Monday, November 15, 2010

Laura Hillenbrand

William Nack, for almost three decades the turf writer first at Newsday newspaper on Long Island, N.Y. then at Sports Illustrated magazine, is the author of Secretariat, The Making of a Champion, a biography of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. From his conversation with Laura Hillenbrand, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Seabiscuit: An American Legend:

WN: In the fall of 2000, while I was shopping at a supermarket in Washington, D.C., I got a call on my cell phone from Andrew Beyer, the Harvard-educated turf writer from The Washington Post. “I want to read something to you,” Andrew said. So I leaned against the coffee grinder and listened as he began: “In Tom Smith’s younger days, the Indians would watch him picking his way over the open plains, skirting the mustang herds. He was always alone, even back then, in the waning days of the nineteenth century.” Andrew read on a few more moments about The Biscuit’s trainer, the poetic recitation ending with, “His history had the ethereal quality of hoofprints in windblown snow.” When he finished, Andew blurted out, “Isn’t that just terrific?” And that’s how I was introduced to Seabiscuit. You had clearly created a world, and you had done so with a distinctly lyrical feel and touch. Where did you learn to write and who were your literary models?

LH: I think I decided I wanted to be a writer one summer afternoon in my childhood, when the neighborhood pool I was swimming in was temporarily closed due to lightning. I snatched up my towel and huddled on a big porch with the other kids, waiting out the storm. A man I had never seen before sat down on a plastic lawn chair near me, brought out an illustrated copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and offered to read it. Most of the kids left, but two or three of us stayed to listen, sitting crosslegged on the floor around him. As he read, I slipped so deeply into the narrative that the thunderstorm around me seemed to be rushing out of the words themselves. My head was ringing with those words as I walked home. I never knew who that man was, but I never really got over that day. As a kid, I read and wrote a great deal. I used to scribble hort stories in notebooks, imitating the style of whatever I was reading at the time, then tear the pages out and bury them in my desk drawers. I was terrified of showing anyone my work, or even admitting that I wanted to be a writer. This didn’t really change until I attended Kenyon College, an ideal destination for anyone who aspires to write well. There, a woman named Megan Macomber, an English professor and writer of spectacular talent, took me aside and told me that writing was what I should be doing with my life. No one had ever said this to me before, and it had an enormous impact. She taught me so much about our language, and she teaches me still. She was one of the first people to whom I showed my manuscript ofSeabiscuit, and her comments made it so much better. If you ask me what I am reading on any given day, it is most likely going to be a work from a great author from long ago. Every writer stands on the shoulders of the old authors who have shaped and refined language and storytelling. In my mind, almost no one today approaches their greatness in either style or insight. I split evenly between history and fiction. For me, the most influential books have been Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Bruce Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. If I like something, I tend to read it again and again. I think I have read Pride and Prejudice—in my view the most perfect book in our language—eight times, and it has taught me something new each time.

The most important book I read while writing the book was...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue