Magazine article Newsweek

A Writer Who Beat the Odds: Hillenbrand Battled Chronic Fatigue to Pen a Best Seller

Magazine article Newsweek

A Writer Who Beat the Odds: Hillenbrand Battled Chronic Fatigue to Pen a Best Seller

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Kantrowitz

Laura Hillenbrand greets you at the door of her yellow brick house in northwest Washington. This would hardly be worth noting, except that Hillenbrand, 36, has spent the past 16 years so debilitated by chronic fatigue syndrome that at times she can move only her eyelids. In September 2000, after she turned in the manuscript of "Seabiscuit," she got so sick that it was many months before she could write again. The term chronic fatigue, she says, "is a terrible understatement. Fatigue is to this illness what a match is to a nuclear bomb."

But on this steamy afternoon, Hillenbrand's ready to talk: "I've spent today, to save up for this, basically lying down. I'm something like a cat." It also helps to live with a boyfriend like Borden Flanagan, 38, who bounds into the room to show off his Seabiscuit sweat shirt and T shirt. He monitors everything from the temperature inside, since she often runs a fever, to how far she might have to walk on a rare venture outside.

They were already a couple in 1987, when food poisoning triggered her illness. Flanagan stuck by her as she dropped out of Kenyon College and friends fell away. After nearly a year recuperating at her mother's house, she followed him to a tiny apartment near the University of Chicago, where he was a graduate student, and she began building the career that would lead to "Seabiscuit." She was stuck at home, but she could write.

Horses had been her passion since she climbed atop a pony named Marylegs at her father's farm near Antietam, Md. In 1972, her father took her to Charles Town racetrack, where she saw her first Thoroughbred-- "the first time I remember recognizing something as beautiful." She first read Seabiscuit's story in a kid's biography of the horse. "I bought it at a fair when I was 7 or 8," she says, pulling the battered paperback off a shelf. …

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