Rebecca Skloot proves science books can sell
By Ben East
Last Updated: Jan 17, 2011
It was a year in which the late Stieg Larsson dominated the charts and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was called the novel of the century. And yet a book documenting the discovery and legacy of a group of cancer cells – taken from a woman without her permission and changing medical science for ever – beat both to become Amazon.com’s Book Of 2010.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wasn’t a quirky, left-field choice. It became a fixture in the New York Times bestseller list, and plans are afoot for a lavish film adaptation. But it wasn’t the only bestseller to delve deep into the world of science. The protagonist in Ian McEwan’s much-heralded new book, Solar, was a physicist. Probably the most exciting novel on the Booker shortlist, C by Tom McCarthy, revelled in the pioneering era of early 20th-century radio transmission.
Without a trace of arrogance, Skloot tells me that she always believed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks could be a success, despite its scientific aspects.
“I never thought it would be so popular, but I always knew it had the potential,” she says, breaking from her next project, which is to refashion the story for younger readers. “And that’s because the reactions I hear from readers are exactly the same as how I felt when I first learnt about Henrietta Lacks. That is to say, ‘oh my goodness, I have to tell people about this’.”
It’s an incredible tale: the story of a poor black tobacco worker from Baltimore who died in 1951 without knowing that a sample of her tumour had a unique property: where other cell cultures would weaken and eventually die out in a laboratory culture, hers thrived and reproduced themselves without limit.
As a result, the line (known as HeLa) has been in demand all over the world and has been used to treat millions of patients through vaccines and research. Even Lacks’s family didn’t know, and although it’s often suggested that she might be the most important woman in modern medicine, they received none of the proceeds from the money the major pharmaceutical companies made – and, indeed, continue to make.
The book is a very human story of loss, family, class and self-discovery as Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, tries to find out the truth about her mother. But the key to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that it never shies away from the science that made the cells so important in the first place.
“Science is hard,” laughs Skloot. “A lot of people have an extreme resistance to reading about it because they think it’s going to be boring or complicated. So my job as a science writer is to sugar the pill, and I’ve always felt you can do that by storytelling. You have to be accessible. But at the same time, I didn’t want to oversimplify the specifics of cell culture. I wanted someone like Deborah to be able to read and understand it – but I hoped that, say, a Nobel Prize-winner would be stimulated by it, too.”
Without being in possession of a Nobel Prize, it’s difficult to judge whether Skloot successfully stimulates world-renowned scientists. But her recent win at the Wellcome Trust Book Prize – which celebrates medicine writing in literature, and includes scientists as well as authors on its judging panel – suggests she’s on the right track. As for the rest of us, well, the sheer word-of-mouth praise this book has enjoyed says it all.
“I think it helps that there’s not a single person out there who hasn’t benefited in some way from the HeLa cells,” Skloot says. “Students will come up to me saying that their parents were cured of cancer because of a drug developed using HeLa cells, and that they felt this incredible debt of gratitude. So there’s an intense emotional connection, and it was really important to make this a story of people rather than just cells. Long before I was a writer, the questions I asked myself were: who is this woman? What would she think about HeLa? What would her kids think?”
Provoking an emotional response in readers also motivates the winner of the year’s Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Nick Lane. Life Ascending doesn’t sound like the kind of book that would grip a novice; after all, Lane explains DNA and photosynthesis on his way to describing the 10 greatest inventions of evolution. But this is no ordinary science writer – he calls thermodynamics the “science of desire” – and the book is full of profound and vivid ideas.
“The emotional pull is partly a reflection of my own enthusiasm,” says Lane. “Think what you like about Richard Dawkins, but when he wrote The Selfish Gene he said he didn’t want to persuade people to understand the science theoretically. He wanted his readers to feel it in their gut with a visceral force. I’ve always aspired to that, always wanted to make people grasp how evolution is completely amazing.
“It’s this amazement, the constant proximity of the unknown, which drives most scientists. And yet that’s not how scientists come across in public. We’re involved in something far more creative and interesting than people think, and writing a book allows you to paint a larger picture, find yourself in unexpected places and, most of all, discover intriguing things that change your perception of the world. That, to me, is what science is really about, and what I want to come across in my books.”
Unquestionably, Skloot’s book is an easier read for the layman because of its narrative drive. Lane admits that it’s verydifficult to write a popular science book that revels in exciting new developments because the work at the frontiers of scientific thought often asks that the reader have a basic understanding of its principles. Still, beyond the complex ideas, there are real philosophical questions raised by Life Ascending.
Skloot is similarly intrigued by the wider impact of science on both literature and humanity. She cites Bill Bryson’s entertaining 2005 book A Short History of Nearly Everything as perhaps the point at which science writing became popular, but five years later it’s the sense that “so many of our political discussions end up as scientific ones” that interests her. “Stem cell research, climate change, evolution versus creationism. These are big issues, so in a way, it’s natural that they should be making their way into the things we read,” she says.
But do the experts cringe when authors shoehorn these topics into their fictional stories?
“I thoroughly enjoyed Ian McEwan’s Solar,” laughs Lane of a book which explores climate change through the prism of a comic novel. “It did ring true in the way it addressed science and society, and the way scientists act. Actually, it was a really clunky plot device which offended me more than any incorrect science.”
The protagonist of Solar is something of a nasty piece of work, but Lane is untroubled by this portrait of the scientist. In fact, he thinks it makes scientists more human. “There are nasty people in science, just as in every walk of life where the motivation is about getting there first and achieving something,” he says.
Skloot, meanwhile, could easily have demonised the scientists of the 1950s who so high-handedly exploited Lacks’s uniquely strong cell structure, but hers is a more subtle book than that. This isn’t the good versus evil tale it might at first appear.
“Their actions don’t line up with today’s ethics, but science moves faster than the regulations which govern it,” she argues. “For the most part, well-intentioned scientists were thinking so intensely about the actual science that they didn’t step back to think about the potential consequences on people.”
Skloot and Lane both prove that science can be moving and thoughtful. In the end, their books – and others like them – celebrate humanity rather than the laboratory. “You know, science is good for society,” says Lane. “And it’s important to get that across in a way which glories in what we know and what we have achieved.”