A one-word tease, a suspenseful colon and a splashy reveal: With minor variations, that's pop science writer Mary Roach's winning formula for titling her best-selling books.
From Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers to last year's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (just out in paperback), Roach cheerfully wades into the squirmiest topics, armed with an outsider's curiosity and a palpable delight in the disgusting. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void was extensively concerned with the bodily functions of astronauts on space shuttles. As Roach heads for a conversation with WUNC host Frank Stasio at the Carolina Theatre, presented by Durham Tech, I called and asked if her reputation for liking icky things was fair, anticipating the kind of rebuttal common to pigeonholed authors. "Yes!" she replied without hesitation, laughing at having surprised me—just like she does in her books.
INDY: Out of all the things you could write about, how does a certain topic catch your interest?
Mary Roach: I gravitate toward things that enable me to travel, cover a little bit of history, cover science and work in some humor. There aren't that many things I find that fit the bill. There's a lot of science that's abstract—on the molecular or generic level. It's not something I can go to a lab and watch happen. I'm kind of a bodies-on-the-slab science reporter, which is a bit of an anachronism.
You get interested in things that are really hands-on.
Exactly—things that are visual, with a bit of a narrative, when you can be somewhere and things are unfolding that you can describe. Of course, there are characters and conversations in any science lab. But it's a little tricky when the science itself is taken out of the picture because it's invisible to the naked eye.
What attracts you to kind of rude or icky topics?
Because they're gross or overly intimate, they're also things that tend to be taboo. Taboos are interesting because people are simultaneously attracted and repelled, and it's a fun playground to spend time in. I also have the sense that other writers have avoided this terrain. I'm trying to cover something that hasn't been written about in multiple books before. I'm kind of the bottom-feeder. [Laughs.] That stuff that drops to the bottom and no one wants? That's my stuff.
I wonder if your last name predestined you to an interest in squirmy things.
Probably. I gave thought, at one point, to writing a book about cockroaches, but it seemed too twee.
Do you see any theme that unites your books overall?
They're almost always about the human body in interesting or unusual circumstances, whether it's being dead or having sex in a laboratory or being in zero-gravity. Gulp is a bit of a departure because it's all within the body. But they're united by being about the people who study these things as well as the topic.
What was the most startling thing you learned writing Gulp?
Just about everything in that book was really startling. I didn't know much about the food chute, from the tongue and the nose all the way through to the rectum. Like, "Wow, you have a set of internal nostrils, who knew?" I didn't understand how swallowing worked—it's very complicated—and things that are autonomic. We're performing all these day-to-day miracles. It was fun to put the spotlight on them and generate a bit of reverence for this machine we all walk around in.
You're also a humor columnist, and often take a humorous tone in your books. Were you always funny?
No! My husband, Ed, is someone who everyone comments is very funny, and he is, he's very quick on his feet. I'm not a quick, improvisational funny person. But anytime you can make science more accessible or appealing, it's a good thing. People have a tendency to draw back from it because they think it's going to be a slog.
With Gulp, was there an aha moment when you knew you wanted to write about the alimentary canal?
It was a matter of there being a few chunks of research I couldn't find a home for. I tend to work backwards: I'll have a cluster of material that's vaguely related and think, "What umbrella book would enable me to play around in these areas and flesh them out?"
With Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, I read a sentence in an article that had to do with some work Masters and Johnson had done in the late '50s with, basically, a penis camera, documenting female sexual response from the inside—because it's hard to see it! That was a moment when I thought, "Physiological sex research, that'll be the next book." But that's the only time that's happened; there's usually more blind groping.
More than being just an observer, you often participate in your research, most notably in Bonk. Have you ever had an opportunity like that where you had to draw the line?
[Laughs.] You'd think I would have done that with Bonk! No, more often, it's the case that I want to get involved but haven't been able to get access. When I wrote Packing for Mars, I wanted to be there right when the space shuttle came down, to go on board and smell it after two weeks of nobody taking a shower. And of course, the people at NASA public affairs were like, "No, you so cannot do that, for so many reasons."
Any chance you'll give us a hint about what topic you're taking on next?
Yeah, had to try.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Weird science"