Some might say she's calculating and shrewd, a charmer with a practiced smile and a flair for marketing herself. They would be right. Others might say she's passionate and bold, a brilliant writer and a science savant. They, too, would be right.
She comes out of the gate at a gallop, the literary season's wunderkind, Rebecca Skloot, taut and trim in boot heels, running the final lap of a whirlwind 72-hour publicity campaign in New York City for her bestseller, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," an irresistible story of science, race, and class about a black woman whose immortal cancer cells, removed without her permission, led to major medical advances including the polio vaccine and a multimillion-dollar research industry while her own family lived in ignorance and poverty.
With "Henrietta Lacks," her recently published first book, Skloot has achieved that rare publishing trifecta: critical acclaim, commercial success, and personal popularity. None of it came by chance. None of it came easily.
On a hectic day last week that began for her at 9 a.m. and would wind down 14 hours later, Skloot leaned forward at our coffee shop table, ready to spring up at any moment, her hands moving in unison with her lips, serving as the props to her streaming answers. She wastes no time with pauses or niceties but speaks rapidly, her hands punctuating the air. She orchestrates the conversation just as she has orchestrated her propulsion to the top of the publishing world. She's to the point, well-mannered but impatient. Life is moving so fast for her.
Skloot is a youthful 37 but has lived with that book forever. She was 16 and sitting at a community college biology class when she first heard about Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 from cervical cancer. She was intrigued by the story of Lacks' mysterious cells and obscure background, but it was only when she was in graduate school, studying writing at the University of Pittsburgh, that she became fixated, as she says in her book, with the idea of writing it. She signed up for the long haul when she was 27.
It took her 10 years, three publishing houses, four editors, one divorce, a freelance stint in New York, school loans and credit card debts, and a faculty job at the University of Memphis, but she did it. She got the great story of Henrietta Lacks onto the front stage. That was her mission from the start -- to get the story out there -- but the exhaustive research, the ethical-legal complications, and Lacks family history proved more complex than she had expected.
"I grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant," and the Lacks family came from rural poverty and Christian roots in the tobacco fields and segregated towns and neighborhoods of the South. She had to immerse herself in those lives and they had to learn to trust her. In time the Lacks family became so close to her that she has started a scholarship fund with some of the proceeds from her book for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.
All along, while Skloot was working on the book, indefatigable, bouncing back after one setback after another, she was "working on publicizing it early, early, early, doing magazine work and meeting editors and planting the seeds to have people know and cover the book when it came out years later," she tells me. Without any training or guidance, she began planning publicity from the start. "I started writing for Oprah's magazine because I really wanted my excerpt there." She did book reviews in order to get acquainted with book critics and editors who might serve her well later, and she zealously maintained those relationships and began to build a network of supporters. She used or created every opportunity to sell her idea, her future book.
"Everything I did, everything I did, every story I wrote, every book review, every relationship, was in some way a step toward February 2, 2010" – the date of the book's publication.
Praise came instantly and the book took off, debuting at No. 5 in the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
One day she was a little-known freelancer and the next day she was declared the newest literary phenomenon. Just 24 hours after her book came out, Dwight Garner
, reviewing the book in the daily Arts section of The Times, proclaimed it "one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I've read in a very long time." Four days later, on Sunday, Feb. 7, the New York Times Book Review
, which can make or kill a book, gave the book its blessing. Writers usually wait weeks hoping to have their books reviewed by The Times. But the reviews of Skloot's book came out immediately after its publication. Skloot didn't have to chew her nails, waiting and hoping.
"Dwight's review -- that was aaa-mazing!" Skloot's got a wide Julia Roberts smile. "Then the book hit, debuted on the bestseller list and my life just EXPLODED!"
The first week after publication she received over 9,000 e-mails requesting speaking engagements and interviews. She no longer could manage it all, but she's a control freak and turning over her book's fate to others made her nervous. Earlier, before fortune rained on her, she had plotted her Immortal Book Tour
-- 50-some cities, four months -- with the help of her father, Floyd Skloot, who'd never gone on a book tour though he'd written several books (none commercially successful) about the brain damage he suffered from a virus. She also persuaded colleges and universities all over the land to pay her for speaking at their campuses, which gave her enough money to cover expenses.
These days everyone wants a piece of her, her book is flying out of book stores, and Skloot has a trail of handlers: two publicists, an agency scheduling speaking engagements (already planning 2011), her literary and movie rights agent, and assorted others. Not bad for a girl from Portland, Ore., who since age 5, only wanted to become a veterinarian.
"I know I am held up as the poster child for author's self publicity,'' she says. "Part of it is that I thought about this for a lot of years and built a lot of connections, but part of it is just the story. Many writers have e-mailed me, saying, 'I want to know exactly how you did it this.' But that's when the story comes in. It has built-in academic interest because it's a science book, it's a book about race, it is sociology, it is African American studies, women's studies, journalism, history."
It's a riveting story all around. Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern tobacco farmer
who worked the land in Virginia that her slave ancestors had worked. She was born in Clover, a dying town, and later moved to Baltimore, where her children and grandchildren still live. Her cancer was diagnosed after she had had five children, and it was terminal. Her cells, known as HeLa cells worldwide, helped lead to medical advances like vitro fertilization and gene mapping, and have been sold for billions of dollars.
But Henrietta Lacks is hardly known and she is buried in an unmarked grave. More than 20 years after her death, her children found out about the fate and value of her cells. That knowledge confused and tormented them and changed their lives forever. This story, a compelling slice of American history, comes painfully to life in Skloot's hands.
What makes her success more magical -- or irritating, depending on your point of view -- is the fact that Rebecca Skloot never dreamed of being a writer. She was trained in the sciences and came to writing by accident. She was a junior at Colorado State University when she chose an elective in creative writing over foreign languages. "I had no interest in writing,'' she tells me when we pick up our conversation over lunch, after she had appeared on the Fox Business Network and taped a segment for an NBC-affiliated Web site (though it was her appearance on "The Colbert Report" that had her most excited). She wrote her first report in the creative writing class about the freezer in the morgue at the university's veterinary school, a dark story that had her classmates and professor dazzled and intrigued. She liked seeing the response. She was hooked.
Scratching out a living as a freelancer in New York, she developed an easy prose style, explaining science in everyday language, making it understandable, even interesting. Over time her features and reviews appeared in all the right places: The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, O the Oprah Magazine, Wired, Popular Science -- a broad publishing landscape that included the highly educated audience of The Times, the hip readers of New York magazine, the female readership of Oprah, and the nerdy techs who gravitate to Wired. She even wrote a brief piece for the AARP Bulletin, a publication for older Americans.
She had lived so long with "Henrietta Lacks" that her friends called it "The Immortal Book Project of Rebecca Skloot." It did seem at times that it would never see the light of day. But finally, with a six-figure advance from Crown Publishers and the seclusion provided by a retreat in remote West Virginia hills, she pulled the book toward the home stretch.
"I did imagine this success," she admits. "I imagined it somewhat. A lot has to do with the story . . . I was obsessed with the story and so much of my drive to do the publicity was about wanting as many people to read the book and hear the story . . . That's what makes it less smarmy."