Rebecca Skloot Has Too Much Information

The author of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks discusses the challenges of multi-threaded narratives, the joys of reporting in a Hazmat suit, and why writing a book is like a Homeland episode.

Steven Johnson
Sep 21, 2017 · 11 min read
Skloot in 2004 with Henrietta Lacks research

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Profession: Author, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Favorite tools: Index cards, Scrivener, audio recorders, DayOne, Trint.

Writing space: Somewhere near nature.

Default writing music: foreign-language electronica lounge songs.

We have both spent a ridiculous amount of time tinkering with the writing and research tools we use, so let’s start with that: what are you using these days?

I feel like you and I have both been on this slightly maniacal quest to find the perfect software setup… Every once in a while over the years I’ve seen you post something about some software that I’m also using, and I think: he and I have the same problem! (laughs) I use Scrivener for the same reasons you do, which is I have to be able to see the building blocks of my stories as cards I can move around. But I also use actual index cards — paper stuck to the wall index cards — for thinking about structure. I did that for The Immortal Life; I had three different narratives that were braided together, and each one had a different color in the index card system. And Scrivener didn’t exist when I started that project, but when it came out, I thought: “Oh my god, I can put my index cards on this program.” And I found that to be helpful for moving things around, but I still needed the big wall. I need to be able to look at all the scenes at once; and I could never get that to happen on Scrivener in a big enough way.

It really is like The Wire. (laughs)

That is exactly what it’s like! I mean for me — have you seen Homeland? When she’s in her most manic phase and she’s solving some crazy crime; she’s locked herself away and nobody knows where she is and it’s all completely incomprehensible to everyone else — I do that too! (laughs) So The Wire feels like a much more organized version of my process.

The phase that I’m in now with my new book is I’m five years into the research process, and I have ungodly volumes of stuff. I go out and I do my immersion reporting and following someone around taking copious notes and hundreds and hundreds of pictures. I also audio record everything, and a lot of note taking involves timestamps so that I can be like, “Okay, this scene happened at this timestamp on this recording.” I just got back from two weeks of reporting, with another few weeks before that, and right now, I probably have easily 50 or 60 raw, unprocessed notebooks.

Does it ever make you want to just shift over to fiction so you can just make it all up?

Totally! And there are also moments when I’m like, “I could just be a dog trainer.” Which is weirdly the default for me. (laughs)

So in all those scenes with the Lacks kids in Immortal Life, you’re holding an audio recorder for all those conversations?

Yep, and a notebook.

But like physically, how do you do it? (Laughs) I mean, you’re moving around a lot in some of those scenes.

No, you’re right, I move around a lot. I have this weird technique — and I have really bad tendonitis because of it — where I hold the recorder in the palm of my left hand, with the microphone side sticking forward, and then I put my notebook over it, so I can write and hold the recorder at the same time. But then I also have a camera because I take a lot of pictures and now also video, so I actually have — I look like such a dork when I’m doing this — this big buttpack that I use that has these things that look like holsters on the side, and I’ve got a camera in one, and spare recorder in the other…

The book I’m writing now is in a lot of ways about the history and evolution of animal research and the animal rights movement and so some of my reporting involves going into animal research facilities, where historically people haven’t really been able to go, especially with recording devices. So I’m dealing with all my usual stuff, but also with a HAZMAT suit, and I can’t have my recorders out in the air, because there’s sometimes dangerous stuff there. So then I have added equipment for those trips — basically HAZMAT suits for my equipment.

That’s crazy! Thinking back to those index cards, one of the things that struck me with Immortal Life is that it really has this unique structure. You think it’s going to be this book about the cells — basically a science book about the cells and their impact, with a little backstory about the this woman, Henrietta Lacks. But then slowly, it transforms into this very different kind of story — about the Lacks family, about poverty, and increasingly about Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, who kind of takes over the book by the end. I can’t think of another non-fiction book that has that structure, so I guess what I’m wondering is how you came up with that?

It’s interesting, when I read your description of your process, and how all these different word processors don’t take into account the process of how a book gets made — that it starts with these nuggets and then they turn into these larger stories — that’s very true for me too. When I started working on The Immortal Life, if you’d asked me what I was writing it would have been basically what you described: it’s the story of these cells and the woman behind them. But as I went along there were these clues that there was a bigger story there, that in fact there was a huge story about what had happened to her family. That came out in these little bits and pieces as I was reporting, and it became pretty clear to me early on that this was not the book I thought it was. Once I actually knew the story, I felt really strongly that if you just learned the story about the science — it would be like, “yay, science is amazing”; and if you just learn the story about about the family, you’re like, “Boo, science is horrible.” But the reality is really in the middle. I wanted people to read it and go back and forth and have the emotional experience at how complicated the story really is.

But then logistically, once I started to try to do that, it was really crazy because there aren’t a lot of nonfiction books that I could just point to and say, “This is a model for what I want to do.” So I read a ton of fiction. I went to this small town local bookstore, and I just said, “Find me any novel that jumps around in time, has lots of different characters and different narratives.” And I just started reading them all and stealing little ideas here and there. And it became clear to me that I had three narratives actually: The one I labeled “Deborah and the reporter” — because I didn’t want it to be about me; and then there was “Henrietta and her family”; and then “HeLa and the scientists.” And the challenge of mapping those all out is that chronologically they’re all unfolding at different times. Deborah and the reporter takes place from the late eighties to the present day. Henrietta’s story is from the early 1900s. And the science story really starts in the fifties.

And so in coming up with that structure, I did each narrative chronologically on index cards individually, and then I would try to braid it and put it up on the wall, and look at it for a long time, and move one index card. But the big challenge was that in the end it really does become the story of Deborah. She takes over. And I knew that if I just told the story chronologically you’d start with “Henrietta was born in blah blah” — and at that point nobody would care, because you don’t know who she is yet. And then like two-thirds through the book, Deborah would appear and then I would appear — and the reader would be like, “Hey, where did you come from?”

And so really the structure that I came up with was all a way of making sure that you knew that Deborah was a central character from the beginning, even though she doesn’t take over until the end.

Index cards for Henrietta Lacks

It’s really brilliant, and those kinds of structural decisions are often invisible to the reader, but they’re so important.

Totally. People do sometimes ask me about the structure because it’s so stands out as unusual, but then there’s the other important invisible work that’s just the organizational feat of dealing with research materials. I mean, if you just read the first two pages of the opening scene, from Henrietta showing up at the hospital to her going home — her first visit. It’s just a page and a half, but the amount of organizational shit that I had to do, and the amount of stuff that went into that page and a half is astonishing.

By the way, I’m working on a book that has a very complicated timeline, with multiple threads covering hundreds of years, and I was thinking that some kind of timeline software would be super useful. But I can’t find anything out there that’s designed for research.

Absolutely. If you find one, you have to tell me because I’m looking for the same thing! It does seem like it shouldn’t be that hard: here’s an event; here’s a date; put it in the right place in the timeline. And then have multiple timelines so you can see how these things overlap.

It’s hard to explain to people who don’t write books like these how small a fraction of the book you can keep in your head at any one time.

I have these two different quests: please let me find some piece of software that can be the brain that I don’t have, the one that can remember everything and organize all this stuff outside of my head. And then there’s this other quest: finding some tool to just help me write. Because this is all stuff management, really. But there’s also the question of how I get it all out of my head once I do have actual narratives to write. One of the things I’ve started using on this book, which I didn’t use on the first one because it didn’t exist, is this journaling app called DayOne. It’s incredibly basic. I don’t know who said it, but it’s that idea that really good apps just do one thing really well. This is app just a daily journal. And the key for me is that I can tag entries. And you can use voice recognition to dictate. And so I’ll be on a hike, or I’ll be going to the grocery store, and it’ll be one of those moments when I get a sentence or scene in my head and I’ll just start dictating into this thing. It’s actually really accurate. It’s so freeing. I’m one of those writers who loves reading and researching, but for me, writing is the worst form of torture. Just doing the first draft, just sitting down and writing, is the hardest thing in the world for me. It’s so horrible and torturous. And this app has really helped me, because I get a lot of stuff on paper without really realizing that I’m getting it there. It’s basically tricking me! Because my first drafts — nothing I type the first time ends up in the second, let alone the 27th revision. So for me, just getting something out is key; it doesn’t matter the actual quality of it because I’ll fix it later. Freeing myself from the idea that I have to be sitting at my computer for that happen has been really liberating.

When you’re actually sitting at the computer, working on a draft, do you listen to music?

I do listen to music on headphones. It has to have a really intense beat — not grungy hardcore, and nothing to distract me. so I have a whole playlist of this stuff, it’s some weird combination of music you would hear in some kind of hip lounge, but it’s not in English. So I have this weird playlist of fast-beat, lounge-y foreign language dance music — I don’t even know how to describe it! I just listen to it and type super fast and bob my head up and down to the beat. I mean, I would never listen to this music in real life. But often I’ll be out in a bar somewhere and I’ll hear something, and I’ll be like, “Oh, here’s another one!” And I’ll put it in my mix.

Is there a particular setting or time of day for when you write?

Yes, for me, I have to be able to be in nature. I have to be able to hike after the fact — some kind of place where I can just plough up the side of a mountain and get off a lot of adrenaline, and also just be in a natural setting where I can think clearly. For the first book, I lived in Pittsburgh, and then New York, and then Memphis, and none of those places had much in the way of nature, and so I would leave and go beg for a friend’s house in the middle of nowhere that I could go to. And when I’m in that phase of things — where I just trying to get a first draft of the thing out of my head, and I’m locked away in the middle of nowhere—I will write most of the day, and then I’ll take breaks to go hike and get it out of my head a little bit. But there were times when I’d get to some of the hardest scenes—like Henrietta’s death, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever written, because to really bring it to life you really have to live it—I’d sit down at like five in the morning — and I’m not a morning person — and I wouldn’t move until pretty late at night. My boyfriend would come over in the middle of this and he’d be like, “Okay, eat this; drink this; go to the bathroom” I was just completely checked out. I can just sit there all day and not eat or drink when I’m really absorbed in it. That seems to be the case for the material that’s really the hardest to write.


About this Collection


An interview series about the tools, techniques, and habits behind the creative mind. Hosted by Steven Johnson, featuring conversations with Liz Phair, Rebecca Skloot, Kevin Kelly, and more. Produced in partnership with

An interview series about the tools, techniques, and habits behind the creative mind. Hosted by Steven Johnson, featuring conversations with Liz Phair, Rebecca Skloot, Kevin Kelly, and more. Produced in partnership with

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