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Reader’s Guide: UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand

August 5th, 2014

Hillenbrand_Unbroken Have you ever wanted to sit down with bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand to chat with her about her writing, Unbroken, Louie, and more? Well, we got a chance to do that here at Random House Reader’s Circle, and we want to share everything with you! For even more of the additional bonus features check out the back of your paperback copy of Unbroken.

RANDOM HOUSE READER’S CIRCLE: Louie Zamperini is a larger-than-life figure. He enjoyed a measure of fame in his youth—both during his running career and after surviving the POW camps—but was relatively unknown in the second half of the twentieth century. How did you first learn about Louie? When did you realize there was a book in his story?

LAURA HILLENBRAND: My first book was about the Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit. While working on it, I pored over 1930s newspapers. One day I was reading a 1938 clipping about the horse when I happened to turn the paper over and find a profile of a young running phenomenon named Louie Zamperini. I started reading. Louie had not yet gone to war, but his story was already so interesting that I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit research notebook.

Later, I came across Louie’s name again, and this time I learned a little about his wartime odyssey. I was very intrigued, and when I finished writing Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I did some searching, found an address for Louie, and wrote him a letter. He wrote back, I called him, and I found myself in the most fascinating conversation of my life. He told me his story, and I was captivated.

So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in par- ticular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.
It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie’s biography, I set out to find the answer.

RHRC: You’ve written about two exceptional, unlikely running sensations of the first half of the twentieth century, weaving deeply moving, inspirational narratives around them. What, to you, is a good subject— what do you look for?

LH: In times of extremity, ordinary individuals must reach into the depths of themselves, and there they find the true content of their character. Some find emptiness, frailty, even dark impulses. But others find wondrous virtues—courage, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, daring, ingenuity, the will to soldier on when will is all they have left. These are the virtues that turn history, and these are the virtues that enable individuals to prevail in the supreme trials of their lives. It is in times of superlative hardship that individuals live their epic adventures, stories that thrill, fascinate, inspire, and illuminate. Theirs are the stories I’m drawn to.

I also think the best subjects offer the opportunity to use a small story to tell a much larger one. One could approach Seabiscuit as simply a rags-to-riches racehorse who lived seventy-five years ago. By itself, it’s a marvelous tale. But in his remarkable life, and in the lives of his automobile magnate owner, his frontiersman trainer, and his former prizefighting jockey, lies the far larger story of America in the Great Depression. I gathered as much detail as I could about the intimate lives of my subjects, but also backed up to show their context, the era of tremendous upheaval in which they were living, and the way in which they embodied the spirit and struggle of that era.

Louie, like Seabiscuit, is just one individual. But his odyssey carried him into the greatest cataclysm in history, giving me the chance to tell a tale vastly broader in scope than that of any single athlete or soldier, one encompassing Hitler’s Olympics, the Pacific war, and the experience of American military airmen, Japanese POW camp guards, prisoners of war, and veterans. You can’t truly understand an individual unless you understand the world he or she inhabits, and in illustrating that individual’s world, you will, hopefully, capture history in the accessible, tactile, authentic way in which the times were actually experienced. In Unbroken as in Seabiscuit, I tried to paint portraits not just of individuals, but of their times.

To continue reading this interview, check out the RHRC materials in the back of your paperback copy of Unbroken!

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