Rachel Klayman is an Executive Editor at Crown Publishers, where she acquires a broad array of nonfiction. Books she has edited include Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope; Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana (winner of the 2003 National Book Award in nonfiction); Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar; Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc.; and John Robison’s Look Me in the Eye. She is also the editor of the bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Most authors have no idea of the pressure on editors to sum up their books in one or, if we’re lucky, two tidy sentences. No pressure, of course: Just capture the Platonic essence of the book in a way that triggers exhilaration and confidence in your marketing and publicity team and the desire to order stackable quantities in booksellers. Yet even as I mock this ritual, I remember my first real job in publishing, as a sales rep at Columbia University Press, and the importance of being able to pitch a book with economy. I chafe, sometimes I cringe—yet I usually manage to write the sentence.
But then I took on Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Here was a book that refused to be contained in a sentence. The multiple story lines resonated like a musical chord. There were haunting synchronicities, detours, dissonances. Science and superstition butted up against each other; issues of poverty and racial injustice crept in. The author was a presence in the narrative: her interaction with the descendants of Henrietta Lacks became the emotional core of the narrative. The book contained multitudes.
As I struggled, the only thing that consoled me was that Rebecca had spent ten years working on it and couldn’t pitch it either. It stumped everyone.
There were valiant attempts. Several years before there was even a manuscript, a major Hollywood producer stalking the book imagined it as “Erin Brockovich meets Jurassic Park.” One blurber came up with “The Wire meets Lives of a Cell.”
Then it came time to choose a subtitle, and the struggle continued. Everything Rebecca and I tried was ungainly, inadequate. Clever people applied themselves to the task and came up empty handed. One evening, we were on the phone brainstorming and joked that we ought to make the subtitle read like the voiceover in a movie trailer. I imagined an ominous baritone: “No one knew her name….Doctors took her cells without asking….Those cells never died….” It was melodramatic, but the idea of layering on sentences took hold. So, in the end, we decided to embrace the complexity and go with several sentences—an actual block of text. Amazingly, the sales force liked it.
Secretly, I was pleased by my failure. It was proof that the book is distinctive, irreducible. It has many strands, but they’re as tightly interwoven as the DNA inside Henrietta’s cells—the cells at the heart of this story. I can’t wait to be able to hand people the book and when they ask, “What’s it about?” just say, “Read it.”
This piece was originally published in Publishers Weekly in a slightly different form as part of an article by author Rebecca Skloot on her book tour for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Get more insider info from author Rebecca Skloot on PW.com and learn about the making of “The Immortal Book Tour.”