Interviews | January 12, 2015
Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, blend serious scientific inquiry with uproarious comedy, acute reporting, and frequently forgotten history. She makes complex science engaging and accessible to the average reader, but beyond that, she tells stories about extraordinary human beings. As the New York Times Book Review put it, “what she celebrates is the passion that drives the inquiry, that keeps people at their research despite the loneliness—and mockery. She may have a skeptic’s mind, but she writes with a believer’s heart.” Mary Roach has published six books, and her essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Discover, National Geographic, and Wired, among others. Her latest book is Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.
This interview was conducted by phone in July 2014.
HUBER and SALESKA: You’ve written about cadavers and the afterlife, the science of sex, life in outer space, and your latest book, Gulp, answers all kinds of typically taboo questions about the process of eating and digestion. How do you come up with the topics for your books?
MARY ROACH: It varies, but it’s basically a “process of elimination,” which is something that as an adult I can’t say without feeling like I’ve made a childish joke. But it is kind of a process of elimination in that there are very few topics that really work for me because I’m looking for . . . I like to have a little science, a little history, something that lends itself to fun, humor, goofiness. I know it when I see it. But ultimately, I’m just indulging my own peculiar interests.
H & S: Was there a particular moment when you knew that human digestion was going to be the topic for your next book?
MR: When I was working on Packing for Mars, I came across a study that had to do with people in a nutrition department at Berkeley. They put them in a chamber and fed them—they were looking for food for a Mars mission, and they thought what would be easy to grow would be bacteria! They actually made a meal—meals—out of trillions of dead bacteria, which got me thinking that the science of eating and how we think about eating could be a fruitful and strange area to look into.
H & S: You wrote about that Berkeley study in Gulp, correct?
MR: Yes, that’s right. That was part of it. And you know, there’s always a variety of things that I have knocking around in the back of my brain: subjects that never quite found a home, that I want to circle back to, so there was some of that going on as well. Years ago, I’d done a short article that had to do with human flatulence, and I had gone to the Beano company. I had all kinds of fun, interesting material that I couldn’t use, which was tragic, to my mind, because it was some really entertaining stuff. That was rattling around back there, and a couple of other things. So there wasn’t, in the case of Gulp, an aha moment.
For Bonk there was definitely a single moment where I knew this would be the next book. I read a two-sentence reference to what they called the “colposcopic” films of Masters and Johnson; it was in a film quarterly review article, just a passing reference, and I thought, What is a colposcopic film? That’s something having to do with the cervix I think. Are they actually saying here that Masters and Johnson made films of the inside of a woman’s body when she was sexually responding? And it turns out, that’s what they did. The idea for Bonk came in that realization that, wow, if you’re going to study human sexuality, observe these sorts of intimate processes in a laboratory setting, you’re heading into some really bizarre, awkward terrain—and wouldn’t that be fun to explore.
H & S: Once you pick a topic, where do you go from there? What’s your process like as far as researching?
MR: It’s a months-long period of random flailing and sending out emails to strangers. When I start, I haven’t a clue about what’s going to be in the book or even what the book is about. I just know that I’m going to have to go through a period of three to six months of thinking, every week changing my sense of what the book is about, writing outlines that I then look at a week later and go, “Pfft, what was that? That’s ridiculous, that’s not what this book is about!” And I’m calling people, I’m e-mailing people, I’m just absorbing a tremendous amount of material, some of it from the Internet, some of it conversations and e-mails with researchers and people in the field, and picking people’s brains and figuring out what the book is about but also where I will go.
I’m very dependent on research that’s happening in the present, so I can go there and observe and describe, which helps make the books more interesting. I send out a lot of e-mails that say “Hey, what have you got cooking in the next six months to a year? What’s going to be going on?” I’m very specific with people. “I need something strange, fascinating, interesting, that I can see and describe and observe. I need a narrative, characters, dialogue. What’s going on? What have you got for me?” I do a tremendous amount of that. Literally thousands of e-mails over the course of a book go out to people I’ve never met, people who might end up being the focus of a chapter.
H & S: You mentioned developing characters and a narrative in your books. A lot of your writing is about human nature, more about the people you interview than it is about scientific facts. Could you talk more about incorporating that human aspect into your writing about science?
MR: I have an enduring affection and fascination for the process and people that make up science. I don’t specifically try to seek out “characters,” and I think you often don’t need to. Most of the people who are engaged in the subjects that I look into are pretty interesting. Whether its sex researchers or someone who’s devoted their career to saliva or somebody who does research with cadavers, there’s an inherent fascination in the subject matter of their work. Sometimes they’re quirky, fascinating individuals, the kind of person you might call “a character,” and other times they’re the opposite, somebody who’s under the radar—quiet, but they have this intense, passionate interest in what they do. Like the guy in Gulp who studies chewing and was almost apologetic, saying, “Oh, I don’t know if you’re even interested in this.” And you think, “Yes, it’s incredibly interesting! Not only what you’re discovering, but the fact that you have spent thirty years immersed in the muscles of the jaw and how they protect your teeth, how tiny a grain of grit you can detect with your teeth, and how everybody thinks teeth are blunt mallets but in fact they’re very, very sensitive.” That fascinates me, and I love to portray those people in their own setting, with their interests and passions. It’s just something that appeals to me.
H & S: We were very interested in the William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin experiments because it seemed to be a place where curiosity and scientific passion turned into obsession—maybe even a lunacy of sorts. You get to interview people who are doing very specific scientific research that calls for passionate engagement with minute portions of the human. Do you ever find, in your research or interviews, people crossing that line between passion and obsession or between curiosity and lunacy?
MR: I talk to a lot of people who, when you try to sum them up in a couple of sentences, seem like they must be insane. For example, Beaumont peering into this guy’s stomach and doing these experiments for thirty years. Or Ahmed Jaffeek, who studied these reflexes in sexual intercourse that he documented. He published so many papers on the reflexes of sexual intercourse that when I looked at his body of work, I thought, this guy is either nuts or a pervert. And then when I met him and started to listen to what he was talking about and why he was doing it, and learned that he uses prostitutes because he has no choice in a Muslim country . . . the more you learn about someone, the more you have a context for their seeming lunacy, and you start to understand. It doesn’t seem like lunacy anymore. For instance, I hear, “Oh, my god, this woman studies saliva” and think, What the hell is there to know about saliva? Why would somebody want to study saliva? And then I spend a day with her and say, “Wow, saliva is amazing!” Now I’m the lunatic who’s going around saying, “Saliva is so amazing!”
H & S: Another aspect of human nature that you make really apparent is our tendency to latch on to popular science to solve issues. For example, all these world leaders and influential authors, etc. became really enamored with this Fletcherizing. Over the course of your research have you become warier of popular trends in health that are currently sweeping our nation— intolerance of gluten or things like that?
MR: Reading about people like Fletcher or the guy, what’s his name? Charles Tyrell? behind the Joy Beauty Life rectal fountain—the many many people who have advocated internal cleansing, irrigation, colonic irrigation—you begin to realize there are certain things about the human body that make intuitive sense, but in fact the body is a lot more complicated, and intuition is not really a good way to understand it. It’s very intuitive to think, “Oh, shit is stinky and disgusting. The less time it spends in me, the healthier I will be because it is poisoning me with its grossness and toxins; therefore if we speed up the process, we’ll be healthier.” This to the point where there were people cutting out entire healthy colons to speed up digestion and basically create chronic diarrhea. With respect to Fletcherizing, there’s still a very active fad for juicing, for turning things to liquid so that you can absorb more. Again, that seems intuitive, but you know what? Your stomach does a really good job of that, and in fact the fiber is a useful thing for you to have, and it works just fine. The process works fine the way it evolved, and you don’t need to latch on to these kinds of intuition-based fads.
H & S: You mentioned just now how it seems to make sense that you have crap in your body, and it’s smelly and stinky, so get rid of it and you’ll feel better. Do you think it’s more a cultural thing that we have this revulsion to feces, or is it something that has evolved in our species?
MR: Oh, certainly there is good evolutionary reason to stay away from feces. There are contagions and pathogens in the fecal matter. If somebody’s not well, you can contract all manner of illnesses, and there is also contaminated food in which fecal pathogens multiply, and you get sick from it. Before there was treatment for some of those diarrheal diseases, that sort of dehydration could kill you. So, yeah, it makes sense that we evolved an extreme wariness and disgust for shit. For want of a better word. Actually, there are plenty of other words, but. . . .
H & S: Though the tone of your books is fun and the facts are really interesting, we found the writing often edges on something even larger, as in Gulp, in the last couple of chapters, where you really question our culture’s revulsion toward the human bowel and point out that there’s less medical research on certain diseases and less public awareness in general of those diseases. More than being just entertaining, are your books a way to bring awareness about these issues?
MR: I don’t really have a larger mission in mind when I begin a book, but I do write a book and, you know, spend a couple of years on a topic. You start to realize things that you hadn’t realized before: that in fact people’s revulsion for this topic, including the revulsion of people involved in medical research, might have hindered the progress of research. So there’s good to be had in encouraging people to spend time considering these things. I mean, any time you can take a book a little beyond the realm of pure entertainment, I think it’s a good thing. But I don’t really have it on my to-do list when I write a book. It just evolves naturally during the process of immersing yourself in a subject.
H & S: In the final chapters of Gulp you talk a lot about fecal transplants and how, although they’re a very effective medical operation, they often aren’t done and aren’t covered by a lot of insurance companies. You also predict that in the future, bodily products will be used more and more for healing. Gulp came out in 2012, so we wonder if you’ve noticed any trends recently toward this kind healing, toward fecal transplants or similar medical procedures.
MR: Even from the time I began the book to the time it came out, people’s familiarity and acceptance of fecal transplants increased. I can’t tell you a percentage, but it went from me getting a universal response of “Seriously? You’re kidding? People do that? How is that legal? It’s disgusting” when I said “fecal transplants” to “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard those are pretty effective, and I’ve read something in The New York Times.” That was in about two years. Also, one of the major medical journals published a study clinching the efficacy of it—it was already known, but it was very hard to refute this study, that it was something that simple, cheap and very effective at saving lives. It was definitely a trend that was underway. And it coincided with a fad for probiotics that has been fueled by companies marketing products, spending a ton on advertising. There’s good science behind feeling positive toward healthy bacteria. It’s been a fairly significant turnaround in how people view their own bacteria.
H & S: Before you wrote your first book, you worked as a copy editor and a columnist and a writer for the San Francisco Zoological Society, and you published numerous articles in magazines. What made you first decide to write a book? What was your learning curve for that switch?
MR: I had long wanted to shift into writing books, but I never felt I had an idea with a capital I, something worthy of a book. I didn’t have sort of this book-length narrative that so many nonfiction books have. It actually grew out of my being shamed. I worked with this group, with a bunch of writers in San Francisco, called The Writer’s Grotto, and we used to make predictions for each other. Someone made a prediction that by the next New Years I would have a book contract, and in October I thought, “Shit, I have to have a book contract or I will be really embarrassed.” That was what got me rolling. Because writing a book proposal is something you’re not paid for. It’s on spec; it probably will amount to nothing, so you keep putting it off. I finally did it because of that. And also, I got a fortune cookie fortune, which is actually taped on my wall that said, “Try something new.” So it was a combination of little random, stupid things that forced me to write a book proposal. The other small thing that went on around that time is that an agent had called me, had read some of the Salon column pieces, and out of a few conversations with him and looking at the hit rates for the various columns, seeing which things people seemed most interested in, the proposal for Stiff came about. I had never had any sense that that would be a good book topic or that it was something I wanted to write a book about. It was based on the hit rates of that column and, you know, they were interesting topics I had explored in those columns. That’s where the book proposal came from. It wasn’t an aha moment, it wasn’t born of any passion or drive to write about cadavers. Like so many things in life, a few small things fell into place and moved forward.
H & S: You’ve developed a very distinctive style throughout your books. In Gulp, for example, you combine investigative journalism, historical nonfiction, biography and scientific essay. But it seems like this would be a very hard mix to master. Is this hybrid style something that came naturally to you?
MR: It is very much a hybrid, and it isn’t easy. It would be a lot easier, I think in some ways, to choose one of those things, but I think people enjoy learning about science as long as it is not too much of a slog for them, so they like having more than just a literary-nonfiction experience. My “literary nonfiction” isn’t good enough to pull them in. I need to entice them with the surprising, weird facts that I throw in. So it’s me scrambling to give more gifts to the reader to prevent them from putting the book down and going, “Ehh, I don’t know about this book, I don’t care.” It’s a mixture born of my own insecurity, I think, as a writer. Like I’m dancing as fast I can: “Here. Here’s some humor, here’s some science, here’s something surprising, here’s some history you didn’t know about. Keep reading, for god’s sake, don’t put this book down. Buy my next book, too!”
H & S: It’s a variety-show approach.
MR: Yes, yes, very much. It isn’t an inherently easy thing to do, to weave scientific fact, into a narrative that you want to be readable and fun. They don’t always mesh easily, and that makes my days sometimes very unpleasant. If it reads as though it’s easy, it’s misleading, because there’s a lot of head-banging and wailing and gnashing of teeth, to get biblical.
H & S: Do you have any favorite authors who inspired your style or whose work you go back to to help you get past certain writing problems?
MR: Yeah, early on, there were two authors whom I often cite as having been inspirational. One of them is Bill Bryson, who does what I was just describing so seamlessly. That is to say, whether it’s science or history, you learn a tremendous amount, but the writing is always fresh, funny, special. It’s never lame. He never stops paying attention to the language he’s using to present the information. And he’s effortlessly funny. Early on, I would turn to his books. Susan Orlean is a writer—she’s not really a science writer—but she conveys a lot of information, whether it’s historical or natural history. It’s all done in the matrix of this lovely writing and this kind of affection and way of seeing and presenting her characters and storytelling. Those are two writers who do it so very well. And, you know, there are lots of others along the way. Burkhard Bilger is that New Yorker writer; he has a book out, but mostly it’s New Yorker pieces. Again, there’s a surprising science story he’s often telling, but it’s told in such a way that you’re just drawn in by his writing and his reporting and the way he understands and describes his characters. Lots of New Yorker writers are very, very good at that: weaving narrative and fact. There’s a book called The Fruit Hunters that I don’t think was widely read, and it at first doesn’t sound like a scintillating topic, but it was the most magically written, amazingly researched, delightful, surprising book. Adam Gollner wrote it. I reviewed it for the Times, and I would never have picked it up because I don’t think of myself as somebody fascinated by fruit. But I was given this book to review, and I was like, “Holy shit! This is amazing!” I didn’t want that book to end. And John McPhee, another writer with such a love for this world he immerses himself in and these unusual characters he meets; often there’s an element of science and explanation that’s seamlessly worked into those stories.
H & S: I must say, coming to the alimentary canal, I didn’t at first think, “Oh, that’s the most fascinating thing ever,” but after reading Gulp, I wanted more, I wanted to know more about the different systems and whatnot.
MR: I think that’s true with a bunch of my topics. If you don’t know anything about my work, the topic itself may not sound that great. Like Packing for Mars: you have to imagine people going, “Oh, I’m not interested in space.” I’m like, “No, dude, you are! You just don’t know it yet. You definitely are interested in space travel.” It’s my job to persuade people that, in fact, they are interested. It’s easier with something like Bonk or Stiff, where there’s a natural curiosity—I mean, everybody is interested in sex, and we all die, so there’s sort of a kind of weird kind of revulsion /attraction to that topic.
H & S: Could you tell us a little bit about how you decide what goes into a book and what stays out?
MR: Oh, it’s simple. It’s kind of the greatest hits, you know. Gulp is by no means a comprehensive look at digestion. I completely gloss over the liver. I don’t spend any time on the absorption, you know—the way nutrients are turned into things and are absorbed into cells. None of that! Boring. Who cares? I’m writing with this sense of what the average person might be fascinated by, and I am that average person, because I didn’t—I don’t—have a background in biology or physiology. It’s very much me writing to a large room full of people exactly like me. It’s entirely an intuitive sense of, If I find it fascinating, they’re going to find it fascinating. And I get easily bogged down in a lot of minutiae. I mean, a lot of what goes on in science now is protein receptors and genetics and invisible things. Anybody who’s looking for a comprehensive look at the topic will be disappointed in my books.
H & S: Are the footnotes in your books leftovers of things that you found interesting but couldn’t fit in anywhere?
MR: That’s exactly what they are. I get easily distracted, and I look things up on the Internet, and I find something out that I wasn’t looking for but that I can’t leave out because it was just too funny or surprising or bizarre. They’re things that I discovered when I was doing that—so it’s just me indulging that need to share something with the reader. It doesn’t fit the narrative; as a parenthetical it would be too disruptive, so I throw it into a footnote.
H & S: Was there anything during your research process for Gulp that really surprised you? We were surprised, especially at how open some of your interviewees were. Like the prisoner who would talk about the contraband, things like that.
MR: Just about everything, because the things I want to put in are the things that surprise me. I think surprise is something a reader enjoys. They think, “Oh, this is something I had no idea existed. I had no idea people did this!” And that’s what I, as a reader, always like. I’m not surprised by how open people are, because most of the time they’re talking about something that is their 9 to 5, whether it’s saliva research or smuggling tobacco in and out of the prison you’re in. It isn’t weird to them, so they talk about it. I’m always very happy when people are willing to be open about something that seems awkward to those outside that realm. The openness wasn’t surprising. But everything in that book is something I didn’t know before, so it was all super-surprise. The whole tube was a surprise to me.
H & S: Looking back at all your research, the hours and hours, is there a favorite part that sticks out: a moment, or something you learned?
MR: I remember the people more than the facts. I have such a vivid memory of sitting in a cafeteria in that restaurant of the future, you know—sitting there with that little elfin man who’s been studying the physics of crispy-crunchy for . . . I don’t know, seven years, and the guy hates chips. He doesn’t eat snack food. That kind of moment: it’s often something you learn about a person that stands out. Or like Erika Saleti, the saliva researcher. At one point we’re sitting having a conversation about the antibacterial talents of saliva and she actually slams the table, she’s so enthusiastic—and, you know, we were talking about spit. Those moments I love, and I tend to remember them more than the bits and pieces of scientific information.
H & S: What advice would you give to a writer who wants to do the kind of writing you do?
MR: Stop right there and don’t try. Don’t try to do what I do, and don’t try to do what Susan Orlean does. It’s so important to be—I mean, it sounds really trite—but to be your own writer, because the way that you will find an audience, by providing something new and unusual, something people will talk about. I think the reason Stiff became a bestseller is because people talked about it. They said, “Wow, I’m reading this book about dead people, and it’s kind of funny.” And people thought, “What? Why would a book about dead people be funny? Why would anybody write that?” You want people to sit up and take notice. Each writer has some very unique way of expressing themselves and their interests that’s like no one else. Protect that and nurture it and celebrate it because that’s what will make you stand out and make people want to come back and read your books. Like that book right now, The Martian. Have you heard of it? It’s a novel written by a space geek and an engineer. He was turned down by agents; now the book is on The New York Times bestseller list. It’s got five thousands comments on Amazon, and it is like no other book. It is unbelievably technical and geeky, but it is like nothing else. People are reading it and talking about it, and it caught on. I mean, this is a guy who’s figuring out how to grow potatoes from chemical constituents on Mars— it’s all very accurate and above my head, but I couldn’t stop reading because he has this understanding of space and what it would take to survive if you were marooned on Mars. He didn’t go to the Iowa fiction writing program; he didn’t do anything most novelists who succeed have done, yet he created this book that a lot of people are drawn to and really enjoy. So, that’s a very very long answer to your question.
H & S: We know you don’t often like to share what you’re working on next, but we were wondering if you could give us a little hint on or what’s coming next from Mary Roach?
MR: I’ll give you a hint that really won’t help you at all. I just got back from Djibouti.
H & S: Djibouti? Was it very hot there?
MR: It was very, very hot. It was over 100 degrees. So there’s your not-very-helpful hint.
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Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, blend serious scientific inquiry with uproarious comedy,