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Interview Fri Oct 18 2013

Interview: Rebecca Skloot Discusses Life Beyond Lacks

Rebecca Skloot is best known for her #1 New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But before becoming a writer, Skloot earned a degree in biomedical sciences and worked as a veterinary technician. For more than a decade, she worked in private practices, research labs, veterinary schools, animal morgues, and emergency rooms, among other places. Rebecca_Skloot_Thumbnail.jpg

Inspired by these experiences and the ethical questions they raised, Skloot is currently working on an as-yet-untitled second book that will explore the science and ethics of the roles animals play in our lives and we in theirs. Skilled at combining science with a compelling narrative, Skloot intends to show how our relationship with animals is both beneficial and complicated - and not nearly as clear-cut as it first appears. Would someone who refuses to wear leather decline a cancer treatment based on animal research? What makes one animal a suitable service animal while another is deemed inappropriate? Why do we rescue some animals and kill others?

Rebecca Skloot will be sharing more about her new project in the program "Rebecca Skloot: Creatures Great and Small" as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival on Sunday, October 20 at 1pm at the University of Chicago. For tickets and more information, visit the Chicago Humanities Festival website.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Rebecca about her upcoming book, tricking people into learning science, wild dogs, and frontal lobes.

The press release about your next project says it's going to focus on "the human-animal bond and explore some of the biggest, and as yet unanswered, questions at the heart of animals' roles in our lives." What are some of these unanswered questions?

People are very funny when it comes to animals. They're an important part of our daily lives as our pets, as our food, as our clothing, and our health through their use in medical research. We have complicated relationships with animals and don't like to look at them very closely because once you start looking at them, you start seeing endless contradiction, and it's really hard to reconcile it all. How do we love one animal and let it sleep in our beds and another one we eat? There are places where we all have contradictions. I will not wear fur, but I wear leather. What's the difference? So what I'm doing in this book is looking at all the different roles animals play in our lives and exploring some of the ethical issues that come along with them, but also the science and history of it all, and I'm using a lot of my own experiences in working in these various fields to do this.

Science writing is often seen as kind of dry and factual. You've been known for making it so accessible to the general public. How do you combine the story telling aspect with the science writing aspect?

For me, lot of it is about finding the story that illustrates the science that I want people to learn, finding characters and stories that bring things to life. Humans have been learning through storytelling in some way or another since our beginnings- cave paintings, oral history - and a lot of that has to do with narrative.

So for me, making science writing accessible is in part about finding character and story and using those to essentially trick readers into getting through the science. My goal is to have people sit down and start reading a story and keep turning the pages because they want to know what's happening to the characters and...they get to the end and realize, "Oh, wow! I just accidentally learned about science and I don't really know how or when that happened." That to me is the job.

Part of what I'm working on now with this book is those stories. I was in The Immortal Life as a character because I became a character in the Lacks family story. I was very hesitant about putting myself in the book at all. My mantra was: This is their story, not mine. So I really tried to keep my presence in that to a minimum, and I came to this new project feeling the same way. But the more I worked on it, the more I realized, "No, this is actually a personal story." I realized that, in some ways, this book is about how I became the person who wrote the first book. That won't be the focus of the book ⎯ it's not a memoir. But the underlying questions in this book are the very questions that drove me to become a writer and to notice the story of Henrietta Lacks.

A few years ago, you wrote a New York Magazine article called "When Pets Attack" about a pack of roving dogs in Midtown Manhattan. [The dogs viciously attacked Skloot's dog, among many other animals and people. The owner of the pack of fifty dogs refused to get rid of them.] I know that there was a loophole in the law so the city couldn't take the owner's dogs. Do you know what happened with that?

Nothing, basically. The city did deal with the guy, and after the story came out someone from the mayor's office contacted me. It took them a year from the day they contacted me to finally get him to move out of the junkyard where he was living by condemning the lot. They got the dogs out of my neighborhood, but even the city couldn't take all of his dogs. They convinced him to give up all but two of his dogs. They said, "We'll move you into public housing in the Bronx as long as you let us take your dogs." He agreed to that and kept two of his dogs. That was 2005 and if you look in the comments thread of that article online, not long ago someone posted saying, "This guy moved to my building in the Bronx. He's now built up a pack of dogs again." So in the end, my story got him out of Manhattan and got most of the dogs, who'd been badly neglected, out of his possession, but no one continued to monitor him from that point on to make sure he didn't build up a new pack. One of the people in his apartment building emailed me when she found my story online, and I've actually been thinking, "Am I going to have to write up a follow up to this?"

How many pets do you have?

I have two dogs and a cat, and they are all rescue animals. One of my dogs is a "Marmaduke" kind of dog. He's this giant doofus. I found him in Memphis. He was a tiny puppy, too young to be away from his mother. He was emaciated and starving. Some kids were having a birthday party in a park, and a woman dumped him in the middle of these kids and said, "Tell your parents I'm leaving this and someone has to take it home." But then everyone at the party left and nobody took the puppy. A friend of mine who saw all of this called and told me the story and I said, "Go back and get the puppy!" I was planning to nurse him to health then find him a home ⎯ in part because as soon as we started feeding him it was clear to me that he was going to become a giant dog with a lot of energy ⎯ but the rest of the animals and my boyfriend wouldn't hear of it.

Rhoda is my other dog, and I found her running down the middle of a highway, dodging semi trucks in West Virginia.

My cat, Phineas, I also found her in West Virginia ⎯ she was wandering in the woods with a long metal rod sticking out of her head. She'd been shot between the eyes with a dart gun, and the dart had been in her head for a long time. She was starving because she couldn't get her face close enough to anything to eat. I named her after Phineus Gage, a guy from the 1800s who got a spike in his head while working a railroad line ⎯ he survived, but his personality changed entirely, he lost all inhibitions. Scientists studied him extensively, which is how we know what the frontal lobe does.

The Lacks family was a central character and formed most of the narrative, along with your journey, in the first book. How do you think your readers are going to respond your shift from human subjects to animal subjects?

We'll see! I can't worry about that much. People who are interested in anything having to do with science and ethics will and should find this topic very related and interesting. On the surface, it may sound like a big jump, but it's not that different to me at all. It raises the same questions like: Where do you draw the line between science and the way it impacts the lives of others, and how you do that in a way that lets science move forward while still being ethical and doing the least amount of harm possible.

Image courtesy of Rebecca Skloot's website

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sgfd / March 8, 2015 2:20 PM

Good interview, looking forward to the new book.

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