Author Mary Roach talks her days below the bottom rung, hair on the Colbert Report, and the dangers of book tours
This interview was originally published at AlainaMabaso.com in 2012.
Mary Roach recently took a break from poring over an “ancient French journal” (I’m desperately curious as to what she’s learning in there) to chat with me by phone about her books and career.
It currently seems as if there’s nothing Roach won’t tackle as a bestselling nonfiction writer. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2004) illuminates everything you never knew you wanted to know about the adventures of the deceased. With a measure of nausea almost equal to your fascination, you’ll learn about cosmetic surgeons’ training, the proving ground of forensic sciences that lets police investigators determine the cause and time of death in crime victims, and much more.
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2006) journeys into the efforts of scientists to prove or disprove the existence of the afterlife, including forays into reincarnation and the infamous spirit mediums of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2009), Roach finds stimulation in the history of sexuality studies, chasing the answers to questions like whether or not female orgasm really does aid conception. She also brings her husband into an MRI lab for some very unusual joint imaging.
While the scatological aspects of her latest book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2011) arguably got the most press (really, how does one poop in zero gravity?), she tackles equally interesting studies, like how long a small group of people can live locked in extremely close quarters, to ascertain the psychological effects of long space voyages, as well as the loopy mental effects documented in space walkers.
Did I mention all these books are as hilarious as they are well-researched?
Alaina Mabaso: Would you have predicted the career you have today, when you were first starting out as a writer? Or did you always have the goal of writing the kind of books that you do now?
Mary Roach: I didn’t really imagine ever writing books, because I have such a short attention span. You know there’s narratives that sort of suggest a book, but for a long time I thought, oh, I’m always going to be writing short pieces, because what kind of book could I possibly write? So no, I had absolutely no image in my head of A) writing any book, and B) writing the kinds of books that I do write. No, absolutely no inkling.
AM: That’s often true of a lot of us, that it’s just mind-blowing where we actually end up. It’s cool that that’s true of you as well.
MR: I started out below the bottom rung. The first thing I wrote – and I was thrilled every step of the way – was this really dumb piece for an advertising supplement for the San Francisco Examiner…this is not even the real newspaper, this is the pretend part when they sell advertising and then they have these fake stories to go along with it…like for a section on home security, various home alarm companies would buy ads and they would need to fill them out with some bogus stories, and I’m like, “Oh, I get to write a story about guard dogs! How exciting!” So yeah, I started absolutely nowhere, just happy to be writing as long as I can, and I figured, if I can keep finding people to pay me to do this, I’d be thrilled.
AM: So out of all the books and articles you’ve done over the years, obviously a wide range of stuff, is there one topic that’s closest to your heart or that you most enjoyed learning about?
MR: Well, I guess I’ve ended up writing about science mostly and things relating to the human body…I don’t have a background in science so I can’t go very far with it, so obviously I’m not going to cover anything on a molecular level or anything totally abstract or having to do with particle theory…
AM: String theory?
MR: Yeah, exactly (laughs). Every once in a while I wander into that, like in Spook I had a chapter that had to do with consciousness theory – pretty hilarious, my trying to understand what people were saying. So I enjoy that realm of research – the human body is kind of a weird, strange planet and lots of interesting things go on there that I am endlessly fascinated by, so that’s been a source of material for a long time for me.
AM: It’s obvious you do a huge amount of interviews and research – I know, as a writer, out of what I initially find out, there’s not nearly space for it all in the work that actually gets published. So if there was a general percentage, how much of the info you’re actually getting do you think is included in the final product?
MR: There’s always a period when I start a book with a few months of random flailing, and I don’t really know the thrust of the book, though I claim to – I’ve pitched this book – but I really don’t know what I’m going to cover, so there’s really a lot of wasted time and a lot of ground traveled that I won’t use. There’s usually a couple chapters that I’ve gathered material on, maybe even flown somewhere and done an interview, and I just don’t put it in. It’s maybe a 10th of it that I’ve gathered and I’m not going to use.
AM: I was chatting once with a political writer, and he told me his take on writing: that research should be nine tenths of the work that a writer actually does. Do you think that’s true?
MR: Nine tenths of the work…I don’t know about nine tenths…in terms of the hour by hour, sure, yeah, in terms of how much time I’m spending tracking people down, sending them e-mails, bugging them, traveling, going to see them, looking at books, requesting them, going to UC Berkley Library to pick them up, all of that stuff, yeah, compared to the actual sitting down at the keyboard, writing, yeah, that’s probably not far off.
AM: I’m a little nervous to say this next one to a writer that I admire so much, but one of my favorite things about Packing for Mars was your use of all the verbatim transcripts from researchers and astronauts, and I think you’re a brilliant humorist, but somehow these transcribed bits were absolute comedy gold on their own. So did you always intend to showcase that source material that way?
MR: I think it’s just my recognizing them as, not just funny, but even more golden because they weren’t intended to be humorous. But they so showcase the humor involved in a serious pursuit like space exploration. To me, the scenarios are funny and fabulous, but taking the actual words from the transcript of a Gemini mission, and the fact that there can be hilarity in something so dangerous and noble, just appeals to me so much as an author.
AM: One thing I love about your books is not just the great science you’re writing about, but the fact that you make science an egalitarian pursuit instead of something that only experts can get close to or learn about. We’re in this interesting spot where for the first time in history we have boundless learning available in the digital world, but at the same time, especially in the US, many aspects of science and scientific discourse are becoming hugely politicized. So do you think that we’re moving closer to a society where science is more accessible to all of us, or is it the opposite?
MR: It’s both more accessible, and among a depressingly large percentage of the population, irrelevant. I am very dismayed by the trend now to treat science or intelligent pursuits of the mind as elitist or not necessary; we’re kind of moving back to the sort of Medieval attitude: it’s my intuition that this is true, and facts and hard work and intelligent research and critical thought don’t matter – it’s just whatever I think is true is true. Don’t get me started, because you’ll never get me to stop – it’s so sad, and it’s such a massive step backward. So yeah, we have this access to all these incredible journals and books…I mean, now, I don’t have to request an interlibrary loan and wait two weeks, I can go on to Google Books and find something from the 1860’s that used to take weeks and sometimes traveling to an archive. Now you can get this stuff but nobody wants it, nobody’s interested! Who cares about that old stuff, and I’m like, “I do! I care!” this tiny voice: “You should care too!”
AM: Well, I’m glad that you care. I think it’s good for all of us that you do. So now that, especially in your books, you’ve dwelt at length on bowel movements in space, masturbatory experiments, and cadaver studies, do you think there’s any topic that the modern public would refuse to read about?
MR: (laughs) Possibly my next book, but I’ll just leave it at that.
AM: Do you think that there is anything you yourself would have zero interest in writing about?
MR: Here’s something! When I was writing Stiff, somebody said, “Ooh, you should write about necrophilia…There’s this mortuary in Las Vegas where if you pay enough money…” But it didn’t really fit the topic and the scope of the book, and I really don’t even want to go there. Even me, no, no, sorry. But somebody DID, a European writer sent me a note saying, “I’m writing a book about necrophilia”, and I thought, good luck with that! I’m sure people would be curious in that sort of train-wreck way, but I can’t imagine that that book would do very well, despite people’s morbid curiosity.
AM: I have one more last really important official question for you. I want to say, to kind of assuage the jealousy of the rest of us writers who are still laboring away from feature to feature and we’re not going on TV with Jon Stewart, what are the absolute worst things about going on a book tour?
MR: (laughs) Imagine you’re promoting the book Stiff and you have to get up at 4am to catch a flight in order to get to the next town in time for the early morning Fox affiliate talk show where you’re going to be a segment in between the adoptable pets from the SPCA and the gardening lady, and you look like shit, and you don’t know how to do your make-up, that’s a given for me, and then the host turns to you and goes, “ok, coming up, Mary Roach with cadavers.” That experience, really, you can skip that and your life will be better, not worse.
AM: I’m sure that will help a lot of us feel better. In TV interviews I’ve seen with you, you always seem to have really great hair. So congratulations on that.
MR: Oh, ok, The Daily Show, Daily Show and Colbert…Colbert has the makeup person that used to do “Sex and the City”, and I forget who the woman on the Daily Show is, but they’re miracle workers, and same with the TED talks, they have a hair and makeup person.
AM: Who wants to learn about science if the speaker isn’t at least attractive?
MR: (laughs) It’s true, if you saw some of those early morning, four hours’ sleep, bad makeup interviews with me – those should be online, fortunately they’re not. Those people don’t have the hair and makeup person: “Arrive camera ready!” That means you’re going to look like shit.
AM: I’m sure most of us wouldn’t have a very good idea of what comprises camera ready.
MR: Camera-ready is, you look like some sort of clown freak, it’s like this heavy orange make-up that on TV looks great, and then you leave to go somewhere else, and people are like (gasps), what’s wrong with her? She had her makeup done by one of those corpse makeup people.
AM: Ok, well, we’re all going to hold that real close in our hearts, in case we never write bestselling books.
MR: You will! I spent fifteen years writing magazine pieces, and one thing leads to another.