Laura Hillenbrand Interview

Laura HillenbrandThe following interview was conducted via phone just prior to the release of the movie SEABISCUIT, for XM radio.  Journalist Laura Hillenbrand’s fame was sealed when her 1998 article on the legendary race horse won on the Eclipse Award for Magazine Writing, and led to her Random House book, which became the blockbuster movie.  Her latest book is UNBROKEN.
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JONATHAN LOWE: You wrote on occasion for Equus, a horse magazine. What in your background led to that, and what was your job there?
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LAURA HILLENBRAND: As a contributing editor. I’ve been a horse person all my life, actually. My parents had a farm next to a battlefield, and they had an agreement with people throughout the county that if someone had horses they couldn’t keep they’d end up at our farm. So my sister and I would ride them. I suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome now, though, so I don’t keep a horse today, although I wish I could.
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LOWE: It’s a fascinating story–Seabiscuit–and I’m particularly impressed with your race descriptions. You consistently maintain the suspense.
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HILLENBRAND: Thank you.
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LOWE: How much of this suspense was inherent in the true story, and how much was due to your experience as a magazine reporter?
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HILLENBRAND: Most of it was the story itself. My focus might have been different than someone else because I’ve always been passionate about horse racing, and I even wanted to be a jockey for a while, until I learned how dangerous it is. I was fascinated with jockeys too, and I spoke to a huge number of them to get the feel of what it’s like to actually be in the race, and to get the reader up on the horse.
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LOWE: Into the saddle, so to speak.
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HILLENBRAND: Right.
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LOWE: What was it about Seabiscuit that captured America’s imagination back in the late 1930s?
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HILLENBRAND: I think Seabiscuit would have been a star in any generation because he was a great athlete and a captivating athlete. I think what enabled him to transcend sport and become a cultural icon was the Depression. He was a rags to riches horse, and was surrounded by men who were hard luck people, and this was something the American public could identify with. The whole country was down and out, and this was a horse that looked just like them! He was beat up, ugly, from the wrong side of the tracks, and he was very, very persistent. And I think that’s what got people passionately behind him. It is amazing to see the passion that people felt for this horse. . . of people weeping after his races, leaping the rails at the track and running after him. It was quite extraordinary.
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LOWE: The listener feels that too. That’s what is so amazing about this audiobook. But the horse was not large, and had crooked knees, so how could he be so fast?
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HILLENBRAND: (laughs) I think heart was a big part of the equation with this horse. He had an ugly gait, what they call an eggbeater gait. . . he would kinda stab out with one of his forelegs when he flung it forward, and his knees didn’t straighten all the way. He was a bit of a mess bio-mechanically, but he was a very hard horse to discourage, and he would try his heart out every time, and that was the main factor for him, I think.
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LOWE: Was Seabiscuit the fastest horse ever? What about Secretariat and others?
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HILLENBRAND: It’s impossible to compare great race horses of different generations, really, because the conditions are so much different. Horses today carry less weight, and the tracks are faster. The think I will say, comparatively speaking, is that of all the horses who ever lived, if it came down to a nose-to-nose fight down the home stretch, there is no horse I would pick over Seabiscuit.
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LOWE: I loved the showdown between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, when the jockeys knew what the crowd watching did not. There are really in tune with their horses. So do horses reject substitute jockeys sometimes? Do horses have to be familiar or connected emotionally with the rider to run their best?
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HILLENBRAND: I think jockeys are underrated in their role in the success of race horses. A lot of horses are comfortable under different jockeys, but there are horses who will really run only for one guy. And I think Red Pollard had much to do with Seabiscuit’s success. His early jockeys really did not get this horse, while Seabiscuit and Pollard were kindred souls. Seabiscuit was a very difficult horse to ride.
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LOWE: Horses really have personalities, like people, don’t they?
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HILLENBRAND: They are as complicated as people. They have complex emotional lives. They are not carbon copies, but have as broad a range of personalities as people. Some are as sweet as puppy dogs, and some are very high strung, that’s right.
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LOWE: Actor Campbell Scott, who is George C. Scott’s son, reads the audiobook version, and I think he made the right choice by not being overly dramatic with the text, but just telling it like a documentary. What did you think?
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HILLENBRAND: I think he did a wonderful job, and was the perfect choice for it, too. The feedback I’ve gotten, people just loved it. He used the right tone, and put just the right stress on all the words.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

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