‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’: Rebecca Skloot’s lessons on how great non-fiction should be written

I hate it when book reviewers (they do this all the time) heap what is in their mind praise on a work of non-fiction by saying, breathlessly, “it reads like a novel!” Oh, thanks. Great. This is just shorthand for saying that while most non-fiction is boring, artless and, basically, a waste of time, this book is okay, because, for a change, it is engrossing, beautiful and creative.

On behalf of the non-fiction writing community, I say “Hmmmph!” Oh, dear reviewers, instead of sniffing: “This is a great book, for non-fiction.” Why not just say: “This is a great book”?

This dichotomy between “fiction=interesting” and “non-fiction=boring” is a false one, and always has been. There should be one standard for any genre: is it just plain good? For every boring and poorly written book of non-fiction, I can give you five novels that would have you dozing in a minute, or reaching for the remote. Okay, I’ll admit that in general, people who are motivated mainly by telling a good story in an artful way are drawn to fiction, while those more interested in answering questions and describing the world to others opt for non-fiction.

Throughout history, though, there has always been good non-fiction, written by those who could compose gripping historical accounts, dramatically describe the life of a person, or transport the reader using only the vehicle of vivid prose to a foreign locale. And these days, the art and craft of the quality non-fiction writer just gets better and better. Witness Rebecca Skloot, and her wonderful account of how the cancer cells of a poor African-American woman created revolutions in such fields as biology, medicine and genetics.

Back in the day, basketball-loving kids sang on a Gatorade commercial, “I want to be like Mike.” Is Rebecca Skloot the Michael Jordan of non-fiction writing? One thing for sure: she’s certainly a bright star. And here are some things I’m taking to heart from her great example:

Have your ears attuned to great stories in everyday life 

Skloot learned about Henrietta Lacks and her amazing eternal cells from one of her teachers. Thousands and thousands of people knew the basic outlines of this story, but only Skloot recognized that the most interesting parts had yest to be told. These stories are everywhere, but it is a rare person who can find them, investigate them, and tell them with accuracy and style.

Let the facts lead the narrative

It should be the goal of every non-fiction writer to present the facts without distortion, omission or embellishment. If you have a great story, the facts will be enough. But too often, writers who claim to be writing non-fiction actually end up producing a mish-mash that is based somehow on actual events. Skloot is one of those rare writers who has made as her goal the strict adherence to facts. She begins her book plainly, a model for all writers: “This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated.” Period.

Involve your readers (even if it means using the old “spoon-full-of-sugar” ploy)

The story of the eternal cells is essentially about science. Even though it is a fascinating and useful story for people to know, for most, it is the literary equivalent of cough medicine — the yucky kind. (Skloot herself said she often got this reaction when describing the book she was writing.) But Skloot was also interested in telling the human story of Henrietta Lacks and her family, how all this scientific brouhaha over the special cells affected them. Now it gets interesting for most people. Readers love biographies, stories of families, drama, love, heartbreak, suffering, joy. People enjoy reading about other people. Look at what fills the magazine racks (for better or worse). People magazine beats Scientific American every time. But Skloot doggedly and masterfully blended the story of science and medicine with the human tale of Lacks and her kin. For me, both of these narrative strands tasted like sugar.

Be persistent, stick to your guns, and don’t hesitate to toot your own horn

This was not an easy book to write. In order to gather the details she needed to describe a scene, Skloot conducted interviews, read old newspaper clippings, looked at old photographs. This kind of research is time-consuming, but the result is a vivid and accurate re-construction of events from the past. It is, in fact, what historians do all the time. Science fiction writers like to speculate about time travel. Historians and writers like Skloot actually come darned close sometimes. It is something close to the thrill of discovery when you are able to conjure up (from the evidence) an episode long past. It almost feels like magic.

Though she had a compelling story, it was not an easy sell to the publishers. One of them wanted her to cut out the narrative about Henrietta’s relatives. Skloot refused, and her strong vision carried the day. Finally, she realized the importance of promotion for new writers. Online and in person she has been an effective messenger for the story of Henrietta Lacks, before and after the book’s publication. That’s why I want to be like Rebecca.

 

Literary (and other) late bloomers: analyzed by Malcolm Gladwell, Part 3

Alfred Hitchcock made many of his best films in his late 50s.

The difference, I suppose, between prodigies and late bloomers is that the latter are basically lazy, unfocused procrastinators. Ha, ha! Just kidding! As a budding late bloomer, I like to start things out with some self-deprecating humor. It lightens the mood, and helps me cope with the stress of being asked thousands of times: “Are you done with that book yet?”

The simple answer to the late bloomer/prodigy dichotomy is that everyone is different. True, but how? Malcolm Gladwell examined this question in a wonderful New Yorker article a few years back. Gladwell relied on the research of University of Chicago economist David Galenson, who posited that while the creative processes of prodigies tends to be “conceptual” (they have a strong idea and they execute it), for late bloomers it is more an “experimental” method, involving such activities as research and trial and error. (Hmm… sounds familiar.)

Well, back to the book..

 

New York Post lies to get its dirty scoops; Innocent victim of “Tabloid-gate” scam sez “It’s pure slop.”

As I read the article by the Washington Post’s media reporter, Paul Farhi, my temperature began to rise. It described how Reuven Fenton, alleged reporter for the notorious tabloid, New York Post, deceived a woman to get information for a meaningless follow-up to a lurid story.  Ick. This was a prime example of greed-induced sleaze cloaked in the guise of “journalism.” Not that anyone expects more from the likes of the Post.

The lurid story is the one about Congressman Anthony Weiner’s wayward Twitter account crotch photo, sent to 21-year-old journalism student, Gennette Cordova. Throughout the predictable media frenzy, Cordova had maintained a strict “no-comment” policy. To sneak past this wall of privacy, Fenton and a photographer/accomplice got Cordova to agree to a photo shoot. As the photographer was clicking away, Fenton peppered the innocent subject with questions, and even suggested answers. Did this deceptive hack also secretly record his conversation with the victim? You would think so, based on the many “quotations” that appear in the article, which is touted as being based on “an exclusive interview.” [Under normal circumstances, I would link to the article. But in this case I’d rather not soil my blog by association.]

On Twitter, Cordova outed the deceptive duo’s scam. First, she said she was put off her guard because the photographer was a local student who freelanced for the New York tabloid. As a result, she thought she was in a safe environment, noting that she “spoke candidly to someone posing as a photog assistant.” She added: “I was ‘Trojan horsed’ by an NY Post reporter who never said who he was of that he was interviewing me.”

Fenton and the rag he works for did a gutless, sleazy, deceptive thing. The highest calling of journalists is to report the truth honestly, to expose wrongdoing, corruption and evil. They should be raking muck, not wallowing in it.

Gennette Cordova took a principled stand in a difficult situation. She had a right to her privacy, and it was callously and treacherously invaded. Nonetheless, as a young journalism student, she comes out of this showing more class and integrity than “professionals” three times her age. (Fenton  claims he even attended Columbia’s vaunted Graduate School of Journalism. I wonder if he ever took an ethics course.)

Faced with the worst of the hyenas that roam the fringes of the journalism pack, Cordova stood strong. In one tweet, she posted a link to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. To her tabloid tormenters, she wrote: “I know you don’t abide by this stuff… but you should really consider some of it.” Here are some ethical guidelines the New York Post grossly violated:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

Literary late bloomers: better late.., Part 2

Poet, teacher, writer, editor, late bloomer, Ann B. Knox

Normally, I skip the obits, but every now and then the story of a life catches my eye, stirs my feelings. Sometimes, I will read the story of a stranger’s life, and I feel a certain kinship because I recognize a bit of myself: “Hey, that person, who is gone now, was a bit like me.” And then I wonder how some obit writer will put down in words the story of my life.

And so the topic of the day is Late Bloomers, and the obit in question is for Ann B. Knox, who died doing what she loved. (Isn’t that the best way, if there is a best way?) On May 10, in her 85th year, under the green spring trees in Cacapon State Park in the lovely mountain town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, she had just finished reading from her latest book of poems at a benefit when a stroke took her away.

In the second paragraph of her story, I saw a bit of my own experience. Call it: Dreams Deferred. In her case, she “spent much of her adult life as a Foreign Service wife hopscotching from one U.S. embassy to another, raising six children at posts including Moscow, London and Karachi in Pakistan.” That was me, too, raising three children in places like Damascus, Syria; Doha, Qatar; and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. “She often grappled with life’s moments of crisis and ecstasy through writing poetry” it says, “but she did not really consider herself a writer until midlife.” Before the days of email and Facebook, I kept a journal and wrote letters, and sometimes poetry, recording what I could of the passing scenes, emotions, episodes in a life I knew would eventually end. That is the thing with writers, I think. We know about the brevity of our time here, and we like to think we can freeze the best bits of it forever in the words we string together.

And how did Ann Knox get her literary ball rolling? “When her children were grown, [she] bought a patch of land in… the foothills of the Appalachians… built a one-room cabin, dug an outhouse and spent much of her time… in that simple place, devoting herself to writing. She called herself a ‘recovering hostess.'” Well, I’ve got my suburban nest all feathered, complete with indoor plumbing, and it is not empty yet, but my schedule, formerly dominated by parenting, continues to open up to writing more and more. I feel like it’s springtime in my life and I’m ready to bloom. Time to write! (Although I never want to stop hostessing. And is there a blog about food in my writing future?)

Ann Knox published two award-winning collections of poetry: “Stonecrop,” “Staying is Nowhere,” and “Breathing In.” She also wrote a book of short stories titled “Late Summer Break,” which, according to the obit, “won praise for capturing fleeting and delicate moments of transition in the lives of parents, spouses and lovers.” Seems like worthy things for a writer to capture, and to freeze in words, for generations to come.

Literary late bloomers: a club I’d like to join, Part 1 — My shallow youth

Portrait of a blogger as a non-prodigy

I had never been accused of being a prodigy-of-letters, blazing across the literary firmament, my brilliant prose eliciting gasps of wonder and awe from critics and the public at large. Mmmmmno..

There were days back in my shallow youth, though, when I actually thought I had a shot at modest success, if not the pinnacle of Pulitzer-crowned fame. After all, wasn’t I covering all the right career bases? For starters, as a journalism major in college, I had worked my way up the ranks of the campus newspaper from photographer to photo chief to editor-in-chief. I was running a weekly newspaper! I wrote the editorials! Fraternities actually courted me to join!

Russell Baker, a journalist's journalist

Besides that, I was reading the columns of Russell Baker, a journalist’s journalist, a writer with a keen eye, a sharp wit, and a pen that could make any politician’s political sword fall limp and useless. I wanted to be like him, and so I read his words and tried on his wry, witty and wise writing style as if it were a warm and well-worn tweed jacket that would give me magical writing powers. Success-by-osmosis: I was certain that was possible.

And like all journalism students of my generation, I also wanted to be like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in  All the President’s Men. Dashing, determined, brash, principled. Saving the world by slaying one corrupt administration at a time. No, wait: that was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Hoffman and Redford: journalistic role-models for a generation

Anyway, my early success in college had led to a paid summer internship at the local daily, The Orlando Sentinel. I admit that this exciting opportunity did not get off to a sterling start. On my first day, an editor sat me down at the Metro desk, in front of a computer I did not know how to operate, and told me to transcribe the story (on deadline!) of a reporter speaking on the phone. Did I mention that my typing speed was about 18 words per minute? I was petrified. But I hunted and pecked my way through this trial-by-fire as best as I could, filling the article with so many typos it looked more like Hungarian than English. I thought that once the by-now-exasperated reporter was done dictating, I could clean up my copy and my first-day reputation could remain unsullied. But no.

“I need that story now!” the editor ordered. I was mortified. After looking at my horrible typing job, I was sure there would be snickering, sighing, and tut-tutting behind my back. And perhaps my journalistic career would come to a quick and merciful end. But the editors were generous and kind and understanding. They gave the skinny college kid a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. By the ninth chance, I was doing all right. I even ended up on the front page! It was a story about a woman who gave birth in a car on the way to the hospital. I was there at the Metro desk when one of the editors took the tip for the story over the phone. “Interns awaaay!” she said.

At summer’s end, I returned to UCF to complete my studies. By this time I had finished my requirements for a journalism degree, and was taking all history courses, so I could also have a major in that subject. Why? I wanted to study history in grad school, to challenge myself intellectually, to make myself better qualified to write about the world.

As my graduation approached, I heard from the editor who had supervised my internship. She and her colleagues had thought enough of my work to offer me a job at one of the Sentinel’s exotic, far-flung bureaus — in Volusia County.  I was flattered, and feeling somewhat vindicated after my shaky start. But by that time I had already been accepted at Georgetown, where I would study Middle East history. So I walked away from my chance to start out as a cub reporter and end up who-knows-where?

But I had my sights set on bigger assignments than New Smyrna Beach City Council meetings. With my MA in hand, I thought there would be nothing between me and a bright future as Time magazine’s Cairo bureau chief. Or so I thought.

I had begun to write this blog entry after reading an obituary a couple of days ago. It was the life of a woman who was herself a late bloomer, and her life reminded me a bit of mine. But as you can see, I got sidetracked. I’ll get back on track tomorrow. Or the day after..