What Are You Like?
Mary Roach

Mary Roach. Photo: David Paul Morris.

By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
August / September 2013

An acclaimed, adventurous and hilarious science writer known for her fearless, approachable style and delightful footnotes, Mary Roach is the author of such best-selling and award-winning books as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010). Her latest work is Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, which explores what happens along the whole length of the digestive tract, from the production of saliva to the bitter (and fascinating) end. Every step of the way, Roach introduces readers to a new expert or enlightening experience – from competitive eaters to a pet food taste test.

She has contributed to Outside magazine, Nature, Scientific American, The New York Times Magazine, and was a regular columnist for Salon.com. Previously, she was a PR rep for the San Francisco Zoo, working out of a trailer office next to Gorilla World.

Roach’s Irish ancestry lies in her father’s side of the family. He grew up in a tiny row house on Wood St. in Widnes, a factory town that employed a lot of Irish laborers, including her grandfather and some of her uncles (all of whom stayed in the U.K.). Had her father stayed, his schooling would have stopped at the 8th grade level. Instead, he immigrated to the U.S., got his high school equivalency, a bachelor’s degree and, at age 40, a master’s, and taught speech and drama at Dartmouth.

Mary grew up in nearby Etna, New Hampshire. She now lives in Oakland, California with her husband, Ed Rachles.

After writing Gulp, did any of your own habits change?
Yes, I became a dreadful dinner partner, nattering on about bolus formation and nasal regurgitation and such.

How do you figure out such interesting ways (for you and your readers) of approaching what you want to know?
I write with a sense of my future readers being ever on the verge of setting down the book and pronouncing it a bore. Fear and insecurity are great motivators.

Why do you use your own body for your research?
Because no one else will let me use theirs. When I was working on Bonk, part of which dealt with sex labs, I had a hard time getting access to these places. Frequently the only option would be to volunteer myself. There are only so many times you can do that before you begin to seem like a questionable sort of individual. At one point I leaned on my editor to be a subject in an orgasm study at Rutgers University. She thought about that for a moment, and then she said, “Mary, I’ll ask one of the interns.”

What makes you squeamish?
Okra snot – that mucilaginous filament that stretches up from the gumbo to the bottom of your spoon.

What do you do for your health/fitness?
Promise, procrastinate, pray.

How do your footnotes develop?
Via writerly self-indulgence. My footnotes are stuff that has no place in the tidy flow of the narrative but is too delightful to leave out.

What do you know about your Irish heritage?
My father’s grandfather lived in Ireland in a thatch-roof village house. I have a photograph of him standing out in front of it, but know nothing else about him.

In the Irish tradition, my father enjoyed an extended bachelorhood. He married in his 50s – was 65 when I came along. He had immigrated to the U.S. in 1915, age 21, aboard the Lusitania – a story my brother never believed until I tracked down the ship’s log in the National Archives. He was a gifted storyteller and artist, a lover of theater and travel and bantering with strangers. I have loads of first cousins in the UK, some of whom I am close with, and many second-cousins in Ireland, though I have never, alas, met them.

What was your first job?
When I was 16, I had a job on the cleaning crew at a local hospital. I wore a pink uniform and cleaned bathrooms and buffed the hallway linoleum. Oddly, I don’t recall hating the job. I recall getting choked up at the end of the summer when I went to turn in my uniform and say goodbye to the ladies.

Do you strike up conversations on long plane journeys?
Always. That could be your next book, sitting in the seat to your left, leafing through SkyMall. You do need an exit strategy, however.

What is on your bedside table?
Honest to crap, a book of short stories entitled Irish Girl. By Tim Johnston. Dark, but amazing.

What is your most prized possession?
A tiny welded metal cube. It was a gift from my husband. Years ago, we had a running joke about a sign across the street from where we grocery-shopped: “SHEET METAL BOXES. NO JOB TOO SMALL.” Of course they didn’t mean the size of the box; they meant that they’d do small runs, accommodate small orders, but we liked to imagine going in and asking for a half-inch-square box. And when they’d say they couldn’t possibly make one that small, we’d lead them out to the sidewalk and point to the sign.  One day Ed went in and told them about our dumb little joke, and they happily welded the smallest metal box they could manage. “What’s in it?” people ask. And I think, “love.”

Where do you go to think?
I used to do my best thinking while staring out airplane windows. The seat-back video system put a stop to that. Now I sit and watch old Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond episodes. Walking is good, but here again, technology has interfered. I like to listen to iTunes while I walk home. I guess I don’t think anymore.

What quality do you seek in friends?
The ability to collapse into uncontrollable laughter over some shared silliness.

Best opening line in a book or piece of music?
I can’t think of a first line, but I’ll give you a last line that I like. It’s by Donovan, from “Lay of the Last Tinker.” It comes right after “You have a muzzled dancing monkey.”  Here it is:  “A little cup in a hairy hand.”

Movie you will watch again and again?
Fargo. Spinal Tap. La Jette. Blow Up.

Your greatest fear?
My husband has a fear of death, of not existing. I don’t fear death so much as I fear its prologues: loneliness, decrepitude, pain, debilitation, depression, senility. After a few years of those, I imagine death presents like a holiday at the beach.

Your most embarrassing moment?
Fifth grade. Gym class. The class has just begun, all of us gathered in a circle in the center of the gym,  dressed in our cotton one-piece sleeveless gym suits, listening to Miss Merriman. During a pause in the proceedings, Mary Jane Pierce points to the pubic region of my gym suit. “What’s that?” she asks, not softly. Someone has drawn there a curlicue mass of pubic hair.

Your favorite place?
Somewhere on the Pacific Coast in the late afternoon, sun glittering on the water. Also: a wood booth in an old restaurant, with good friends.

Favorite sound?
The clicking noise when you peddle backward on a bicycle.

Favorite smell?
Take your pick:  jasmine, lilac, lily of the valley, cocoa butter, gin, freshly ground coffee, the back of Ed’s neck when he first wakes up.

Favorite drink?
Gin martini, very dry, very cold, with a twist, served in my dad’s old martini glass.

Favorite quote?
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhaustive struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”  – George Orwell

Best advice ever received?
A saying on a Salada tea bag: “The world is full of cactus, but we don’t have to sit on it.”  My mother handed it to me one day, without comment. Runner-up: a fortune cookie fortune that I got around the time I was considering writing my first book proposal. It said, “Try something new.”

Best advice ever given?
“Don’t send it.”

What trait do you most deplore in others?
Narcissism. Entitlement. The belief that you – your time, your opinion, your preferences – matter more. As Ann Landers said, “Nobody better, better than nobody.”

In yourself?
I have a tendency to shove the lawn mower. That’s a reference to an old joke: Guy goes to borrow a neighbor’s lawn mower. On the way over, he’s muttering to himself, “Bet he won’t let me borrow it, he doesn’t trust me, never did, thinks I can’t run a lawn mower without breaking something, thinks I’m some kind of idiot…” The neighbor opens the door, all smiles, and the guy yells, “You can take your frickin’ lawn mower and shove it up your ass!”

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