According to an interview with The Root, Skloot first heard of the cells in a biology class when she was 16. The woman behind the cells, though, was a mystery. Even her family didn't know until the 1970s that her cells were preserved. The HeLa cells mattered, but their origin did not, which is to say that Henrietta Lacks, the human being, didn't count, nor did her family. Because of Rebecca Skloot, that situation changed.
In 2004, I heard Skloot read a second time. Again, she was introduced as an author whose book would be released the following year. It was a nightmare of a reading; her printer had failed an hour earlier, so she was stuck reading from reading from her laptop, with the usual accompanying pauses and breaks in attention. Didn't matter. The text was riveting, the writing smooth and smart and muscular and wildly informative. I made a mental note to watch for the book's release the next year.
And I did. I watched for it in 2005, in 2006, in 2007, in 2008, in 2009, and in 2010. And then one day, it happened. Rebecca Skloot put an update on facebook saying The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was soon to be published. In an excerpt from the book on NPR, Skloot describes what carried her through those years: an obsession with Mrs. Lacks, her family, and the ethical questions raised by the use of HeLa cells.
Tonight I was watching an interview with Publisher's Marketplace news editor Sarah Weinman, and I learned that, in 2011, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the third-most-purchased book on the New York Times combined list of paper and electronic bestsellers. Number Three on the over-all NY Times book list. How great is that?
|HeLa cell splitting|
Going back to my long wait, this evening I read on the Niemann Storyboard that the Henrietta Lacks book took 11 years for Skloot to write. There was the extensive, time-consuming research, of course, but Skloot also says in that posting that "Figuring out the [triple narrative] structure of this book was maddening, and it took me a very long time."
Persistence. Showing up. Doing the work, redoing the work, expanding the work, documenting every weather report and every statement from at least two sources, struggling with material enough and themes enough to swamp any writer -- Skloot didn't know how to write the book when she started. Eleven years later, she did.
I've mentored two dozen or more writers over the last ten years. Often, they ask if they should keep working; if they're capable of being writers; it the work is worth pursuing. There are three equally accurate answers: Yes. Also: Nobody knows. Also: How much time do you have?