Laura Hillenbrand grew up in the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., and began writing at an early age. While attending Kenyon College, her life would change when she suddenly fell ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating condition with no cure. Confined to her home, Hillenbrand began writing in earnest, and her first book, Seabiscuit, was published in 2001. A massive bestseller, Seabiscuit added Hillenbrand to the literary consciousness, and she would add to her reputation in 2010 with Unbroken. The life story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete and war hero, the book was another smash and spawned a high-profile Hollywood release.
Laura Hillenbrand was born on May 15, 1967, and grew up in the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. When she was around 10 years old, she was on the swim team, and while the team would wait for the occasional storm to pass, her swim coach would tell the young swimmers stories.
Those early sessions would be the first seeds in her writing life, and by the time she reached junior high school, Hillenbrand had written a drawer full of short stories, composed while she was supposed to be in her room doing homework.
At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Hillenbrand made a big impression on her English teacher, who spotted her talent right away. When Hillenbrand wasn’t writing, she loved to study history and ride horses, and she and her sister even saved up babysitting money to buy a filly named Allspice, who was headed for slaughter.
Hillenbrand loved horses so much that she considered pursuing a career as a jockey, going so far as buying a special saddle—but the falls she took convinced her otherwise. Regardless, her experiences with horses as a youngster would be the next piece to fall into place in her literary puzzle.
After high school, Hillenbrand headed off to nearby Ohio to study at Kenyon College. There she met future husband Borden Flanagan. Six months into the relationship, Hillenbrand became sick—too sick, in fact, to even leave her dorm room. She was forced to drop out of college and move back home, where her health only got worse. Hillenbrand finally got some clarity on her situation at the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where doctors told her she had something called chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that has no cure and no real treatment.
Seabiscuit and Unbroken
In late 1988, Hillenbrand felt well enough to move to Chicago, where Flanagan was doing graduate work at the University of Chicago. Here, she tapped into her early loves—writing and horses—and she started with an article on the dangers of horse racing.
She sent her article to a horse-racing magazine called Turf Flash, and it was soon published, leading to other assignments with Turf Flash and later with Equus magazine. Hillenbrand kept writing, and eventually her love of history, writing and horse racing led her to write Seabiscuit (2001), the unlikely story of a less-than-perfect horse finding huge success on the track. The book, which was the result of four years of research and writing, was an instant success—so instant, in fact, that it made its way to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list before it was even advertised. The book stayed at No. 1 for nearly 10 months and remained on the best-seller list for more than two years. Seabiscuit sold more 6 million copies in the United States alone and has been translated into 15 languages. It also spawned a hugely successful film that garnered seven Oscar nominations.
Hillenbrand won the 2004 National Magazine Award for her article “A Sudden Illness,” which was published in The New Yorker, and she continues to write for publications like The New York Times and Vanity Fair, among others.
Nine years after Seabiscuit put Hillenbrand on the literary map, she returned with a vengeance with Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Based on the life of Louis Zamperini, and created from more than 75 phone interviews with him, the book details the former Olympic athlete’s life as a runner, World War II prisoner of war and inspirational figure. Another major best seller, the book inspired a 2014 film, directed by the actress Angelina Jolie.
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