Laura Hillenbrand Answers Your Questions About Unbroken

October 18, 2011 | By | Comments (7)

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Hi, Bookies:

When Laura Hillenbrand published Seabiscuit: An American Legend in 2001, she won raves for her captivating account of the unlikely champion of the racetrack. But she won admiration, too, for the fact that she’d written the book while suffering from a chronic fatigue syndrome that often left her unable to leave her bed, let alone her home. She then spent seven years meticulously researching, reporting, and writing Louis Zamperini’s story, all while essentially confined to her home, often too weak to write more than a paragraph or so at a time. Over the years she interviewed Louie some 75 times, but they still have not met face-to-face. And yet, Hillenbrand is doing some of the finest, most vivid nonfiction writing out there. I find her inspiring: The title Unbroken could equally be applied to her. So I am especially grateful to say that Laura Hillenbrand has answered—thoughtfully and at some length—the questions you posted for her, including one about how the book came to be named Unbroken in the first place.

From reader Carol Ogle McCracken: I really enjoyed the opportunity to read this book and then see Louie speak in person. Louie was asked by an audience member how the title of the book originated. Louie replied that you came up with it because you were a sharp individual. Apparently, when you were researching Seabiscuit, you kept seeing Louie coming up as the only one close enough to get close to Seabiscuit’s record. Is this true, or was he being “tongue in cheek”? What is the real story of the title? Thanks….

Laura Hillenbrand: Thanks, Carol. I think Louie was referring to my coming across a 1930s newspaper article in which his college coach was quoted saying the only runner who could beat Zamperini was Seabiscuit. I came across Louie a great deal while I was researching Seabiscuit, and that was what got me interested in him. The two of them, horse and young man, headlined newspapers all over California in the 1930s. It was impossible to research Seabiscuit without seeing something on Louie.

I spent years trying to come up with a title. It was a daunting task, because the story had so many different acts—the rebellious boyhood, the running career, the Olympics, time as a bombardier, time as a castaway on a raft, years as a POW, and the emotional aftermath of the war. I needed a word, or phrase, that could capture its essence. I didn’t want to use Louie’s name, because it was too unusual a name to remember; one of the first things my sister Lisa said to me when I told her Louie’s story was “Don’t call it Zamperini. No one will remember it.”

The word “unbroken” came to me one day. It has two meanings, and both fit Louie’s story ideally. The most common use of the word refers to something that has not failed under pressure. In that sense, it captures Louie’s resilience. “Unbroken” in the equine sense means “untamed,” and that was the perfect word for Louie when he was a boy, and when he was rebelling against his captors in Japan. That one word, with its two meanings, was appropriate to every part of this story. It just felt right to me.

From reader Lucinda Baker: I would like to thank Ms. Hillenbrand for writing this engaging book. I have many questions. How do you choose your subject matter? Do you have any background in any of the psychologies of the human mind? I specifically refer to your comments on self respect and self worth (pg.182), dignity (pg.183), power (pg.195), and vengeance (pg.366). How difficult or wonderful was it to interview all of the people you did for this book? I would consider speaking to them quite an honor.

Thanks, Lucinda. Writing a book is an enormous, all-consuming, years-long process, so for me, the subject has to be so compelling and so rich that I can become obsessed and enthralled by it. I don’t think I’d do a good job writing about something that didn’t obsess me, because to do a subject justice, you have to be motivated to chase down every possible detail and research everything to its end. I’ve been so fortunate, in that both of my book subjects have been endlessly fascinating to me. Both books have been a tremendous amount of work, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of that work.

One of the issues I wanted to explore with this book was the impact that trauma has on a person’s mind. I did a lot of research into this, looking first at studies that have been done on veterans and their emotional issues. More importantly, I studied the work of a number of authors who have dealt with this issue, such as Terrence Des Pres in his book The Survivor, Frederick Douglass, and Jean Amery, a Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively, and movingly, on this subject. I also spent a lot of time speaking to veterans and former POWs about what they endured, how they coped emotionally while held captive, and how they coped afterward. Every man had different experiences, but there were commonalities that were fascinating: the impact that dehumanizing treatment had on them, the role of dignity in their survival, the way that vengefulness attached them permanently to their captors and deepened their trauma.

It was a great privilege to interview so many veterans and POWs, and to be entrusted with their stories. At the same time, it was difficult to ask them to walk me through memories that were so painful to them. At times, some former POWs wept as they told their stories, and one veteran’s wife told me it generally takes her husband three weeks to recover emotionally from discussing the war. But all of these veterans were very eager to talk; they wanted their stories written down and saved, so people would know what their generation went through to save the world. I’m so grateful to them for opening up to me, and trusting me to get it right.

From reader Christy Lippert: How did you first learn about Louis’ story and when did you decide to write a book about it?

I learned about Louie’s story when I was researching for my first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Seabiscuit was a huge celebrity just as Louie was becoming a running phenomenon, and both were based in Southern California. The sports pages, especially those in California, were filled with stories about both of them, so as I researched the racehorse, I kept coming upon stories about this teenaged running sensation from Torrance, California. When researching a subject from another era, it is my habit to read not only the newspaper stories about them, but other stories from the era, to get a feel for the times. I read about Louie, and was intrigued, so I wrote his name in my research notebook. When I finished writing the book, I tracked Louie down and called him. He proceeded to tell me the most extraordinary life story I had ever heard. I was hooked from that day on, and knew I had to write a book about this man.