It’s every writer’s dream, to have your book — let alone your debut effort — hit the The New York Times‘ best-seller list within weeks of publication after garnering rapturous reviews. Rebecca Skloot’s is already at number six.
Skloot’s gifts as a writer and student of science weren’t apparent early on. During a recent visit to New York from Tennessee, where she teaches writing at the University of Memphis, Skloot says: “I was a troublemaker. The first time I got suspended I was in second grade.” She failed her first year of high school because “I just didn’t show up. It was a boredom thing.”
An experimental school finally provided the freedom and challenge Skloot needed, and in only one year, she completed all four years of high school.
Six years later, at Colorado State University, Skloot still “had no interest in writing whatsoever. I was going to be a veterinarian.” But thanks to an academic quirk at Colorado State, she was able to take a writing class to escape the foreign language requirement. “I completely fell in love with it. So I just started taking writing classes every semester.”
A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of “Erin Brockovich,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Andromeda Strain.” More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.
The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks’s cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal” and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, “trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.” Laid end to end, the world’s HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.
I don’t know Rebecca personally, but we both belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,400-member international group of ambitious and talented professionals. Our online ASJA private bulletin boards, where members trade tips, advice and contacts, have been lit up with excitement at her achievement.
She spoke to me today from Athens, Ohio, during her 53-city national tour.
She started planning her mega-tour in October, thanks to help from her father, writer Floyd Skloot. “He’s the logistics guy.” She’s traveling all across the U.S., lecturing to scientists, researchers, students and community groups, on college campuses, in bookstores, wherever she finds an enthusiastic audience. Her tour expenses have been cobbled together from speaking fees — sometimes from as many as four separate college departments like journalism, medicine and English chipping in together to get her onto a campus.
Her tour began January 29 and ends June 1, leaving behind at home in Memphis, where she teaches writing, her two beloved dogs, Chance and Rhoda, and her boyfriend of six years, a fellow writer (of fiction), actor and director. Luckily for both, his work is similar enough he’s thrilled for her, but different enough he can celebrate without the envy that often poisons partnered writers when one’s career suddenly or finally rockets.
At every stop, Skloot is now happily inundated with additional media requests, in addition to speaking almost every day to yet another group of strangers.
A longtime writer on animals and science, she admits she’s become a traveling science evangelist, a phrase she greets with a friendly but honest laugh.
“In all my talks, I talk about how important it it to just talk about science, to understand it. So many people I’ve met along the way have been afraid to even ask questions of their doctors, about their treatment, about what it means. To even read and sign a consent form. There really was a huge communications breakdown between the scientific community and the African-American community and that has had a huge effect on some people.”
Some members of the African-American community in Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins where the HeLa cells were gathered and used, have long been hostile and suspicious of its scientists, Skloot said. “Some people think if you are out at night anywhere near the campus, they’ll grab you and use you. You may go in and never come out.” At one local Baltimore event, a lone African American man came up to Skloot after her speech to tell her he’d tried to get others to attend with him, but they had refused to enter the premises. “There’s a long history there of distrust,” she said.
Selling the idea for the book wasn’t easy, Skloot said. “When I described it, people would roll their eyes and say ‘That sounds like the most boring book in the world!’ It also took her 18 months of slow, gentle persuasion to get the Lacks family to talk to her and to trust her — yet one more educated white stranger likely to profit from their tale — with their story.
On this long tour, she’s not just reading, lecturing or answering questions — but stepping into crowded rooms filled with strangers, many of them brimming with complex emotion. She often encounters their rage — not at her, but at what happened to the Lacks, and how the medical establishment has behaved in this matter. By showing up in person to talk about it, by taking the time and care to tell the Lacks story, Skloot ends up facing, and managing, tremendous emotion in the room when she addresses African Americans.
They are angry the story took so long to emerge. They are angry that it happened at all.
“There’s a lot of yelling, a lot of anger, about this. How it could happen. That it took so long for the story to come out. Someone always asks me ‘So, how are you different from the rest of them?’” (She has set up a foundation to donate a portion of her book sales to the Lacks family.) While they are glad she has told the tale, and appreciate how well she has done so, this is not , in this overwhelming respect, a typical author tour.
“It’s incredibly exhausting,” she admits. She re-charges with friends, home-cooked meals, visits from her boyfriend, sitting in a kitchen with someone she’s known for years, not just another dozen eager audiences.
The book took ten years, went through three publishers and four editors. Skloot demanded five rewrites of herself.”I write really long, then I cut and cut and cut and cut and cut. Some of it was the challenge of the clarity of the science. I didn’t want to overwhelm people.” To stay on track, (like many writers), she chose a number of “first readers” — people whose opinions and expertise she needed for feedback on the manuscript. These included editors and writers, a group of scientists and readers with high school educations, people “a little freaked out by science. I wanted the book to be broadly accessible and completely accurate.” That meant making it smart enough to engage academics and scientists while readable and engaging enough to pull in the rest of us.
Did she never want to just give up?
“I’m incredibly hard-headed,” she laughs. “I was a very difficult kid, as my parents can tell you. Once I set my mind to something, I do it. I never thought it wasn’t going to work, even when I was having huge fights with one of my editors about it. I just thought — can you get it front of people? I knew the public would respond very positively once I got it there.”
This week she’s in Columbus, OH; next week, Indianapolis and Chicago. Here’s her upcoming events page.