An Interview with Laura Hillenbrand
   by Michael Neff

Laura Hillenbrand has been writing about history and Thoroughbred racing since 1988 and has been a contributing writer/editor for Equus magazine since 1989. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Talk, American Heritage, Reader's Digest, ABC Sports Online, The New York Post, Thoroughbred Times, and many other publications. Her 1998 American Heritage article on Seabiscuit won the Eclipse Award for Magazine Writing, the highest journalistic award for Thoroughbred racing. She is currently serving as a consultant on a Universal Pictures movie based on this book as well as a PBS documentary on Seabiscuit's life. The Universal film stars Jeff Bridges and Toby Maguire, Gary Ross directing.

Neff: Laura, hi. I'm curious. How did you first make contact with an agent about your ms? How did you interest them in the story?

L. Hillenbrand: I got very lucky with finding an agent. My boyfriend mentioned my agent search to one of his grad school colleagues, who told him that someone he knew at Stanford had become an agent. He gave me her contact info, and I sent a query, which included an article I had written on Seabiscuit for the history magazine "American Heritage." She loved it, and off we went. It was the luckiest moment of my career, because the friend-of-a-friend turned out to be probably the best agent in New York. We spent four months working on the proposal to get it just right. Her input, judgement and guidance was simply indispensable.

Neff: Did you know ahead of time that an agent would be interested?

L. Hillenbrand: I don't think anyone knows that for sure, but I believed I had a story worth telling.

Neff: What was your writing experience prior to this work? Had you written any fiction? Creative non-fiction?

L. Hillenbrand: I had been writing professionally since 1988. I did mostly veterinary medical pieces and investigative stories on issues in horse racing and the equine world, such as advances in equine veterinary medicine; the slaughter industry; the horse show industry's scandal in which horses were killed for insurance money; the governmental policies on control of the wild horse population. I wrote for Equus magazine regularly, and did freelance pieces for racing publications, plus some historical pieces. My work was entirely nonfiction.

Neff: Do you feel your experience with the subject matter gave you an edge in getting published?

L. Hillenbrand: Yes and no. Books on horse racing subjects have never done well, and I am told that publishers had come to think of them as the literary version of box office poison. My work has been well-received and has won awards, but as it was pretty much limited to equine subjects, I don't think anyone looked at my writing pedigree and felt compelled to publish me. Honestly, I expected to get a cold reception because of my subject matter. But when editors took a look at the story I had to tell, and saw that this was not a parochial story at all, they really warmed to it. And at that point, I think my experience in covering the subject helped me. I think editors felt comfortable with the idea of me telling this story because I had demonstrated that I know this business pretty well.

Neff: Can you tell us the sequence of events that led to the work being bought by Hollywood? Who bought it? etc?

L. Hillenbrand: This was a truly bizarre experience. My agent and I put out my proposal one Thursday afternoon in August, 1998. Publishers started bidding immediately, and that process progressed for a few days. The following Wednesday, I opted to go with Random House. The next morning, I got a call from a famous movie producer who said he wanted to buy the rights to my book. I have no idea how he got my number, as I was dogsitting in Maryland. I was starstruck and completely confused; making a film of this story hadn't even occurred to me, and I hadn't written a single line of the book yet. I had no idea how this man knew anything about my book proposal.

I spoke to my agent and learned that a Hollywood scout had seen my proposal in one of the publishing houses, and had faxed it to Hollywood, where it was generating a lot of interest. My literary agency is affiliated with Creative Artists agency in Beverly Hills, so I automatically had an agent with them. Calls began pouring in there, and my film rights agent began sending some of them my way, so I could speak to them and see what they proposed to do with the story. I spent one frenzied day interviewing producers, and ended up choosing Universal and Larger Than Life productions. It all happened in two days.

The whole experience was complicated by the fact that, on the day I put out my book proposal, my sister was delivering twins. I didn't want to overshadow her wonderful experience, so I was trying desperately to keep the book and movie deals secret. It only worked for a little while; the morning after I agreed to go with Universal, an article came out in the Hollywood trade papers, and the secret was out.

Neff: Ok, just so I'm clear. Your agent put out a proposal in August 98, and when the producer called you hadn't written a word of the book yet. Didn't this put incredible pressure on you to produce a fabulous manuscript in record time? Most writers would have frozen! How the heck did you do it?

L. Hillenbrand: Yes, I did have both deals before I had written a line. It was initially frightening. People think I must have been turning cartwheels on the night I sealed the movie deal--which was only two days after sealing the book deal--but I was really quite terrified. I spent a while circling around the lawn of the house where I was dogsitting, settling my stomach. My teeth were chattering. Then I went inside and turned on a movie, trying to get my mind off of it for a little while.

I think if I had been writing fiction, where the work is entirely dependent on the writer's creativity and the potential directions the narrative might take are infinite, I might have frozen. But with nonfiction, the task is very straightforward: Do the research, tell the story. Having a lot of people suddenly depending on me to get the job done was a marvelous motivator. The book and movie deals seemed to flip a switch in my head, and off I went.

Neff: What is your role with the film now?

L. Hillenbrand: I am a consultant. Since signing with Universal, I have been working closely with Gary Ross, the director, producer and screenwriter. We have spent many hours on the phone, and I've been sending him information and items that have been useful to the writing process. I'm continuing to work with them.

Neff: Laura, any truth to the rumors that Tobey Maguire, due to his Spiderman contract, is not allowed to ride a real horse on the set, and to get round this he rides a mock horse on the back of a flat bed truck?

L. Hillenbrand: I actually don't know the answer to this. You can ask Stephanie Kluft at Universal.

Neff: Are you working on the screenplay? Have you attended any script development meetings?

L. Hillenbrand: Gary Ross, the author of the movies "Big," (for which he received an Oscar nomination) "Dave," and "Pleasantville," wrote the screenplay--the movie is in production now. I am disabled, so I can't travel, and I have not been to any development meetings, but Gary and the others affiliated with the film keep me updated on everything.

Neff: What are your thoughts involving the book-to-film process in general?

L. Hillenbrand: I've enjoyed it immensely. I think authors can get into trouble viewing the subject matter as their turf. I look at the film as an opportunity to see some bountifully creative minds do something that I could not do--tell the story with images. I can't wait to see what they do.

Neff: Your book is quite a feat and has earned you much recognition. What will you do for an encore?

L. Hillenbrand: Thanks for the compliment. I don't know what I'll do as an encore. I will search for a story that grabs me as this one did, and I'll dig in again. I am actually in poor health due to chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, and my ability to work is greatly diminished right now, so I have to get better before I can start another big project. The process of writing Seabiscuit was an immensely demanding one; I gave everything I had to it, and collapsed afterward. I have to be physically ready to do that again before I write another book.

Copyright Web del Sol, 2002

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