Journalist Mary Roach had no special interest in writing a book when an agent approached her back in 2000 after reading her Salon.com column. In fact, she told him, "Don't be silly!"
He disagreed and kept pushing her to give it a try. And now 16 years later, she has written six New York Times best-sellers, and acquired informal titles such as "America's funniest science writer."
We spoke with Roach over the phone from her home in Oakland, California — prior to her upcoming visit to Colorado College on Dec. 15 — and asked her about everything from her choice of topic for her first book, Stiff, to working with the military for her most recent, Grunt.
Indy: Your first book Stiff was published more than a decade ago. What pushed you to write an entire book on human cadavers?
Mary Roach: I was writing a column for Salon.com, and back then, around 2000, that was kind of the first online magazine, so that got some attention from agents and people. I was writing a reported column that had to do with medicine and the human body, kind of my sorts of a little bit grungier topics. This agent wrote to me and said, "Have you thought about a book project?" And I said, "Oh, no. I never write anything longer than 3,000 words. I could never do a book. ... I don't know what I'd write a book about." And he said, "Let's look at your columns and see which had the highest hit rate." ... There were two cadaver-related columns out of 20 or something at that point, and they had gotten high hit rates. ... I had no special interest in cadavers in particular. ... I had been in the basement of [a] medical school library and I stumbled on to this collection of volumes called the Stapp Car Crash Conference. And it was from the '60s and it was the early days of automotive safety, and they were trying to make cars safer, trying to work out seat belts, air bags, crash test dummies. And all of those required cadavers to make the data meaningful. That whole field of impact tolerance and bioengineering I'd never heard of and I thought it was kind of fascinating, although somewhat gruesome. ... It was really happenstance, like so much in my life.
So [Stiff] was not only a New York Times best-seller, but it also won a host of Best Book awards. Were you surprised?
Yes. Utterly. Totally. Crazily surprised. I wrote that book thinking, "Oh those poor people at Norton, the publisher that is, they have paid to put this book out that no one is going to buy or read or like." Who goes into a bookstore and buys a book about cadaver research? What are they thinking? I just wanted the book to make enough money so that they made their money back and I would have a chance to do another book. I had absolutely no idea — it didn't make the best-seller list until August, I believe. The book came out in April, so it was a slow word-of-mouth. The book tour, we had to do it in two chunks because we couldn't book me early because nobody knew who I was, and then during the second chunk of the tour in August, I got this call from my agent and he said, "By the way, you made the list." And I honestly didn't know what list he was talking about. I thought it was worst-dressed or something. What could it possibly be?
You followed Stiff with five more books [Spook on the afterlife, Bonk on sex, Packing for Mars on outer space, Gulp on the alimentary canal, and Grunt, the most recent, on the military and war]. The connection across all of them seems to be how scientists go about their work in these areas. Is that a good description?
I think if there's a thread through all of them it's the human body and unusual circumstances, and the study of that. Whether it's in a lab, studying sexual physiology — and bringing humans into a sexual situation that is also scientific — is delightfully awkward and interesting. Astronauts and soldiers, similarly, their bodies are in unusual circumstances, because in space there's no gravity, there's no air. You can't eat normally. And soldiers are dealing with extreme sleep deprivation and fear and panic and heat and flies. Weird things that the body has to endure. But yes, you're right, it's always about the scientists as much as the science or the astronauts, or soldiers, or subjects.
The books are very fun to read, but also a bit gross. Once you got past Stiff, how did you select your topics?
Different ways at different times. Spook grew out of a chapter in Stiff. There was a chapter in Stiff about how scientists hundreds of years ago ... would look at the human body sort of searching for what physically might be the seat of the soul. ... All the functions and roles of the different organs hadn't been figured out. ... I loved the idea that somebody would try to apply scientific method to something that is as ethereal and nonscientific as the soul. It was delightfully optimistic that you could kind of apply scientific methods and technology to pin down the spirit of the soul.
Years ago I came across a reference to Masters and Johnson's techniques, which included a penis camera documenting female sexual arousal. I was like, whoa, that's crazy. But that's what you did in the '50s. It was also very inventive and courageous to actually want to document female sexual response. ... That was how I got started on that one — it was really a sentence referring to a piece of equipment. Also just stuff I've had curiosities about, like Packing for Mars, I'd done a couple of stories at NASA, and was fascinated by astronauts. Not so much what went on in space, but the training. What goes on in space is interesting as well but there were stories to be told here on Earth.
You wrote in the beginning of Grunt that you're interested in the pieces and parts no one makes movies about.
Yeah. Everybody does movies about, you know, Apollo 13, or there are stories about space disasters.
Or space exploration.
Yeah, they're high drama. They're not about the day-to-day. But the day-to-day is actually super interesting. I'm definitely sort of the bottom feeder. I don't need the high drama. I'll take that stuff that kind of filters down.
Your books feel to me like — and I mean this in the nicest way possible — a printed version of what it's like to get lost down the rabbit hole on the internet. You know, you click a link, and read a story, and get fascinated, and click a link in that story, and then click another link, and then two hours later you're like I don't know where I started, but I'm still connected somehow. What's the process like to piece together a book with all of these threads that you follow?
It is a little bit like a two-year rabbit hole because I don't really know when I start. I mean, I throw together a book proposal, but I never stick to it. Then I go, say, like [for Grunt] I started out at the end of the book actually, at the morgue because this pathologist had been writing to me, [saying] I can introduce you to these people. And so I started there, and then I heard about the Aberdeen Proving Ground's crash test dummy project. And then the same person who introduced me to someone at [another site] introduced me to someone at Walter Reed. And this woman was like, "Who do you want to talk to? Do you want to talk to someone about amputations?" And I was like, "Well, what about genital injuries?" And I expected her to go, "What is wrong with you?" But she goes, "Oh yeah, no one writes about that. Here's who you should talk to." So the person who did genital reconstruction, while I was talking to him, he's like, go over to Johns Hopkins, they're doing some work with cadavers for the ... penis transplant. And I was like, "Whoa! Really? Who might that be?" I hadn't heard about these things. I had the book contract but I didn't really know that those were directions I was going in. I'd go one place and I'd hear about something else and I'd go there.
I was surprised by some of the access to the military you were able to acquire for Grunt.
Hey, me too.
Why do you think they opened up so willingly?
One thing that happened early on, because of my experience with NASA, which was a little frustrating sometimes in terms of access, I decided I'm not going to do this book unless — I heard at the Pentagon there's a book public affairs person who you can apply to get, not clearance, but just very informal support. And you write a, well, kind of proposal, I mean in my case it was very vague, and half those things aren't in it, and I knew they probably wouldn't be. I wasn't deceiving them intentionally, I just didn't know where this book was going to take me. So I thought, let me see how this goes. It took a little while, but they were fine with it. Initially I remember saying, "Is there a problem with books I've written in the past? What's going on here? Is there a reason it's taking awhile?" And this women goes, "Yeah, it's departmental dysfunction. That's what's going on. We've had a change of personnel. Your proposal is sitting on someone's desk. Believe me they have no problem with Mary Roach writing about military science, it's not something we care about. We care about Zero Dark Thirty, we care about American Sniper. We care about classified information being revealed. But these are good stories to tell." They were really straightforward, and pretty transparent about suicide, about transgender stuff, about traumatic brain injury, PTSD. They know that these are problems and they're pretty transparent in a way that I didn't see coming. ... For the most part, the stuff that I wrote about is good work that doesn't get a lot of coverage. I think that my tone and my approach, I had expected perhaps that would have given some people a little discomfort, like what is she gonna say. Is she gonna be disrespectful? Because she's just generally not very respectful. Not like I'm disrespectful, but I'm not a careful, polite writer.
The research you discover, has it impacted your day-to-day life, or how you think about life?
Yeah, well, some books. You know, like, Gulp, the taste and smell chapters kind of changed how I drink wine or taste food in a way. You learn things about the anatomy and the chemistry of the mouth and nose. ... Any time you have new knowledge, it affects how you experience the world. In a minor way, sure. With Packing for Mars, yeah, I guess, I get very excited about any time SpaceX lands one of those reusable rockets or talks about a Mars mission. I love that feeling of reading that news and being an informed reader. I understand the challenges of Mars, getting there, the physiological stuff, the psychological stuff, the challenges, the expenses, certainly not in a detailed way, but more so than I would had I never written that book. And I love being an informed reader. Because your normal state is an uninformed reader. "Yeah, that's interesting, whatever." I like being able to have a conversation about something in the news, ... and even years and years after I've finished with a topic, there's a level of expertise that you have and that changes how you talk about these things with people, and who you feel comfortable talking to, and how you read the news. I love that.
Are you working on a new book?
No. I'm trying to figure it out. It gets a little harder as you go along. I've completely changed directions, you know, I've kind of used up the human body — or elements of it that I would find fun to play around with. I've gone down a few paths and turned around after a couple blocks. I am trying to figure that out and in the meantime doing some shorter pieces and just taking a little time off — which I have never done.
Do people make recommendations of what you should tackle next?
Oh, all the time. All the time. I love that — except it hasn't ever led to a book. They're good ideas. You know, people will suggest sleep. And that's good but it's been covered a fair amount. And there's a certain sameness to the research. There's a guy lying on a bed with some electrodes on him. And here's another guy unconscious with electrodes on him. It doesn't quite have the variety that I like to include and there's been two or three good books on the science of sleep. People say the brain, but the brain belongs to other writers who have better backgrounds like Oliver Sacks. ... Someone recently suggested rot. Why don't you write about rot, like basically decomposition, not just bodies but other things? Rot is an interesting topic — I'm not going to write a book on it, but ... somebody could. ... People do suggest, partly because I solicit suggestions ... If you have a suggestion, by all means.
I don't right now, but I'll think about it.
Yeah, if there's something that screams Mary Roach, let me know.