‘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.