This Bestselling Author Writes About Sex, Dead Bodies and the Esophagus
|Mary Roach at the Natural History Museum|
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament
When organizers of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum's First Fridays series asked the public what sorts of programming it wanted to see, people overwhelmingly said that they wanted (a) sex, and (b) science author Mary Roach. Oddly enough, organizers found they could kill two birds with one stone.
So, on a rainy Friday evening in February, Roach, having just flown in from her home in the Bay Area, is sitting in the Hall of North American Mammals, waiting to talk about her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. As sound techs fiddle with microphones, Roach looks around and declares the stuffed badger to be "fabulous."
People who love dioramas and museums and dark stormy nights also love Roach for her deeply, and humorously, reported stories about bizarre subjects. Roach is the kind of person who will figure out exactly how much food it takes to make a stomach burst. She is the kind of writer who will eat boiled rodent knees with a blow dart–wielding tribe in the Amazon, just to tell the tale.
"You really have to choose carefully," she says. "If you're not interested in something for 2½ years of your life, it's gonna show in your book. You have to ask, will your readers read 300 pages of it?"
So far, they have. Each of Roach's past four books has been a New York Times best-seller. Her first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, grew out of a series of pieces she wrote for Salon.com. Her agent, she says, "thought it sounded like a topic that would be surprising, that hadn't been covered before and that people would be fascinated by." And if Roach and her agent are excited, so is her editor, "though she's usually left scratching her head."
Bonk, Roach's third book, was a particularly easy sell. "So," Roach said. "Sex labs, sex research. What about that?" Done, and done. Her agent and editor were immediately on board.
Granted, Roach isn't really one for false starts. She has a good sense of what works for her. She needs to be able to do some on-scene reporting. She needs a little bit of humor and some interesting history to dig into. Grossness? A plus.
She is ruthless with the wrong ideas. "People have said, 'Oh, you should write about sleep.' But that's, you know, I'm gonna go to the research facility and there's gonna be a person sleeping. And, um ... there's not a lot you can do with that for 15 chapters."
Or drugs. "Somebody said, 'How about drugs?' But then that's an internal state. So other than taking them and describing it ..." she says, letting the thought trail off with a shrug. "Hearing someone describe their internal state, it's not the same as describing people doing things in a lab."
Stylistically, she is a first-person kind of writer. It is, she says, "more fun" to write in first person, to figuratively walk alongside the reader and go, "This is weird for me, too."
Certain scenes demand a first-person approach. Take, for example, the scene in medical physicist Dr. Jing Deng's lab, which appears in Bonk. Deng was looking for couples who were willing to let him scan their genitals with a 3-D ultrasound imaging machine while they had sex. Roach volunteered. "My poor husband. I will never be able to pay him back."
The idea for Bonk came while she was reading Film Quarterly, of all things. "I came across a brief reference to films Masters and Johnson had made with a device called a penis camera. I read that one sentence and thought, 'Whaahaa? Really? OK. Laboratory-based sex research. That's my next book.' Because it's so delightfully awkward."
Up next: her new work