The Narrative Nonfiction Book, Part II

by Richard Goodman

Lessons from Seabiscuit, Part II
Hillenbrand committed every resource in her power for the next five years to write this book. What a gamble! You can be certain there were times when she must have felt as if the way were lost. But her faith and persistence is what showed that she was a writer.  She listened to herself. She trusted herself. The first lesson of Seabiscuit, then, is to try to see it before it was the famous book,Seabiscuit, and to try and put yourself in Hillenbrand’s shoes, to sense the element of discovery and delight she must have felt when she put the puzzle together. There may well come that time when you find yourself engaged by a story that appears as unlikely as the story of a somewhat obscure thoroughbred of fifty years ago. Let your passion be your beacon, as Hillenbrand did. 
Next, Hillenbrand proposed it as an article for American Heritage. That article became the basis for the book. Then she got lucky—but what is luck? A certain persistent open-mindedness, don’t you think? She found an agent who believed in her, and they spent four months getting the proposal right. They sent it out, and within a few days the book was sold. Then Hillenbrand was able to move out of her cramped apartment and finish the book in more felicitous surroundings.
We see that Hillenbrand had committed herself to writing the story of Seabiscuit as she saw it. But that didn’t guarantee that the book would be as well written as it turned out to be.  Hillenbrand might have seen the drama, and told the story in a more or less pedestrian way. She did not. It’s important to note here that Laura Hillenbrand was no stranger to writing about horses. In fact, she had made her career as a freelance writer writing articles for horse magazines, many of these publications of interest only to strict enthusiasts. She knew what she was talking about in terms of horses and horseracing.  But she didn’t know anything to speak of about the three main humans in the story: Charles Howard, Red Pollard and Tom Smith, owner, jockey and trainer of Seabiscuit respectively.  They were all staunch individualists; they believed in their visions of life, and they had a strong and good character. And, as we noted, they had each experienced loss in some form.
The next step for Hillenbrand?  Research. It is well worth your while to have a close look at Hillenbrand’s notes and references at the end of her book. There, you can get an idea about the range of her sources, and of the depth. I also recommend you read her “Acknowledgements” section at the end of the book. In it, she says:
“Writing this book has been a four-year lesson in how history hides in curious places. I obtained the narrative’s basic framework from the usual suspects—newspapers in the Library of Congress and other archives, official track chart books, racing histories, magazines. But the narrative they offered, though intriguing, was incomplete.” 
Pause. Who said they were incomplete? She did. She sensed they were, and wasn’t content with this. She continues: “The textures of my subjects’ personalities, their complex relationships, motives, fears, thoughts, and secrets, all remained elusive, as did the small but telling details that give historic figures immediacy and resonance in the imagination.” Please take note of this wonderful sentence: “Immediacy and resonance in the imagination.” How does she find these small but telling details? She began, “prowling Internet search engines, memorabilia auctions, and obscure bookstores, writing letters and placing ‘information wanted’ ads, and making hundreds of calls to strangers….”
What did she find?  “The story wasn’t lost,” she writes. “It was scattered all over North America, tucked in back pockets and bottom drawers.” She goes on to describe in wonderful detail exactly how and where she found her story. “My greatest source,” she says, “was living memory.” Those “information wanted” ads yielded phone calls from people who had been there and who knew the three men—all dead—in their prime.
This is what took a good chunk of those five years. 
Here’s a small sample of the sort of thing she found. In her “Acknowledgements,” she says: “A 1945 Jockey’s Guild yearbook found in a Virginia bookshop yielded details on Frenchy Hawley and the stomach-turning mechanics of reducing.” That is, how jockeys lost pounds to meet weight requirements for riding their mount. Hillenbrand devotes four entire pages to the various methods by which jockeys shed pounds, some of them desperate indeed. “Virtually every rider,” she writes, “naturally tended to weigh too much.” What did they do to lose weight? “Most jockeys took a more straightforward approach: the radical diet, consisting of six hundred calories a day. Red Pollard went as long as a year eating nothing but eggs. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons [another jockey] confessed that during his riding days a typical dinner consisted of a leaf or two of lettuce, and he would eat them only after placing them on a windowsill to dry the water out of them.”
But wait. There’s more. If all else failed—the dieting, the malicious purgatives, the wearing of sweat-inducing rubber suits—then jockeys had one last resort: “Contact the right people,” Hillenbrand writes, “and you could get hold of a special capsule, a simple pill guaranteed to take off all the weight you wanted.” What a wonderfully innocent-sounding sentence. Hillenbrand goes on: “In it was the egg of a tapeworm. Within a short while the parasite would attach to a man’s intensities and slowly suck the nutrients out of him. The pounds would peel away like magic. When the host jockey became too malnourished, he would check into a hospital to have the worm removed.”
Lesson Two. What if you stopped short in your research? What if you didn’t hunt in every nook and cranny? What if, after your book was published, you came upon an amazing tapeworm-like story—and perhaps others like it—that you missed, simply because you were not persistent enough to go and find it? How would you feel, knowing you would most likely never be able to include it, knowing what immediacy and resonance it would have added to your book? This lesson is: assume there is more, and assume it is out there somewhere. Don’t be shy or modest about finding it. Be cordial, and be respectful in your research, yes, but be relentless. One beautiful fact, one beautiful quote, can tip the scales. No editor is going to come to you and say, “Keep probing, I think there’s a quote out there about tapeworms.” It’s up to you to discover it, and you need to use every method you can think of to find it.
Read Part III.