we're not people who are creating fairy castles, political fairy castles in the air. none the less -- nonetheless, the political position that we want to sell to people is not an easy sale. it means standing up in front of people and saying, i can give you less. i can give you -- it means telling the truth to people. imagine a politician who told the truth to people. imagine a politician who stood up and can said, no, i can't fix public education. because the problem isn't lack of funding, the problem isn't overcrowding in the clads rooms, it's not -- classrooms, it's not lack of computer equipment, the problem is your damn kids, you know? [laughter] imagine a politician who said something like that, you know? and we tend to go to the people and tell them the truth, and it's uncomfortable, you know? it's easier to tell a lie. so you need somebody very able
d a skilled, and t w wat .. ronald reagan. were we behind ronald reagan 100% on everything? was ronald reagan never wrong? were there times when ronald reagan was not as active as he could have been or lazy or even political and cynical? sure. but he had that capacity to explain to people why we had to face facts, why we had to do things, you know, why we couldn't have pie in the sky, why he couldn't promise ridiculous things that couldn't be delivered. and i just don't see sarah palin having that kind of intellectual throw weight. we used to make fun of ronald reagan for not being very smart. it turns out the guy was quite smart, and, of course, he had a tremendous gift for >> he had a gift of explanation and good humor and good grace to make this work, and i'm not seeing any of that stuff from sarah palin. i'm not seeing that so far.
sir? >> thanks. i'm fascinated by the use of humor to actually make a difference, and like you, i went to miami university in oxford, ohio, and -- >> oh. [laughter] liver transplants and alumni news. [laughter] >> political correctness has run amuck there and you were a red skin. >> yeah. >> something like that was a losing battle not to be fought by someone. can humor make a difference in that and advancing libertarian ideas really? >> sometimes i think it can. you know, it depends upon the situation and some things you can get in trouble of making fun of like katrina. that's not going to work, you know. i gave into it myself a couple
times, you know, and you don't get that far. you know, we won't go there. i was going to give an example, and i thought i'll get more in trouble. yeah, of course, you can do it. as a matter of fact, we were doing it with the miami university named after the miami indian tribe as been called the time out of mind, the red skins. back in the 60s when i was there the argument went on. the miami tribe who through no doing of their own live in oklahoma now and now ohio, but nonetheless the miami tribe maintains relationships with miami university and any kid from the miami tribe has a free ride at rimes university. at any rate, we went to the chief of the tribe and he said he could care less.
what does he care what the football team is called? on the argument went, and you know, and it wasn't effective, but at the time i remember my friends and i put forward, look, if we're not going to be the red skins, we have go the whole way and be like the dust bunnies or like, you know, the fluffily little flower petals. [laughter] you know, reagan really, you know, just had this -- and i will go back to katrina for a moment. when katrina happened, the 10 most frightening words in the english lake is i'm from the government and i'm here to help. say no more. yeah, i think it has to be used with some caution, but yeah, i think it is. i hope it's a useful tool, otherwise i'm out of work. >> two more questions. >> two more.
man, blue shirt, sus spenders on the corner there. >> thank you. after 40 years after fighting this fight on behalf of your ideals, do you get frustrated? does a humorist like yourself get grumpy? >> oh, yeah. i hate politics. 40 years of writing of politics, and i realized, you know, i'm having as much fun as a grizzly bear getting a bikini wax. no, i don't like politics. i hate good politics too. i hate all politics. it's like, i even hate democracy. i know we have to have it and it's a logical outgrowth of equality and think about applying politics to every aspect of your life and deciding what's for dinner my name secret ballot. i have three kids and three dogs. we'd have fruit loops and spoiled meat for dinner.
think if our clothing were selected by the voting process, but the majority of shoppers which is teenage girls. vice president cheney would have had four years of his midriff shown. i do think one of the roles of libertarianism is to act as a room dee odd rye discoer to keep the -- out of office. one more. sir? >> what prospects do you see for the future of libertarianism in the younger generation like me? >> well, i think that libertarianism has a proposition 19 appeal to the young. you know, and it was interesting to me that proposition 19 didn't pass in california, and i think
it was a case of their token up before they went up in the voting booth, you know? [laughter] getting in there already to pass proposition 19 and going, wow, did you ever really look at a ballot? [laughter] there's writing on it and little boxes, yeah, so, you know, when you're voting on that, wait until after you vote. no, i think that, you know, that libertarianism, i think like me when i was young, i think the main consideration of kids is freedom, and one of the things we have to realize about kids is the extent to which they have lived grown up in, in an environment. kids in their weird sort of way are natural little marxists.
there's each according to their ability and need. where's the one place that actually works? the family. kids come out of this sort of commi family thing, you know, and they go to left wing teachers at school, but even if the school was not left wing, it is a collective enterprise, and they are given all this bo loanny and a mandatory volunteer work they have to do and, you know, there's a lot of talk about, you know, it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game, but obviously it's about if you win or lose, and then they go off to college and get this like freedom, you know, to get naked and responsibility, you have to turn the miewdzic down at -- music down after 3 a.m., and they live this life where they only possessions are like their like computer, you know, and their speakers, you know, and maybe a car, and so it's very,
very easy to be a leftist when you are in your late teens and early 20s, and i think the libertarian ideas about freedom, let's hold off and explain the responsibility part. they will find out soon enough, but libertarian ideas about freedom can be the kind of wedge in. certainly it was one of the things that when the left with whom i identified in the 1960s because the left was antiwar, because the war was antiracism, it was for free water beds and bongs for everybody. of course i identified with it. when they started to get starry, when the underground came in and blew stuff up and they began really acting up, i started to go, wait, i didn't sign on for this. i signed on for the bongs and water beds. what's this blowing people up?
i saw the totalitarian side on the left. that was the beginning of my journey away from that. i think libertarianism has a great potential appeal, and a appeal now, and even a larger potential appeal. [applause] thank you [applause] >> pg is the author of over a dozen books including parliament of whores and driving like crazy. for more information visit pjorourke.com. molly calledwell is the author of asleep, the forgotten epidemic one of medicines greatest mysteries.
rebecca skloot is the author of hen rei -- henrietta lax. this is just under an hour. >> thanks, clay, for introducing us, and welcome, everybody. this section is called fact of life, humanizing medical mysteries and the authors are molly crosby and rebecca skloot. i want to remind you following the session 15 minutes after it, the authors will sign their books on congress avenue between 10th and 11th street. i've been involved with book fairs for many years, and like 10 years ago i took an author to the airport, and i mentioned i was a scientist, and the author turned to me and asked who my favorite science writers were. i was struck dumbfounded.
i said mia wilson, nothing really came to me because the truth was i really wasn't gripped by science writing at that time, but since then, writers like molly and remember -- rebecca got my attention because they bring difficult complex subjects to life. i know if i were back in that car today, i would have a name like molly molly caldwell and rebecca skloot. molly spent several years working for national geographic and her writing appears in health, usa today and others. she was a creative nonfiction at the university in memphis.
asleep, the forgotten epidemic, one of medicine's greatest mysteries is her second book. her first a american plague, the untold story of the yellow fever, the untold epidemic that changed our history. rebecca skloot has wrote over 200 articles that appeared in the "new york times," magazine "o," and served ate years in the book circle as vice president judge as the yearly book awards. she is an mfa in creative nonfiction. it has the breakout "new york times" best seller. i wanted to get started with what resinated with me so much which is that science writing is so gripping now, and in large part that's because writers,
like you, both use narratives so much to pull the reader in. i wonder if you could talk about the role of narrative as a mean for communicating science. >> can everybody hear okay in the back? thank you. that was sweet and wonderful. you know, i've had the saism reaction. -- same reaction. i'm asked who my favorite science writers are, and i have a couple answers, but narrative science writing is rare. it is cool that you have three women here talking about it because even -- [applause] the one thing that is perhaps more rare than narrative science writing is women narrative science writer. it's great we're talking about this. just as the role of narratives, i think it's everything in the
kinds of writing we do. science affects everybody's lives. it's so important for the general public to understand science and to see the ways that science interagents with daily -- interacts with daily life and for scientists to learn about the people and the science behind what they are doing and learn about science in a narrative way, but a lot of people don't. a lot of science writing is just the facts, and the facts are intime dating to the -- intimidating to the general public, and what i hear over and over again when you hear about my book, technically it's the story of the first human cells grown in culture. when you say that, people go, oh, my god, you wrote a book about cells? it's not, it's a story about family. it's a story about what happens when you lose a mother to cancer and the ethics in science and people and research and concept and class and race, and it's about so many things. science is that.
sign does not -- science does not exist in a vacuum. i hear over and over again from readers who say i hate sice. last time i took a science class was in middle school, and i almost did read your book because there was cells on the cover -- [laughter] but i did, and i couldn't put it down and realized i learned a lot about cells. that's the highest kemp lement that i could -- complement i could get. it's like medicine that tastes really good. i think it's important to use the stories to slip the science in and tell people the human stories behind the science, and let them learn about science in a way that okay, here's the science part you are learning now. take out your highlighters. narrative lets you do that. it lets people go through the science because they want to see what happens next.
>> i agree, and yes very proud to be one of the women here on this panel today. i actually had very little interest in science and school. i was not drawn to it because it is impersonal. my first real interest with it came in college. i was an english writing major. i was forced to take a science course, and i took the chemistry. it was the first time i had learned science applied to a particular disease, to a virus, and from that point on, really, i was hooked on it. i loved it. i do think since tends to be intimidating for people. it is impersonal in a lot of ways, so as a science writer you have to make the personal personal. illness is one of the universal things we have in common. it cengts us -- connects us all.
it takes place in different time periods, but it's something today we can still understand, relate to, and certainly with epidemics, it's also a future lesson as well, so i think that role of narrative science is, as you said, it's absolutely important you get the story across. i like the point you made too that it's important for the physicians and doctors and researchers to understand the role of the patients because that is especially with my second book, that was an important element of the book to me. this was an epidemic that spans 20 or 30 years with long term effects, and the doctors developed long term relationships with the patients. they exchanged letters, christmas cards, and visited each other in their vacation homes. that was interesting for me to see because i don't think we have relationships like that today. that was part of bringing the impersonal story to life.
>> we've kind of talked or blurred lines between science and medical writing. i wonder if we just want to address that a little bit? what do you see as your -- hang on, as the goals and responsibilities maybe with science writing or in general? >> i say responsibility is getting the information correct, the facts. i try to have experts read whether it's microbiology read parts of the book or the whole bong to make -- book to make sure i'm translating it correctly. i want to make it readable and bridge that gap. >> yeah, i think the actual accuracy is important, but in science writing it's easy to make a little tiny mistake, and state something as definitive
instead of pobbly. there's a lot of facts to get. for me, i thought a lot about my responsibility and my role as a writer because a lot of what i write about are the places where every day life and science intersect, and often that gets messy, and i often write about bioethical issues and like this story in my book is so much about, you know, the cells were taken from a woman without her knowledge in the 50s and they were the most important things that happened to medicine. she never knew about it. she died young, and her family lived in poverty. they still can't go to the doctor because they don't have enough money yet. her mother's cells were contributed to all the medicine out there. there's not a single person here who didn't benefit from these cells. the family is black and the scientists are white. it's loaded issues in the book, and i come at science writing as a scientist. i was trained initially as a
scientist and became a writer later, and for me one of the bigger speedometers is asking -- responsibilities is asking tough questions of science. there's not a lot of people, journalists who ask tough questions of science. a lot of the headlines are about yeah, that science advance and it's not until later people ask questions about things that happened long ago. i feel it's important to ask the questions about ethics and how science is impacting people's lives, but also not to demonize science in the process. this was important to me is portraying the people behind the science and really showing they are human beings behind science and sometimes well intentioned scientists accidently have negative affects on people, and i thought it was really important to present these issues, but not scare people away from the science. you know, in my case so much of the story is about
african-americans who have a history of being afraid to go to the doctor because they have a long history of being used in research, and i didn't want to make that problem worse, so it's a really -- i think you have to think about the responsibility in any kind of science. science is scarry to people whether it's nanotechnology and things people can't see using things to be created or cloning, and it's easy to scare people. i think a lot about that when i write. okay, how do i balance all of these things so i convey the science and important issues, ask the tough question and make it clear that the science is good, and we need it to keep happening, and i don't want to scare people from going to the doctor. that's a big personal responsibility, and people come to my events and will say, you know, i went to the doctor, or i'm supposed to go to the doctor next week, should i be worried? i spend a lot of time talking about, you know, okay, no, you
should not be worried. go to the doctor. read the forms that they give you. i spend a lot of time translating that to people. >> i'll add one thing. the point about dee nonnize -- demonizing people in science is a good one. it deals with human experimentation, and today you look at that and think how can you possibly experiment on humans with or without their consent? my responsibility is to recreate what it was like in those epidemics that make people so desperate to actually, doctors would self-infect, infect their patients knowingly or unknowingly. when you look at it from a different perspective in history, there's a lot of responsibility not to demonize anything. >> oh, yeah. putting people in the mind set of this is what it was like in the 1910s and this is why people
did what they did and how it's different today. when people read about, maybe research done on people without consent, they read it from today's perspective, and you can get in a lot of trouble when you look at it through the eyes of what we know today. putting it in context is hugely important. >> molly, you mentioned one of the things we all share is illness, and medical writing has that, but another thing, collateral damage is the effects on our families. both of you write about that in your books. can you talk about that a little bit, the collateral damage to families? >> sure. my second book, asleep, deals with a sleeping epidemic throughout history, but mainly the 19 # 20s. it's known as the forgotten epidemic. literally there's not one book on the subject, and it was personal to me because my
grandmother was a survivor. that's how i knew about it. she was living in dallas, texas, 1929, 16 years old, and she had the sleeping sickness and slept for 180 days. she never finished school. she lived a relatively normal life and married and had children. i knew all of my childhood there was nothing right and she seemed removed and detached, and when i asked people about it, they said she's been like that since the sleeping epidemic. that's why i wanted to cover it and more so when nothing was written about it. as much as it's considered forgotten, when i do interview, i'm contacted by people who say my great grandmother or great uncle had it. now we know. there's a lot of mental illnesses with this disease, and they worried about it being genetic, but now they know it's related to this or to the
epidemic circulating at the time, so this was certainly a personal story for me that inspired me to write it. >> yeah, and i think that's one of the things about narrative writing. science is personal for everybody and affects everyone's lives in ways you don't think about. it's personal to the scientist. there are personal stories behind every bit of science that happens, and one of our jobs as writers is to bring that out and show people this is how science is personal for you and the people in the story. you know, it's interesting. there's -- my book is about many things, and the one story that really grabs people is that in a lot of ways it's a story about the affect that losing a mother to cancer on a family. so much of what happened to her family after she died, they were used in research because of the cells. they dealt with so many things and also just living in poverty with a father who was never
there, and, you know, five kids whose mother died when the youngest kid was a few months old and the oldest was 16, and they were thrown out into the world. it's a very personal story, and the number of e-mails i get every day from people who lost a parent and read the story and connect to it on that level or people who almost lost a parent. for me it's some of the most emotional e-mails i get are from reader who say my mother or father or grandmother or someone important in my life got cancer when i was young or recently and they are actually still here. i didn't go through what her family went through losing their mother because of her cells because her cells were used to help develop the drugs that saved my parents and grandparents, and that, that's just sort of, it's an incredible personal connection that so many people have with it. what brings us to the stories is some sort of personal connection. i learned about the cells when i
was 16 in a basic biology class. the story is in the book, but my teacher said there's these incredible cells. they have been around since 1951 and the woman they came from died, but they went on to be an important thing. one of the first questions was well, what else do we know about her and did she have kids? what do they think about this? people often ask, okay, why? i was obsessed with these cells and this was in the 80s, and it took me a decade to write this book, and why i latched on to the story is when i was 16, my father was very sick with a viral infection that caused brain damage and no one knew what was wrong with him. he became a guy who couldn't get off the couch.
he enrolled at a drug study, and he couldn't drive. one of my jobs was drive dad to the hospital four times a week for drug infusion and sit there while he was treated. i was in a room with a lot of other patients being treated in different studies, and i did my homework there and hung out in this room. there's a lot of fear with that. they had putting this stuff in my dad and didn't know if it would help or hurt and there was hopes that this would fix him and bring him back, and there was a lot of disappointment that it didn't help, but i was wrestling with a range of emotions that come with being a research subject or a family member of a research subject when i first heard about the cells, and i think that's why my first question is did she have kids? what did they think about it? i was a kid going through something similar what i imagined her family might have gone through. if you look back to john
mcphee, an incredible science writer, he looked back at the stories he wrote about, and he traces them back to things he was interested in before he was 20. he has a connection to them. i think that's important for writers in general. when i teach i tell students to go back to 20 and earlier and what is what you're obsessed with related to science, and where are the stories in that to cultivate? >> so, you both talked about this a little bit, but there's mysteries surrounding your topics. nobody knowsy the cells grow the way they do, and nobody knows about the epidemic in diseases. is it frustrating writing a book where you can't give all the answers and how do you deal with that? >> it's been exciting for me
actually. it's the swelling in your brain that makes you sleepy. it's a mystery today and what caused the epidemic is a mystery, and there's random cases still around the world. one of the pieces i wrote is about a neurogist and he's seen 20 cases. some of these kids are obsessed sees eve -- obsessive-compulsive and many are institutionalized. it's haunting for the people it affects and also for the physician. they are still working on it today. they can't answer why this occurs. it's not a contagious disease. it was probably shadowing something contagious like the flu. will we see this come back in epidemic fork? that's one the big concerns for
them is this connected to the flu? will there be another sleeping epidemic? even since the publication of my book, there's physicians doing research trying to make that connection between the flu and sleeping sickness, and i start looking and the studies will be out this year, and they think they found a great ling, and others connect it to cases of stretsz. really, it's your body overreacting to an infection, and sleeping sickness results. it's interesting to watch. writing the book, i didn't know how it was going to end, and even today, it's a story without end. >> i think that's one the things of writing nonfiction, the stories don't end. i could have researched this story forever, and the family is still alive and still doing things. at some point, you have to say the story is over. book is happening now, maybe
i'll write a follow-up. there's so many things you can't answer, and in a lot of ways when hen reietta died she didn't read or write. i had to recreate a person from other people's memories and little documentation here and there, and that was one the most challenging and frustrating experiences of just trying to answer the question of who she was, and then there's the mystery of cells. no one can explain why her cells grew and no other cells had. it's not so frustrating to me because that's the fact, and now, i often talk in front of groupses of scientists and they don't know that. we should know that. there's a group of scientists trying to get me a better answer to the question. it's frustrating for rairds sometimes.
i'll get people who say, but, you know, the one thing i didn't get from your book is why the cells grew. well, that's because no one knows. i said no one knows, but it's like that part of the book just sort of, people wanted me to have figured out by the end, and no one knows. the other big thing is there's a lot of unanswered questions. when you get to the end of the book, one of the goals was not advocating for one sort of position or one stance on this very large issue of who should be using bilogical material, who should be profiting off of them, should you be told your tissues are used in research and you probably don't know it which is true of most people in the united states, and how do we deal with getting consent for research without inhibiting science? the bookends with big questions. i get people who say, so, what do we do? how do we fix it?
sciencetists ask what should my concept forms say? that's not my job. my job is to put it out there, here's the story. here's why it's important. here's the stories that are present today. discuss. [laughter] i think starting a conversation about questions that are not answered is important. the lack of answers for me is part of the story because if there were answers that means all the issues have been solved, and they have not been. there's a tendency to want to tie that up and make neat endings. >> because you write in narrative forms, we think it's a story so we want an ending, but it's not. it's reality. >> yeah. >> i want to talk about the structure of your books a little bit because one of the things you both talked about is that you cover so many things. there's ethical, historical, medical, personal stories, and how did you come up with the
structure of your books to juggle all those many, many difficult topics? >> just pounding my head against the wall for years. >> sorry. [laughter] >> yeah, i'll start with that. you know, the structure of my book there's three narratives graded together and you jump around in time on the three stories, and somewhere in the end they come together in one story, so -- and i thought, it took me so long to come up with the structure of the book, and it was the thing that took me the longest in writing the book. if i told the story chronologically, and is it one of the things that make narrative? i harp on my students about structure all the time. anyone who has been in a class with me is like structure, structure, structure, fine. it's the thing that makes or breaks stories. if i told it chronologically says she was born in 1920, then
we'd be going along and two-thirds in the book her family takes over and they are the main characters and i would appear. it wouldn't work, but also that structure, playing with structure and cron noel ji allows you to emphasize certain things about a story. i felt it was really important to learn the story of what happened to her family and at the same time you learned about the things that happen in your cells and you flip-flop back and forth and yeah, science is amazing, and next you're like, oh, my god that happened to the family. the weight of the story itself is much heavier when you know what happened to her family. i knew it was important to tell them at the same time and then actually figuring out how to do that was a lot of index cards on big walls and moving them and i would stare at them for hours and move a card and sit back down, and for me, you know, there are not a lot of --
there are some models of very narrative sipes reading you can write, but from models, i read a lot of fiction. i collected -- i went to the local book seller, independent book seller, this little tiny store in west virginia when i went to write, and i told her what i was trying to do. i asked her to find me any novel with lots of characters. she would just find books and i read them all. i would take little things from each book. fried green tomatoes was very useful for me. [laughter] also, movies. it turns out a lot of movies are structured like that. we don't think about it when we watch them, but so many movies jump in time and do that sort of thing, and i was -- i started watching any movie i could that was structured in the same way, and i was watching hurricane about the wrestler hurricane carter, and i was like
very annoying to everyone in the room like, that's my book, that's the structure. i story boarded it and mapped up the structure of the movie by hitting play and pause and looking at how they did that. one of the things i got from that is it's very fast, and what was not working up until that point is i had long chapters. i realized, you have to jump around quickly in time to keep people moving on all the narratives or you lose them. narrative has a lot to learn from the other areas and not so many nonfiction. >> yeah. >> i find that to be one the most creative aspects of science writing. i think you have to apply a lot of creativity to it to make it interesting and readable, and coming at this structure makes or breaks a story like that, and when i was writing my first book the american plague about yellow fever, i was sitting down to tackle a 100 year time frame with an assemble cast of
characters which one is an insect. [laughter] trying to make that readable and personal was a challenge. i had a story board, wrote things out, hone in on the people. with my second book, i was taking a completely different problem, and that was this is a huge kaleidoscope of a disease with everyone from mild symptoms to those who died to those who became violently insane and institutionalized. ultimately, how do you find one character or two to represent that spectrum, so i divided the book into case studies. there's about eight case studies, and the book ended with my grandmother's story, and each study deals with a part of the book deep into the person's, you know, try to recreate their life as you talked about, take their personal stories, photographs, whamp you can, and recreate what they patient's experience was, and then woven in the case
studies are the same doctors treating the patienting and working to the with them, so that was, to me it was just organizing a lot of very desperate material and a creative enough fashion to make people want to read it. >> the organizing part of it is something that writer underestimate when you start a book. i had never tackled a large project like this, and when i got to the point of okay, i need to map things out and write. i just had a mess of a mound of material and not argued and i -- organized, and i had to stop the process and catalog everything and basically start over again with my research material to make sure you could find the things you were trying to organize. one thing writers do is what suggestion do you have? be ocd. organize everything, label, come up with, you know, color coding systems because when you sit down to put that structure into
place, not only do you organize on a page, but there's raw material that's all over your office. >> right. >> i'm going to ask you each sort of the one question i've been dying to ask you. so, molly, first of all your case studies are fascinating. the one -- this is maybe not the one that jumped at most people, but jumped at me. it's the story of ruth. i'll read some lines from the book. the doctor on this case is frederick pilney. standing next beth's side, he told the girl's parents there was nothing to be done. there was no answers. ruth fell away deeper and deeper into her own world like a face disappearing below the water. he told ruth's parents she would not recover and looking at the sleeping girl, tears were running down her cheek.
the girl is frozen, can't move, but she is hear. she hears the doctor say she's never going to recover, and tears, to me, i was just so stretched like tears, she was crying, and so this was the case study, but is there one that you found the most moving or touching or does one come back to you? >> that was one of the most moving, and it was a great find. she's one the first cases that appeared in new york in 1918 and they realize this epidemic is spreading, it's a pandemic around the world rapidly spreading. they did not realize these sleeping patients were trapped in their bodies, but aware of everything happening around them. ruth is one of the first cases where they realized that. he had no idea she could hear what he said. when they saw the tears, it was a humanizing moment and humbling for the doctors because at that point they realized this is much worse for the patients than they ever imagined and for the family
members, so, yeah, i would say hers was the most touching cases from the book. everyone brings up the other one is the self-mutilation case of who girl who pulled her own teeth and eyes. that's the one people ask questions about. i will say the only thing making that section tollerble to write is that they said the pain mechanism in her brain was no longer. she felt no pain. the mechanism that caused her to do this, in that case, it's really the only thing i could get my mind around writing about her that i could sit down. i call it the steven king chapter. it's like something you can't imagine, so that's the one that gets the morse attention. -- most attention. the ruth chapter case study was the most humanizing moment and
my favorite. >> i just want to add something. i think this is one the things that's very difficult about narrative writing is when you have a story that's really painful or emotional. you live it when you recreate it on a page. there's something about like this actually happened. the chapter where it was the decline of henrietta and her death, i never experienced something so traumatizing. i had to get in her head and body and imagine what it felt like. it's something that i don't know if a lot of writer talk about it, but it's the impact that that has,ed need to embody your material when your material is really traumatizing. war reporters deal with this all the time. they get a post-traumatic stress disorder after reliving the experiences they write about, and there's something about having it on the page and moving
on, but those really difficult scenes, i write them and have to lay down for several days to recover. >> and because your characters in the book become so real to you. they are real people that you can completely see and imagine. when you brought up the responsibility of writing, that's a huge responsibility and dawnlting -- daunting task is representing people. if they came back today, you want them to say that's right. that's how it was. >> or when they're still alive. i had a box of 30 manuscripts to the family and it took a week to hear back. that was a very long week. >> yeah. so the book or theme from your book that i want to talk about 1 it takes place a few days after
henrietta's daughter sees the researcher and this is your writing. when chris projected her cells on a monitor, the daughter said they are beautiful. she was right. beautiful, growing green and moving like water, calm, looking like heavenly bodies might look. they can float through air. the first time i read it, no way did you do this. you made something scientific spiritual. i feel like that's a big risk you took. did you realize it was a risk, and were you nervous about that? did you go back and forth? >> the context of where that scene happens is the day before debra sees the cells for the first time, and it was an incredible experience for her. she was spiraling into a dangerous place. i was talking to her cousin who
is a pastor, and he was holding the bible in front of me and explaning to me why the family believed that henrietta was chosen as an angel and brought back to life in these cells. he was telling me as a scientist coming to this cells are cells and they have structures and, you know, before working on the book i had never thought of her as alive in the cells, and for her family she very much is and continues to be her and soul is in there. he was reading sections of the bible to me that says things if the lord grants life to his believers and you never know what form people come back in when they are chosen. she was brought back to do good in the world. this was me -- this was a moment where it was very clear to me that it was actually much easier and clearer to think about these cells in
spiritual terms than in scientific terms particularly for the family. when you put the bib call explanation next to the scientific one, the biblical one is much clearer and easier to relate to. i came to a point where the scientist in me was able to open up and understand where they came from, and it's -- i mean, there was points where i was jealous. people ask, did they convert you? the answer is no, i came into this, you know, without having any religious background, and i'm not a person who practices religion, but i got a completely different and nuanced understanding of the role that faith plays in people lives and how important and healthy it can be. that's something scientists don't think about or confronted with. people talk about science versus religion, and a lot of the book is about moments science and religion can work together to
lead to deeper understanding of things, and i felt it was important to include, and i was never nervous about it, but scientists ask questions like did you straighten out the family about the whole her spirits in there? my answer to them is can you prove she's not? part of the story really is whether you or henrietta or anyone is alive in their cells and it depends how you define life, spirit, soul, what your dna means to you? it raises these really sort of existential questions that nobody can answer, and you can't say her family's wrong about that. a lot of scientists say that's hepful to read that and it helps them connect with their patients who they felt were far away from them in understanding science. >> given that back and forth between science and religion today, i found that fascinating.
in the 1920s it was written one of the deaf fintive books on evolution, and he calls the brain the mechanism of salvation for human souls. to me, it's fascinating to see at that time period it was much more wedded together, this idea of science and spiritualty. >> this is a question everybody wants to always know. how do you write, and you know, what is your writing style? >> i've always been drawn to creative writing. i mean, when, where, under what conditions, with a pen? >> a laptop and it's a huge source of information. i have two small kids, and i don't have the ability to go and move somewhere and do research for weeks at a time, and so
that's been a great thing for mel. the other thing is how do you not get writers block. i don't have time for writer's block is the answer. i'm intiet spited when they go -- excited when they go to school and i have four hours to write. i have a professor in college who said there's no such thing of writer's block, just a lack of research. i spend half the time going back and fort in the library, through the research material because that gives the story its texture. >> i was going to say the same thing. it just means you don't have enough material yet and don't know your story. my writing process is tortured like a lot of writers, and i struggled for a long time figuring out when to write and how, and i find the internet useful and incredibly distracting. i can't sit and write until i
have materials to work with. i do research, and i take notes and i write scenes and do brain dumps after i see things i'm writing about, but i don't construct my writing until late in the game after the research is done. at that point i have to unplug. i actually -- i spend a lot of time in coffee shops, and that's in part because of this when i go somewhere to write, you feel like an idiot if you go there to write and you don't. [laughter] i would struggle with the tight of day, but i had a teacher who said to be a writer you have to write every day, write for four hours, and i was like, you know, what? you bother me when you say that. [laughter] it's not my style. he then, he's a good friend and he visited me and stayed october my house and he was up at five o'clock in the morning.
i said, fine, i'll try this 5 in the morning thing, and i wrote more then than i ever did. i was like i hate you for this. but from then on i rolled out of bed and went to a coffee shop and wrote. it's 5 a.m. until 10 or eleven o'clock and that creative juice is gone, and i e-mail and do online things or whatever work i have to do, but i only do that when i'm in writing mode, and i'm not a morning person so this was challenging for me to do. when i'm trying produce, it has to be at a time when nothing else is going on, but another great narrative nonfiction writer said that she does the same thing and a lot of it is because it tricks her brain. she's not awake yet, starts writing early and wakes up and she's writing, and then she's like, well, i better just keep going.
[laughter] there is something to that. the brain has not kicked in yet that early in the morning, and it's easier to be creative then. >> i'd like to open it up to questions from the audience. there is a microphone. if you wouldn't mind coming -- thank you. >> [inaudible] >> i think it might not be on. there you go. that's okay, we'll repeat your question. >> yeah, we'll repeat it. >> [inaudible] [inaudible]
[inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] >> okay, can i stop you right there because i know we're going to run out of time. i just want to respond. his lead up to the question was that the book was sort of framed as a mori trail sin -- mortal sin that the scientists didn't get consent or the family didn't get money. consent didn't exist in the 50s. it was standard practice for them to take samples from anybody.
>> the question is, you know, is this really, it seems to me that the same structure in society keeping the lacks getting health care still pay for it and the price of everything goes up, and it turns into a question of monetizing everything. now, if i'm an organ don nor, do i have to be paid? >> right. this is 5 question that -- a question that comes up. the lacks family, a lot of their story is, you know, people made money off of these cells, where's our cut? why can't we go to the doctor? the question of what you monetize and, you know, who should profit off of these materials is a big one, and it's a discussion we're having now as a culture. it's not just a question if patients should profit but if researcher should and who and how much and how do you tell
people are profiting off of it? there's a lot of big questions and is it moving science forward? i think a lot of it in terms of the lacks family and others concerned with the commercialization, it comes down to a discussion of health care. the family's inability of going to the doctor has nothing to do with the cells. it's the ironny in the country. the people behind medicine cannot get access to care because of our health care system. it's how do you commercialize science, and okay, the idea has been everyone benefits from science, therefore we owe it to donate tissues and things like that, but in our country, not everyone benefits because they can't, often these samples that are taken are then taken into products and sold back to people that not everyone can afford, and so if we're in a situation where science is depending on
materials from people to make these products, shouldn't everyone have access to that? that's part of the health care debate. the family's story is more than money. it's about privacy and consent, but the money issue gets to be the center focus because it is so emotional for people i think. >> i would like to ask either of you if any of your books are going to be made into films. >> the question is are our books going to be made into films. mine is, yes, oprah is producing it with allen ball and it will be on hbo. we're in the process of doing that now. >> nationtive writing -- narrative writing makes it come alive, and it's a great way to do i