Laura Hillenbrand speaks like she writes: beautifully. She captures moments like getting on a horse to ride again in ways that make you feel like you, too, are riding and feeling the wind in your face.
Hillenbrand, one of the most successful writers of modern times, has suffered many years from chronic fatigue syndrome or, as she likes to refer to it, myalgic encephalomyelitis syndrome. (She despises the term CFS, as she thinks it portrays those who suffer from it as lazy and contemptible.) Astonishingly, she wrote two great books while enduring vertigo and extreme exhaustion from her illness. Seabiscuit and Unbroken captured the imagination of readers and there are more than 13 million copies in print. Seabiscuit is the story of a racehorse that captured America's heart during the Great Depression while Unbroken details the saga of Louis Zamperini, who survived a bomber crash in the Pacific in World War II and spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war.
For the summer issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, a special on well-being, I was curious what the word "well" meant to someone who has been unwell for so long – so I reached out to the author. In the conversation that followed, she graphically detailed how she was ravaged by the disease and how – after being stricken in 1987 – her symptoms at times were so severe that for two years she was incapacitated and house-ridden. She told me she has made a lot of recent changes in her medical treatments and in her life; she has pushed a lot of boundaries such as moving across country to Oregon to be with her boyfriend.
I sensed that Hillenbrand has uncovered a range of newfound strengths and is trying to leave her frailty behind. While she knows she can never escape her chronic illness, there is a sense of optimism and wonderment in her voice over her new beginnings.
As we ended our conversation I couldn’t help but ask about a new book. She says she's not ready to disclose the topic yet, but it will be "a whole lot of fun."
Hopefully, readers who have loved her work will relish this 1:2:1 podcast for her startling frankness about how she achieved great writing success while besieged by a mysterious illness. For others who don't know Hillenbrand's writings or her personal story, I hope they’ll be in awe – as I am – that she did such excellent work while smothered in pain and darkness.
Previously: Strive, thrive and take five: Stanford Medicine magazine on the science of well-being, Stanford scientist's mission to help solve the mystery of CFS brings hope to patients and Unbroken: A chronic fatigue syndrome patient’s long road to recovery