Interview: Mary Roach discusses the finer (and grosser) points of writing about the human body

Photo by Mary Roach
Mary Roach giving her Ted talk “10 things you didn’t know about orgasm” — Photo by Bill Holsinger-Robinson via Flickr Creative Commons

Writer Mary Roach

Englert Theatre — Monday, April 27 at 8 p.m.

In an event sponsored by the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, author Mary Roach will read tonight at 8 p.m. at the Englert Theatre.

Over the last 12 years, Roach has served as one of literature’s most humorous and irreverent ambassadors to the world of biological science. Her books, entertaining as they are genuinely enlightening, take an unflinching look at the physiology of human experience, from what happens to our bodies after we die (Stiff, 2003) to the intricate calculus of having sex (Bonk, 2008) to examining the strange (and sometimes outright nasty) things that happen to a body living in outer space (Packing for Mars, 2011).

Roach’s latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal explores the intricacies of human digestion, from saliva to stool. Little Village recently had the opportunity to speak to Mary Roach about viscera, space pee and how she wrote her first book on a bet.

What was the weirdest thing you found out when doing research for Packing for Mars?

I was amazed by the extent to which human body is programmed to Earth’s gravity. You take that away, and almost everything is affected. For instance, the bladder depends on gravity. The fluid at the bottom of the organ activates stretch receptors when it gets full. That doesn’t happen when you’re in zero gravity because the liquid is kind of all over, so you have a urinary emergency if you don’t pee regularly. Nobody anticipated that initially, because there are only so many things you can guess.

Your literary life is more than a bit off the beaten path. How did you get into writing?

I got into writing by graduating in the midst of a recession in 1982 with no job skills and a BA. It was the only thing I could possibly do except catering and temp work and market research calls — all of which I also did during that time. Writing was one of the few areas where I actually had experience. It turned out to be fun and not initially lucrative, but I managed to get along by combining copyediting and proofreading with journalism and some commercial writing. I wrote for the Banana Republic catalogue back when it was still fake travel safari clothing.

How did your first book, Stiff, come about?

I was writing a column for, and an agent had read my work and contacted me. He said, “Which columns have had the highest hit rates?” There were a couple of cadaver columns that a lot of people had seemed to find interesting, so that led me down that path. I hadn’t considered that as a book topic until he suggested it, so it was kind of a fluke. Like most things in my life.

A happy fluke, it seems.

Another reason I wrote my first book was a bet. I worked with a bunch of writers who would get together on New Year’s and make predictions for the other people in our office. Some of them were personal, others were career-oriented, and somebody predicted that I’d have a book contract by the end of the next year. So I realized that, in October, I had three months to do it. Otherwise we’d get together, and we’d look in our notes and say, “Oh! Mary Roach did not get a book contract.” It kind of lit a fire under my ass.

Since Stiff, you’ve become something of a liaison between scientific experts and the public. What’s that like?

For the most part, it’s very fun. The average person has a level of curiosity that I think responds to the level of complexity that I’m putting out there. So I’m comfortable with being the gateway drug to science. I’m a little uncomfortable with the title “science writer” because I don’t have a science background, and I have to stick to the topic areas that my lack of expertise confines me to. I don’t want to overstep my bounds, and I’m very aware that I need to be careful in what I say and how I present things because physiology, biology, anatomy — they’re very complex, and I’m often stepping into just a little inlet and not really understanding the whole ocean around it.

Your research has taken you to the fringes of human experience. Has that altered anything about your fundamental worldview?

I’m kind of spoiled when it comes to travel and vacations. I view my research trips as the ultimate vacation, because I’m able to step into another world. So the idea of just going to the beach in Hawaii or renting a house doesn’t generate the kind of excitement that I should feel about a vacation. I want to be able to go to some sort of weird lab or be on a zero gravity flight.

What about all that exposure to death? With Stiff and Spook, have your thoughts on mortality changed at all?

No, I’m still not looking forward to death. But I’ve never been the kind of person that frets a lot about it. I do fret more about the things that lead up to death: decrepitude, senility, pain, old age, senility. (I mention it twice because I’m senile.) I have a sense that by the time you’ve gone through all that, you don’t really care about death.

What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?

Non-stimulated saliva — not the watery kind, but the mucoid kind. My up-close and personal experience with that in the saliva lab was fairly gross. The body farm is always going to be in the top five, where they study the decomposition of human remains outside the University of Tennessee. Severed heads were not gross. They were a little disturbing, but not gross. There was one cadaver that had had an autopsy, and that’s quite a gruesome thing because the body cavity is open, and the organs have been put into a viscera bag, and it’s very bloody. It’s not really gross, though. Just gory.

Any place where ‘viscera’ is more than just a word on a page would probably strike most people as gross. Do images from your research ever force their way into your consciousness?

The guy with the viscera bag did. That image intruded in my thoughts for a few days. That lab was one of the first few places I had gone for Stiff, so I wondered whether I’d made a mistake in deciding to do the book. Then, after seeing the plastic surgery lab heads, I remember flying home on the plane and looking around at my fellow passengers, thinking, “I’d know what you look like as just a head.” It was an unconventional thought to have.

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