Curious about what makes six-time New York Times bestselling science writer Mary Roach tick?
Many people are, especially after reading the Oakland-based author’s quirky, meticulously researched and critically acclaimed books that include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Six Feet Over (originally titled Spook): Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War and her most recent book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, released in September 2021.
Roach has been decorated with awards—including a lifetime achievement award well before her span of years is over—and her books have been published in 21 languages. She has written for National Geographic, Wired, The New York Times Magazine and the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, among others. Roach was an Osher Fellow with the San Francisco Exploratorium and a winner of the American Engineering Societies’ Engineering Journalism Award, a category for which, as her website jokes, “let’s be honest, she was the sole entrant.”
The self-deprecating comment is trademark Roach, whose lively words and phrases tumble out spontaneously during a conversation. With Roach, it’s like listening to a top-tier jazz musician on a roar who has improvisational spree rips and leaps across notes and rhythmic passages unpredictably while never losing direction or audience. Underscoring the fun, there’s solid technique, training, rehearsal, years of experience and refinement.
Similarly, behind the words and phrases that sing on the page in Roach’s books are comic wit and humor; poetic flare with language; scholarly attention to detail and context; a joyful, exuberant, near-giddy kid-like curiosity leading to one-can’t-ask-that style questions (and fascinating answers from experts); and a drill sergeant’s discipline and dedication when it comes to delivering robust facts and real science.
Even so, after having written about and spoken with Roach multiple times since 2013, it’s always possible to discover something new. Each conversation with Roach is like a treasure hunt: her words a string with little clues tied to it. On the way to finding at the end the big kahuna reward, a hunter or huntress receives tiny puzzles that add up to an “I recognize this animal and why it growls or purrs” realizations. What are a few of the tantalizing, zany tidbits, one is asking? Here goes:
About her childhood years, she has said, “I used to say I was normal. But I didn’t like dolls, and I used to have a Barbie that I’d pull the head off, and I had 10 seconds to get it back on. So maybe I wasn’t so normal.” In high school, she got all As, but wasn’t a big reader and watched a lot of television. “I could tell you the lineup for CBS, NBC and other networks. If we played trivia and the topic is 1970s television trivia, I’d slaughter you,” she once boasted.
As a celebrity science writer, she is often asked what food or snacks she’d like to have backstage in the Green Room before a public appearance. In Seattle, she told them, “Slim Jims and purple Peeps.” She was astonished when, a year later, she showed up for the event and sure enough, there were Slim Jims and purple Peeps. “They thought I actually was serious,” she remarked.
And then there’s her most recently shared story that tidily and literally fulfills the treasure hunt metaphor: “My brother and I would set up treasure hunts for each other when I was a kid. I still recall the clue I stumped him with. It said ‘Grrrrr oil.’ The clue was hidden under a can of Lion Oil. What my dad was doing with this industrial product, I have no idea. Funny the things one recalls.”
All of this leads to the obvious question of how a Barbie doll destroying, television addicted, faux junk food fetishizer who’s into greasy chemicals led a kid to a career in science writing. Roach said she didn’t set out with ambition to be a writer. The closest to desire for a certain career she’d ever been was during a temporary veterinarian phase. “I didn’t even have pets. I think it was probably just based on having stuffed animals. I really didn’t have a career plan or any passions for anything. I just didn’t think about the future. I was aimless and clueless,” she remembered.
Roach earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wesleyan University. “All the way through my senior year at Wesleyan, I never went to the career development office. I just thought, the world is this big place. How do I know what I want to do? So I thought, let’s just go see what’s out there,” she said. “I was a liberal arts major graduating in the middle of a recession. Not a lot of jobs, and what can you do? You can string a sentence together.”
Roach moved to California “because that’s what you did if you didn’t have a couch to sleep on in New York,” according to her. She took temp and catering jobs and even a job for a telemarketing research firm, for which she asked people how they felt about flavored non-dairy creamers. Roach tried copyediting and proofreading positions, but quickly discovered she was not well-suited for the detail-oriented work.
“It seemed like writing the stuff might be easier than cleaning it up,” she said. “So I started freelance writing, which I enjoyed a lot. I wrote for Hippocrates, which became Health Magazine, and that led me to writing a lot of fun things about health, medicine and the human body. Quirky things that let me travel all over the world; it was the heyday of magazines, and they had budgets.
“An editor from Discover magazine asked me to write for them, which I did, writing for both magazines and others all through my 20s and 30s. That’s how it happened: It was kind of a fluke,” Roach said. “I actually started with San Francisco Magazine Image, which no longer exists, and the editor from there went to Hippocrates, and I went along. So basically, I was just riding around on editors’ coattails, surfing.”
Although she said her dislike for nitpicking through a text to make sure the punctuation or capitalization of a person’s title in Chapter 3 matches that in Chapter 10 means she’s “not detail oriented,” Roach quickly corrected herself. “That’s wrong. I love details, but I’m not big on focusing on tiny consistencies like forms of address, the minutia of copyediting. But the things I’m reporting on: Oh, I live for detail,” she confessed.
Roach typically keeps banker’s hours (9-5) when researching and writing a book, perhaps to offset the improvisational, wing-it-when-a-wing-appears approach she brings to interviewing the experts, scientists, zealots, advocates and practitioners of a given subject. “I do some prep before I meet somebody and read a bunch of their work so I’m not a complete idiot. But I don’t come with a list of questions written out because I’m a print person, not a radio or a podcast person, where the order and presentation matter. Essentially, it’s not interviewing them so much as it is using them as unpaid tutors,” she explained.
If she knows a secret method to getting the best stuff, it’s hanging around for several days, listening intently and letting the story unfold in real time. “We let the conversation wander because until I spend time with the person, I don’t really know what makes them tick. (She affirms, it’s all about the ticking.) I’m absorbing things, but not trying to direct it, unless it’s going so far afield there’s gotta be a course correction,” she noted. “Things grab my attention, and I say, ‘Wait, wait, let’s talk about that. Wow! Can we go do that? Can I stay another day?’ I’m just sort of a sponge.”
During the worst years of the pandemic, essential, in-person access to her sources was obviously impossible. Luckily, she had completed all but one reporting trip—it was canceled—and spent the months editing Fuzz, working on an adaption of Packing For Mars for young readers and updating Stiff. “I could have been derailed, if I’d been halfway through Fuzz,” she admitted.
Asked if she considered writing about the pandemic itself, Roach said no, because it was already happening, and she writes while on the frontlines of a topic. She would have wanted to be embedded at the CDC or a similar entity in 2020, if not earlier. When a dramatic, critical, life-or-death science event is at its peak, it’s not a good time to contact people and say, “Hey, can I follow you around for three months?” she noted.
Roach added: “Also, for the way I work, my ways are a little quirky, a little goofy. COVID, it’s not either. Plus, it’s been very well covered. I read one book, Until Proven Safe, by Nicola Twilley and Geoff Managuah, about the history and future of quarantine. They cover a broad range, and they were working on that 10 years before COVID hit. Michael Lewis had a pandemic book come out. He’s always really good. And there are other good books, so it’s a crowded room.”
Another not-gonna, but intriguing topic? Madness and psychosis: the history and how they are dealt with. Said Roach, “I’ve given thought to that. But there are already such wonderful voices in that world too. Oliver Saks for one. And David Eagleman, the (Stanford University) neurologist who’s a beautiful writer. I tend to want to leave it to people like that.
“To get up to speed on the brain, on neuroscience, I think is even tough for neuroscientists. The brain is a complicated system, and I don’t even have a B.S. There are some science topics I’d be diving in, and it would be over my head. I’m always diving in, but with the brain, I might never make it back up to the surface. I would drown, is what I’m saying,” she continued.
The glimmer of caution expands to a larger shaft when it comes to being sensitive to language in contemporary times. Terminology acceptable in the past may be outdated or no longer tolerated.
“I’m a cavalier writer,” Roach said. “I just dump it onto the page. I now spend more time going back over things. I have to take a spin through it through the eyes of anyone who might be sensitive. Euphemisms have changed. You don’t say words that were said in 2001 anymore. It’s good to think about those things. When I’m writing, I’m just putting it out and picturing readers who look like me, like that John Malkovich movie where everybody looks like him, and that’s not a wise thing to do. I’m definitely more considerate about that stuff now, and it’s good.”
Briefly, before the time is up, the conversation touched on ChatGPT and AI and its impact on the writing industry. Roach said it’s interesting, super complicated and terrifying. The sophistication is mind-blowing, and the potential for misuse, misinformation and abuse is frightening, she added.
“At the core of it, it’s terrifying to me. Sometimes terror is an extreme form of neophobia. I’m no expert, but I find it a little depressing. When we don’t need artists to paint and writers to write, when we can do a facsimile of art by machine, what’s the point?” she questioned.
There’s no terrific answer, and the question remained, dangling like a ghost on the treasure hunt string. The conversation moved to fun things, like what Roach might write if it were something other than a nonfiction book on science.
“It would be interesting to explore memoir, especially because I had a dull childhood,” she said. “I didn’t keep a journal. It would be interesting to contact people I know and ask them about myself as if I don’t know who I was. I kind of don’t know, because it was so long ago.”
Writing more books for young readers is also an attractive idea for Roach, but not poetry or fiction. “I don’t have that kind of imagination or poetic brain,” she confessed. “What I love about what I do is the gathering of information. The people whose world I get into, the people I meet and the places I go. To strip that away and make it all up doesn’t appeal to me. It’s not that I wouldn’t be good at that; it’s just not what I love to do.”
This then, is the grand kahuna treasure at the end of the hunt: the promise of more science books to come. Oh, and there’s one last item to add to the “what makes Mary tick” list: Don’t Google her. She never Googles herself and said, “There’s weird shit on there.” How does she know it’s weird if she never looks?
“My husband has a Google alert on me. Most of what he says comes up are obituaries for old women of Irish descent who have croaked. Why obituaries and Irish? Roach is a common Irish name, and nobody has been named Mary since the ‘50s, so the Marys are all getting old and dying,” she explained. “A lot of that stuff on Google is based on nothing. Everybody who’s anybody, it has bullshit about their income.” From which the hint is taken: Drop off social media and pick up the real deal—a book by Mary Roach.