Mary Roach’s distinctive subject matter lies at the intersection of science and mystery. She set the tone with 2003’s Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers, following the divergent paths of postmortem Americans, from the embalming table to medical school to decomposition studies for law enforcement. Then came books on the history of scientific attempts to detect the afterlife (Spook, 2005) and the study of human sexual activity (Bonk, 2008). Her latest is Packing For Mars: The Curious Science Of Life In The Void, for which she experienced weightlessness and investigated what substances best simulate human feces. (Refried beans are pretty close.) The A.V. Club spoke to Roach about her peculiar cul-de-sac on the science beat, and the problem posed by her history of book titles.
The A.V. Club: I hope you haven’t been asked this question too many times already, but what’s the deal with the number of words in the title of this book?
Mary Roach: That is the No. 1 question. The Thursday Style section of The New York Times, they had a list, “10 Things To Talk About This Weekend,” by Henry Alford, and one item was “Mary Roach breaks the tradition of one-word titles… she wanted to call it Packing, but her publisher thought it would skew too NRA.” Not my line.
AVC: Your tradition isn’t just for one-word titles, either; it’s one-syllable titles.
MR: I know. We flat-out failed to find a good word. My agent liked Orbit, but I thought it sounded like chewing gum.
AVC: Well, you’ve freed yourself for the future.
MR: I know, but I’m gonna go right back to it. I already have the one-word title for the next one, but I can’t tell you what it is. I never want to go through this again.
AVC: Packing For Mars has a narrower range than your previous books, which covered longer periods of time and dealt with more diverse organizations and endeavors. This book is really just about a few institutions, like NASA and the military. Was it easier or more challenging?
MR: Oh, more challenging. The broader the topic, the easier it is, not only to fill a book, but to set the bar pretty high for really great stuff. You know what I mean? Like really weird funny, fresh, unusual stuff. When you have all of the history of the study of sexual physiology [in Bonk], from Leonardo [da Vinci] to today, and the various things that fall under that category of sexual physiology—although it was a little bit narrowing, you know: arousal and orgasm, basically, intercourse, that’s what it was about. But to be limited to space agencies and the Air Force meant that I had to dig more, and bang my head against the wall more, and it was harder for me. I think this was the hardest book to do.
AVC: Some of that banging your head against the wall makes it into the book as narrative—the way you were stonewalled, or the information you couldn’t get.
MR: Right. NASA sort of becomes a character.
AVC: Actually, NASA is a charming character.
MR: Although not always. [Laughs.] But yeah, they were. To me, NASA is kind of the magical kingdom. I was sort of a geek, and you go there, and there are just these wonderously strange things and people. And engineers—I’ve not spent a lot of time around engineers, they’re really kind of great. But they are so focused. Like the guy, the engineer who comes up with the fecal simulation; this is his job, and he takes it really seriously. That dynamic of “This is my job and I take it very seriously when the rest of the world goes to sleep.” And I love that dynamic. So it did provide me with material to write about.
AVC: One of the central themes of the book is “These are minute details that have to be taken really seriously and have a lot of money spent on them.”
MR: Yeah, there was actually a news story at some point about a $5,000 toilet seat. Somebody thought it was some contractor getting money, or ripping off the government. But when you start to look at what’s involved in low-gravity elimination, specifically the seat… Like the seat that I saw had been specifically designed to be a “cheek spreader.” To facilitate good separation, to cut down on surface tension between the shit and the buttocks. And the fact that somebody designed that, and a lot of meetings went into that, you know; it wasn’t just somebody figuring, “Nobody’ll notice if I stick another $5,000 in the overhead of the contract.” It was actually money being spent to figure something out. That was pretty amazing.
AVC: There’s an aspect of this NASA character that we’re already familiar with in popular culture; we’ve seen it in The Right Stuff and For All Mankind and NASA TV. How would you describe that culture and tone?
MR: Well, the tone of NASA TV is that kind of removed, impassionate… [Does robotic voice impression.] “The astronauts will be entering the pre-sleep phase, 3:57 p.m., followed by a move to the sleep phase, 4:57.” And, you know, that kind of almost caricature of NASA, that comes across—that’s why I love NASA TV. That “Ma’am, this is just our job, ma’am. There’s nothing really… the fact that they’re floating across the room, literally soaring through space at 75,000 miles per hour, it’s just space work, ma’am. Nothing to get excited about.” That kind of engineer, calm, white-short-sleeve-wearing, white-collar, dependable, underpaid, civil-service mentality… It is a caricature, and you can certainly find people there like that. But I was struck, not just within the organization, by how different people are, but the various flavors. Like NASA Ames—those are just terrifically cool, kind of laid-back California engineers. It’s a completely different culture from Johnson Space Center, and I’m sure from Kennedy or Marshall. There isn’t one NASA, there’s thousands of NASAs. Every department has its own kind of flavor. The Johnson Space Center was where I spent most of my time. Even there, John Charles and the toilet guys, they were just completely—whatever I’d ask, they’d answer, and they had a good sense of humor. So the more you dig, the more you realize that the stereotypes are sort of silly.
AVC: You also spent some time with cosmonauts. And they come off very differently.
MR: They’re retired, for one thing. And a couple of the astronauts were retired,. Like, Roger Crouch was the one who told me about using farts to propel yourself across the deck, and about duct tape, and how that would help in sex. He was pretty forthcoming. I think it’s more “retired” vs. “active.” If you’re an active astronaut, you’re on the front lines of publicity and image-making—they’re very, very careful. But I think only a cosmonaut would say that fabulous line: “I was so depressed, I wanted to hang myself. But of course there’s no gravity, so it won’t work.” That, to me, was a very Russian thing to say.
AVC: You started doing some posts for Boing Boing recently. How did that happen, and what are you trying to do with that format?
MR: That was just a result of my publicist knowing that I’m a big fan of Boing Boing. My publicist suggested it, and I knew [The Year Of Living Biblically author] A.J. Jacobs had been a guest blogger, and I said I’d love to be a guest blogger, and my publicity person told somebody at Boing Boing. It’s a combination of me going “Cooool!” and a good way of letting my kind of audience know that I have a new book out.
AVC: One post is about centrifuges that might be used to facilitate birth, and you reproduce some of the patent drawings for that apparatus, and get a comment about whether it would work in space.
MR: That’s not actually in the book, the centrifuge. There are centrifuges in the book, and there is a woman who studied pregnancies in space in rodents, but somebody sent me that after the book was done. I didn’t want to take stuff from the book, because it felt too shamelessly self-promotional. I’m taking extras, things that didn’t make it in the book. I didn’t want to duplicate things that I’ve already written about. This is one of those things where, “Crap, I would have loved to put that in the book, but I got it too late.” I’m writing about things that are space-related but aren’t in the book.
AVC: You’re around engineers in this book, whereas before it’s been more research scientists.
MR: Yeah, biomedicine.
AVC: Why are you drawn to the culture of science and problem-solving and research?
MR: I guess it’s because it enables me to do two things I like to do. One is explaining cool things to people who might not know about them, and sort of be an ambassador to these strange subcultures for the reader, which I think readers like. And also, for some reason, I just find it endlessly surreal, and it affords a kind of humor that isn’t stand up-comic-y, or isn’t generally at someone’s expense. It’s just the juxtaposition… like sex, something intimate and loving and beautiful, and then physiology, so you’ve got to bring it into the lab and dissect it, which means human beings have to come into the lab and take their clothes off and be wired up. There are just things going on in a lab that you don’t expect to be happening in a lab. Or things happening to the human body that don’t normally happen.
AVC: Do you think of yourself as a science writer?
MR: I’m uncomfortable with that title a little bit, because I read science writers, Carl Zimmer and Stephen Jay Gould, true science writers, who have the background and are really really smart. I’m sort of a science goober. I’m not that sort of a writer. I write about science, but I am uncomfortable with being included in the big category with the people who normally wear that hat.
AVC: Do you think of yourself as a surrogate for your audience, in that you’re able to ask questions and get the kind of answers that you think the people who read your books would ask if they had the chance?
MR: Yes. It’s an advantage in that I’m a lot closer in terms of my level of expertise. I’m starting out, anyway, at the exact same level as my reader, and I don’t progress that much further. I’m never entering into a realm that would be hard to explain to the reader, because then I’d be over my head, too. You won’t see me writing about particle physics, or even planetary geology, or chemistry. I practically failed chemistry, and if I had to write a book in any of those areas, I don’t think it would go well. But yes, to your point, I have naturally a broader audience, I think, because I’m closer to the average person’s level of expertise and knowledge in these areas. So I’m rarely going over somebody’s head. Some of the best science writers, their work is wonderful, but it’s a challenge to read for somebody who doesn’t have the background. They’re not often a quick read. My books are often quick reads, which is not something you could often say about a real science writer.
AVC: You’ve carved out a fairly specific niche for yourself. Who do you model yourself after?
MR: I very much was inspired by Bill Bryson. He does cover science, but more often, it’s a mixture of science and travel, and whatever he happens to be writing about—Shakespeare, Australia, the United Kingdom, or when he covers science in A Short History Of Nearly Everything—he has an incredible ability to be both entertaining and enlightening. It’s just seamless. It’s not like he explains things for a while, then goes back to being funny. It’s all one. I have a little tradition. Every time a book comes out, I find out where he is and I ship off a book, and I spend an hour writing a pithy little witty note. I’ve done it for all four books, and he’s never blurbed one. He might still write back a lovely note, in calligraphy, very witty, but he never does a blurb. I would say he’s the author that most inspired me.
AVC: You also have a participatory element to what you do. You’re always volunteering to have sex in an MRI, or go up on parabolic flights. Do you think of yourself in the tradition of New Journalism folks like George Plimpton?
MR: Sure. I do it probably for the same reason they do, because they know that it’s fun for people to read. In a way, some of these things, I think, are the signs of a less-capable writer. But if I don’t do that, if I don’t go on the scene, if I don’t describe things, or occasionally get involved myself, it’s harder to make the book entertaining. It is a crutch, in a way, to write about science, and do it in first person. For me, anyway, it makes it easier to keep the reader engaged, and create a narrative structure in the chapter wherever you can, and shoehorn the facts in so it’s not too overwhelming for the reader. I’m not proud of it! [Laughs.]
AVC: But on the plus side, it’s that audience-surrogate position: “I have access, so I’m going to get to do these things I assume you would want to do if you could.”
MR: Well, in Bonk—I actually volunteered to have sex in an ultrasound device—I was very aware of being called a stunt journalist, that it was stunt journalism, that it was a cheap shot or whatever. But in that case, it was because I couldn’t talk to the people who had been in the Masters and Johnson study, the ones where they were actually having to go through the whole human sexual response cycle, all the way through orgasm, while people were filming and watching them. And I couldn’t speak with them, but I wanted to know: What in God’s name is that like? How awkward is that? And the only way to really answer the question at that point was to do it myself. I couldn’t be in the room with another couple, that would be—what researcher would allow that? Although I tried… So I really didn’t feel like the book would be complete without giving some sense of what that experience was like. That was really the core of the book: the awkwardness of sex and science, how do you study that.
AVC: If you asked people what parts of space flight they really want to know about, they’ll ask about going to the bathroom, and sex. And you spend plenty of time on that in your book. What kind of research did you feature in the book that you think might be surprising to people?
MR: I don’t think people are aware of how completely the whole astronaut experience has changed since the Right Stuff era. I think people either saw the film or they read the book, The Right Stuff, and then they kind of checked out of the space program. And it went through this 180-degree shift. Now some of the recommended astronaut attributes are like, “ability to form stable, quality interpersonal relationships.” They’re looking for people who play well with others; they’re not looking for a bunch of swaggerers. So the whole notion of who is an astronaut and how astronauts are chosen has completely changed. And the psychological issues, too. I don’t think people give a lot of thought to that. And just the incredible lengths to which you have to go, the degree to which things must be simulated on Earth, and thought through. Even if you think it through and you “what if” it, and you come up with contingencies and you take spare parts, they end up being undone by some little thing that you just forgot. Like the whole business with carbonation—Coke spending $450,000 to come up with a carbonated beverage dispenser, getting it to work, finally flying it, and then realizing, “Oh, guess what? You can’t get that gas out of the stomach. It doesn’t float to the top of the stomach. You can’t burp.” So even being undone by something like “You can’t burp in space!” Just how crazily complex everything gets, and the number of people involved, and the elaborateness of the simulations—that whole business with planting the flag, I don’t think people have any idea about that. What’s going on on the ground, I found, was as interesting as what was going on in the space station.
AVC: There’s always humor in your books, but here, there’s some seriousness underneath it. You end with a sort of plea for us to continue the space program.
MR: What I don’t think people realize about the space program is that every single program was preparation for the next. Mercury was just to get someone up there; Gemini was the dress rehearsal for the moon shot, Apollo. Then we move into the International Space Station, which has been a 10-year exercise in international global cooperation in space. The whole point of it is getting ready to go onward to Mars, looking at what happens to the body after six months in space and zero gravity, what kind of countermeasures can you take. To stop now, when everything has built up to this point, when Mars has been where we’re going for so long, just feels so sad to me. And the reasons—“Well, it’s so expensive.” Well, you make it a global effort, you get everybody involved. And besides, if you cut the money there, it isn’t necessarily available for education. I didn’t start the book as an advocate of space exploration, but I think I ended up there, although I do see the argument that this is a lot of money to be spending. I think that in my lifetime, I probably won’t see it happen. But even now, you look at the moon and we got people up there, how cool is that? It’s sort of man at his best. I forget how I describe it in the end, but it’s impractical outlays of large sums of money for no real purpose—isn’t that sort of noble and cool?