A Writer Who Beat The Odds

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. "I read it to death."

By the mid-1990s, Hillenbrand was writing for horse magazines. She and Flanagan moved to D.C., where he teaches at American University. She struck gold with a book and movie deal for "Seabiscuit," for which she interviewed more than 100 people, all on the phone. Flanagan rigged up a clipboard at eye level to hold her notes, because vertigo makes it difficult for her to look down. He also made sure she always had food nearby; there are still cereal boxes lined up next to her desk. Even so, she had to do some of the writing lying on her back with her eyes closed, scribbling on a pad held up at arm's length. In order to have enough energy, "I gave up everything," she says. "I didn't socialize at all... It got to be this weird obsession and I couldn't stop."

With 2.5 million copies in print, "Seabiscuit" is the kind of success writers parlay into lucrative multibook deals. Hillenbrand has to move more cautiously. (She has a new topic; all she'll say is that it isn't about horses.) It took two years to finish a New Yorker piece on her illness--in part because September 11 made her feel writing was "trivial." And Flanagan had finally opened up about the toll her illness had taken on him. "It is very easy to feel perpetually helpless and inadequate in the face of the suffering of someone you love," he says. "I felt very alone and cut off from her."

Hillenbrand thought the relationship was over. But being honest made the bond stronger. "Most of a relationship is just hanging out with someone," Flanagan says. "She is the best hanger-outer I have ever come across." Not long ago her temperature started spiking. At 104 degrees, she told the worried Flanagan, "when it gets to 107, sell." It doesn't look like he's bailing out any time soon.