Mary Roach. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2010).
An introduction to the author of Stiff, Spook, Bonk, and most recently, Packing for Mars. Mary Roach began her career as a freelance copy editor, and went on to research and write articles for magazines and journals. While writing is her business, she admitted it can be a lonely one: “Writing can be such a solitary pursuit. Sometimes I go to writing conferences just because I think it would be fun to spend time with other writers.”
Quick Facts on Mary Roach
- Roach’s website
- Home: Oakland, California
- Comfort food: macaroni and cheese, homemade chicken noodle soup with matzo balls. When on the road, a BLT (when you’re ordering room service, you want to have a food that it’s almost impossible to screw up).
- Top authors/reads: Bill Bryson, Jonathan Franzen, Burkhard Bilger, David Sedaris, and Dave Eggers’ What is the What
- Current reads: You Don’t Look Like Anyone I know by Heather Sellers & Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
What are you working on now?
Book tour, and when I’m done with that I’ll start a new book. But I’m keeping the topic under my hat for now.
Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?
The idea for Packing for Mars came from an acquaintance of mine who works in a bed rest facility. NASA pays people to lie in bed for months and months so they can test the effects of zero gravity. I wondered what other bizarre space-on-earth things were happening, then it occurred to me that this could work for a book. Really, it’s another book about the human body in unusual spaces.
Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?
I don’t write with an audience in mind. I guess I picture people who I would sit down with at a table and have fun. I suppose that sort of makes it a room full of me. I’m not really writing for myself, nor anyone in particular. In Seattle, Washington I had an audience where the average age was 23, and then in Lafayette, California the average age was probably 65.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
I do most of my writing in the afternoon. In the morning, I usually email, make phone calls, try to arrange travel or interviews. I write until six or seven in the evening and then walk home from my office. If it’s a really nice day, I’ll stay home and work.
Where would you most want to live and write?
Right where I am. I love my neighborhood and my house. I suppose anywhere, if I could bring it all, move my friends, family, and network of other writers, to a house with an ocean view in a place where there’s no fog. I don’t know where that would be.
Do you listen to anything while you work? Music?
My own tedious thoughts—no, no music.
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
So much of what I do is dependent on the research. I can’t write a good book based on lame research. I try to find what will be entertaining to write and read. It’s only a struggle for me when I’m trying to make something out of nothing. My philosophy is that without a foundation, without collecting really good stuff, the writing is doomed.
How do you balance content with form?
It’s a two-way street. I need to have good narrative scaffolding on which to hang the information I want to present to people. I do want people to learn something from my books. I try to create that scaffolding first and then find places to hang stuff (I don’t know what I’m building here with my scaffolding and my hanging). I find an opening place to start the scene and then I quickly sketch where I think I’m going to go. I try to build that, and then I move stuff around. It’s largely intuitive; I’m not big on outlines.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
This only applies at a certain phase in writing each book, but I’ll give it to you anyway. George Orwell said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.”
Lewis Carroll from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I think of Elmore Leonard who said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Especially for nonfiction writers, when you do a lot of research, sometimes you feel compelled to put something in your book just because you worked so hard to get it. There’s a tendency to include things just because you have them, and this can bog a book down. Let it go if isn’t earning its keep.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
When I was working on my first book and having doubts about whether it was working, my editor at Discover magazine, Burkhard Bilger, finally said to me, “Mary, at a certain point you’re going to turn this in, and they’re going to put a cover on it, and it will be a book. Nobody will notice that it’s not a book.” I was worried that it wasn’t a book if the tones between sections were too different, and because there was no narrative through-line. Writers over-think things.
What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
What question do you find most surprising that people ask you about writing?
I’m surprised by the extent that people are focused on the titles of my books. A lot of people have asked why this new book has a three-word title instead of a one-word title. Also, it surprises me how often people assume the topic of your book, especially with first books, is a lifelong obsession. For instance, Stiff grew out of a couple of magazine columns I had written. When the book came out, people assumed it had been a lifelong fascination for me. I just thought it would be a fascinating topic to a broad audience. I’m surprised that people are often surprised by my choices in topics. There’s an assumption that I’m writing for a passion, and not because it is my job.
Is there something that you wish more people would ask you about your work?
People don’t ask about the insecurities and self-doubt that probably most writers grapple with. I don’t know if they realize how common it is for writers to feel lost, unsure if they are taking the right approach, and to feel like it won’t work. I always hit a low point with each book when I feel like I should give up. Then there’s a high when it all comes together. I’m guessing that’s more common than people realize.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Backpacking. After this book tour, I’ve got a trip to the Sierras planned. I love my walk home from the office each afternoon. I like to read. I hang out with family and friends. Like travel, but that’s also part of my work.
About Mary Roach
Mary Roach grew up in Etna, New Hampshire. She moved to California in the early 1980s and now lives in Oakland. Working first as a copy editor, then in PR, she went on to write newspaper articles and publish a column for Salon.com. She has published four books: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, and Packing for Mars.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Mary Roach.” Words With Writers (September 3, 2010), https://wordswithwriters.com/2010/09/03/mary-roach/.%5D
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (WW Norton, 2010)
Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science and humor. As of 2016[update], she has published seven books,: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013), and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016).
Roach is noted for her curiosity and humor in addition to her research. Her many humor-laced articles in various publications over the decades include her monthly humor column, "My Planet", in Reader's Digest.
Early life and education
Mary Roach was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, to a 65-year-old father. Her family later moved to Etna, New Hampshire, where Roach attended Hanover High School.
She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1981.
After college, Roach moved to San Francisco, California, and spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor. She worked as a columnist, and also worked in public relations for a brief time. Her writing career began while working part-time at the San Francisco Zoological Society, producing press releases on topics such as wart surgery on elephants. On her days off from the SFZS, she wrote freelance articles for the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.
In 1986, she sold a humor piece about the IRS to the San Francisco Chronicle. That piece led to a number of humorous, first-person essays and feature articles for such publications as Vogue, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Discover Magazine, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and Wired. She has also written articles for Salon.com and tech-gadget reviews for Inc.com.
From 1996 to 2005, Roach was part of "the Grotto," a San Francisco-based project and community of working writers and filmmakers. It was in this community that Roach got the push she needed to break into book writing. While being interviewed by Alex C. Telander of BookBanter, Roach answered the question of how she got started on her first book:
A few of us every year [from the Grotto] would make predictions for other people, where they'll be in a year. So someone made the prediction that, 'Mary will have a book contract.' I forgot about it and when October came around I thought, I have three months to pull together a book proposal and have a book contract. This is what literally lit the fire under my butt.
Although Roach writes primarily about science, she never intended to make it her career. Roach stated in an interview with TheVerge.com, when asked what exactly got her hooked on writing about science, "To be honest, it turned out that science stories were always, consistently, the most interesting stories I was assigned to cover. I didn’t plan it like this, and I don't have a formal background in science, or any education in science journalism. Actually I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology."
TV and radio shows have repeatedly asked Roach to appear as a guest so they could hear her opinions. She has appeared on programs like Coast to Coast AM,The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Roach has had monthly columns in Reader's Digest ("My Planet") and Sports Illustrated for Women ("The Slightly Wider World of Sports").
Besides being a best-selling author, Roach is involved in many other projects. Roach reviews books for The New York Times, and was the guest editor of the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 edition. She also serves as a member of the Mars Institute's Advisory Board, as an ambassador for Mars One and was recently asked to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.
While it is clear that Roach has a wide variety of what some might call unusual interests, it is a fact that she is also willing to become a part of her research when the subject calls for it. Roach volunteered herself and her husband in an ultrasound coital imaging experiment to study the effects of cuddling. While researching material for her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Roach came across Dr. Jing Deng, a University College London Medical School senior lecturer in medical physics. Dr. Deng was experimenting with 4-D ultrasound imaging and was in need of test subjects to engage in sexual intercourse while wearing the ultrasound equipment so that real-time images could be captured. Roach and her husband, Ed, were the first participants to volunteer in this study. When asked how she was able to convince her husband to participate, Roach said, "He’s crazy supportive. It was much harder for him. It was nothing for me. I was just a receptacle. I was just taking notes."
To study the reproductive effect of sexual arousal in pigs, Roach ventured to the Øeslevgaard Farm in Denmark to observe pig inseminators as they conducted experimental techniques to see if there was a positive correlation between stimulation and quantity of offspring. While working with sensory scientist Sue Langstoff, Roach studied beer taste-testing methods used in detecting impurities in quality, such as picking up on unpleasant smells one might find if the beer making equipment were cleaned with chlorinated water. She has also consulted oral physiologist, Dr. Andries Van der Bilt, to analyze the complex ability of the human jaw to break down food and protect the mouth while chewing.
In 1997 she visited Antarctica to write an article for Discover Magazine on meteorite hunting with meteorite hunter Ralph Harvey. She has also been there a few times as part of the National Science Foundation's Polar Program, which manages the funding for research and operations support in the Arctic and the Antarctic. On one of these trips, Roach accompanied a team of marine sediment experts on the research vessel, Nathaniel B. Palmer, in order to collect core samples from the depths of the ocean off Antarctica in order to learn more about global warming.
While Roach does not possess a science degree, she attempts to take complex ideas and turn them into something that the average reader can understand. She takes the reader with her through the steps of her research, from learning about the material to getting to know the people who study it, as she described in a public dialog with Adam Savage.
The common theme throughout most of Roach's books is a literary treatment of the human body. Roach says of her publication history, "My books are all [about the human body], Spook is a little bit of departure because it's more about the soul rather than the flesh and blood body, but most of my books are about human bodies in unusual circumstances." When asked by Peter Sagal of NPR, how she picks her topics, she replied, "Well, it's got to have a little science, it's got to have a little history, a little humor—and something gross." For example, her article entitled "The C word: Dead man driving" was published in the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, and asks why cadavers are considered to be dishonored if they are being used to test explosives or crash testing.
According to Roach, "Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: 'Oh! Now I get it!'" Regarding her skepticism about the world around her, Roach states in her book Spook,
"Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got. And so I've decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. Because I know what religion says, and it perplexes me. It doesn't deliver a single, coherent, scientifically sensible or provable scenario. Science seemed the better bet." 
Roach has said that she’s always been interested in science, specifically topics relating to space and space travel itself; which is why the decision to write Packing for Mars was not a random adventure that Roach decided to embark on. “I had no idea until I started this book that when you’re heading to the moon or to Mars, you’re essentially coasting. I thought it was like a car where you’d have your foot on the gas the entire time, and I used to think, 'Jesus, that’s a lot of gas.' " By the end of her book, she was able to vividly describe and make understandable, the many nitty-gritty details that would normally be overlooked. She does this by addressing and answering the more practical and technical questions that an audience member may have, such as, how the astronauts go to the bathroom, eat, and sleep, as well as, question the effects of zero gravity on the bodies of the space travelers.
In an interview with D. J. Grothe, Roach described an aspect of how she arrives at her book subjects: "I would say it has more to do with my own sort of quirky set of interests and sense of curiosity rather than feeling some obligation to address things that aren't well enough addressed."
Roach maintains an office in downtown Oakland and lives in the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland (California) with her husband Ed Rachles, an illustrator and graphic designer. Roach also has two step-daughters.
While Roach has often been quoted saying that she does not have much free time between writing books, she is very fond of backpacking and travel. She has been able to do a great deal of the latter, while doing research for her articles and books. Roach has visited all seven continents at least twice.
Awards and recognition
In 1995, Roach's article "How to Win at Germ Warfare" was a National Magazine Award Finalist. In the article, Roach conducted an interview with microbiologist Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona who described a scientific study in which bacteria and virus particles become aerosolized upon flushing a toilet: "Upon flushing, as many as 28,000 virus particles and 660,000 bacteria [are] jettisoned from the bowl."
In 1996, her article on earthquake-proof bamboo houses, "The Bamboo Solution", took the American Engineering Societies Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category. In her article, civil engineer Jules Janssen remarked that bamboo is "stronger than wood, brick, and concrete... A short, straight column of bamboo with a top surface area of 10 square centimeters could support an 11,000-pound elephant."
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was a New York Times Bestseller, a 2003 Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" pick, and one of Entertainment Weekly's "Best Books of 2003." Stiff also won the Amazon.com Editor's Choice award in 2003, was voted as a Borders Original Voices book, and was the winner of the Elle Reader's Prize. The book has been translated into at least 17 languages, including Hungarian (Hullamerev) and Lithuanian (Negyvėliai).Stiff was also selected for the Washington State University Common Reading Program in 2008-09.
Roach's column "My Planet" (Reader's Digest) was runner-up in the humor category of the 2005 National Press Club awards. Roach's second book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, was the recipient of the Elle Reader's Prize in October 2005. Spook was also listed as a New York Times Notable Books pick in 2005, as well as a New York Times Bestseller. In 2008, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, was chosen as the New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, it was in The Boston Globe Top 5 Science Books, and it was listed as a bestseller in several other publications.
In 2011, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, was chosen as the book of the year for the seventh annual "One City One Book: San Francisco Reads" literary event program.Packing for Mars was also sixth on the New York Times Best Seller list.
In 2012, Roach was the recipient of the HarvardSecular Society's Rushdie Award for her outstanding lifetime achievement in cultural humanism. The same year, she received a Special Citation in scientific inquiry from Maximum Fun.
Her book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (Oneworld) was on the shortlist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.
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- ^Falkner, Kelly. "About Polar Programs". National Science Foundation. Directorate for Geosciences. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
- ^Roach, Mary; Braasch, Gary. "Antarctica's Hot Spot". Discover Magazine. Discover Magazine. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
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- ^Chandonnet, Sarah (29 March 2012). "Author Mary Roach to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award". Humanist Community Project At Harvard. Harvardhumanist.org. Retrieved 29 July 2012.
- ^Melissa Hogenboom (10 November 2014). "Materials book wins Royal Society Winton Prize". BBC. Retrieved 11 November 2014.