The Narrative Nonfiction Book, Part I

by Richard Goodman

Lessons from Seabiscuit, Part I

I think it might be helpful for all writers to go backwards when looking at Laura Hillenbrand’s superb book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend.  I think we all ought to put ourselves in the place when this wildly successful, critically acclaimed book did not exist at all.  Erase it from your mind.  You know nothing of this story, or of any of the characters.  You are blissfully ignorant of anything and everything about a horse named Seabiscuit.  You may have heard his name in passing, but you don’t know when he lived and where he raced and why you’ve heard his name.  If you’re like me, there was such a time.

Pause.  For those of you who haven’t read the book (or seen the movie), let me quickly summarize.  The story takes place mostly in the late 1930s, during the heart of the depression in America.  It begins with a man named Charles Howard, who becomes rich with one of the very first automobile dealerships in California.  He decides to get into horseracing.  On the advice of friends, he hires a taciturn veteran named Tom Smith to be his trainer.  On a trip east, Smith finds Seabiscuit, a horse with a good pedigree but a lousy attitude and an uninspiring record.  Smith proceeds to turn Seabiscuit around.  He hires Red Pollard, a jockey who has had his share of hard knocks, to ride Seabiscuit.  Smith works wonders, and Seabiscuit starts to win.  And then to win big.  Finally, Charles Howard challenges the owner of War Admiral, whose horse is the greatest thoroughbred of the day and a Triple Crown winner, to a race against his Seabiscuit.  Thousands of people watch this race, and hundreds of thousands listen on the radio.  Seabiscuit, undersized and ungainly, beats the great War Admiral.
The first lesson to learn from the book Seabiscuit is that there was no story.  Yes, certainly, the facts were there before Laura Hillenbrand came along, the events had taken place, but these were simply a series of progressive realities, like newspaper headlines.  Just as important, is the fact that in terms of the written word, what existed was superficial, the merest surface.  The story, in other words, wasn’t a story—yet.
Which is the exact state of many books yet to be written. 
There had, in fact, been a book written about Seabiscuit.  It’s called Seabiscuit: The Saga of a Great Champion, and it was published in 1940, over 60 years ago, when Seabiscuit was still alive.  Hillenbrand quotes from it, but, believe me, it’s hardly a major source in her research.  It’s nothing like her book.  Most of her story came from myriad sources.  So, you might well ask yourself the question: why wasn’t this book written earlier?  If this compelling story was there all along, why didn’t someone leap at it before?  Authors all always looking for dramatic, heart-stopping stories, are they not?  Well, here was one.
Everyone seems to have missed it.  How can we explain this?
Let’s turn to Hillenbrand herself.  She was asked about the genesis of the book on an NPR interview with Terri Gross: “I knew the horse was wildly popular in 1938,” she said, “and I thought perhaps the same things that appealed to the people back then would appeal to people now.  Plus, this is a story of underdogs.”  And what, Gross wanted to know, made them all underdogs?  “Loss,” Hillenbrand said.  You can find this interview on line at the NPR site:  I urge you to listen to it.  Let me also direct you to a superb interview with the author in the back of the paperback edition of Seabiscuit in which she discusses the origins of the book and how she wrote it.
Here’s the point, I believe.  The story was not a story, much less a successful one, before Hillenbrand came along and realized this was far more than just a story about a horse, albeit a marvelously unlikely champion.  The book Seabiscuit exists because Hillenbrand saw in it the raw material for a story about which she could be passionate, about which she could become obsessed.  She claimed it in her heart and mind.  What was it that Hillenbrand saw?  An interviewer posed the question:  “When and how did you first get the idea that there was a book in the story of Seabiscuit—enough material, that is, to sustain a lengthy, non-fiction narrative?”
Here’s what she said:
“Before I wrote Seabiscuit, I was a magazine journalist.  I always knew I would write a book, but I was waiting for an irresistible story to hit me between the eyes.   In the fall of 1996, while working on an article on an unrelated subject, I happened to stumble upon material on Seabiscuit.  I had always known the basics of the horse’s story, but knew little about the men around him.  No one had ever told their stories before.  That day I found just a tidbit of information, a few passages about how Charles Howard [the owner] was a modern automobile man and Tom Smith [the trainer] was a plains cowboy.  Something about that tugged at me, and I kept turning it over in my head.  I thought it was fascinating that a man who had made his fortune replacing the horse with the automobile would find his true greatness by teaming up with a frontier horseman who had been rendered obsolete by the automobile.
“I started poking around in more documents and doing a few interviews, and a spectacular story tumbled out of the research.  What really sold me was the epic reach of the tale.  By following the almost unbelievably dramatic stories of these men and this horse, tracing their paths through the widely varied, long-forgotten avenues of life from which they emerged, then traveling with them on Seabiscuit’s glory tours, you had a sweeping view of the breadth of American life in that era.  I was obsessed almost immediately.”
At that point, everything was against Hillenbrand.  “This was a story,” she said, “that no matter how fascinating the human characters and events were, centered around a racehorse, and no racing book has ever been a major success.”  In another interview, she said that books about racehorses were considered by publishers to be the equivalent of “box-office poison.”  She knew that, and yet she plunged ahead.  Because she was obsessed.  And what does that mean?  That means she did what Marianne Moore urged us all to do as writers: “To see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do.”
It is at this critical point that writers need to take heart and to take the first lesson from Hillenbrand’s story.  It is at the point when Hillenbrand allows herself to “see the vision”—to see that this was a story of character, and of a particular pivotal point in American history, and not simply a story about a horse.  There was no adoring public at this point.  There were no adulating reviews.  There was very little money.  She was living in, as she said, “an excruciatingly tiny apartment” in Washington, DC that was extremely noisy as well where she worked on the book the first two years.  Not to mention she was very ill.  It was just Hillenbrand, and her belief.

Read Part II.