- A Conversation with Mary Roach
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Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times best sellers 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 lone-liness—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. [End Page 155]
This interview was conducted by phone in July 2014.
You’ve written about cadavers and the after-life, the science of sex and 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?
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.
Was there a particular moment when you knew that human digestion was going to be the topic for your next book?
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.
You wrote about that Berkeley study in Gulp, correct?
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 [End Page 156] 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...