2015 Contest: An Interview with Nonfiction Judge Mary Roach

Jul 27, 2015 | Archive, Interviews

Mary Roach is the author of the New York Times bestsellers STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void; and BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. PACKING FOR MARS is a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a One City, One Book selection for San Francisco, and STIFF has been translated into 23 languages. Mary has written for National Geographic, Wired, Discover, New Scientist, the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, and Outside, among others. She serves as a member of the Mars Institute’s Advisory Board and the Usage Panel of American Heritage Dictionary. Her 2009 TED talk made the organization’s 2011 Twenty Most-Watched To Date list. She was the guest editor of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing, a finalist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, and a winner of the American Engineering Societies’ Engineering Journalism Award, in a category for which, let’s be honest, she was the sole entrant. More at www.maryroach.net.

Interview by SHAELYN SMITH

Black Warrior Review: What have you been reading lately? Anything that’s really impressed you or has stayed with you?

Mary Roach: Amazing literary page-turner called Descent, the debut novel by Tim Johnston. I honest to crap missed a flight that was boarding ten feet away from me because I was so engrossed in the final 20 pages of this book. On the nonfiction side: In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides. I’m a sucker for Arctic disaster stories, and it doesn’t get better—or more disastrous—than this.

Currently reading The Meadow, by James Galvin.  Extraordinary.  He’s the John McPhee of fiction. Or at least that book is.

BWR: As an extension of that last question, what are the books or authors you turn to again and again? Who would you consider as inspiration or writers you’ve learned from?

MR: Susan Orlean, Bill Bryson

BWR: What will you look for in a winning essay? What kind of writing startles you? What kind of writing do you respect?

MR: A farrago—my new word! Cribbed it from a menu last night—of word-by-word freshness, structural fluidity, power, humor. Any or all of that.

BWR: As a science writer from a non-science background, how does your work make you approach the world differently than if you had taken up another career? What have you learned about moving through this world that might be surprising or seem irregular to other people?

MR: Many find this irregular: I like to strike up conversations with my seatmates on airplanes. You never know when the portal to another universe is right there six inches away from you. Or no inches, in economy class. A conversation with a live human being is still, by far, the best source of fresh ideas for nonfiction. If it’s on the web, it’s day-old bread.

BWR: What other sorts of nonfiction work do you enjoy?

MR: I like documentaries and magazine pieces, sure. I would like reality TV if it were in fact nonfiction. I love unfiltered primary source material. Raw feed: a realtime web video of an owl sleeping in a nest in a tree, say, or the endless footage of Mission Control on NASA TV, where nothing is happening except for one lone guy at his terminal, working, eating a sandwich. That’s my kind of reality TV. The camera just on, and you as a fly on the wall.

BWR: How do you decide on subject matter for a book?

MR: Process of elimination. Most things won’t work. They’re too abstract, or they’re purely historical, or there’s no room for fun.

BWR: Your books are so highly researched in such a practical and scientific way, but also deeply personal. Can you talk a little bit about this process and the decision to write in this style, as well as the decision to take on this level of immersing yourself in the actual research process?

MR: It’s simple: that’s how it’s most satisfying and most fun for me. The hope is that if it’s satisfying and fun for me, it will also be so for the reader

BWR: What’s the weirdest, most exciting and/or strangest thing you’ve done for a book or a story?

MR: Sex in the ultrasound lab: strangest. Not, I’m sorry to report, the most exciting. That would be the NASA weightless (simulated zero g) flight in Packing for Mars. Best day ever.

BWR: What’s your first memory?

MR: I have a memory of my mom dangling a daddy longlegs in front of me, and then pulling off its leg. This seems so utterly out of character for her, that I wonder if I fabricated it. Maybe the leg came off accidentally? I’ll never know.

BWR: You are a very funny writer. What’s your relationship to humor?

MR: I enjoy writing about things that lend themselves to a humorous treatment, but not everything does. Most don’t. I definitely seek out that kind of material, go to great lengths to acquire it.

My favorite kind of humor is that insane hilarity that materializes out of nowhere, suddenly, between two people, leaving both breathless and wet-eyed.  And you could never explain it to someone who was not in it at the moment.

BWR: What’s your favorite joke?

MR: My favorite joke requires the use of my belly button, so we’re going to skip that one. Here are two I like. They aren’t necessarily my favorites but they’re short, so I remember them.

  1. A skeleton walks into a bar. He says, “Gimme a beer and a mop.”
  2. A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Why the long face?”

BWR: You enjoy birdwatching—what’s on your list to see that you have yet to encounter?

MR: My in-laws live in Florida, and yet I’ve never managed to see a roseate spoonbill. I once dragged everyone down to some remote corner of the Everglades in pursuit. They’d just flown off when we arrived.

Some day.

BWR: What’s the weirdest dream you’ve had recently, or ever?

MR: I have a recurring dream about having to put in my contacts when I’m in a hurry, late for a party or whatever, and they’re huge, saucer-sized, thick as glass. Once they were paperback books I was trying to shove in there.

BWR: If you were the Jesus of your own Last Supper, who would your twelve apostles be?

MR: Wild animals and insects that could talk. If I get to be Jesus, I get to make animals talk. I have so many questions for earthworms, cows, birds, ants, sloths, pythons!

BWR: Any projects currently in the works that you’d like to share with us?

MR: A book is in the works, but I’m not talking about it yet.


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