Lessons from Seabiscuit
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: npr.org. 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.
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.
At this point, Hillenbrand has enough material to write her book. Mind you, she’ll keep unearthing things still, but it’s time to begin the actual writing. So, how does she construct this book? Well, already certain that this is to be a story about character and characters; she begins her book by introducing the four protagonists.
In order, she devotes her first four chapters to Charles Howard, the future owner of Seabiscuit, to Tom Smith, the trainer, to Seabiscuit himself, and, finally, to Red Pollard, Seabiscuit’s jockey. This is in fact how these protagonists came into the story. Howard found Smith who found Seabiscuit who found Pollard. (Interestingly, Hillenbrand introduces them in the reverse order in her “Preface.”) She devotes a chapter to Seabiscuit, because, as we see, the horse is himself a real character—and has character—too. Right away, Hillenbrand lets us most assuredly know that this is not going to be a history lesson, not going to be a book just about horses, but it’s going to be a book about people. The story is mirrored by the construction of the book itself.
This structure also allows the author to demonstrate how different these men are, and how different their backgrounds. We can see this in stark comparison, and it is, quite simply, a lot of fun. These men are from an era in which you might have the most colorful, ragtag, astonishing background.
There is not enough space here in this brief essay to go into the confluence of history, much less geographical influences, represented in these lives, but Hillenbrand takes full advantage of what she herself had seen at one point: Charles Howard represented progress in the form of the automobile, and what contraption has changed the face of America more? Tom Smith represented the glory and independence of the fading Wild West, a land where the horse was king. He was already breaking horses at the age of thirteen on the plains in the latter part of the 19th century. The Indians called him the “Lone Plainsman.” Voluble as Gary Cooper, with an amazing knowledge of the ways and means of horses, he was a living anachronism, and a brilliant one. Red Pollard led a Steinbeckian life. Plagued by injury but possessed of an indomitable spirit and an unsinkable good will, he made this story even more unlikely.
Hillenbrand masterfully introduces other elements into the story—the friendship and rivalry between Red Pollard and the better-known jockey George Woolf, for example. But from here on in, she dedicates herself to telling the story itself. Which means that, along with the actual facts, she must give us an education about horseracing as she goes along. She must assume that many of her readers know nothing of thoroughbred racing. And she has to make sure we aren’t bored by this education.
She is concerned with that, and she is concerned with pace, with providing drama, and with establishing tension in a situation in which the events have already taken place. In this case, our ignorance works to her advantage. The fact that many of us probably knew very little about this story means that she can surprise us. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea that Seabiscuit and War Admiral ran this great race, and so, obviously, I had no idea who won. In the end, I was glad about my ignorance. Not knowing made her descriptions of the races even more thrilling.
The writing in Seabiscuit is marked by precision, lyricism, wit, and exuberance. For pure compacted energy and outright irresistibility, first turn to Hillenbrand’s “Preface.” It has that most essential virtue any preface should possess in my opinion: brevity. It’s an educated tease that supplies us with enough energized information to get us primed for the race that follows. Right away, we are assured that Hillenbrand wants to tell a story, not to lecture us, and that she herself can’t wait to tell it.
As for Hillenbrand’s wit, consider this sentence about Red Pollard, the injury-prone jockey who was laid up in the hospital:
Alexander found Pollard lying supine with his leg up in traction, his misery greatly assuaged by a leggy private nurse named Agnes.
Or, recounting the story of a jockey that had been thrown off his horse so badly he was presumed near death. The jockey, named Neves, was taken away to the hospital, only to revive. Hillenbrand writes:
Neves woke up.
He asked the physician if he had won the fifth race. The stunned doctor told him the fifth race hadn’t even been run yet. Neves promptly stood up and announced that he had to get back to riding. The jockey broke free from hands that tried to restrain him, jumped into a cab and went back to the racetrack.
Hillenbrand recounts that:
As the shirtless, blood-splattered erstwhile corpse sprinted past the grandstand, astonished fans started running after him.
I love that, “the erstwhile corpse”!
Hillenbrand is a generous writer. By that, I mean that her attitude is one of: I’ve got this great story to tell you, so everyone gather round. Everyone. There is never a sense of superciliousness in her writing—that is, of her looking down from her knowledgeable position. Every wonderful fact, quote and incident she brings to the story is with the attitude of a cook whose greatest pleasure is to see the reaction of people enjoying her food.
I can speak about lyricism and exuberance in terms of one of the most difficult tasks Hillenbrand faced in writing this book. That is, the descriptions of the horse races themselves. In the book, there are four main races she describes. Two of them Seabiscuit lost. Now, the question you should ask yourself is: how can anyone make a description of a horserace that took place fifty years ago interesting, much less four? Think of it. Suppose your book was about sailing. And why not? Could you describe four sailing races and keep readers glued to their seats?
Here’s how Hillenbrand did it. First, she made us care. The first big race doesn’t come until page 120 in the book, and by then we have learned a great deal about the protagonists in this tale and have become quite attached to them. Everything is against Seabiscuit, his trainer and his jockey, and yet they all had an “indomitable will,” as Hillenbrand describes Seabiscuit.
Something else. I don’t know if this has been mentioned much in reviews and criticism, but each of these men is very loyal to what they believe in and to the people who are important to them. In other words, they are good men. Strong men, in that sense, who would not, did not, sacrifice friendship for fame or fortune. Believe me, there were plenty of temptations, particularly in this era when times were so hard. It’s fulfilling to be around people like this, even on the printed page. We want good things for them. Not only that, but by then we have come to see that Seabiscuit himself has character, has a fierce pride he was ready all along to display, if only the right people came along who understood him.
Ok. So we care. It’s still a horserace, though. The horses race around a track, someone wins, and the rest of them lose. That’s it. Not in Hillenbrand’s hands. Now, you have to remember, these races don’t come one upon another. A lot happens between races. There is time to recover and time to build tension up again. I’m just talking about pure description here. These actual races don’t take long. No longer than about two minutes in real time! Hillenbrand put in months of research to see that those two minutes were described not only as accurately as possible, but as dramatically. She had the facts when she was ready to write. Then she added art.
For example, in the race against War Admiral, Hillenbrand employs language that is not normally associated with horses, but with cats. She writes: “Seabiscuit clawed at the ground in front of him.” And: “War Admiral scratched and tore at the track.” And: “Seabiscuit pounced.”
In describing another race, she also uses words that we often hear employed in car racing: “Richards saw him go and gunned Rosemont through the hole,” she writes. “Wall wound Stagehand up to top speed,” she writes elsewhere. And: “Whichee screamed along the rail.”
And just for pure pleasure, here are some other examples of admirable writing:
Ahead of him, Pollard crouched and watched Special Agent’s churning hindquarters, waiting for him to fold.
Seabiscuit stalked him with predatory lunges.
As the wire neared, the horses’ heads bobbed out of time, so that the lead was traded every few feet.
Finally, a paragraph from the duel between Seabiscuit and War Admiral:
The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, a fifteen-year-old speed record fell under them, broken by nearly a full second. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.
Hillenbrand knows precisely when she can employ a bit of melodrama. Sentences like, “As forty thousand voices shouted them on,” and “tens of thousands of roaring spectators and millions of radio listeners painting this race in their imaginations” are appropriate here for this most collectively emotion-packed moment.
The last lesson here is, yes, do your research, then write the hell out of it with all the art you can muster.
In the end, though, I believe the greatest lesson is one of belief. Let’s go back to the sailing example. You may be tempted to say, oh, well, sailing, I don’t think I could write so dramatically about that. Who cares about sailing? Really, sailing is not nearly as exciting as horseracing; it’s so slow. My response? So you say.
The main reason why Hillenbrand can write so grippingly about horse races that took place fifty years ago is because she believes. She believes in her story, in her drama, in her characters, in what she calls their “crowded hour.” With that belief, for which she employs every ounce of energy and learning and determination she has, she carries the day, and with it, we, her grateful readers.