Laura Hillenbrand releases new book while fighting chronic fatigue syndrome

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 7:21 PM

"Sometimes I fear that I dress really strangely," Laura Hillenbrand says. "Or maybe I don't speak normally, because language changes while I'm away."

Sometimes something will happen; she will walk into a CVS after years of not walking anywhere beyond the 1,500 square feet of her butter-yellow Glover Park rowhouse, and she will discover that automated registers have replaced human cashiers in the checkout lanes. She is, if she's being completely honest, still not entirely sure what a BlackBerry is. The technology invented for a mobile life is not necessary when your life is not mobile. "I've used a cellphone exactly twice," Hillenbrand, 43, says. "Things move on. The world changes. And I don't know it."

She sits at her kitchen table. She has a kind of indoor, Victorian beauty - soft and smooth, with pale, translucent skin.

In the small, contained, calibrated world of Laura Hillenbrand, actions take on a different sort of meaning. Triumphs are measured on a sliding scale. There was the huge triumph in 2001, the triumph of "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," the book that could about the horse that could, toppling bestseller charts and becoming an Academy Award-nominated movie.

Then there are the more recent wins. The time she managed to take an entire shower standing up. The time she and her husband, Borden Flanagan, drove to the alley at the end of their block so she could see something other than the cemetery behind their yard, and the time, a few weeks later, that they drove all the way to Starbucks. Sat in the parking lot. Drove home.

After the stunning success of "Seabiscuit," Hillenbrand suffered a relapse of the chronic fatigue syndrome that has ruled her life for more than two decades. From 2007 through the summer of 2009, she never left her house; for some of those months, she never left her room. Her relationship with Flanagan was pushed to its limits.

But all the while, she was calling people she was too weak to visit, and e-mailing the people she was too weak to call. She was requesting newspapers from archives and scanning forgotten POW lists. She was finding a guy who owned a clunky Norden bombsight and persuading him to set the contraption up on her kitchen table so she could understand how soldiers accurately dropped bombs during World War II. "We spent a while," she says delightedly, "bombing Phoenix."

Last week, after nearly a decade of laboring, Hillenbrand's second book was released - a biography of the Olympic runner whose dreams of breaking the four-minute mile were smashed by a plane crash and an unspeakable stay in a Japanese war camp. It is called "Unbroken."

An extraordinary life

"Laura told me she wanted to write my biography. I told her I was already finishing my [memoir]. She said, I must do it. I said, Laura, I've milked this thing dry. There's nothing left. She said, I must."

Louis Zamperini is 93. In his running days he was the most famous racing mammal aside from Seabiscuit, which is how Hillenbrand learned about him to begin with. Zamperini was frequently mentioned on the sports pages along with the horse she was profiling: his juvenile delinquent childhood, the redemption he found in running, the bitterness he felt when he returned from war and the soothing balm of forgiveness. His celebrated story had already been the subject of three books. When Hillenbrand phoned him, he couldn't imagine there was anything to add.

"But she found so many things," Zamperini says - prison diaries he hadn't known his fellow inmates were keeping, for example, or the fate of the boat that rescued him after his plane crash. "I have to call her and ask her what happened to me in certain prison camps."

For seven years, they developed a friendship in absentia. Zamperini didn't know why all of their conversations were over the phone until he read an interview with Hillenbrand and learned about her illness. Then, "I sent her one of my Purple Hearts. I said, you deserve this more than me."

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