Interviewed for Book Passage (April 2011)
Zack Ruskin: You have a real knack for finding people related to the subject you’re writing about. I love that these people tend to not only be experts in their fields but also somewhat eccentric in one way or another. Do you make a conscious effort to focus on the more unique people you come across, or does the nature of the research simply provide them in abundance?
Mary Roach: If I have the luxury of picking from among two or more people with similar expertise, then, sure, I’ll opt for the more interesting or eccentric person. But sometimes people are interesting because they are so serious or straight-laced or caught up in their little sliver of the world. Sometimes seriousness is a kind of eccentricity that can be more interesting than the more stereotyped variety.
ZR: I’ve made the mistake often enough not to ask you which of your books is your favorite, but would you perhaps be willing to single out which part of Packing for Mars was the most fun to work on? My money is on the zero-gravity flight.
MR: The zero g flight was the most fun part of the research for Packing for Mars, absolutely. I so badly want to do it again. My favorite chapter to write, though, was the toilet chapter. It turned out to be much more than potty humor. Really drove home the extent to which we depend on gravity for everything, how taking it away creates huge engineering challenges and physiological conundrums and morale issues. For instance, how do you test a zero g toilet? You’ve got to haul it over to Ellington Field and put it on a zero-gravity flight, and then you’ve got to find some poor volunteer to try to take a crap, on demand, in a 20-second time span (that’s how long each round of zero g lasts). Doesn’t work. And that’s why NASA employs a fecal simulant engineer.
ZR: While I loved all of Packing for Mars, I was especially drawn to the plight of Ham and Enos, the astrochimps. What do you think makes them such endearing figures for the great space race?
MR: They were animals wearing little outfits specially made for them. It is almost impossible for a human being not to find this endearing. Also: chimps! Who can resist? Enos wasn’t especially cute, but he had the underdog thing going for him. Like the three-legged dog at the pound – you know someone’s going to adopt that dog the first day he’s brought in.
Also, since chimps are so intelligent and human-looking, we get caught up in the notion of these little innocent naive almost-humans being sent up all alone into the infinite cosmos. It’s a heart-string-tugger.
ZR: Of all the unappetizing concoctions hoisted upon astronauts for in-space dining, which one ranks in your mind as the worst?
MR: The Mercury era tubed food was pretty scary. Partly because you can’t see or smell it before you taste it. I tried some tubed sloppy joe (fighter pilots still use tubed food). Because of the small opening of the tube, it is more like sloppy joe sauce, or puree. This is not a satisfying meal. You want some joe in there, you know? I could not bring myself to try the pureed, tubed chicken a la king. It’s basically baby food. Those guys were suckling baby food up there.
ZR: The subjects you’ve chosen to write about, like cadavers and science’s efforts to prove the afterlife, have very specific focal points. Among the titles you have published, are there any abandoned subjects you couldn’t make a book out of? On the same note, how do you finally decide you’ve found a topic worth dedicating yourself to? Does a magic 8-ball come in to play?
MR: It is the hardest part of what I do. It’s a massive process of elimination. Most things won’t work for me. Can’t be abstract, can’t be purely historical. Has to have an element of fun…
ZR: Can you describe the process you go through to produce the brilliant pictures that accompany each chapter of all of your books? Any one picture you’re most proud of?
MR: Most of those are from huge online photo archives like Corbis and Getty. Corbis has a particularly great search tool. You can plug in, say, “skeleton” and “funny.” That’s how I found the photo in the front of Stiff. (You pay for a one-time use. The NASA archives shots are free.) The photo search is a collaborative effort—by me and curator Deirdre O’Dwyer, who used to work at WW Norton. It is one of the most fun parts of doing these books. I always look forward to it.
Proud of: the old black and white shot of women wearing fertilizer bags, for the human compost chapter in Stiff. How the hell did I find that?
ZR: For those of us who’ve already greedily devoured all of your books and impatiently await your next, can you recommend some titles to tide us over?
MR: I just discovered a couple of writers I really like while doing a guest-editor gig for next year’s Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. Christopher Ketcham and Jill Sisson Quinn. Also very much looking forward to Jon Mooallem’s book, which grew out of a piece on gay animal pairings for the NYT Magazine. Also on the animal circuit – Susan Orlean. Hers will be out in a matter of months. Adore her writing. Bill Bryson’s At Home is fabulous. Also liked Poorly Made in China, about the surreal world of cheap goods manufacturing. Set in Guangdong province. By a guy who worked as a go-between. The Fruit Hunters and Rag and Bone are two lesser known nonfiction works that I loved.
ZR: I’ve told you this before, but you’re like the high school science teacher I wish I’d had. It’s an academic subject with a lot of stigma attached to it. Some people are naturally great at it, but others (like me) equate understanding it with deciphering hieroglyphics. What can be done to make science more accessible?
MR: I have the luxury of picking and choosing the goofy or gross or really fascinating bits. If you really need to teach someone biology or chemistry or what have you, you can’t skip the boring parts like I do. You’ve got to cover it systematically, and in a certain order. Formulas are bound to crop up. Equations. Covalent bonding and such. You try making that shit fun. My books are interesting and funny precisely because I don’t have to cover the grindy stuff. That said, my high school physics teacher managed to make vectors and acceleration interesting and even fun. It can be done.
ZR: Do you ever keep any mementos from your research, like a toe tag or a vial of rocket fuel?
MR: I have a jar of lunar regolith simulant (fake moondust). I have a snapshot of me on the Shuttle training toilet. I do not have a NASA fecal bag, though I tried to cadge one from the toilet guys. The bags are still made and carried on board as backup in case the toilets are out of order. (They apparently cost like $300 each.)
From the Stiff era, I have an eye cap from the SF College of Mortuary Science and a human finger bone. A very few Bonk-related items: a four-color poster outlining the Danish five-point sow stimulation plan, a Feminine Personal Trainer (for vaginal weightlifting). Quite sleek and handsome. I use it as a paperweight.
ZR: My co-workers will kill me if I don’t ask when we might get a hint about the topic of your next book. They’d like to remind you they aren’t above bribes.
MR: Okey doke, some hints. It contains the word “bolus.” Gorillas, eskimos, pythons, circus sideshow acts, and World War II, are all in there.
This interview appeared on the Book Passage blog on April 1, 2011.