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'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' sends author Rebecca Skloot on epic book tour

Rebecca Skloot calls it the Immortal Book Tour: "I left my house on Jan. 29, 2010, and I'm still going."

These days, when book tours even by big-name authors can be measured in weeks, one that is still going strong — it will bring Skloot to the University of South Florida on Tuesday — after more than a year is extraordinary. But so is Skloot's debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Who would have predicted that a book of science journalism about the story behind HeLa cells, the human cells as ubiquitous in medical research laboratories as test tubes, would remain perched near the top of bestseller lists (recently No. 3 on the New York Times list, No. 9 on Amazon.com) almost 14 months after publication and be under development as an HBO movie by producers Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball?

"It's one of those things that no writer can really hope for," Skloot says. "But I always had a feeling if I could get the story out in front of people I could grab their attention. It's the same thing that grabbed me back when I was 16, these amazing facts that I'd never heard about."

The amazing facts revolve around the life, death and unique afterlife of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Descended from slaves and slave owners, Lacks was born on a Virginia tobacco farm in 1920. In 1951, as she lay dying of cervical cancer in Baltimore, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a tissue sample from her lethal tumor.

Those cells did something no human tissue sample had ever done before: They grew in the lab, and they continue to grow six decades later. Millions of tons of them have been used in research into everything from cancer to cloning, from vaccines to in vitro fertilization. HeLa cells may well have saved your life, or that of someone you love.

What Skloot, 38, does in her riveting book is an amazing feat in itself. She tells the complex scientific side of the story with clarity and confidence, and she tells the moving human story of Henrietta and the family she left behind — a family the author grew close to — and the scientists who developed the HeLa cell lines with compassion and respect.

As she recounts in the book, Skloot had been fascinated by the story of HeLa cells since hearing its outlines sketched in a biology class when she was a teen. A passion for science led her to pursue a career as a veterinarian by enrolling at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, which has one of the country's top programs in that specialty.

"I was always into medicine and science, not into writing," Skloot says, even though her father, Floyd Skloot, is a noted poet, novelist and memoirist.

It took a University of South Florida graduate to put Skloot onto the path to science journalism. John Calderazzo, who received a bachelor's degree in English with a minor in journalism from USF in 1969, has been a professor of creative writing at CSU since 1986.

"John's class was the first place I got interested in writing," Skloot says. "I took it as an elective; at CSU then you could count creative writing as a foreign language in the general requirements."

The class began with an assignment to write about a place. "I was working in the morgue of the veterinary school, so I wrote about the freezer in the morgue and all the animals in it. I was concerned about the number of animals used in research when there were computer programs available to do the same things."

When she read her piece in class, the other students' reaction surprised her. "At first they were traumatized — they were like, 'There's a morgue in the vet school?' — then they got agitated" and talked about writing a letter to the university administration. "I realized that, wow, writing about science can be a really important thing to do."

As she took several more writing classes with Calderazzo, he began urging her to consider science journalism. "He pointed out that I was doing something unusual" by combining knowledge of science with a flair for writing.

Calderazzo says, "It wasn't like everything she wrote immediately stood out as saying, 'This is someone who will write a great book.' But she had great details from the beginning, and she eventually proved she could combine the knowledge she had of science with a really deep curiosity and passion to pursue a story."

Even after 25 years in the classroom, Calderazzo says, he can't predict who will become a successful writer. "You can tell someone has talent, whatever that is — a troublesome word — and that they have a spark. She certainly has that."

Skloot was already talking about the Lacks story while she was his student, Calderazzo says, and he was "familiar with the book as it was unfolding" and impressed by Skloot's "incredible tenacity" in earning the trust of the Lacks family. "This is true immersion journalism," he says of the 10 years Skloot spent researching and writing the book, growing so close to the story that she eventually, despite her own resistance to the idea, became a character in it.

The result, Calderazzo says, was "a successful book, to put it mildly." Skloot says she has book talks and other events scheduled into 2012, and she is working on a young adult edition of the book for readers ages 10 to 14. "The book is being used in high schools and colleges a lot," she says, and is being translated into 25 languages. Published in hardcover by Crown, it was issued in paperback on March 8 by Broadway Books.

Of the HBO film being produced by Winfrey and Ball (True Blood), Skloot says, "I'm very excited. It's a dream team. HBO has done a lot of great science films." She recently met with the screenwriter. "He had to come and start developing me as a character, asking me all these questions. With the (Lacks) family, I delved into everything about them, so I guess it's only fair."

Skloot has also founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which receives part of the proceeds from the book and, according to its website (henriettalacksfoundation.org), "strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefitting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent." Skloot says the foundation has provided assistance for some of Lacks' descendants, and she has "high hopes" it can help other research subjects.

She has another book under contract, and she's eager to return to her home in Chicago and get to work on it. But she's also gratified to meet the many people who have responded to the message she set out to convey with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. "I wanted to show that there are human beings behind every sample, but there is a human being behind every scientist, too."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Meet the author

The University of South Florida's University Lecture Series presents Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Marshall Student Center ballroom at USF, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa.

'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' sends author Rebecca Skloot on epic book tour 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 2:30pm]

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