In 1951, African American Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in a hospital in Maryland, but she also gained immortality. Without her knowledge, a sample from her tumor was used to propagate the world's first immortal cell line—cells that divide indefinitely in laboratory conditions and essentially live forever. Scientists have since used the cell line dubbed HeLa to study polio, AIDS, cancer, and much more, and Lacks's unwitting contribution made possible a multibillion-dollar biomedical industry.
Award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot
spent ten years researching Lacks's story for her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
, which examines the history of HeLa and its impact on Lacks's surviving family members, who have never benefited from their mother's sacrifice. The work has reaped critical accolades and earned a spot on The New York Times
best-seller list. Blogger and book reviewer Bethanne Patrick
spoke with Skloot about her marathon writing process and what it's like to become a character in a movie.
Goodreads: Science nonfiction is not typically a widely accessible genre. How did you make this book both so meaningful and so readable?Rebecca Skloot
: I had a vision of my target audience: The spectrum ran from someone who hadn't finished high school to Nobel-winning chemists! I was actively trying to write for this huge range of people and felt—still feel—that doing so was just as important for Nobel winners as for the general public. The most rewarding thing for me in this process was to get e-mails from readers saying, "I hate science, but I loved your book!" or "I learned so much reading your book that now I understand basic biology in a way I never did in school," and so on. One of my goals was to show the human side of a complicated medical story, but another was to show the beautiful ways science interacts with daily life. There's not a person alive today who has not benefited in some way from Henrietta's cells. GR: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does not use a straightforward narrative; instead you guide the reader back and forth through multiple time periods: Henrietta's story, the lives of her relatives in the present day, and the history of the HeLa cells and modern science. How did you develop your book's structure?RS
: When I was working on this book, I knew I wanted a braided structure, to twine three narratives together, so I spent a lot of time reading fiction—not nonfiction!—that had this kind of build. A Home at the End of the World
, The Hours
[both by Michael Cunningham
], and Love Medicine
by Louise Erdrich
—but actually, the most influential to my own story was one that you might find a bit surprising: Fannie Flagg
's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe
. I also watched movies that were set up like this, like Hurricane
with Denzel Washington. The important thing to any of the books or movies I looked at was that they jump around quickly in time. That was the most important thing, I finally realized—because if Henrietta's story is told in a purely linear manner, the reader is completely lost as to why modern events relate back to what happened to her by the end. GR: Goodreads member Matt L writes, "I noticed that much of your story and much of your research took place before 2001, but it was nine more years before the book hit the printing press. What was the most time-intensive part of crafting this book, and what kept you going for all those years?"RS
: I'm laughing, because those are definitely separate questions. The "most time-intensive part of crafting this book" was definitely not
what kept me going!
Figuring out the structure was way up there. I spent so much time on that. I had a wall of index cards, and I would get up, move one, then sit down and stare at the wall again. I tried so many structures that didn't work. I knew the one thing that would make this story work was a complicated structure.
What kept me going? Well, there were so many roadblocks, like the Lacks family not talking to me for 18 months. And even after they opened up, Deborah [Henrietta Lacks's daughter] would have moments of mistrust, and we'd lose some time again. However, that "biggest obstacle" also wound up being the greatest motivation for me. In Deborah I found someone who wanted to learn—I'd never met anyone who had such a hunger to learn! There were good reasons why she was afraid to talk to me, but her desire to learn really trumped her own fears—and kept me going. GR: Did this long writing process involve many revisions?RS
: I revise so much. There's probably not one single sentence that's the same in the final book as it was in my first draft. I had "guinea-pig" readers set at each place along the spectrum I mentioned. I'd have them read a draft, and when they'd say, "I skipped this part" or "This was boring," I would go back and revise, and revise, and revise.
It was really just me [editing] for years and years and years. I had other editors, but in the end, only one editor ever did any work on the book. By the time I handed it in to her, I had done five rewrites, the structure was in place, and the book was more or less the right length. We went through several back-and-forth exchanges. She was instrumental in getting me into the book more as a character. I resisted that from the very beginning, but she saw that it would be dishonest to leave me out. I was concerned that my presence would dominate the story, but she said, "Look, in this part, Deborah [Lacks] throws you up against the wall! You can't just leave that and not tell the reader how you felt. She just threw you up against a wall."GR: Goodreads member Olivia would like to know what has been done for Henrietta's descendants since the book was published.RS
: It's sort of amazing, it hasn't even been a year since the book was published! The Henrietta Lacks Foundation
so far has been able to pay for full tuition and books for five descendants, help some kids and grandkids with medical expenses, it's done a lot! Some of the proceeds of the book went to the foundation, and anyone can donate on the Web site
. Donations average about $35 to $100, but they've ranged from $1 to $500. Even though the money hasn't been huge, it's been really helpful for the family to have some kind of response, to feel as if they're benefiting in some way.
Johns Hopkins University had an event to celebrate the book's publication, and it now has established an annual lecture series to talk about ethics that is called The Henrietta Lacks Lecture Series
. The book has also been adopted by so many universities as part of their "first year" experience. It's even required reading in some medical schools now.
I was particularly moved when an AIDS researcher who had had African American patients for years with whom she wasn't dealing effectively told me that after she read my book, "I have a completely different approach." The book gives the medical community something tangible to hold on to when discussing ethics, a story about what once went wrong and perhaps some knowledge about how not to let that happen again.GR: In an exciting turn of events, Oprah Winfrey is teaming up with Alan Ball to produce a movie adaption of your book for HBO. Are you involved in the process?RS
: I'm a consultant on the film. It was really important to me that the people behind the movie understand that this is my passion, and I feel really fortunate to have Harpo Productions/Alan Ball/HBO as my team. One thing that has been a bit disconcerting is that they keep telling me, "You're a central character in this movie!" There's been more development in the screenplay about my own life, and I did sit down with the screenwriters and help them flesh me out as a character.
I thought a lot on the front end about who to work with, about the damage that a finished product like this can have if mistruths are propagated. However, this team completely got the story, and I completely trust them. Also, I feel that I have to be ready to pitch in. All along, I've been asking the Lacks family the most personal questions. I have to be ready for it, too. GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?RS
: I used to struggle so much to find time to write, like everybody else in the world. Eventually, after trying many different things, I got into a routine where I would wake up at 5 a.m., roll out of bed, and get into a coffee shop and write until I couldn't stand it anymore, which was usually about five hours, wearing noise-canceling headphones. It was a very isolated process—I didn't even have Internet access on my laptop!
I'm one of these writers who cannot start writing until I know where I'm going, so a lot of my process is thinking, "fomulgating," a word my father and I made up when I was a kid. You've done your research, and you need to "cook" an idea for a while, so you walk the dog, reorganize the bookshelves...that's fomulgating. I spend a lot of time in that phrase, and that's usually where ideas for structure come from. But you have to know when to stop! GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?RS
: And the Band Played On
by Randy Shilts
will always be one of the most important science books ever written—and it's a narrative. It was a huge influence on me, a huge inspiration. Others? Any science writers who use narrative: Oliver Sacks
, Deborah Blum
, Lewis Thomas
. They all humanize science through people. Thomas was such a human being, not a clinician; Blum had such beauty in the way she wrote about scientists. Scientists, you know, are fascinating! People often assume that science and scientists are dry. They're not!GR: What are you reading now? Do you have any favorite books or authors?RS
: I'm rereading the author James Herriot
for, like, the bajillionth time. I have a few things that have been my obsessions throughout my life, including my lost dream to be a vet, and I love his books. He's pretty funny in a lot of ways, and I think his jokes and humor were lost on me when I was younger, so I enjoy getting them now. His work still stands up, and I love its absolutely timeless quality. Herriot has a combination of expertise and unique stories that helps, but it also has to do with the way he writes at a linguistic level.
Another book I'm crazy about right now is Unbroken
by Laura Hillenbrand
. I loved it so much, I blurbed it! I was blown away by her reporting and the seamless way she works it into her narrative.GR: Goodreads Author Jenny McPhee says, "I loved Rebecca Skloot's book and am dying to know what's next, though I'm sure that's a professional secret."RS
: In what I call my "post-HeLa" life, I'm just at the point where I'm starting to think about my next book. I won't try to do this again—you simply can't with a story like this, an experience like this. I'm not in a hurry to move on too quickly.
However, while I won't try and follow this book with something like it, I'll always do something related to science and medicine. Right now I'm working on a YA version of the book for 10- to 14-year-olds, which is something I realized I needed to do when I started working on high school events, and so many students would bring along younger siblings who wanted to know about this story. I thought, these are future scientists, patients, doctors, and I want them to be able to know Henrietta's story, too. It makes me so happy: Henrietta's a rock star!
I'm also thrilled when I meet young women at schools and they say, "I never knew science could be so interesting" or "I thought scientists were all dorks, but you're not a dork!" I want these girls to have great role models in pursuing careers in science.
Interview by Bethanne Patrick for Goodreads. A journalist and book reviewer in the Washington, D.C. metro area, she is also managing editor and host of The Book Studio.
Learn more about Bethanne and follow what she's reading.
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