Laura Hillenbrand Q&A cont.
SI.com: A more personal question: Do you ever think now about the sports you once played? You have been very candid in past interviews about finding joy in the life you've been handed. But do you think about swimming or riding or any other athletic pursuit that so many others take for granted?
Hillenbrand: When I first became ill, which happened very suddenly in March 1987, a curious thing happened. In my waking life, I was so weak I had to lean against a wall for support as I tried to make it to my bathroom. But in my dream life, I became a super athlete. I won the Tour de France. I rode a Kentucky Derby winner. I took gold in swimming at the Olympics. Every athletic endeavor came without effort or flaw. Then I would wake, and find myself trapped in a body that could not function. The dreams were very troubling to me, compounding the pain I felt over the loss of my body.
It wasn't until I made the emotional adjustment to the illness -- accepting that this wasn't going to go away overnight and I would have to learn to find happiness and make my life meaningful in spite of it -- that those dreams stopped. Since then, if I dream of sports -- which I do fairly often, mostly of swimming backstroke in meets -- I am always ill in them, pushing against exhaustion.
I miss sports every day. Even after all these years, part of me hasn't stopped thinking of myself as an athlete. I'm a great watcher of sports; all my life, I've been absolutely willing to watch any sport you put in front of me, whether it's pro football or tractor pulls. In elementary school, I used to run home when school let out so I could catch the 3:00 p.m. showing of The Olympiad, my favorite program. Now, as I watch athletes perform, I'm always imagining what it must feel like to be so free. That's very poignant for me, but at the same time, it makes my experience of sports so much richer, because I appreciate so fully how wondrous athletes are. When a truly supreme athlete comes along -- Michael Jordan, the racehorse Easy Goer, Greg LeMond and sprinters Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt have resonated particularly with me -- I am spellbound.
Little things from my athletic life stay with me. In all my years riding horses I learned to instinctively rise out of the saddle and lean forward as a horse came upon a bump in the ground, in case he jumped or stumbled. When I'm in a car, I still habitually do that when we come upon a pothole. And when my husband throws a balled-up paper towel at the trash can, I instinctively swing at it, as if I'm on a tennis court. Years ago, when I was in a good period with the illness, I got to ride a horse again, for half an hour. I was nothing like the strong rider I had once been, but my body still knew how to move in balance with the horse and to pick up cues in the horse's gestures, exactly as it once had. The body never forgets.
SI.com: Almost a decade ago, you told an interviewer: "The biggest problem has been exhaustion. I've spent about six of the last 14 years completely bedridden. At times, I have been unable to bathe myself. I have gotten so bad I couldn't really feed myself and a couple of times I needed someone to spoon feed me. I have had trouble rolling over in bed."
What is the state of your health today?
Hillenbrand: Unfortunately, it's not good. I was doing OK for several years after Seabiscuit, but in 2007, in my fourth year of working on Unbroken, I suffered a sudden, catastrophic CFS relapse. It was months before I was strong enough to get down my staircase, and two years before I was strong enough to leave the house. I had to finish the book while in disastrously bad condition, and on some days I was barely able to get my hands to the keyboard. I was afraid I wouldn't get it done, but somehow, I did. I was fortunate in that nearly all of the research was done before the relapse, so all I needed to do was write.
For the past year and a half, I've been slowly, slowly improving, but it's been a long and difficult haul. I'm now well enough to get around my house fairly well on good days, and sometimes go out, but there are more bad days than good. Promoting the book has been exceptionally difficult, and [it's] dragging me back down again. Putting myself at risk now is a choice I'm making with eyes open. It is tremendously important to me to bring Louie Zamperini's story, and those of the other airmen and POWs who served alongside him, to the world. I feel I owe it to these men, who opened up their histories to me. And I want so badly to define myself by something other than this all-consuming disease. These books have given me that gift.
SI.com: Have you ever wondered if your physical struggle has given you a heightened sensitivity (or work ethic) that has helped you write so passionately and so evocatively?
Hillenbrand: My illness has, in one way, made my physical life extremely simple. I move very, very little, almost never leave my home and sit in silence, alone, almost all the time. Whatever I am writing fills every corner of my world in a way it can't for a writer who also has kids or a commute or a social life or travel or all the other things healthy people have that keep them in the present moment. I'm always trying to escape my body and the suffering that this illness brings, so I lose myself in these stories. In the time that I have spent writing Seabiscuit, then Unbroken, I have become so familiar with the 1930s and 1940s that I almost feel as if I lived in them, even though I was born many decades later. The music, the clothing, the manners of speech, the historical setting -- all these things feel more like home to me than the current era does, because I am so far outside of normal contemporary life. I don't know if my immersion makes the story more immediate to the reader, but I hope it does.
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