It isn't every author, in these days of downsizing, who arranges her own national book tour. (More than 50 cities so far.) And it isn't every debut book that instantly reaches The New York Times best-seller list.
Rebecca Skloot, of the creative writing department at the University of Memphis, is one such author, and her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown), is one such book. Thanks to social networking sites, print media and television (including a recent appearance on The Colbert Report), and an inviting, interactive Google map, Skloot has been on the road since February, crisscrossing the country to address audiences at institutes, universities, bookstores, you name it. And as of this week, Henrietta Lacks sits at #5 on the Times list. As she recently said by phone, the tour has been "hectic," but it's also been "great" — great for her to observe reactions to the book and address the issues it raises and great for her to watch reactions to the family of the late Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cell line has survived since the early 1950s, the same cell line that continues to be used in scientific research and continues to profit biomedical firms but not her descendants.
When family members came to events in the Baltimore area and in New York, there were standing ovations, Skloot reported. And she added: "There were scientists who said to them, 'Here's what I did with your mother's cells. Thank you.'
"There was a side of Henrietta's children that thought the book was never going to happen," Skloot recalled. "Then there was a side of them that thought nobody was going to read it or care. That comes from decades of people not caring what went on with the family since Henrietta's death. If that generation was skeptical, however, it was their children — Henrietta's grandchildren — who were like, no, no people are reading it!
"Those readers are having the same reaction that I did. The facts of the story grab people. People want to talk about it. So, it's been a relief, gratifying, nice."
Flyer: When you started writing the story of Henrietta Lacks, did you have misgivings about including yourself in that story — the troubles you went to to win the family's trust?
Rebecca Skloot: I was really resistant. I had no desire to be in the book. When I teach, I harp on that. I tell students: Don't insert yourself in the stories you write. Not everything's about you!
Then, during my research, when things started happening between me and Henrietta's family. I had clearly become a character in the story, but I wasn't admitting it. People would say I had to put myself in the book. I'd say no, it's not about me. It took me a long time to admit to myself that, yes, I had to be in there too.
And now you're redefining the role an author plays in publicizing his or her book.
I've been getting e-mails from authors saying, "I've got a book coming out. I want to do what you're doing. Do you have any advice?"
It's tough. I've been held as kind of a poster child for authors doing publicity — the ways an author has to be a PR person too. But it wouldn't work for every book.
Because of the different subject matters in my book — sociology, African-American studies, the sciences, bioethics — I've been able to fund the tour by giving academic talks. I've gotten schools to pay my expenses. But while I'm in cities, I do bookstore events too. Anything I can.
When I first started on this tour, my agent said I was crazy. Everyone thought I was crazy. But then my agent was, like, it might work. But he was afraid that future authors would think, See, I can do a tour like this. He said, "I hope you're not giving people false hopes."
How exactly are you covering so much territory, so many stops?
Trains, planes, and automobiles; so far, no boats.
I hope you're pacing yourself.
Thanks, but since I was a little kid, pacing myself hasn't necessarily been part of my vocabulary.