With the publication of Seabiscuit: An American Legend this spring, the wider world is learning something that EQUUS readers have known for years: that Laura Hillenbrand is an extraordinarily gifted writer and storyteller.
An EQUUS contributing editor since 1997, Laura began writing for the magazine more than a decade ago, starting with “Surviving Fractures” in June 1990 (EQUUS 152). She wrote that first story, which cataloged innovations in equine orthopedic surgery, while living in a tiny apartment in Chicago. Her fiance was working on his PhD, and Laura, who had been forced by ill health to halt her studies at Kenyon College in Ohio, was working as a freelancer until she could return to school.
Over the next few years, Laura, who eventually moved back to her native Maryland, became one of EQUUS’ most frequent and well-regarded contributors, happily tackling virtually any assignment. At times, her health required her to take a break from writing. Laura suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, a near-debilitating condition that periodically left her bedbound and has caused vision problems and vertigo. Yet she has never allowed her illness to get the best of her or to affect her work. “Reading and writing are sometimes difficult, but writing sustains my mind,” she says. “Sometimes I have to work lying down, but I continue to write.”
Indeed, Laura’s desire to thoroughly understand a topic so she can convey its essence, its importance to the reader, has inspired her to author some of the most powerful stories ever published in EQUUS. In 1995, she researched “Murdered for Money”(EQUUS 209), the story of how several horses were killed to collect insurance money. “There were times, working on that story, that I became nauseated by what people had done in the name of money,” she recalls.
At the other extreme was “Of Love and Loss” (EQUUS 238), a special report exploring the dimensions of grief associated with the death of a horse. “That was one of my favorites. I learned so much about how an animal’s passing is unique, and it was gratifying because the story was so well received by EQUUS readers. In fact, I still occasionally hear from people who were touched by it.”
Then one day in 1997, Laura read something in an old racing book that was to change her life. It was a piece about Seabiscuit, the handicapping star of the 1930s and 1940s. Seabiscuit’s dramatic story had been told and retold many times, but Laura saw something in it that no one else ever had: “Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard, was a former bicycle repairman who later made his fortune by helping to introduce the automobile out West, which made the horse obsolete. Tom Smith, the horse’s trainer, was an old cowboy who grew up in a culture in which horses were at the center–a culture that died away because of the automobile. There was a human story there that had never been explored.”
She brought out these themes in an article published by American Heritage in 1998, which quickly led to the purchase of the book rights to the story by Random House. Laura thus began what she describes as the most satisfying project of her life. Though her health prohibited any travel beyond occasional trips to the local library, Laura managed to close the gulfs of time and distance with hundreds of telephone interviews, library searches and even eBay purchases of old magazines and other materials.
“I loved working on the book,” she says. “It was exciting to talk to so many people, to hear their stories, to learn from them.”
Over a four-year period, Laura constructed a 400-page book that weaves together history and horse-racing lore with the pacing, grace and detailed plot of a good novel. The reviews, without exception, have been positive, and the best-seller has been acclaimed by the Washington Post’s racing columnist Andrew Beyer, best-selling author Stephen Ambrose and other noted writers and critics.
What will Laura do next? In the coming months she will devote her energies to promoting Seabiscuit. And she will be serving as a consultant to Universal Pictures, which is planning a movie based on the book. After that, she’ll return to writing. “I definitely will do another book,” she says. “And, of course, I plan on working for EQUUS again.”
We can hardly wait.
This article originally appeared in EQUUS.