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Laura Hillenbrand ’89 Discusses Her New Book Unbroken

Laura Hillenbrand ’89 Discusses Her New Book Unbroken

By August Steigmeyer

Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand H’89, is the story of Louis Zamperini – an Olympic athlete, WWII B-24 bombardier and prisoner of war (POW) from 1943 to 1945. The book is currently number one on the New York Times bestsellers list. It is also NPR Books’ inaugural book club pick and is soon to be adapted into a motion picture. Hillenbrand’s previous book, Seabiscuit, was also a bestseller and in 2003 became an Oscar-nominated film starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges.

As a young boy, Louis Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants, did poorly in school and was often caught stealing and pulling pranks. When his brother introduced him to his school’s track team, Louis developed a passion for running. He eventually beat the interscholastic mile-run record with a time of 4:21.2 and earned a scholarship to the University of California. He later qualified for the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. He did not place, but he ran a final lap so impressive that Adolf Hitler requested a personal meeting with him.

Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941 and was deployed to Hawaii, where he flew several bombing missions over Japanese-occupied islands in the Pacific, including Wake Island. His plane, Super Man, returned from one mission with 594 gunshot holes in its fuselage. After a mechanical failure on the B-24 aircraft Green Hornet caused the plane to plummet into the ocean, Louis and two surviving crewmates were set adrift on the Pacific for 47 days before the Japanese military found them. Louis was sent to a POW camp where he faced two years of intense labor, debilitating illness, torture and the relentless harassment of Matsuhiro Watanabe – known to the captives as “The Bird.”

Zamperini’s diverse experiences in the war and remarkable story provide a fantastic template for Hillenbrand’s look at the Pacific Theater of WWII. Her gripping narrative, composed from thousands of interviews and written accounts, captures the stories of the men who served and attempts to understand why the Japanese soldiers believed in using such brutal tactics on their prisoners. The book also follows Zamperini’s post-war traumatic stress disorder and eventual path to forgiving those who wronged him during the war.

Hillenbrand spoke to the Collegian about the experience of writing her new historical biography and shared her thoughts on what people should learn from the story of Louis Zamperini:

How did you hear about Louis’ story?

Louis and Seabiscuit were sports stars around the same time, the mid-’30s to 1940. They were both based in southern California, so in the articles I was looking through for Seabiscuit I kept coming across articles for this teenage running phenom. A little later I came across something from what had happened to him in the war, so I took his name down in my research notebook. When I was done working on Seabiscuit … I called him and we had this amazing conversation, and I knew I had to write this book.

Did you see a parallel between his story and Seabiscuit?

I don’t know if I did. If one did exist, I don’t think I thought about it that way. They’re certainly both stories about individuals overcoming very long odds to achieve what they want to achieve. That is a theme that I am very interested in – what are the attributes that may carry someone through hardships? I saw a terrific example of that in Louis Zamperini.

Louis had written a memoir before. Why did you feel you had to tell this story again?

Autobiography is a wonderful genre, but it is very narrowly focused. The point of view is only of the subject. I wanted to write a biography, I wanted to make this much, much broader where I could not only look at what he experienced from his own perspective, but from the perspective of all the individuals around him – whether that be his family or the people at the Olympics with him or his crew mates on Super Man or the guy on the raft with him and his fellow POWs. I wanted to also look at the Pacific War itself and the obstacles faced by air corpsmen. Louis was a way for me to look at the war as a whole because his experiences were so broad in the war. Louis told me on many occasions that there were lots of things I put in that book that he didn’t even know about. So he was really fascinated to read it because it answered a lot of questions he had.

Do you feel you can trust the subject to tell his own story without embellishment or omissions?

The very first question I had about this story was “Could this actually be true?” because it does seem too incredible to believe. I went all the way through it, really obsessively cross-checking everything, and it is my good fortune that there were sources to cross-check everything about this story. There was another guy on the raft who survived with him. Russell Phillips, his raft-mate, was … very frank, a guy who does not lend himself to any exaggeration, and on every point he and Louis agreed.

I had thousands of sources: affidavits, other prisoner of war diaries, you name it and I found sources on it. Working with Louis is interesting: not only is he not an exaggerator, but he was really bothered by times in which other writers had exaggerated about him. Sometimes I would read something in an old newspaper story and I would say, “Louis, this is amazing,” and he would say, “Actually, that’s not true.” He would correct it, and in correcting it he would make his story a little less amazing, but he was fastidiously honest in that way. I really had the best of both worlds: I had a guy with an amazing story who was a truthful man, and I had lots of other sources to check that not only he was telling the truth but that his memory was accurate.

When you started writing the book, did you know what tone it would take? Do you try to stay neutral?

I tried to tell this in as much of a neutral way as possible because it is such a sensational story, not only in terms of what he overcame, but there’s also a lot of the story that is really terrible, really grim, with the lives of the POWs and the things they experienced after the war. I felt in terms of tone that it was very important to simply let the facts tell the story, so I stood back a lot with this.

What were your impressions of “The Bird,” and did you come to forgive him in the end?

He was an interesting guy and he was such an elusive person. I wished that there had been more to find out about him. I want to believe that there were things in The Bird’s history that may have driven him to be the monster that he was. I want to have that compassionate view of everyone and I tried to have that about the Japanese in general. I spoke to a lot of Japanese and went through a lot of Japanese sources to find what was their perspective on the war and what motivated the rage that they showed against prisoners of war.

With The Bird, I want to believe that there was something wrong, that he wasn’t simply a monster and there is no other explanation. I want to believe that somehow this came out of some misfortune he suffered. But we will never know; there wasn’t any record of any such thing. I don’t personally feel a lot of rage toward him. I guess I haven’t really thought about it that way. There were definitely times when I had trouble with that in writing it, but I’m kind of at the point of peace where Louis is with it.

Do you think that The Bird truly felt sorry for what he had done?

I don’t think he was sorry for them. My personal opinion is that he was trying to exploit his history and trying to exploit what he had done to get attention. That is very consistent with who he was during the war. He would take the POWs out into the city and make them march in front of him so that he could draw attention as some sort of big general or something. He was exploiting them to get sexual satisfaction. He was a sexual sadist to make himself feel powerful. I think that was all it was.

I think he thought he would get praise for sounding contrite, but I don’t think it was sincere. I think he was aware that he had done bad things and I think at the time he did them, that was acceptable in Japan.

When the generation passed and the new time came along, it was no longer acceptable, so he decided to take a position of contrition. That’s a personal opinion; none of us are ever going to know what he was really thinking.

The Bird never wanted to meet with Louis in the 1990s. Do you think he feared revenge?

I think [The Bird] regretted the interview he had done with CBS [in 1998]. I think he felt that he had been humiliated in that because they had presented his crimes to him and he had to explain them. I think he didn’t want to be exposed any more than he was. I think it’s also probably very unnerving when you have awarded your power over someone and beaten and humiliated them, to have them no longer be mad at you, to have them say, “I forgive you.” That’s a very disarming thing to have happen to you and I think he was probably kind of disoriented by that. It rendered him powerless to be forgiven.

When you were talking to these POWs, did you feel you had to take special care when bringing up these experiences again? Did you ever feel you could go too far by asking too much?

It was a very delicate thing. I was very conscious of how I’m asking these guys to take me back to a time they probably really wanted to forget, a time of excruciating pain for them. There were some people who didn’t want to be interviewed and that’s okay. I definitely didn’t push; I didn’t ask a second time on anybody. But most of them did want to be interviewed. They were surprisingly open about talking about it. Some of them were very upset during the interviews, some of them became enraged, some of them cried. It was always a process of feeling my way along and seeing how much someone would want to talk.

There was one man who was crying a lot, but he was also very eager to keep going. He kept offering up new things and it was quite cathartic for him.

Another man had some of the most terrible things happen to him and it was hard [for me] to be the reason why he was recalling them, but after we got off the phone, his wife told me that he thought it had been really good for him, that he had felt better that we’d spoken about it. That was something that Louis has always stressed: you have to talk about it. I think they were all happy in the end that they spoke. They understood that this stuff should be recorded in history and they trusted me to handle it. I thought that was a great privilege.

Did the Japanese people you interviewed give you any perspective on the war?

They were very, very open. None of the people I spoke to were responsible for any kind of atrocity. Nauchi Hato was the accountant of [a POW] camp and he actually, by POW accounts … was kind to the POWs. He was a great guy. He gave me a lot of insight into The Bird because he knew The Bird very well – he hated the man.

No one was in the position to say they were sorry, but I know that, among the Japanese that I interviewed, there was a lot of sorrow that Japan had done what it had done. Whether that is the general opinion held in Japan – I don’t think it is. But among these people, there was a lot of compassion for the POWs.

You spent seven years writing this book. Was it a full-time job?

It was seven days a week for seven years. It was a very big research project because the subject is so sprawling and there were many, many sources. Most of the people I interviewed, I interviewed multiple times, and there was a lot of research to be done in the National Archives and archives all over the world. I needed every day of those seven years to get all this information together and then to write it. Of course it was a difficult book to write; it’s very hard to capture another person’s experiences and to get those absolutely right.

Did you ever give the written portions to the people you interviewed to ensure accuracy?

No, I didn’t. That’s kind of a historian’s dilemma, because you don’t want to make it an “approved book,” you don’t want to be writing for your sources. But I know that what I was taking down was accurate. The feedback has been fantastic from the POWs I interviewed, and Louis. Louis feels like I got every single thing right.

Both your books have been historical non-fiction. Is this an area in which you want to continue writing?

I’ve only wanted to be a historian. I think this is what I’ll stay with. I really enjoy this kind of process. I love the research, I love the interviews, I love the scaffolding of having all the facts to work with. It’s just exactly right for me.

Are you working on a new book now?

I’ve gotten a suggestion from many readers. Forty or fifty readers have said that they would like to see [Unbroken] made into a young adult book. I’m thinking of adapting it for schools because the Pacific War is really under-talked in schools. People, when they think of World War II, they think of Europe. They don’t know what happened in the Pacific.

Do you have any stories you want to write about?

I have a couple of stories that I stumbled across while I worked on this and it’ll take a lot of research to know if there’s a book in it. I’m not telling what it is, but it’s something that I just happened across, while I was doing this, just like when I was working on Seabiscuit and came across Louis Zamperini.

Is Unbroken going to be adapted to film?

It is. We have a deal with Universal Pictures under the director Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and his new movie, soon to come out [is] Water for Elephants, which is also based on a book.

How much creative control will you have on that project? Did you have much on Seabiscuit?

Writers just about never do. With Seabiscuit, I didn’t have any kind of official creative control at all. I was a consultant and I did consult with them a whole lot. They kept me very involved; they showed me the first draft of the screenplay and then the second go at it and we talked about a lot of things. In the end I didn’t have a lot of decision power, but I was very involved. With [Unbroken] I don’t know what it will be, but officially I will be a consultant and we’ll see how that works. [With] Seabiscuit … I just distanced myself from it emotionally. I was really happy with the movie and hopefully I will be with this one as well.

What do you want people to learn from this book?

I think this is a story that offers a lot of lessons. It is, at its most basic, an absolutely exhilarating and amazing true story. None of us is going to go through what he went through. But all of us are going to end up in a situation in our lives, maybe many times, where we don’t know how we are going to get through the difficulties. We don’t know where we are going to find the strength or the wherewithal to get through it. The thing that this story offers is an example of how far a resilient will can carry you … and that’s the thing that is resonating with people – they feel strengthened by knowing this story.

Was there anything at Kenyon that particularly inspired you to get into writing?

I went to Kenyon thinking I was going to be a [psychology] major – my mother’s a psychologist – and thinking I would probably write in some form, but I wasn’t that sure about it. I had a professor there named Megan Macomber and I took a creative writing course with her, and on the back of this essay she wrote me a note telling me, “You should be a writer.” Just telling me that straight out: “You should devote yourself to this. It’s what you’re meant to do.” No one had ever said anything like that to me, and because of her I took that seriously and began to kind of feel out
what I wanted to do with t
at ability, and it turned into this career. I owe Kenyon, and I owe Megan for this whole thing, for my whole career and everywhere it’s taken me and it’s going to Kenyon that was the most important decision that I have made in my life. It’s led to so many wonderful things.

What would you tell a current Kenyon student who wants to get into writing as a career?

I think the most important thing you can do if you want to be a writer is to read and to read the best writers and study them. That’s helped me a great deal, and actually when I’m writing a book, I’m trying to read the best writers because they influence the rhythm of my language, so I’m always reading Tolstoy or Edith Wharton of Jane Austin or Fitzgerald or Hemingway while I’m writing a book.

Those things you just start to pick up. The more good reading you do, the better writer you’ll be, and I think that’s the most important thing about being a writer – to be a reader, too.

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