Friday, March 12, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot, 2010)

I kept noticing this book in online reviews and the bookstore but I wasn’t sure if it would be too science laden for my reading tastes. I was delightfully surprised and this is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. In Oct. 1951, thirty one year old mother of five, Henrietta Lacks, died at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, MD from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. As was the custom of the time, researcher Dr. George Guy collected her tissue samples to try to replicate them in culture. Ms. Lack’s cancer cells began to rapidly multiply and divide which was uncommon; human cells usually died. Her cells were sent to other researchers around the world and were used in studies on polio, cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, DNA, and many more. Named HeLa for the initials of Henrietta Lacks, these cells are commonly used by scientists and are extremely well known. The book takes an ironic turn as we learn that her relatives never had knowledge of the use of Henrietta’s cells in research and were not compensated monetarily. Her children grew up poor and had hard lives after the death of their mother. Especially heart wrenching is the fate of Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s mentally retarded daughter. Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave in Clover, VA where her ancestors were once slaves. This is the first book by Rebecca Skloot and she spent ten years exploring the twists and turns of Henrietta’s story. Finally, this work will leave readers with questions regarding the use of our own tissue for medical studies and the ethics behind researching human subjects. I welcome comments and discussion on this fascinating story.

Henrietta Lacks and her husband, David.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Q & A with Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief, 2008)

Interview Questions: The Good Thief (Hannah Tinti)

1. How did you become inspired to write The Good Thief and were there autobiographical components to the novel?
It all began when I came across the phrase “Resurrection Men” and read the definition. Resurrection Men were thieves who would dig up bodies and sell them to medical schools. The practice exploded in the U.S. and Europe as medical schools were becoming established, and still continues today. It was the first thing I’d ever come across that I felt I could write an entire novel about. I’m from Salem, Massachusetts, and so Gothic elements have always made their way into my writing. In the end I wanted the book to be an homage to the classic boy adventure tales that made me fall in love with reading when I was a child: Great Expectations and Treasure Island. As for autobiographical elements—I’ve never robbed a grave in my life!

2. Explain your writing schedule. (Do you have a specific place/time to write and do you write for long periods or in snippets?)
I write whenever I can find the time and space. But often weeks go by when I am busy teaching or editing, and I don’t get anything down at all.

3. How did you decide what elements were important for this time period?
I purposely did as little research as possible with my first draft, so that the characters would drive the narrative. Then, I went back and read books on medical history, and resurrection men, and also read many newspapers from the 1800s. But growing up in Salem, MA made it easy for me to imagine how everything should look and feel—most of the houses there are from the 1700s and 1800s.

4. You began as a short story writer. When did you decide to write a novel?
When I came across a subject too big to fit into a short story.

5. Do you believe that novice writers should hone their skills with short stories before attempting to write a novel?
Not necessarily. Short stories and novels are very different, and require different things, stylistically and structurally. Some writers I know can only write novels—they need more room to breathe.

6. The Good Thief is set in Salem, MA; your hometown. Do you feel that authors should stick to the known when writing?
Actually, The Good Thief is not set in Salem—most of the action is set in a made-up town called North Umbrage. I purposely didn’t want to use any real places in the book, so I would have more freedom to develop the setting. I don’t think writers should only stick to what they know—I think they should write about what interests them.

7. The protagonist, Ren, is a young male orphan. Why did you choose to write from a male perspective instead of that of a young girl?
It seemed to make sense for the story. A young girl in this situation would be more complicated, and would have to deal with sexual issues if she was on her own at such a young age.

8. How did you decide to tell the story from only Ren’s point of view and not the other characters?
After sketching out the first scene, it was clear to me that Ren was the hero of the story, and it should be told from his point of view. I wanted the reader to discover things along with him.

9. Why do feel that the characters resonate with fans of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson?
I think this is because I used Dickens and Stevenson as my inspiration. I wanted the book to be a real action/adventure tale. I also tried to employ “classic” storytelling techniques.

10. Benjamin Nab is such a charismatic adventurer. Is he modeled on characteristics of any people in your real life?
No, he is modeled on Johnny Depp!

11. Who were some of your favorite authors growing up and who are you currently reading?
I loved the Bronte sisters. I re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights every few years. I am currently reading Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which just won The Story Prize.

12. What made you want to become a writer and what are some of your current projects?
My mother was a librarian, and so I grew up loving books. But I never thought of being a writer until I took my first writing class with Blanche Boyd at Connecticut College. She opened the door to the possibility of being a writer. Currently I am working on a new novel, and also a comic book series.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Q & A: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (Neil White, 2009)

Question and Answer with Neil White
2010 Finalist: Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers Award"
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

1. What motivated you to write about your experiences at the Carville, LA compound?
I witnessed an unprecedented convergence of cultures — the last 130 leprosy patients in America, 500 federal convicts, 100 prison guards, an ancient order of nuns and a Franciscan monk. The misunderstandings, along with the enlightenments, were extraordinary.

I was a man for whom image meant everything. And I was sent to the one place in the country where outward appearance meant nothing. I wanted to document this odd, magical time and place.

2. Can you give readers a short summary of your memoir?
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is the story of the year I lived in the national leprosarium in the U.S. While there, surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I finally was able to see my own.

3. While at Carville, what was your writing routine?
While at Carville I took copious notes. Every time I heard a great line of dialogue, or witnessed something compelling, I wrote it down. But, primarily, I wrote in a notebook in diary form (or wrote letters to family and friends). I didn’t really start to write in the creative non-fiction/memoir form until after my release.

4. Can you share information on the history of leprosy and explain why the disease is not as prevalent today?
Leprosy is the oldest disease known to man (skeletal remains put the disease at 3,000 years old). For centuries, it was considered a curse from God, a disease of the soul. But, in the 1800’s a scientist identified a bacilli that caused the disease, but quarantine was still the order of the day. In the 1940s, at Carville, a cure was developed. Now, most Americans who contract the disease are treated on an outpatient basis with a multi-drug therapy. For most modern day patients, the stigma is much worse than the physical side effects.
Experts say 95% of Americans have a natural resistance to the disease. But in developing nations like Brazil and India, it is still a pretty serious health issue.

5. What were two of the most profound relationships you observed at Carville?
Certainly, my relationship with Ella Bounds (an old woman with no legs who contracted the disease at the age of 12) was one of the most important in my life. We couldn’t have been more different. She was 80; I was 32. She was African-American; I was as white as they come. She was weak of body and strong of spirit; I was just the opposite. She guided me, gently, with story and metaphor, but mostly by how she lived.
On the prison side, I’d have to say my friendship with Link (a crack dealer/carjacker from New Orleans) was the most profound. He made unmerciful fun of me, challenged my worldview and, essentially, wouldn’t let me get away with anything. We became pretty good friends. And to this day, he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever encountered.

6. Explain the common use of aliases among the patients and the use of pseudonyms on gravestones.
Leprosy carried such stigma that upon arrival at the colony the residents were made to take aliases to protect their families. Many of the patients were abandoned. They were buried in a cemetery on the colony grounds. Often the tombstones were engraved with a pseudonym.

7. What was the reaction from the leprosy patients and the inmates at Carville when you published your book?
I’ve been surprised at how positive the reaction has been from all sides. The leprosy patients didn’t like the fact that I used the term “leper” in the beginning of the book, but I think they are at peace with it now. The inmates — at least the ones I’ve heard from — have all enjoyed the book. And even a guard or two has reached out to tell me how much the experience meant to them. So, all things considered, the response has been positive, if not downright generous.

8. Can you tell us what happened to some of the characters depicted in the book?
Ella Bounds died in 1998. She’s buried in an unmarked grave just north of her childhood home. Harry is still alive and living at Carville. In fact, he just started volunteering at the museum. Jimmy Harris died in 2002.

On the inmate side, Doc is back in jail for an alleged SEC violation. He adamantly proclaims his innocence. I’ve had no contact with Link since my release. Frank Ragano’s book, Mob Lawyer, was published just after his release. He died in 1998. Dan Duchaine, the steroid guru, died in 2000. Steve Read (an airline entrepreneur) died in 1999.

9. What was it like for you to foray from investigative journalism articles to writing a memoir?
It was a huge adjustment. Journalists are focused on the lives, acts and motives of others. But a memoirist must take that microscope, that scrutiny, we put on others and turn it inward. It’s very different. I spent about a decade studying the top memoirist/personal essayists to develop that craft.

10. What are your current projects and who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m working on some essays — and a script. Not sure about my next book project. Some of my favorite fiction writers are Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin and a great, new novelist, Jonathan Miles. Favorite nonfiction writers include Bill Bryson, Tobias Wolff, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Joan Didion, and Vladimir Nabokov (for his brilliant memoir, Speak, Memory).