Bloom: You write about science in a way that seems to give adults permission to embrace their inner 12 year old. For instance, there’s quite a bit of talk about flatulence in your books—Packing for Mars, Stiff, and Gulp, in particular—that encourages giggling. Has this less stuffy approach to science been a help or a hindrance to you in your writing work?
Mary Roach: It should be a hindrance, but I’ve found–much to my surprise–the longer I’ve spent doing this, the easier it is to get access to people [for interviews and research]. You would think that works against me. And it has in some instances. To answer your question, it generally helps, though. Where it’s a hindrance is for people who are sensitive to fallout. You know, will Fox pick it up, will there be reporter at her door. Surprisingly, though, people are helpful. They’re really very good sports.
Bloom: When you were 12 years old yourself, what were your favorite books? Were you a science or a non-fiction reader then, or did that come to you later?
MR: That’s what, around sixth grade? Around that era, I loved the TinTin books, which were graphic novels. I really loved the Black Stallion books. I was a real horse girl. I loved Pippi Longstocking and Harriet the Spy. I wanted to be Harriet the Spy. I loved kind of quirky girl heroine books and horses. And TinTin. My mom tried to get me to read the C.S. Lewis books. I eventually did, but I ignored the religious overtones.
I don’t remember reading nonfiction young adult. Did it even exist? The Weekly Reader, I guess. But no I don’t remember being a big reader of nonfiction at the time.
Bloom: I’m always struck by your ability to make even the weirdest things funny, which in a way makes them relatable and interesting. Is that something that comes to you naturally, or do you sometimes struggle to find the right angle?
MR: I’m always struggling to find something interesting unfolding in real time that I can report on. I have broad topics, and I have to narrow them. I’m always interested in what’s happening now, finding people I can quote, things I can describe. The humor in my books comes from the surrealness of the scenario. Finding the scenario will lead to humor…whether it’s me taking part in a sex study or something else.
I spend a tremendous amount of time looking for those settings and scenes I think will provide me with interesting-slash-funny material, and it’s not always that easy to find what I’m looking for. I can’t be funny without my props, without my materials, without the things I did and saw. It’s very different from stand up, where you can riff about anything.
Bloom: In an interview you gave in 2011, you said that you have a small collection of artifacts and mementoes from your research, like a human finger bone from when you working on Stiff. I’m almost afraid to ask, but what did you add to your collection from Gulp?
MR: Let me see. It’s a Plexiglass, a paperweight really, with python skeleton bones—the head—inside, because I talked about how a python manages to swallow something five times as wide as its body. It’s shaped like a suppository . . .[with] a snake skull inside. Also I have one of the Salivette saliva collection modules [for collecting saliva for medical testing reasons]. It has a little tampon in it that you chew and put in a centrifuge [to separate out the components of the saliva]. I don’t have a toilet hat. I should have a toilet hat [a “winged plastic bowl…that fits over the rim of the (toilet) bowl” to catch urine]! I didn’t pick anything up at the prison. That’s good. You try not to pick anything up in a prison, other than memories. That’s it here in the Mary Roach museum.
Bloom: Several years ago during a discussion at the Franklin Institute during the Philadelphia Science Festival, you talked about the possible future Mars missions, including a one-way mission to Mars. Would you sign up for such a thing?
MR: I’d sign up for the moon mission, roundtrip. I’m not the right disposition for Mars–eight months in a tiny can with high risk behaviors. If you could speed it up, get there in two weeks and cut back on the time and risk, I’d definitely go. I would love to be there on Mars, but the amount of time and risk is too much for me.
Bloom: So I guess you didn’t apply to be one of the crew members on the Mars One mission? Eighty percent of the applicants were male—they need more women.
MR: It doesn’t surprise me that the ratio is so skewed. I applied for the pretend Mars mission module. That’s five hundred days. I made the first round only because so few women signed up. A lot of women have children and families, and it’s hard to leave that behind. Maybe women are more sensible. If you’d seen the inside of the module, you’d understand. It’s not a particularly fun idea to spend that much time in a tiny module. I guess I am kind of surprised that it’s as skewed as it is. I know plenty of women who love adventure and travel.
I’m impressed that they’re still moving forward, making progress. Funding will be the hardest. They claim to have a business plan that will work. More power to them. It’s very exciting to see it happening.
Bloom: The footnotes in your books are fascinating–one of my favorites is the note in Gulp about animals having cultural food preferences—the ideas that Mexican dogs enjoy food with a bit of heat and that rats fed a typical Indian diet find cannibalism preferable to the Western diet are funny and strange. Do you have a favorite footnote?
MR: Wow. A favorite. Something that stands out . . . my favorite material in general makes it into the books. There are footnotes I tend to cover at readings–the one about the ER study about all the things that people put in their rectums. That was wide ranging, bizarre, and fabulous. My favorite from Packing for Mars is the footnote about religion in space. There were certain exceptions made for the astronauts regarding religious rules, cultural prayer, and that sort of thing. Facing Mecca is tricky in orbit.
Bloom: This is probably the question you’re asked the most: can we get a hint for what the next book is about?
MR: I don’t want to be all coy and annoying, but I like to keep it under my hat for a while. It’s hard to know what shape it’s going to take. It is a book, though! A Mary Roach-y kind of a book.
Click here to read Nicole Wolverton’s feature piece on Mary Roach.