked back to Gordon in the back
seat; he hadn't seen them either. And I was going to say something when I
realized all of a sudden I felt terribly sick. I felt very sick to my
stomach. I felt feverish. I felt exhausted.
And so I never said a word about the deer or the meteor, and by the time we
got back to campus I was doubled over. My boyfriend called paramedics. Two
weeks later I woke up and was unable to even sit up in bed, and my life has
never been the same since.
GROSS: Do you think it's possible that the meteor and the deer were actually
Ms. HILLENBRAND: I wonder about that. I actually forgot all about them that
night, you know, because I became very, very sick that night. And then I was
quite sick for a few weeks before really plunging fully into the CFS and being
unable to get up and having to drop out of college. And I kind of remembered
it later and thought, `Boy, yeah, those two things happened one after the
They've become metaphoric to me because I ended up, for a number of years,
being completely bed-bound. At times I was unable to roll myself over in bed
or speak or feed myself. And I had vertigo, which was making the room whirl
around me violently day and night. Even my dreams took place on pitching
ships. And I began to believe that I actually had hit the deer that night and
that I had been killed and I was in hell. And it wasn't that I was thinking
metaphorically at the time; I believed I must have actually been in hell
because it was so bad. But I do wonder if they were real or if it was some
kind of, I don't know, psychological harbinger of what was happening to my
GROSS: You know, a lot of writers on FRESH AIR talk about how different the
process of writing a book is from the process of releasing the book to the
public. You know, writing it, you're alone. It's just like you and the
computer or you and the pad. And then when the book is public and you're
connecting--you're, like, doing signings or interviews--it's a very public
process that's completely the opposite of the actual process of doing the
work. Although you haven't been able to leave the house a whole lot to do the
book, it's still, you know, so extraordinarily different to have the book go
public because you were so cloistered and even bedridden during most of the
process of actually writing it. Can you talk a little bit about that contrast
of being home sick writing the book and then having the book take on a public
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Sure. It has been very strange. The process of writing the
book was very consistent with the rest of my life. It was solitary and kind
of intense, and, you know, I was alone with my subjects all the time and for
years on end. And that's pretty much what I had been doing prior to writing
this book. I was writing articles, and it was a lot like that. I mean, other
than breaking this solitary life with interviews, it was pretty much something
done alone. And then the book came out, and in five days it hit the
best-seller list, and all of a sudden there were people calling all the time
and letters coming in. And I was needing to go on--the first thing I did was
go on NBC "Nightly News," and I was somebody who'd been alone in my bedroom
for years. It was stunning. It was like falling out of an airplane. It was
such a different experience.
And I still feel kind of stunned all the time. It feels very strange to hear
people discussing my work and to have the story be retold and just the intense
public exposure. I think I'm coming up on 300 interviews now, and it's all
very strange. It's very, very different. It's nice different for the most
part. When you're a writer, you want to be read, and I've certainly been very
fortunate that way. And I love that these individuals that I wrote about are
famous again because I think they deserve it. I think they ought to be
GROSS: What do you think of the casting of Seabiscuit, the horse himself?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Seabiscuit is actually being played by 16 different
GROSS: No. Really?
Ms. HILLENBRAND: ...because Seabiscuit himself was a very complicated
character. He has as complicated a personality as anyone else in this story.
And he also went through a lot of character transformation over the course of
the story because he's handled by different people who treat him differently.
So what they needed to do was they needed to get one horse who was trained to
lie down a lot because Seabiscuit was an emphatic sleeper. They needed to get
another horse which was very combative because there was a period of time in
which Seabiscuit, really, was losing his marbles with his first trainer and
was very difficult. You needed slow ones and fast ones to depict different
races. So it was a lot of different horses. I believe there was a main horse
named Fighting Ferrari who played him for a lot of it, and Tobey Maguire, who
plays Red Pollard, rode him a lot. But it all works. I mean, you can't tell
that it's different horses in different scenes.
GROSS: I want to wish you congratulations on the success of the whole
Seabiscuit story, and I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. HILLENBRAND: Well, thank you. I've had a lovely time.
GROSS: Laura Hillenbrand is the author of "Seabiscuit." A new edition
illustrated with photographs has just been published to coincide with the
release of the new movie.
(Soundbite of "Livery Stable Blues")
GROSS: That's "Livery Stable Blues." Coming up, we hear from the editor of
the book "Seabiscuit," Jonathan Karp. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jonathan Karp on his decision as editor to take a
chance on Laura Hillenbrand to write "Seabiscuit"
TERRY GROSS, host:
When I was talking with Laura Hillenbrand about writing "Seabiscuit" while
suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome, I was thinking about what the
experience was like for her editor. So we invited her editor, Jonathan Karp,
to talk with us. "Seabiscuit" isn't his first book that was made into a film.
He edited "The Orchid Thief," which was a longtime non-fiction best-seller and
inspired the film adaptation. In Karp's 14 years at Random House, he's also
edited books by Po Bronson, Christopher Buckley, Dale Bumpers, David Frum,
Gary Hart, Howard Kurtz, John McCain, Dick Morris, Kenneth Pollack, Mario
Puzo, Paul Wellstone and Paul Watkins.
While talking to Laura and reading her New Yorker piece, I couldn't help but
wonder, `Why would an editor take a chance on an author who was so sick and
could, like, rarely leave her bed?' Did you have a lot of reservations about
signing the book, "Seabiscuit"?
Mr. JONATHAN KARP ("Seabiscuit" Editor): Well, I guess my first comment would
be to quote the movie and just say, `You don't throw someone out just because
they're beat up a little bit.' But the fuller answer is that the proposal
that we received from Laura's agent, a very dynamic and well-regarded literary
agent named Tina Bennett, was so superb that we just had faith in Laura's
ability to write the book. We knew that she had chronic fatigue syndrome, but
to be honest, I really didn't have a very good idea of just how serious the
illness was. And my feeling was if she'd been able to write about horse
racing for 10 years and win awards, which she had been able to do, she'd be
able to write the book. So I didn't really overthink it.
GROSS: How did you find out how serious it really was?
Mr. KARP: Over time. I went to visit her at her house. We had a great
conversation. We talked about the editing, and she was still writing the book
at that point. And I called her the next day, and I said, `You know, Laura, I
would never know you were sick.' And she said, `Well, I was seeing two of you
during the whole time.' I really didn't realize how serious it was.
GROSS: Now what impressed you about the early portions of "Seabiscuit" that
you were shown by Laura Hillenbrand's agent?
Mr. KARP: Well, I think that the proposal had the contours of a great story.
And I keep thinking of what Bernard Malamud said about what really good
fiction writing is about. He said it was `story, story, story.' And
"Seabiscuit" is architecturally a perfect story. It has protagonists
overcoming adversity in a very unexpected way, and they keep surprising you
with their ability to surmount the odds. So I had faith that the story, if it
were told well, would have an elemental power to it. Then Laura herself took
it leaps further by writing it with a great deal of lyricism and intensity and
GROSS: Now she says that you came up with the beginning of the book because
she was having a hard time figuring out what the beginning should be. How did
you come up with it?
Mr. KARP: Well, the truth of it is I first got interested in the book because
I was having lunch with Laura's agent, Tina Bennett, and Tina mentioned the
"Seabiscuit" proposal to me. And I said, `You know, I'm not really interested
in horses or horse racing.' And Tina said, `Well, you know, this was no
ordinary horse. In 1938, more was written about this horse than FDR or
Mussolini or Hitler.' And that's actually in the book, and that's how the
book now begins because that was what got me interested in it. And I figured
if I was interested in that fact, then other readers would be as well.
GROSS: When you signed "Seabiscuit," when you signed the book, did you think,
`This is going to be a big book, this is a big best-seller'? Or did you think
more, `This will be more like the prestige book. It's the very literary,
non-fiction book. It's not going to sell a lot, but I'll be proud to have
edited it, and the company will be proud to have published it'?
Mr. KARP: When I signed the book up, all I knew was that it was a really good
story with the potential to reach a large audience by a writer whose talent
intrigued me. When Laura went away to write the book, I still didn't know.
When we were meeting to discuss the book, I still didn't know. All I could
really discern was that she really cared about this story a great deal. I
remember her calling me with excitement having found out some details about
the Tijuana whorehouse that the jockeys visited and the scrapbooks that the
Howard family had let her borrow. And I knew that she really had a feeling
for this subject.
It seems to me that the key to success with any book is to have an author
who's obsessed and who has the focus to see it through and then has the talent
to deliver on it. And Laura had all of that. I think that--it's funny, you
ask me about how the chronic fatigue syndrome contributed to the book, and, in
a way, I think that it gave her a focus that perhaps some other authors never
really achieve in their writing. Because she was basically at home all the
time, with this book as the chief focus of her life, I think that she wrote it
GROSS: Non-fiction writing has an obligation to accurately reflect the truth.
Often in magazines, certainly at the top magazines, there are fact-checking
departments that check every fact in a non-fiction magazine article and make
sure that it's accurate. I think it's much more difficult for book publishing
companies to fact check each fact in a book. I mean, I don't think book
publishing companies do that. What do you consider your responsibilities as
the editor of a non-fiction book to be able to vouch for the accuracy of the
history and the facts within it?
Mr. KARP: Well, the publisher is going on faith when a book is signed up.
And, actually, there's a clause in the contract, a warranty clause, in which
the author guarantees that the work will be accurate. So, really, the most
important decision I make as an editor is believing that the writer is good
enough to get it right. And I just had a feeling that Laura would get it
right. So that was my biggest and most important decision. Beyond that, as
the first reader of the book, what you do is you just try to apply as much
skepticism as you can.
I remember that one of the concerns I had when I was reading the book was
whether there was any kind of anthropomorphism going on, whether she was
attributing too much intelligence or charm to Seabiscuit. And I was querying
that very specifically, and in every instance Laura backed it up and supported
it and said, `Actually Seabiscuit really was that intelligent, and Seabiscuit
really was that competitive.' She actually wrote about how a lot of horses
are competitive that way; that when they lose their riders during races, they
almost always try to win anyway. And that's the kind of thing that I would
never have known, since I've never been to the track, but Laura was able to
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KARP: Sure.
GROSS: And congratulations on the success of "Seabiscuit."
Mr. KARP: OK. Thank you. I appreciate it.
GROSS: Jonathan Karp edited the best-seller "Seabiscuit."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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