Rebecca Skloot on Keeping Her Book Alive
May 23, 2011 by
In February of 2010, Rebecca Skloot became an overnight celebrity: readers, writers, and book clubs around the country couldn’t stop talking about the freelance writer and her debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Today, the New York Times bestselling author addresses standing-room only crowds, is adapting her book for middle-grade and teen readers, and is working as a consultant on the book’s film adaptation with Oprah Winfrey and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alan Ball.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a low-income mother diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 and treated at Johns Hopkins University. Cells scraped without her knowledge during treatment became the first-ever cells to live beyond a few days in a lab and to grow unstoppably. Even after the cancer had ravaged Henrietta Lacks’ body, her cells in the lab rapidly reproduced.
The John Hopkins researchers were eager to share these revolutionary, “immortal” cells with other scientists, and they’ve been the basis for numerous medical advances. To this day, “HeLa” cells are sold around the globe. One little problem: the Lacks family had no idea that any of this was going on and received no compensation as the HeLa cells were being sold for a profit.
The intrigue of this book is that it’s a science book and it’s as much a page-turner as The Da Vinci Code. It’s a thick tome but it’s also feasible to read in three reading binges because the writing is so skillful and the story so compelling.
Rebecca Skloot spoke to inReads about blind optimism, keeping the book alive, and True Blood.
inReads: You went from being a respectably-published freelance writer and an adjunct college professor to a titan of hardcover nonfiction. What has this been like for you?
Rebecca Skloot: It’s been amazing. The last decade of my life, everything I did was to get this book finished and to get this book out there. It’s a relief that people are reading it. I know a lot of writers who have written amazing books and spent a decade or more writing them and no one reads them because they were published on the wrong day of the year.
I did so much publicity on my own. I knew that because this story is so incredible, if I could get it out in front of people, people would have the same reaction to the story as I did when I first heard about it. I left my house for my self-organized book tour and I was on the road for four months straight and that was before there was any outside press approaching me. So I left my house January 29th 2010 and since then, I’ve been home a total of two or three months but not in order. I’ve been on the road and that’s been my life. I do events every day. It’s part of keeping the book alive.
inReads: You mention in the book that, as you were doing your initial research, that you didn’t have a book deal yet and were financing your research with student loans and credit cards. Was this a leap of faith for you?
RS: It was blind optimism. But both of my parents were supportive on a level that most parents wouldn’t have been. Both of [my parents], in their mid-20s, put aside their art and took jobs to pay the bills and did what they loved in their spare time. I wanted to write this book, quit my job, and become a freelancer, which is totally unstable, and throw myself into this book project and go into debt. I called my parents and said, “What do I do?” and they both said, “Do it. Don’t give up the art that you want to do because you want to pay the bills.” Now, my parents are in their 60s, doing the art that they wanted to do but it took most of their lives to get back to it. They said to me, “Don’t do what we did.” So was it a leap? Yes, but so much of it was because my parents were like, “It’s crazy but you need to do it.”
inReads: I was at a dinner party in December and I sat next to Dick Hermans, owner of Oblong Books in Millerton, New York and I asked him what his favorite author event ever was, and he said you! You’ve done events all over the country and you’ve really confounded this idea that book tours are a thing of the past. And I’m wondering what role independent bookstores, specifically, have played in the robust book tour that you’ve been on?
RS: Most of my events have been at independents—Barnes and Noble has been supportive and they have great audiences—but there’s something about the independents; they have these great communities surrounding them.
inReads: What’s been your favorite moment since the book was published?
RS: I did an event in Baltimore and 20 members of Henrietta’s family came and scientists got up and spoke about what HeLa cells did for science. Cancer survivors said, “I wouldn’t be alive except for drugs that HeLa cells helped make.” And there were IVF kids, and then there were high school students who got up and talked about how it affected their education. The Lacks family and I were just bawling. That was exactly what the Lacks family needed to hear. People frequently tell me about the way HeLa cells have changed their lives, but it doesn’t always happen when there are 20 Lackses in the room.
inReads: And there’s going to be an Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks movie. What’s it like knowing that Alan Ball is making your book into a movie?
RS: Alan Ball—he’s wonderful! I was just in LA to meet him. I started watching True Blood when we started talking about him doing the movie. Now I’m a crazy True Blood fan and I got to hang out on set and watch them filming. I was like a giddy fan.
inReads: I loved in the book that you and [Henrietta Lacks’ daughter] Deborah felt like Henrietta was influencing the chain of events when you were traveling together for your research and when you were writing and publishing the book. Is Henrietta still watching over you?
RS: I was on Tavis Smiley, and at one point he said, “If you didn’t do another book and you never wrote another thing, would you be okay with this book being what you left behind?” My answer was, “No matter what I do, I’ll always be the woman who wrote this book.” It’s just one of those stories that come along every once in a while and for me, that’s an honor.
Get involved by visiting henriettalacksfoundation.org, an organization started by Rebecca Skloot, to “provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.”
Watch footage from Rebecca Skloot’s book tour.
About The Author:
Liz Funk is an upstate New York-based freelance writer, author, and frequent college lecturer. She has written for USA Today, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and AOL.com. Her first book, Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls, was published by Simon and Schuster in March 2009. She is at work on her next book, about recent college grads in the recession (working title: Coming of Age in a Crap Economy). She collects autographed books and antique chairs and she adores her legitimately neurotic-but-adorable sable collie. Her website is LizFunk.com.