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Laura Hillenbrand '89 Discusses Her New Book Unbroken

The WWII Biography is Her Second Bestseller, Along with Seabiscuit

Editor-in-Chief

Published: Thursday, February 17, 2011

Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11

Hillenbrand

Courtesy of "Unbroken"

Bombardier Louis Zamperini, the subject of Hillenbrand's book, examines flack damage to his B-24 "Super Man" following a mission over the Pacific Island of Nauru in 1943

Book Cover

Courtesy of Kate Childs

"New York Times" bestseller "Unbroked:A world War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption."

Laura

Courtesy of "Washington Post" Getty Images

Author Laura Hillenbrand '89

 

You spent seven years writing this book. Was it a full-time job?

It was seven days a week for seven years. It was a very big research project because the subject is so sprawling and there were many, many sources. Most of the people I interviewed, I interviewed multiple times, and there was a lot of research to be done in the National Archives and archives all over the world. I needed every day of those seven years to get all this information together and then to write it. Of course it was a difficult book to write; it's very hard to capture another person's experiences and to get those absolutely right.

 

Did you ever give the written portions to the people you interviewed to ensure accuracy?

No, I didn't. That's kind of a historian's dilemma, because you don't want to make it an "approved book," you don't want to be writing for your sources. But I know that what I was taking down was accurate. The feedback has been fantastic from the POWs I interviewed, and Louis. Louis feels like I got every single thing right.

 

Both your books have been historical non-fiction. Is this an area in which you want to continue writing?

I've only wanted to be a historian. I think this is what I'll stay with. I really enjoy this kind of process. I love the research, I love the interviews, I love the scaffolding of having all the facts to work with. It's just exactly right for me.

Are you working on a new book now?

I've gotten a suggestion from many readers. Forty or fifty readers have said that they would like to see [Unbroken] made into a young adult book. I'm thinking of adapting it for schools because the Pacific War is really under-talked in schools. People, when they think of World War II, they think of Europe. They don't know what happened in the Pacific.

 

Do you have any stories you want to write about?

I have a couple of stories that I stumbled across while I worked on this and it'll take a lot of research to know if there's a book in it. I'm not telling what it is, but it's something that I just happened across, while I was doing this, just like when I was working on Seabiscuit and came across Louis Zamperini.

 

Is Unbroken going to be adapted to film?

It is. We have a deal with Universal Pictures under the director Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and his new movie, soon to come out [is] Water for Elephants,  which is also based on a book.

 

How much creative control will you have on that project? Did you have much on Seabiscuit?

Writers just about never do. With Seabiscuit, I didn't have any kind of official creative control at all. I was a consultant and I did consult with them a whole lot. They kept me very involved; they showed me the first draft of the screenplay and then the second go at it and we talked about a lot of things. In the end I didn't have a lot of decision power, but I was very involved. With [Unbroken] I don't know what it will be, but officially I will be a consultant and we'll see how that works. [With] Seabiscuit … I just distanced myself from it emotionally. I was really happy with the movie and hopefully I will be with this one as well.

 

What do you want people to learn from this book?

I think this is a story that offers a lot of lessons. It is, at its most basic, an absolutely exhilarating and amazing true story. None of us is going to go through what he went through. But all of us are going to end up in a situation in our lives, maybe many times, where we don't know how we are going to get through the difficulties. We don't know where we are going to find the strength or the wherewithal to get through it. The thing that this story offers is an example of how far a resilient will can carry you … and that's the thing that is resonating with people — they feel strengthened by knowing this story.

 

Was there anything at Kenyon that particularly inspired you to get into writing?

I went to Kenyon thinking I was going to be a [psychology] major — my mother's a psychologist — and thinking I would probably write in some form, but I wasn't that sure about it. I had a professor there named Megan Macomber and I took a creative writing course with her, and on the back of this essay she wrote me a note telling me, "You should be a writer." Just telling me that straight out: "You should devote yourself to this. It's what you're meant to do." No one had ever said anything like that to me, and because of her I took that seriously and began to kind of feel out what I wanted to do with that ability, and it turned into this career. I owe Kenyon, and I owe Megan for this whole thing, for my whole career and everywhere it's taken me and it's going to Kenyon that was the most important decision that I have made in my life. It's led to so many wonderful things.

 

What would you tell a current Kenyon student who wants to get into writing as a career?

I think the most important thing you can do if you want to be a writer is to read and to read the best writers and study them. That's helped me a great deal, and actually when I'm writing a book, I'm trying to read the best writers because they influence the rhythm of my language, so I'm always reading Tolstoy or Edith Wharton of Jane Austin or Fitzgerald or Hemingway while I'm writing a book.

Those things you just start to pick up. The more good reading you do, the better writer you'll be, and I think that's the most important thing about being a writer — to be a reader, too.

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