#ThrowbackThursday: Interview with Mary Roach, Science Writer Extraordinaire
Interview by Natalie Snoyman
Illustrations by Grace Danico
Mary Roach never set out to be a science writer but one would think she was determined from birth. After working as a freelance copy editor, Roach started writing press releases for her part-time job at the San Francisco Zoological Society. Since then, Mary has written for publications such as Vogue, GQ, The New York Times, National Geographic, and Wired. In her books, Mary asks the questions we all want to know but are maybe a little too embarrassed to ask. Is it possible to eat yourself to death? Can a corpse have an orgasm? Could I survive in a whale's belly? Best of all, she'll answer those questions and make you laugh page after page. Mary's humorous, well-researched books examine the life of cadavers (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), sex (Bonk), take us through NASA training (Packing for Mars), and explore our digestive tract (Gulp). Simply put, Mary is one of my favorite authors and she was kind enough to answer a few questions I've been wanting to ask since I first picked up Stiff ten years ago!
Natalie Snoyman: Your books cover huge topics like sex, space, the afterlife, and the human body. Can you tell us about your brainstorm process and what inspires you to write about each subject?
Mary Roach: I like to have a huge swath of material from which to cherry-pick interesting/unusual/bizarre/funny episodes. Sometimes I don't start with a topic, but with a handful of related particulars. Gems I've stumbled onto over the years and known I'd like to do something with. If I have a cluster of three or four (each of which might make for a good chapter), I'll start mulling a possible book topic that could encompass them. Example: Packing for Mars [Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void]. Over the decades, I'd come across the astronaut video-toilet (for positional training), the bedrest facility, the neutral buoyancy tank and Enos, the second space chimp. All irresistible. At some point I thought, “maybe I can build a book around these.” It's like that awful TV ad for Kohler faucets, where this impossibly pretentious couple goes to see their architect, places this over-the-top faucet on the architect's desk, and says, “build a house around THIS.”
NS: I wonder if you can tell us about your research process. As a budding researcher, I find I become easily sidetracked by the sometimes-unrelated yet golden stories and characters I meet along the way. I want to write about them all! How in the world do you keep it all organized?
MR: Those unrelated golden nuggets end up as footnotes. I can't leave them out! I'm a bit of an unusual case, in that my books are typically more sidetrack than main road. I do try to create a logical narrative flow out of it all, though. I spend a surprising amount of time thinking about the order of things. Especially for my first book. First books engender a lot of hand-wringing. “Do I have a book here, or a string of unrelated chunks?” I took comfort in the words of a former editor of mine (and one of my favorite writers), Burkhard Bilger. He said, “Mary, stop worrying. At some point your publisher is going to slap a cover on it, and it will be a book.” My organizational strategy is extremely primitive: file folders in a file cabinet drawer.
NS: The cast of characters in your books make them come to life in a fascinating way! Lewis E. Hollander, Jr., the quiet and kind sheep rancher in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, for example, won my heart. How do you come across these folks, and is it ever difficult to write about them objectively?
MR: Oh, I loved Lew! And Gerry Nahum, too --- Lew's soul-weighing chapter-mate. How do I find them? I turn over a lot of rocks. I read and do Pub Med searches and ask around. Some of it is just dumb luck. You never really know who you've stumbled onto until you meet them in person or get them on the phone. Though sometimes you get a sense of it from the title of a paper they've published. For instance, the author of “Flaturia: Passage of Flatus at Coitus” is bound to be an interesting individual. I flew all the way to Cairo to spend a day with that man. “Objectively”.... probably not a word that fits my work very well! I view the people I meet through the lens of my one or two days with them and our roles as writer and subject. So I am parked pretty far away from the objective reality of who they really are.
NS: The notion of “popular science” is a bit of a nebulous term, I think. What's your relationship with the phrase and how have you found your place within the field?
MR: I don't take offense when people describe my work as “popular science.” It's nice to be popular! I don't actually think of what I do as “science writing.” The science writing programs I have visited require at least a masters degree in a science field. I go and talk to these students sometimes, and I tell them they're already way ahead of me: I wouldn't even be accepted in the program. If not science writing, then what? I don't know. Not good with labels. I write about the things that interest me most, in the way I most enjoy writing.
NS: Your work is often described as entertaining and incredibly accurate, which is not what tends to come to mind when people think of science writing. Is it a challenge to explain a difficult topic in a humorous, fun way without losing its integrity?
MR: In terms of keeping it entertaining: It helps to have a liberal arts degree. My ignorance is my secret weapon: It's hard for me to write about a topic in a way that leaves the reader behind, because few readers actually know less than I do about a topic (at the start of a new project, I mean). Science has gone molecular. It revolves around things you can't easily see and describe and hold in your hands. Material like that is tough to bring to life in the same way a writer can bring to life a sexual arousal study or a Body Farm project, with description and character and dialogue. Fortunately, I don't understand the fine-grain stuff – the protein receptors and genetics and subatomic particles. The downside is that I've put myself in a pretty small box.
NS: Is there anything you really wish you hadn't learned during your research?
MR: Let's just say life was not improved by the knowledge that Alfred Kinsey occasionally enjoyed inserting a toothbrush up his urethra, bristles-first.
NS: Lastly, I've read that the grossest thing you've come across during your research was drinking your own (filtered) urine. What the heck did it taste like?
MR: Like some hyper-sweet kid's drink. It was processed using – if memory serves – reverse osmosis, which basically swaps out salt for sugar. And it had been filtered through activated charcoal, which binds up all the organic nastiness. So in fact it was quite palatable, so long as you didn't dwell upon what it was. Ed [Rachles, Mary's husband] wouldn't kiss me for days.
This interview was originally published in Issue 3 of our print magazine. Read the full issue (and our other sold-out issues!) on Issuu here.