February 2006

Adrienne Martini


An Interview with Mary Roach

Don’t ask Mary Roach about her next book. It’s not that she’ll get all Bobby Knight at you, but it is about the only question the author of Stiff and Spook won’t answer. Everything else seems to be fair game.

Candor is what you’d expect from Roach based on her writing. Her work isn’t overly personal, but it does tell you quite a bit about Roach as a person. She’ll do almost anything in order to satisfy her deep and endless curiosity about people and the world.

Roach honed her voice and research skills through writing countless magazine articles. Her column in the now defunct Sports Illustrated for Women called “The Slightly Wider World of Sports” provided ample opportunity to tackle everything from knife throwing to jousting. Her Health column at Salon.com offered the chance to talk about Japanese toilet technology and the Museum of Menstruation and vaginal weight lifting, to name but a few highlights. Roach still keeps a pinky in the magazine world as a contributing editor at Discover.

But her focus has shifted to the longer form. Her first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was a New York Times Bestseller. Her latest, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, is hovering on the extended list. Both explore what happens to us when we die, with Stiff covering the fate of our physical remains and Spook questioning the existence of post-death consciousness and spirituality. Both are also brimming with Roach’s jaunty prose, effervescent humor and insatiable curiosity.

What has the response to Spook been?

I actually was gearing up for a massive onslaught of not so much angry [e-mail], but e-mail from people who felt, a) that I’m an idiot, b) that their belief systems had been attacked in some one way -- even though the tone of the book, I’m not trying to convince anyone either way but I’m just trying to figure it out for myself. I actually had contacted this woman who could screen my e-mail as it came through and delete the vast quantities of hate mail. She said, “Maybe you should contact me after the book comes out, you might not need this.” And I said, “That’s true. I might not. But I’m sure you’ll hear from me.” I haven’t gotten even one of those letters.

I get those people sometimes when I do call-in radio. Call-in a.m. radio brings out a certain type of person -- not just on this topic but any topic. I’ve occasionally gotten people saying you don’t understand. You need to read this book. I’ve gotten a little of it. For the most part, people have been very positive.

Was the response to Stiff more or less than you’d thought it would be?

I continue to get an even amount of mail for both Spook and Stiff. I had a tremendous amount of mail for Stiff, way more than I ever thought I would. There is something like 400 Amazon reviews. It’s just insane. I don’t really understand it myself. I hadn’t anticipated that the book would really inspire people to write notes. For me to actually get my act together to write a note is such a rare thing.

I like the humor or your writing, but I also like the fact that it is so amazingly well researched.

Oh, thanks. I read other people’s books and I think, “Oh, god, I’m such a lame reporter.” I get a fair amount of books to either blurb or review so I’m reading a lot more nonfiction than I used to and I’m just blown away by the amount of research that other writers do. So it’s great to hear that I’ve fooled somebody into thinking I’m a good researcher.

How do you get started on a project like this, once the contracts have been signed?

I go into an approximately three to four month period of just random flailing where I go out and I try to just gather as much information as I can in order to figure out where I’m going. I write up a proposal, which is a device that leads people to believe that I know something about the topic. In reality, I know just the barest minimum of what’s out there. So then I’ve really got to get my act together.

I’ll get on the web just for some preliminary information -- what institutes are out there, who are the key players. I see what the New York Times has. I do sort of a surface search. The hardest part for me, for my books, is to find the settings I need. For both books -- and for the one I’m currently working on that I’m not really talking about yet -- I need to find somebody who’s got a project coming up in the next few months that’s really interesting, that’s visual and that they’ll let me be in the lab with them.

For Stiff, that wasn’t easy. People who work with cadavers, rightly so, are wary of media coverage. Somebody hears about -- oh my god, you blew up a foot. They just think, that’s outrageous. It’s disrespectful. You shouldn’t do that. Instead of realizing that they need to design footwear for these people who clear landmines. It’s not what you think. Sometimes the stronger shoes are more like shrapnel. But no one understands. So the researchers assume that you’re one of those knee-jerk people who are going to write some expose that’ll get picked up all over the media. So that was tough.

I spent an extraordinary amount of time introducing myself, reassuring people that I’m not writing an exposé, that I support what they do. And, eventually, something pans out somewhere. That takes up a lot of time. As does doing research. The UC-Berkeley library is a great resource. It’s just a couple of BART stops. As soon as I can get going on something, I do. If someone has an interview I can do, I dive in as soon as I can, even if I don’t know where I’m going to put the material. Sometimes I go and report material that doesn’t even end up in the book, which always kills me.

For the first few months it feels very disorganized because I don’t know even what I’m going to cover or how I’m going to fit it together or what the point of the book is. Even though I’ve somehow managed to convince my publisher that I do sort of know what I’m doing and what the point is, in fact, it’s all a lie.

So the first few months are really hard for me. I feel like I’m making no progress. Obviously, you are. You see the pile of Xeroxes building up and the books and the notes and the emails. It’s all moving forward but it doesn’t feel like it is. That’s the period I’m in right now. Where I love to get a call like this, which is just an excuse to avoid the fact that I don’t know what to do with this chapter, what needs to be in the book.

I was introduced to your work through Sports Illustrated for Women.

Someone read that!

Most of it, I have to admit, was pretty disposable, but every other month I looked forward to your column. It seems that with a lot of your stories, just the assignment itself was interesting.

I somehow became known, as somebody called me, that woman in California who does things. Editors would call me up and say, “We need you to go to a lab where they test deodorant and cat litter and be a guest sniffer.” And I’d say, “Sounds like fun!”

What’s the strangest thing you’ve done, that you would think is the strangest?

Wow. Unfortunately, it has to do with the next book. But my second strangest thing… I think there may be something wrong with me. I got an e-mail a couple of days ago from someone that said, “I had to put Stiff down when I was reading it. It was so intense for me and how did you get through your life when you were seeing these things?” I was like, “What do you mean? What things? It was just really interesting.”

I know. Here’s the second strangest one. For Salon I did a story about paruresis, which mostly afflicts men. It’s this condition where you can’t urinate if someone is in the room or next to you. One of the treatments for paruresis is to get a “pee buddy.” What that entails is that you go to the person’s house and this person drinks a lot of water, goes to the bathroom. You start out at the other end of the house and call out “Okay. I’m down at the other end of the hall.” He pees for a little bit, then he stops. And you get a little closer. Eventually you’re outside the bathroom door. You say, “Okay. I’m outside of the door.” It’s like a conditioning thing. Like if you have a phobia, you’d get closer and closer to a spider until you’re eventually holding it. So I’m the spider, essentially, with this guy.

I remember leaving for that experience and my husband saying “Where are you going again? Let me get this straight -- you’re going to some strange guy’s house to listen to him urinate? Is this really a good idea?” It never really occurred to me that this might be a strange and not advisable thing to do.

But [the paruresis sufferer] said it really helped him a lot. So I felt good about it. I stopped at the bathroom door. We didn’t do the final step, which is when I would have been in the bathroom with him. I really felt that that was good enough.

That might have been the one that I could imagine people kind of wondering about me, more than others.

Is there one that’s ever been the least fun?

When it comes to my work I’m a hopeless optimist. I always picture something way more interesting than it is. But usually I chose things that are pretty clear. For example, when I got an invitation from an amputee group called Stumps Are Us and they had a bowling party. They invited me to cover it. An amputee bowling party is going to be really fascinating. It’s not that often that something is boring. I did a story once where I was supposed to go up in a plane that flies into the eye of a hurricane. NOAA, I think, runs it. And I’ve always wanted to do that. They were doing some other kind of storm off of Monterey -- not a hurricane, some other kind of storm. We got up there and the storm didn’t materialize and the researcher was unbelievably technical and dull when he explained what he was doing. I just sat down in my seat and thought, “All right, that was a waste of a day. I’ll go home an recoup my expenses and that will be that.”

In Spook, just as a reader from the outside, it seems like your time in India was less than enjoyable.

My relationship with Dr. Rawat was at times kind of trying. At the request of my editor, I played that up. She thought that it would speed the chapter along and make it more interesting for people to have a sense of us as a pair who are from clashing cultures, sort of like a bad arranged marriage. It’s trying to spend 24 hours a day on the road with someone you don’t know whose background is completely different from yours. It wasn’t a bad trip. I love India. It’s a fascinating and bizarre and wonderful place.

What has surprised you most about the business of writing?

What surprised me most about books is sort of a reaction to all of the years I spent writing for magazines. I assumed that books were sort of big magazine pieces, where you didn’t ultimately have that much control over them and you had to check in a lot and you had to write them the way that your editor wanted them written and spend endless time revising them, which is what happens with magazine features. But, in fact, with a book, it’s entirely different. Essentially, you are cut loose and are on your own for the year or two years that it takes you to do the book. The trust they put into you, “Okay, go out and do what you do best. You’re the person who knows the most about this topic. We like your writing. Do whatever you want.” It’s this incredible gift that is at once liberating and incredibly daunting.

So I had absolutely no idea the level of freedom that you have. With a book, you’re the product. With a magazine, the magazine is the product, therefore you have to fit into the tone of the magazine, you have to keep in mind the advertisers, the demographics of the readers of the magazine. You’re sort of fitting yourself into this product that already exists. But with a book, you are it. It’s a wonderful, heady experience that’s kind of addictive. No one really prepares you for it. Book editors don’t give you this pamphlet “So You’re Writing a Book.” The revision process -- I was thinking I would need to set aside six months to completely rearrange everything and rewrite everything. In fact, it’s often very minimal. The editors don’t have time to dive into a book on the same level that magazine editors do. I guess that was the biggest surprise for me.

What magazines do you read now?

I read the New Yorker. I’m still on the mailing list for Mortuary Management, just to look at the ads. I was getting Harper’s for years but I can’t keep up with both Harper’s and the New Yorker. I can’t do it. I wish that the New Yorker was set up like Netflix. When I’m done with it, give me a new one. Until I’m done with it, don’t give me another one.

There’s an online magazine called, I think, lost. They excerpted the bit in Spook about when you lose 21 grams when you die. There’s a great piece in there about circumcision, about this guy losing his foreskin. So it’s very interesting interpretations of the concept of losing something. I just read that a couple of days ago.

I was going to ask what’s next but apparently that’s not going to get me anywhere…

I’m holding out. I’m trying to build up the suspense.

Can you tell me if the next book starts with “S”?

It starts with B. One word. Starts with B. No spirits. No cadavers. No deaths. I didn’t really see the two as a trend but people are starting to consider me rather strange an obsessed with death.

My last question – is there something that you wanted me to ask?

No. Not really. I don’t have anything I feel the need to jabber about. Whatever you wanted to know is whatever I wanted to be asked.