Of all the authors whose books are shelved in the “Science” section, Mary Roach may be the funniest. And she is definitely the funniest to have written books about scientific research related to sex, death (twice!), and sending humans into space.
If you’re not familiar with Roach, she is the author of “Stiff,” “Spook,” “Bonk” and “Packing for Mars.” (Her newest book, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” comes out April 1.) She has also written for a variety of news outlets, including National Geographic, Outside and Wired.
I think the humor in Roach’s books makes people more willing to consume “sciencey” information, especially information about sensitive topics like sex and death. I was curious as to whether that was something she did on purpose. I was also curious about how she approaches her topics and whether she’s had trouble getting researchers to talk to her. Here’s the interview:
Communication Breakdown: Your books take a specific subject – such as dead bodies or sex – and examine it from multiple angles. There are lots of things that I find fascinating, but I’m not sure I’d want to write an entire book about any of them. How do you decide which subjects you want to explore?
Mary Roach: This is why my topics are so broad! My books are really 437 very short books crammed into a cover. That said, I do find that the more you dig into a topic, the more [subjects] you realize it encompasses and the less restricting it feels. Scratch the surface of just about any subject, and there’s an interesting book there. It’s only when you don’t know anything about it that it seems dull or limited. There may be exceptions. Tax code? Human resources strategy?
CB: How much background reading do you have to do when you first start exploring one of these issues? And how do you know when you’ve done enough reading and it’s time to hit the road and conduct interviews?
MR: I do enough background reading and investigating to write up a book proposal. Then I dive into the live interviews ASAP. I’ll read up on the particular person and her/his research before I get there, but I tend to treat my sources as unpaid tutors. One fifteen-minute conversation with a person is, in my experience, vastly more valuable than a week of background reading. There’s nothing like another human being to cut through the slag and take you to the meat of the matter. People are, by and large, incredibly generous with their time, and patient.
CB: You’ve interviewed scientists whose research involves using human cadavers in various experiments. You’ve also interviewed doctors and scientists who research various aspects of sex and sexuality. Was it difficult to get them to talk with you? Were any of the researchers wary of how their work might be portrayed?
MR: When you research sex for a living, all the electric charge is gone from the subject. It’s your job, and you tend to forget that it strikes outsiders as strange or titillating. It’s like talking about tire rotation or estate planning. No big deal. The challenge in this case was being able to report from the lab, as a study was underway. Sometimes the only way around the IRB [institutional review board] and privacy limitations was to be a subject myself. There are only so many times you can do this without seeming like a very peculiar person.
Some cadaver researchers were wary, for good reason. They don’t know what I’m going to write, and they don’t want to take the chance that my freewheeling, straightforward portrayal of their work will discourage people from donating their remains to science. When someone says no, I try to deconstruct it. What exactly is making you uncomfortable? Can we address this somehow? What if I show you your quotes or let you fact-check the chapter? I find that more often than not, it’s a simple fear of the unknown, and some specifics will help pave the way.
CB: What sort of feedback have you gotten from researchers you’ve written about, after they’ve read the books?
MR: Almost all positive. Though there are people I haven’t heard from, so I can’t say whether they liked the book. A couple people in “Spook” surely are not fond of me. I heard from Dr. Rawat, the reincarnation researcher in India, who wrote: “Mary, your book is like a bouquet of roses: Many flowers, and a few thorns.”
CB: While your books often address science and research related to serious subjects, they are also very funny. What role does humor play in your writing? Is it something you use consciously?
MR: Where it fits, I like to incorporate it. It’s not always appropriate. I do tend to gravitate toward material that lends itself to a funny write-up. That’s just me making my life – and hopefully my book – more fun.
CB: You have a knack for finding researchers who are doing important work that also has an element of the absurd, such as using cadavers as crash test dummies. How do you balance humor and respect for what researchers are trying to accomplish?
MR: It’s intuitive, I guess. I don’t know that I always succeed in achieving that balance, but I hope so. With few exceptions, I am enormously fond of the people I write about. I want them to be happy with the way the material turns out, and would be disturbed to learn that they felt betrayed or disrespected.
CB: You’ve now written about sex, death, the afterlife and the digestive system. Is there anything you won’t write about?
MR: Tax code. Human resources strategy.
CB: By the time you finish one book project, do you have an idea of what your next book project will be? (And, if so – any hints on what you might write about next?)
MR: Ideally yes. Right now, only the vaguest, the most larval sense…
CB: Any advice for aspiring authors?
MR: If you can, build up a following on Twitter or Facebook before you pitch your book. Publishers are very tuned in to social media marketing potential.
Try to choose a topic that is of interest not only to you, but to a fairly broad segment of the population. Publishers want to sell large numbers of books. They’re funny this way.
I’m quoting someone here, I forget who: Leave out the parts people skip. [Note: the quote is from Elmore Leonard.]
Do not write about tax code.