Remembering the immortal book tour
About two weeks before Publisher’s Weekly predicted that Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks had the makings of a national bestseller, I had the same thought. My hunches are not usually as good as this one turned out to be, but as Jimmy Carter used to say, “even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.”
Skloot was organizing her own book tour and was neither rich nor famous yet. HMJ at UGA often helps bring speakers to campus, and this time we had no trouble finding others who wanted to hear the human story behind HeLa cells. Grady’s “professional in residence” program, departments of cellular biology, genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology, and microbiology, as well as the complex carbohydrate center chipped in. And the Willson Center for Arts and Humanities did campus-wide publicity.
On February 2, Skloot was on NPR’s Fresh Air for the whole hour, great reviews piled up, and then there was The Colbert Report. By mid-March, she was the “it” girl of serious nonfiction. Pretty soon she had publicists and event coordinators and a speakers bureau.
Fortunately, Skloot remembered the folks who signed on early and kept her promise to visit UGA on March 25.
Skloot gave a compelling talk to a large audience at Miller Learning Center and fielded questions deftly.
HMJ graduate students made the short trip to my home, traveling by car and bicycle for the after party. It was one of those rare spring evenings in Georgia, when the rain clears off and leaves perfect temperatures and no flying insects.
We shared a delicious meal featuring eggplant parmesan, salad, and lime-glazed poundcake prepared by chef Meriwether Rhodes. Conversation centered on reporting and storytelling and the kind of passion and patience required to work on a project for a decade – especially when key sources are mistrustful and elusive in the beginning. Stick with it, Rebecca said. Be clear about what you’re doing and earn trust. Do meticulous research, dig up documents, and get the story right.
Shortly before Rebecca rode off into the night, bound for more book tour events in Atlanta the following day, there was the obligatory group portrait on the sofa. It was a memorable evening for HMJ at UGA.
[Photography by Jackie Reedy.]