The Equiery Interview:
“Author” Laura Hillenbrand and Seabiscuit
After spending a long time working out how to get published, Laura Hillenbrand managed it. And An American Legend (Random House, $24.95) galloped to the top of the best seller lists upon its release in March and has maintained a torrid literary pace ever since, giving the general reading public a taste of horse racing’s excitement and a glimpse of the legendary horse whose headline-making match race with War Admiral was just one of his achievements.
It has also brought author Laura Hillenbrand to the winner’s circle. A longtime contributor to Equus and other equine publications, Hillenbrand wrote a story about the 30s racing legend for American Heritage Magazine, a story that won an Eclipse Award, thoroughbred racing’s highest honor. That story was the basis for her inspiration to take the tale of the horse further. Hillenbrand’s book proposal sent her on a four year ride, back to the days when Seabiscuit was everywhere, when his name was as well-known as a rock star’s, and his name and image graced novelties of all sorts. In those dark days of the late 1930s, the horse was a hero whose current athletic peer might be Michael Jordan…or indeed, he might have no modern day equal at all.
The resulting book retells the tale of an extraordinary horse, and the men who believed in him. It has captured the imagination of readers today, just as Seabiscuit’s exploits excited America in his heyday.
Hillenbrand has been featured on ESPN, NPR, NBC News, PBS, in major magazines and newspapers, and in online chats all over the Internet. She is serving as a consultant on the production of a movie based upon her book, and working with PBS on a Seabiscuit documentary as well.
The Equiery recently caught up with Hillenbrand at her Washington D.C. home:
The Equiery: Please bring us up to date on what’s changed for you since the book’s publication?
Laura Hillenbrand: In some ways for me, nothing’s changed. I have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) which is profoundly limiting, I’ve been housebound for at least 10 years, I’ve never seen my book in a bookstore. So in that way, it isn’t different at all for me. I sit here and hear about things, you get little bits and pieces. My family and friends will tell me things, and I get letters, just tons and tons of letters from people. I got a letter from President George Bush…not THIS President Bush but his father. He wrote that his son had read the book and loved it and said he should read it. And so he did and said he and his wife Barbara enjoyed it and they wrote to ask me for my signature.
Q: So people treat you differently now?
LH: In a way. And I feel sort of suspicious of it, of the attention. I mean, people treat my boyfriend differently, and a million people want a part in the movie, so of course they call or write me to say “I’d be just perfect for the part of [jockey] Red Pollard.” And I tell them, I have nothing to do with that.
I do know one of my signed first editions which I gave to a charity was auctioned on Ebay for a great deal of money. Everyone wants me to sign their books, but that’s something I cannot do. I have vertigo, which makes it impossible to write, I get dizzy.
Q: CFS has taken a toll on you, do you have good days and bad days? And how did that affect your work on the book?
LH: Well I have worse days and better days. But the world is getting to be a bit easier place to do things. I did 150 interviews by phone, and through the Library of Congress’s wonderful lending program, I was able to borrow all the old newspapers and magazines that were then brought to my local library. I got and read all the biographies of horses, jockeys, trainers. So I really don’t think there’s anything more I could have gotten had I been able to go out and talk with people and get things myself.
Q: Ebay must love you, with all the Seabiscuit memorabilia available on there.
LH: (laughs) Oh yes, I’ve spent a LOT on Ebay myself. When I began this project I was buying things on EbayÑracing programs, magazines, you name it. And looking at the Seabiscuit items, sometimes I’d be the only bidder. The prices were so cheap then since no one else was interested. A photo I paid about $8 for, the one of Rosemont and Biscuit in the 1937 “hundred grander”, is in the book, and I saw it on Ebay recently, priced for $76. And all the Seabiscuit items have gone up since the book, they’ve just become more collectible for people. I’ve got a lot of them, and they’re part of an exhibit at the Racing Museum [in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.] this summer. I bought Seabiscuit’s toy game, his shoe, I bought just everything I could.
Q: Did you collect those items so you’d have a feel for just how big he was?
LH: Yes that’s it exactly. You can see from everything out there that whatever you can think of would have his name, his image on it.
Q: A Michael Jordan marketing kind of thing? Or the women’s World Cup Soccer team, a cereal-box photo, t-shirt, lots of memorabilia sort of thing?
LH: That’s probably close.
Q: The old black and white photos in the book add a lot to the story, giving that stark tone of that era.
LH: Well thank you, I’m glad you like the pictures because they cost ME money, a ton of money. I learned that publishers do not pay for the pictures, the author pays, and pays, and so they cost me about $6,000.
Q: When you began the book did you ever envision how huge this would be? How sort of “mass appeal” it would become?
LH: I hoped it would be a best seller. I knew the story was a really good story, and the fact that American Heritage, a straight history magazine which was not horsy at all, had thought it was a good story helped. And the thirst for the underdog story is a market that never dies. This is the greatest underdog story in history, I think that is a big part of its appeal. The horse himself, with his crooked legs and big head…the three men who were part of it, they all came from different corners of America. Red Pollard was a failed prizeÞghter and down-on-his-luck jockey, living out of a stall. Tom Smith, the trainer, was an old mustanger whoÕd spent his time on the frontier. And Charles Howard, BiscuitÕs owner, had been a bicycle repairman who made his fortune when he brought this thing called the automobile to the American West. So they all have stories, and the story of Seabiscuit brings them all together.
Q: The research into that era must have been like an escape from our Internet-driven, cellular, beeper, computer crazed world.
LH: Oh it was wonderful, and the more time I spent talking to folks from that time, or reading the papers and magazines, I’d Þnd myself using the terminology of the late 30s. Like people were “fellows” (laughs). I immersed myself in the newspapers, reading the whole issue, for instance, of the day the partnership was formed so I would have a greater idea of what was happening then. And I wanted to give people a feel for what life was like. It was just such a different time, a very hard time. The hardship of it is underestimated by people who talk about the Great Depression or the post-World War One era. THIS was the hardest time imaginable. There was one story I read which said that one day, a third of the state of Mississippi was auctioned off because there was no money for the state to pay its bills. Everybody was suffering, with very rough lives. I wouldn’t say people were exactly homeless, but at least 20% of America was out of home and money.
Q: Is that why Seabiscuit, this unlikely colt who became a big winner, was such a hero to people?
LH: Exactly. He clicked at a time when they needed to see an underdog make good. And he was featured on all kinds of items, everyone wanted something that said Seabiscuit.
Q: Are you in touch with any of the people you talked to for the book?
LH: Sadly some of them did not live long enough to see the book come out. I talked to so many old people, who just have wonderful stories, great memories of that time, and I love talking with them. When they’re gone, there aren’t any more like them, which is something everyone doesn’t always realize.
Q: What got you interested in horses overall? Did you ride as a child?
LH: We lived in Bethesda but my father had a farm in Sharpsburg, Md, near the Antietam battleground, land he leased out. And I don’t recall the details but at some point someone came to my parents with a sad story about needing a place for a horse who had been abused, or they’d gotten it from the Humane Society, and anyway my dad said sure, and that was the start. The word got out that if you needed a place for a horse, bring it there. And we had a kind of mini herd of horses, an old Chincoteaguer, 30-year-old Shetlands, a Thoroughbred. All abused, all needy. My sister and I would ride them, bareback. One horse, a stallion, who really had been abused and did not want to be ridden…well, I rode him and I got thrown. I must have skidded on my face because I lost an eyebrow and who knows how much other skin! We just rode them, no helmets, no tack. Later I did some showing, got a few ribbons? I wasnÕt a Pony Clubber, I just loved horses for the joy of riding. When you learn to ride bareback, with twine for a bridle, you become pretty unthrowable. And my sister and I rescued a Þlly from a guy who was selling her to slaughter. She was a skeleton, but she Þlled out and was so sweet. She was one of the Þrst horses to die of Potomac Fever, when no one had heard of Potomac Fever at that point. Even today, I still get emotional about her death.
Q: Did you read a lot about horses growing up?
LH: Oh sure, I read all the Black Stallion books. And I’m sure they were inspired by Seabiscuit. The secret training, the match race. All of those things which I now know were not commonplace. And of course I read “King of the Wind” [by Marguerite Henry]. And in researching the book, I read all the books about racing and horses I could.
Q: How many copies of your book have been sold to date? I heard that it’s in its 12th or 14th printing?
LH: The day it appeared, I looked on that Amazon.com list of books, and it was 5 millionth in sales! Then some copies sold and I was so excited, it was like 27 thousandth! But I think word of mouth helped a lot. I had a big publicity blitz at Þrst and it sold well. But for Father’s Day did you know that’s a huge book-buying/giving occasion? I did nothing in the way of promotion, and it still sold 14,000 copies that weekend. So word of mouth has done a great deal.
Q: What is your next project?
LH: I am consulting on the Seabiscuit movie, not that I have any big involvement. They talk to me to get some input and information. The screenplay is being written and may almost be done. They’re anxious to start casting and start working on it so it can get out there. And I am working on the PBS documentary. And now I’m in the early stages of turning it into a children’s book. With a big-time illustrator. So I have to adapt the story and I’m hoping my vertigo will go away so I can get that done. Makes it impossible to read or write and I’m too incapacitated to do anything but read or write, so it is distressing.
Q: But you remain in touch with your readers? It seems more of them every day visit your website http://www.seabiscuitonline.com and leave messages about how much they enjoyed the book, or their own recollections of Seabiscuit, War Admiral, the entire racing era. Many say they can’t put the book down, which sounds like a cliche but the story is gripping.
LH: Yes my website really is great for being in touch with people. Please mention it, because if people buy the book via the website, they get it at a 40% discount (laughs) so thatÕs good for them and for me.
Q: If Seabiscuit was around today, he’d probably have his own website.
LH: And it would get a lot of hits.
Q: Laura, thanks for taking the time to visit with Equiery readers, even more of whom are now sure to read your book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend”.
LH: Thank you and I hope everyone enjoys the book as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.