Q&A with Rebecca SklootRebecca Skloot responded to the News Tribune’s questions about her book in an e-mail on Saturday from her home in Chicago, where she’s working on an adaptation of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” for middle school-age readers.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Rebecca Skloot responded to the News Tribune’s questions about her book in an e-mail on Saturday from her home in Chicago, where she’s working on an adaptation of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” for middle school-age readers.
Q. Have you kept in touch with the Lacks family?
A. I do stay in close contact with the family. The Lacks family often comes to public events where I speak about the book — sometimes they just sit quietly in the audience and listen, other times they answer questions, they also often travel now and give talks themselves. Without fail audiences at those events greet Henrietta’s family with cheers and standing ovations. They thank Henrietta’s family for her contributions to science and share stories of how they personally benefited from her cells. They say things like, “I’m alive today because of a cancer drug Henrietta’s cells helped develop.” Scientists often stand up saying, “Here’s what I did with your mother’s cells, and thank you, I’m sorry that this has been hard for you and that no one told you what was going on.” Scientists and general readers stand in long lines waiting for their autographs. I believe that the enormous public response to the book has been positive for the family, that there’s been some healing through that process for them. But they are still struggling financially as portrayed in the book and hope that will change.
Q. Do you think the Lacks family better understands Henrietta’s contribution to science as a result of your book?
A. Henrietta’s children and grandchildren read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” before it came out as part of the fact-checking process. Some of the story is still painful for Henrietta’s children, but they’re pleased that the story is out there getting a wide public response; they’re also happy to know about the amazing science that Henrietta’s cells contributed to, which they are very proud of. For the younger generations of Lackses, it was a way to learn about their history: Their family didn’t talk much about what happened to Henrietta or her children. So the younger generation knew little about Henrietta and the cells. They didn’t know what Henrietta had contributed to science, or what her children went through in the process.
Q. What has changed in the lives of Zakariyya, Sonny and Lawrence Lacks (three of Henrietta’s children) and other family members since your book was published? Have they benefited from it in any way?
A. The family has benefited from the book in several different ways. Henrietta’s sons are paid consultants on the HBO film version of “The Immortal Life,” and they and other members of Henrietta’s family regularly appear as paid speakers at events related to “The Immortal Life” around the country.
In addition, I set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit charity, as a way for myself and others to give back to the Lacks family and other similarly needy families.
Q. What has the Henrietta Lacks Foundation done so far?
A. As of April 13, 2012, the foundation has awarded 28 grants. Eighteen grants were for tuition and books, seven were for medical or dental aid, and three were for other emergency needs.
Q. Are you working on a project now? Does the success of “The Immortal Life” make it more difficult, or less, for you to do your work?
A. In terms of writing anything not related to HeLa, the success of the book certainly makes things more challenging, because I’m rarely at home long enough to dig into my new projects. I’ve been on the road nonstop for over two years speaking about “The Immortal Life,” but I view that traveling as part of the work of writing this book; readers want to discuss it and ask questions, and I feel honored by that, and happy to be able to do it. I’m also working on a middle-grade version of “The Immortal Life,” as well as consultant for the HBO movie. I have started writing a new book that explores the human-
animal bond and some of the biggest, and as yet unanswered, questions at the heart of animals’ roles in our lives. I’m really excited about it and will be taking time off the road starting in May to focus on it.
Q. In what other ways has your life changed?
A. Pretty much in every way possible, and probably in many ways I’ll still be figuring out for years to come. I started working on this book when I was in my 20s and it has consumed my entire adult life since — it’s impossible to separate out who I am today from what I experienced while writing and publishing this book. It taught me about race and class in America, it taught me about different faiths, about ethics in journalism, and so much more.
Q. You write, “All I knew about Sonny’s brothers was that they were angry and one of them had murdered someone — I wasn’t sure which one, or why. A few months earlier, when Deborah (Henrietta’s daughter) gave me Lawrence’s phone number and swore she’d never talk to me, she’d said, ‘Brother gets mad when white folks come askin’ about our mother.’ ” Were you ever afraid while you were reporting for this book?
A. Probably less than I would have been if I’d been older when I started the project — I definitely had a bit of that fearless youth thing going on. But yes, there were certainly moments when I was afraid. I think every journalist starting out faces fear of some kind when they start calling strangers on the phone and knocking on doors unannounced wanting to tell people’s stories. For me that was compounded by being a young woman traveling alone, by being in remote areas of the country that in some cases didn’t even have indoor plumbing or electricity. But those experiences taught me a lot about the assumptions we make when we enter worlds unfamiliar to us — I knocked on doors in neighborhoods with some of the highest crime rates in the country, and behind those doors found some of the kindest, safest, most generous people I’ve ever met.
Q. You write that Clover sits “just past Difficult Creek on the banks of the River of Death.” One of the characters is named Dr. Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield. As I was reading “The Immortal Life,” I found myself thinking that no novelist would be able to invent these places or these characters. Did you sometimes feel as if you had entered an unreal world?
A. So many unbelievable things happen in this story, I often found myself telling my friends and family, if I were writing this story as a novel based on a true story, no one would believe it — they’d just say it was too far-fetched to be true. It’s one of those cases that prove the adage that fact is stranger and more amazing than fiction. As I was researching the book and came across little details like the ones you mentioned, or stories like that of Henrietta’s funeral — where a hurricane-type storm hit the moment her coffin went into the ground, which her cousins looked back on as Henrietta trying to tell them something — they felt like narrative gifts.
Q. You write that you used credit cards and student loans to finance your work on the project. Did you ever come close to having to abandon the project for lack of money? Has the book’s success allowed you to pay off your debts?
A. It has, though it took quite a long time. For quite some time after the book came out and was on the bestseller list, I was still struggling to pay my rent because I’d taken an unpaid leave from my job in order to go on my crazy five-month book tour that I organized and funded myself, so I went quite a bit further into debt before I was able to start climbing out.
Q. You write about the contrast of your background with Deborah’s — you grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest; she was a deeply religious black Christian from the South. You also write about reading a passage from the Bible for the first time in your life and about attending a church service for the first time. Did your work on this project in any way challenge or change you spiritually?
A. Challenge, definitely. Change, not so much. When I speak at public events, people often ask if I was saved in the process of writing this book. I wasn’t. My personal religious beliefs haven’t changed. What did change was my understanding of the positive role faith could play in people’s lives. Until my time with the Lacks family, my experience with religion was restricted to people knocking on my door trying to convert me, and my work in the world of science, where religion is often seen as something entirely at odds with science. But what I saw in my time with Deborah Lacks was a situation where her faith actually helped her open up to learning about science — she believed Henrietta had been chosen as an angel, brought back to life in those cells to take care of people.