Interview with Mary RoachPosted by Goodreads on April 2, 2013
Mary Roach: What I do is not ladylike, and I made peace with that long ago. What surprised me is the ease with which I got a green light from the Department of Corrections to go to Avenal State Prison and talk to prisoners about how they were using their rectums. I expected, "You want to do what? Why?" But they said, "Yeah, we have a problem with smuggling, a huge contraband problem, so come on over here and you can talk to anyone you want." I did have a sense, talking to the prisoner himself, that I must have seemed like a pretty peculiar woman.
My haircutter once tried to get me to...well, she said, "I embrace my femininity, and it's a great thing, and at some point you might want to do that."
GR: Did you take an early childhood interest in your own body?
MR: Not that I remember, but I certainly grew into it. A few years ago I was in a bike accident, and I was sitting up and watching with great fascination as the doctor put in stitches, so much so that he asked, "Do you want to do a couple?" When I'm observing in an operating room, the doctors sometimes have to stop and say, "Ms. Roach, you need to step back because your head is actually inside the body cavity."
GR: I would faint if I were to watch a surgery. Are some people constitutionally born able to be doctors and others not?
MR: Yes, I think people are constitutionally wired for it. My husband, for instance, has a problem with eyeballs to the point where he cannot put in drops. That scene in Andalusian Dog [the Luis Buñuel film in which an eyeball is cut with a razor] would destroy him. It would take him weeks to recover. For me, I can't stand okra. That strand, that strand, that mucinated strand, it's kind of like unstimulated saliva. I can't eat my gumbo.
But in general few things put me off. Usually my curiosity trumps any revulsion or fear. I'll wade into just about anything. That's the service I provide.
GR: You write that fecal transplant surgery is a highly effective, low-cost fix for certain infections. While I fear this is an obvious question, why has this treatment not caught on?
MR: Because shit is free, and for a long time there was no pharmaceutical company or device maker pushing it through the channels at the FDA. Clinical trials are expensive, and until recently no one was funding the research. The ick factor also has played a role. It just feels shocking and wrong to some people.
GR: In Gulp, the story of Beaumont (a 19th-century doctor) and St. Martin (his living subject for the study of gastric juices) blew my mind. I wondered if there was something sexual going on there.
MR: I wondered that at a certain point. Beaumont is self-aggrandizing by nature. In his writings and his journal he is so over the top about his wife that he was either madly in love with her or it was one of those things where the most virulent homophobe may be gay himself. But I think what drove him was his obsession with his career and with being recognized. He'd been slighted, he didn't go to medical school, and he suffered some snobbery because of it. He felt a need to prove himself.
He ended up with a lot of disdain for St. Martin, and in a funny way they both used each other. Their relationship interested me more than the science. My editor kept asking me, "But what do we learn about the stomach?" I was like, Who cares? This is a relationship story.
GR: Blind studies show that people can't tell red from white wine; I always wondered if that meant wine experts were frauds. Your chapter on taste testing made me understand that visual stimuli is actually a part of tasting.
MR: I was recently at a luncheon in a restaurant with dim lighting. I ate what I thought was...it was chicken hammered down so it looked like a fish fillet. I said, "That fish was a little tough and bland." "Mary," said my lunch companion, "that was chicken." So the visuals completely overruled. You can't discount basic physiology.
Those wine studies are really just playing tricks on wine people. You can fool them by changing the visuals, and they will appear less educated than they really are. I did a taste panel with three different olive oils, and the tasters could tell them apart. Tasting is a skill that you learn with time; you learn to tease apart the different components. It's really impressive what tasters can do. They are sensory analysts.
GR: In your devotion to unusual subjects and the people who love them, you remind me of the filmmaker Errol Morris. Are you a fan of his?
MR: Yes, two of his films in particular, Vernon Florida and Gates of Heaven. I've heard people criticize those films, saying he was being mean. I think he has an affectionate regard for those people. Maybe the viewer is supplying the ridicule. His subjects are delightful and unusual. We don't appreciate eccentrics in this society compared to, say, in the UK, where they celebrate hard-core eccentrics. They deserve to be celebrated.
GR: Do subjects interest you as much if you are not writing about them?
MR: I'm kind of ruined for traveling. If I don't have an appointment to interview someone and step with them into another world and explore, I don't enjoy it in the same way. If you're not writing about saliva, say, there's no reason to ask for a tour of Erika Silletti's lab. Last week I was down at SpaceX giving a talk and there was a lab tour, but because I didn't have a focus and need to understand a particular thing particularly well, I didn't drill down in the way I normally do. It felt like skating on the surface. I like to sink a grappling hook somewhere and immerse myself in it. A tour is nice, but it doesn't do it.
GR: You are such an entertaining read. Does it come naturally or do you stop and think, "I haven't had a joke in a page or two; I better put one in?"
MR: I have a sense of the reader always about to put the book down and walk away, and that sense of paranoia makes me try harder and go back and think, "Is there some way I can write this in a different way to make it surprising or fresh?"
GR: So many of your sentences would make great openers for a novel or short story: "Michael Levitt did not set out to make his mark on the world by parsing the secrets of noxious flatus." Have you ever written fiction?
MR: I don't have the imagination to create a whole world. What I love about nonfiction is that it requires you to step into a world and gather up a bag of material that you then build something with. To make up your own material seems to me not only a challenge I might not be able to meet, but I would miss the going out into the world.
GR: In describing one man you say, "I don't want to use the word 'elfin,' in case it seems belittling, but it did come to mind." You manage to say what you want and remain innately polite.
MR: I'm glad that that comes across. Early on in my career I was less careful. I look back on some of my magazine pieces and I think, Well, there's no reason to make somebody feel bad for the sake of a cheap shot or a cheap laugh.
GR: You write about some physically distressing things. Do you worry about tone?
MR: Once I was about to give a talk on my book Stiff, and a guy approached me, saying he was looking forward to the talk and that he was a hospice worker. I thought, Oh no, he's going to be upset that I use humor to talk about bodies and death; he's going to be offended. At the end of the talk he stood up and said, "I want to thank you for making it OK to laugh about death because it is sometimes funny. And we're not allowed to laugh, and we are always better off when we laugh."
GR: We've all heard about the congressman who doubts that women can get pregnant from rape. Is public ignorance at an all-time high?
MR: Maybe it seems so because of the 24-hour news cycle. I don't remember political discourse being so omnipresent 20 years ago. I think politicians have been boneheads forever. I do spin out on despair over some things that are said. And of course the Internet is a cesspool of bad information. But then I get a great letter from a high school student, usually because of Stiff, and it is spelled perfectly, and I know their parents didn't write it.
GR: Goodreads member Mike P. says, "The biggest question I have is what does she think can be done (or is being done) to improve science teaching in our schools? We don't need more MBAs, lawyers, or social studies grads. We need technical experts and scientists. Her books make science so much fun. How can we translate that to improved study of the hard sciences?"
MR: We can pass legislation that every school must buy at least 50 copies of my book. I'm kidding, but...I look back at high school, and I see that I had a great physics teacher. From high school I've known why orbits are the shape that they are. But another teacher did not make biology interesting at all. Biology! If you're not making the human body compelling, then there is something wrong. Maybe the dreary textbook needs to be rethought. Making the material fun is important because it makes students want to learn more. And once you're in the door with biology, then the harder stuff, the molecular stuff, becomes interesting because you have the background.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
MR: For starters, it's a short day. I rarely push past the four-hour mark when writing. And one of those hours is often spent just getting my head up inside the material and what I wrote the day before. Reabsorbing.
My writing habits are pretty straightforward. My desktop accessories are maybe a little unusual: My pens and pencils are in a circa 1975 Goofy Grape cup. [Goofy Grape was a powdered drink mix, like Kool-Aid.] I have a phone of similar vintage, an orange Trimline. So solid and such pure, clear sound quality. I record interviews off the phone line, so I keep a landline, probably the last in the country.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
MR: I'm inspired by Bill Bryson. Even if he's describing something that he wasn't on the scene to experience—even then, there's never a stale sentence, never a stale turn of phrase. In my writing I am always going back over stuff, always stretching for a surprising word or phrase. I have to push myself. I'm not naturally that funny. I'm not Jon Stewart.
I'm also grateful to investigative journalists, people like Ben Goldacre. He's got a book coming out called Bad Pharma, about how pharmaceutical companies are misleading doctors and doing all the things we suspect they are doing. I'm glad that he wrote it, but I don't want to be the person who does that.
GR: What are you reading now?
MR: I'm reading a book that will be out in the spring called Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by a journalist named Jon Mooallem. It's so compelling; it's about subcultures that I had no idea existed. The book is a combination of beautiful writing and great reporting. It's the kind of book you can't sum up easily.
Interview by Laurie Winer for Goodreads. Winer is a writer living in Los Angeles and an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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