I stumbled upon Mary Roach’s brilliance in a rather roundabout way. I’m a regular at my local library, but I didn’t find her there. I don’t belong to any book clubs. I read the book reviews in newspapers and magazines, but that’s not where I found one of my favorite authors.
I found her in the middle of the night, on a couch in an Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home. I was working there briefly, to pay off some household expenses, and had the pleasure of getting to know some interesting characters (beyond the patients themselves). Christopher was one of my favorites. He held down the job to help pay for his studies, of mortuary science, at our local community college. To pass the time in the wee hours of the night, we had long, interesting discussions about life and death and taking care of dead bodies.
I’m a person who likes to know how the world works beyond my personal daily cocoon. I’d never had the chance to peek behind the curtain of mortuary science, to hear about the realities that face our bodies after death. One night Christopher brought me a book to read. It was on his assigned reading list for class and he (rightfully) thought I’d like it. It was called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. And this is how I found its author, Mary Roach.
I couldn’t put the book down. Mary Roach is wired like I am. She wonders about the weird stuff in the world, the stuff you’re curious about but afraid to admit. What does happen when a body goes into the furnace during cremation? What are all the possible routes a donated cadaver might travel?
And then there’s the stuff she found that had never occurred to me. Have there really been studies to see if a human head could ever be transplanted? Is there a split second after a guillotine strikes that the person (their head) is still ‘alive’? I’m telling you, don’t pick up this book until you’ve got some time to put into it. Every chapter left me wanting to read more.
Which is why I think Mary Roach is a Geek We Love. She’s not afraid to ask the questions we’re all thinking. And then she digs even deeper. Not in the name of gore or sensationalism. She reports purely in the name of curiosity and figuring out how things work in our world. She has no science degree, but the way our world works hinges on the sciences, so she’s become an expert by default.
After Stiff became a New York Times best seller, she went on to write three more best sellers: Spook (a book about what happens when we die), Bonk (the science of studying sex), and her latest, Packing for Mars (the science of space and how we figured out how to be human when we’re not on our planet).
When our library’s copy of Packing for Mars hit the shelves, I selfishly snatched it up. And again, I couldn’t put it down. Unfortunately for my family, we happened to be exploring the fabulous Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. a few weeks after I’d finished Packing for Mars. The book had made such an impression on me, with its fun, quirky, behind the scenes information, that I pestered my husband and children all day long with phrases that started like this, “Did you know….?” To me, that’s the sign of a great book.
I emailed Ms. Roach recently, and was thrilled and amazed when she answered me within the day. After pitching her an idea that I’d love to see her research (behind the scenes of an NFL referee…I’m suspicious that there’s some drama and insider information there that most of us will never know about) she accepted my challenge to answer a few of my other questions.
So here’s an insight into how the author Mary Roachapproaches her projects and manages to write amazing books.
GMJ (GeekMom Judy): Welcome to GeekMom! We’re all excited about digging deeper into what your process is and how you crank out such amazing books. Let’s start with this question: Is it true that you’ll never reveal the book you’re currently working on? Can’t you give us just a little sneak peek? (We won’t tell, GeekMom honor code…)
MR (Mary Roach): I can, but then I would have to kill you.
GMJ: How much of a break do you take between writing books? The science of each book must be so different that you couldn’t be working on two simultaneously.
MR: No break! I am always having to switch gears – researching one, promoting the other, thinking ahead to the next. I have pretty much stripped my clutch.
GMJ: Do you like short titles or was it just a fluke that three of your four books have one word titles?
MR: First was a fluke, but now it’s become a bit of a franchise. Packing for Mars was a case where I was stumped. Could not think of a good one. Am going back to one word for next one. Which begins with … G. There you go. A hint.
GMJ: I know you’ll say they’re all like children and you could never pick a favorite, but really….do you have a favorite book? One that was the most fun to research and write?
MR: Bonk was the most fun to research and write, I think. I mean – sex labs, what could be more fun? Oh wait, I know, dead bodies
GMJ: Did you ever think you’d become a ‘science’ writer when you began your career?
MR: No. I didn’t take a single science class in college
GMJ: How do you find your book topics? (side question: would you ever consider taking a suggestion from a loyal reader, say, about doing a book on NFL referees?…)
MR: Randomly. Sometimes it’s something I stumble onto in the previous book. I would for sure consider a reader suggestion — I welcome them! Someone recently suggested I do a book about the antichrist. Maybe I could combine that with your referee idea. From what little I know about football, there are those who believe they are one in the same.
GMJ: How much does researching books interfere with your family life? Is it hard not to ‘bring your work home’?
MR: I get pretty obsessed with my work. I’ve really just got two burners going: Book and family. I have no hobbies, I never get enough exercise, never go shopping, always put off getting my hair cut. What’s that Native American word for life out of balance? Koyyaniqattsi. That’s me.
GMJ: Is it hard to put a topic to rest, once the book is out, after being immersed in it for months, and even years?
MR: Not really. I am pretty good at changing the channel. Though readers often assume I am still immersed. Any time a cadaver in a basement freezer hits the news, I get about a dozen emails — Hey, thought you’d want to see this. Which I actually enjoy.
GMJ: How often are you quizzed at dinner parties about the quirky facts you’ve stumbled upon during research for your books (specifically, the one I’d guess you get the most dinner party questions about, Bonk)?
MR: Surprisingly, not that often. Depends on whether I’m having dinner with friends and family or readers. With the former, it’s rare. With Bonk and family, it’s a case of TMI.
GMJ: Are you a better Trivial Pursuit player since writing these four books?
MR: No, still useless. Unless the category is 1970s TV shows, I am not the person you want on your TP team.. Sadly, there is no category Cadavers, or History of Masturbation.
GMJ: Knowing my tendency to endlessly ‘share’ with my husband when I’m in the middle of an interesting writing assignment, do you have rules at home, about how much you can talk about the topic you’re currently studying?
MR: There’s just one rule. . I am not allowed to put my work in the refrigerator. (See below, grossest thing)
GMJ: How do you tackle a topic when you first start a book? Do you head to the scientists and experts first?
MR: Yes, I try to get a feel for what’s out there, where I might travel, whom I might talk to.
GMJ: The question that has to be asked: What is the grossest thing you’ve had to do in researching your book? My guess is that it would be associated with Stiff, but I may be wrong.
MR: You are wrong. Drinking my own urine. It had been filtered and treated (by NASA, no less), but still… This was for Packing for Mars.
GMJ: What is the coolest thing you got to do in the course of researching a book? You must get to experience some pretty amazing life experiences ‘in the name of research’.
MR: Floating weightless in zero G. Also for Packing for Mars.
GMJ: Because I’m pretty confident you were vague on the answer to question #1, I’ll give you one last chance to give us just a teeny hint as to what your next project might be. At least give us the projected publish date?
MR: Fall 2012 or spring 2013
Thanks so much for your time! You have many fans here at GeekMom and GeekDad. We’re really honored that you came by to visit. You are truly a Geek We Love.
Side Note #1: Mary Roach sat down with Jon Stewart recently and chatted about Packing for Mars, including a discussion on ‘floaters’. She also showed up on The Colbert Report and discussed contacting dead spirits with Stephen Colbert.
Side Note #2: To get a peek at her great sense of humor, be sure to check out the creepy, crawly opening page of her personal website, at Maryroach.net.