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Laura Hillenbrand found Seabiscuit through a tattered paperback book that she loved as a child.
"I read it so much all the pages fell out," said Hillenbrand, on the phone with The Buffalo News from her home in Washington, D.C. "I still have it downstairs - held together by a rubber band."
Growing up, Hillenbrand became so enamored of the spunky racehorse that she wrote an SAT essay on Seabiscuit and the question of whether it is better to win at all costs or to try your best.
As it turned out, Hillenbrand's interest paid her back - not once, but twice.
Her first book, about Seabiscuit, became a best-seller - and was turned into a Hollywood film.
And it was the Depression-era horse that led Hillenbrand to Louis Zamperini, the subject of her second full-length work of narrative nonfiction, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption."
"Unbroken" is the October choice of The Buffalo News Book Club.
Not only has "Unbroken" equaled the surprising success of "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," it has surpassed Hillenbrand's first effort.
As this story is being written, "Unbroken" had been on the best-seller list for 1 years.
"It's now much, much more successful than 'Seabiscuit,' " said Hillenbrand, with a light laugh. "And that's been a happy surprise as well."
Hillenbrand, 45, talked to The Buffalo News to mark the Book Club's selection of her book for Western New York readers. She doesn't grant such requests as freely as she would like. Disabled due to a severe form of chronic fatigue syndrome, a health problem she has struggled with since she was 19, Hillenbrand rarely leaves her home, and said she has not traveled in 20 years. (She didn't even meet Zamperini while she was working on the book.)
But, on the phone, Hillenbrand spoke lightly and easily about a wide range of subjects, always coming back to her twin loves of researching the past - and writing about it.
Hillenbrand explained how she found Zamperini while researching Seabiscuit.
Both had been household names in the 1930s, with coverage of Zamperini's feats as an athlete often in the same newspapers as stories about Seabiscuit's races.
"The way I found Louie was through Seabiscuit," recalled Hillenbrand. "When I was researching Seabiscuit, I was perusing a lot of 1930s newspapers - that's what I like to do, read the whole newspaper."
"There was an article about this young running phenom. I just read his life story up to that point - it was in this article - and I wondered what had become of him. I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit notebook.
"I resolved then that when I was done with Seabiscuit, I would try to find him."
That quest led her to Zamperini, who proved to be a compelling story.
As a kid growing up in an Italian-American family in California during the Depression, Zamperini was known as scrappy, even a troublemaker. He got into scrapes and pulled pranks. With money in his family tight, Zamperini soon took to petty thievery. He would steal food and run away.
His brother, Pete, more of a straight shooter, decided to put Louie back on a productive course. He had noticed his brother's speed, as Louie engaged in capers, and soon Pete was coaching Louie in track events.
Before long, the teenage Louie Zamperini was beating all comers in every running contest he could enter. He was a star in high school, then in college. He even went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as part of the American track team.
At the start of World War II, Zamperini enlisted in the Army, and was soon training to be an airman in the Army Air Corps. He served as a bombardier on B-24s in the Pacific Theater of the war, flying missions with his crew on the "Super Man."
But on one fateful mission, Louie's plane went down. "Unbroken" - all 473 pages of it - tells the rest of the story about what happened to the plucky kid from the West Coast while his parents and siblings waited for him back at home, keeping faith and hope alive that Louie would make it through his ordeal alive.
Hillenbrand, who spent seven years writing "Unbroken," said there are definite similarities between the story of Seabiscuit and that of Zamperini.
"You have a sports hero; you have a prisoner of war," said Hillenbrand. "The thing that I think ties them together is the possibility that we have [it] within ourselves to succeed, despite great hardship."
"There is a tremendous amount we can overcome, if we are resourceful, if we are resilient."
"Unbroken" is packed with gripping detail about the journey of Zamperini, from shark-filled waters and strafing Japanese planes to the terrible conditions in Japanese prison camps during the war.
Hillenbrand's health makes her research challenging. Because of crippling vertigo, she has to listen to books on audio CDs or strap them into special holders to hold them at an angle so she can read without getting sick.
"It's different every day," Hillenbrand said, of what her illness allows her to do. "Sometimes I spend an entire day [on work], right until I go to bed. When I'm not feeling well, I can't do much. When I have a really bad day - I don't often have really bad days - I sit and listen to audiobooks all day."
The course of her illness has not been steady. About 10 years ago, she was doing better. In 2007, however, Hillenbrand said she suffered a serious setback. Her health grew so bad that she didn't leave the house for two years.
"I am slowly working my way back from that," she said. Along the way back, she married her college boyfriend, Borden Flanagan, in 2008.
After she had finished "Unbroken," Hillenbrand said, she waited for a response from Zamperini, who is still alive and will turn 96 in January.
"I remember he left this long message, and he said, 'Laura you put me through it.' But he really, really loved it. He said I had made all his prison camp friends real to him again. He said he had to stop reading every so often to remind himself the war was over," Hillenbrand said.
"He said he was actually worried - because the book carried him back so vividly - he was worried the book might cause him to start having nightmares again."
Hillenbrand said she has an idea for her third book, but she didn't want to reveal the subject - or even say whether it was like "Seabiscuit" or "Unbroken" in any way.
"You've got to be in love with it," Hillenbrand said. "It's got to be something that's going to make you happy. You have to be obsessed. I've been approached my innumerable people wanting me to write about another horse. But - I'm done [with horse subjects]."
"I always want to start something new and learn it to the very bottom. I decided to learn about the B-24 and by the end I could practically fly the B-24."
As she begins work on her next book, Hillenbrand said she is trying to pace herself better than she has sometimes been able to do in the past.
"I've been trying to enjoy my life, I've been trying to balance my life more, and not work as much," she said. "When I work on books, I become obsessive. That's all I do.
"I've been trying to do more things for myself; to be more outwardly about things."
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Laura Hillenbrand does not usually do book signings, because her chronic fatigue syndrome causes her to suffer from extreme vertigo that makes writing difficult. But, she did send The Buffalo News Book Club two hand-signed book plates that can be pasted inside copies of "Unbroken."
To be considered in the giveaway of the signed plates, write to the Book Club at: bookclub@buffnews.com, or by mail at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.
email: cvogel@buffnews.com