Bestselling author Rebecca Skloot is everywhere these days. Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was over ten years in the making and was recently dubbed a Notable Book of 2010 by The New York Times.
The Rumpus caught up with Skloot at a Borders Books in Chicago, where Skloot has recently moved. Writer Tasha Cotter spoke with her about nonfiction writing, what it’s like to guest edit the Best American Science Writing series, and how to turn a bestseller into a book for a middle grade audience.
Rumpus: How are you liking Chicago?
Skloot: I’m liking it. Honestly, I’m not home all that much. I do so much traveling that when I’m home I’m like a hermit, so I haven’t done much in the way of sightseeing or anything like that. I was actually born in Springfield, Illinois. This is the first place I’ve lived where people are actually like, “Oh, yeah Springfield! I know where that is.”
Rumpus: Besides doing readings and publicity events for the book, what else are you up to these days?
Skloot: I’m adapting the Henrietta Lacks story for a middle-grade audience. Kids are interested in the mystery, the sci-fi element, but then they get interested in the family story and they connect with the family losing its mother. So there’s that, and I’m working as a consultant for the movie version. People often ask if I’m writing the screenplay, and the answer is no. I’m a journalist, screeenwriting is a very different type of writing than what I do.
Rumpus: Does the middle-grade version of your book have something to do with science literacy in the schools? Do you see a deficiency in science literacy rates?
Skloot: I think low science literacy rates are a huge problem in our country. It’s a big reason I’m so interested in getting this book ready for a younger audience. People read about the Lacks family and how they struggled to understand the science behind the HeLa cells. Her family didn’t have a basic science education, and they say, “That level of science illiteracy doesn’t exist in our country anymore.” But it does. It’s a big, big problem.
Rumpus: Your website is getting updated constantly. I read that you were just named one of Five Surprising Leaders in 2010 by The Washington Post and then I saw that the movie rights to the book were sold.
Skloot: Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball are co-producing the movie for HBO. I’m a consultant for the film. So are some members of the Lacks family. The screenwriter is coming to Chicago next week to do some related work with me. People often ask who is going to play me in the movie. Readers often throw out names like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman but I have no idea.
Rumpus: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks took more than a decade to research and write. It’s clear in the book that other writers had tried to research this story, but there were so many obstacles along the way they eventually gave up. Did you ever feel like this story was too big for one person?
Skloot: Well, I didn’t think about giving up. I thought I might be, like, ninety years old by the time it was done. I knew [Henrietta Lacks’s daughter] Deborah wanted to tell the story, and that it may take a while, but eventually she opened up to me. In total, the book probably took more like 12 to 13 years. In a lot of ways I feel like I’ve been working on it my whole life. I still am with the tour and the appearances.
Rumpus: One of the things I couldn’t get over about this story is how the Lacks family can’t afford health care, despite Henrietta’s cells—or HeLa cells—essentially being the cellular workhorse for decades. I can’t even begin to imagine how we’ve all benefited from experiments done on HeLa cells. It seems like what she was able to give to science—and help scientists uncover—is helping lots of people, but not her family. How does the Lacks family feel about the book?
Skloot: The Lacks family has been attending some events with me. They talk to people and answer questions, so that’s good, I think. Lots of scientists talk to them now about how her cells impacted their research and why they were important. I feel like they’ve gotten some closure. I did set up the Henirietta Lacks Foundation to help with education and medical care for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks. People can donate online.
Rumpus: I see they have the audiobook version of your book here. Will the paperback version will be out soon?
Skloot: They wanted me to read the story for the audiobook version and I was like, “Noooo…” But they ended up getting two actors—one for my voice, the other for Deborah. And the paperback version will be out on March 8.
Rumpus: So do you get any breaks?
Skloot: This is actually my break. Next year I’m going to be in Canada in early 2011—Toronto. I’m basically booked through 2011. All of my events are on my website at http://rebeccaskloot.com/events/.
Rumpus: I saw that you are guest editing the 2011 edition of the Best American Science Writing. What has that process been like so far?
Skloot: Basically, I’ve been reading through everything that was published in 2010. I’ve just been reading all kinds of online journals and print journals, looking for what catches my eye. I’m serving as the guest editor and there’s also the series editor. I think it goes to print in February 2011. So I’m basically doing a ton of reading for that and selecting the best stuff I can find.
Rumpus: Do you write in other genres? Did you always know you wanted to write nonfiction?
Skloot: I never write in other genres. For me, so much about what’s amazing about the stories are the facts.
Rumpus: You have a B.S. in Biology from Colorado State University, and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Were you always interested in science writing? One thing I loved about this book is how it’s so easy to follow the science—the writing is really clear and the scientific angle never ever felt like it was over my head. The degree in biology coupled with the MFA seems to be the perfect training for telling this story.
Skloot: For a long time I wanted to be a veterinarian. I never set out to be a writer. I had no desire to be a writer. But I’m always happy to hear that so many people—people from so many backgrounds—were able to connect with this story. Yeah, I learned about the HeLa cells in a high-school biology class and that idea stuck with me and… well, I followed it.
Rumpus: What are you reading these days? Do you mostly stick to nonfiction or do you change it up?
Skloot: I’m reading lots and lots of material for the Best American Science Writing series. When I can, I like to read novels because I want my nonfiction to read like fiction.