Ep. 29: Mary Roach on Disgust, Death, and Danger
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Legal writing was never Mary Roach’s thing. She describes that short-lived stint as an inscrutable “bringing forth of multisyllabic words.” Instead, she’s forged a career by letting curiosity lead the way. The result has been a series of successful books — Grunt, Gulp, Spook, Stiff, and Bonk among them— that all reveal her specific sense of nonsensibility (and love for monosyllabic titles).
She joins Tyler for a conversation covering the full range of her curiosity, including fear, acclimating to grossness, chatting with the dead, freezing one’s head, why bedpans can kill you, sex robots, Freud, thinking like an astronaut, the proper way to eat a fry, and why there’s a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.
Listen to the full conversation
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: There’s one of your talks where you describe a common theme of your books, that they’re all about something anatomical and vaguely gross. When you write these books, how long does it take you to get used to the aspects of your topics that are gross?
MARY ROACH: I’m thinking it’s somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.
ROACH: I don’t want to adjust too quickly, actually, because something happens when you dive into a topic, and you start out with the sense of wonder and hesitation and curiosity, and it’s all very electric and fresh.
Then after a couple of years, “Yeah, gastrocolic reflex . . . boring.” You start to become like the researchers for whom it’s day to day, and I don’t want things to be day to day. So I actually like to slow down that, or I’d like if I could to slow down that process of feeling comfortable.
COWEN: In your book Gulp, which is about the mechanics of eating, you draw a distinction between stimulated and unstimulated saliva. When you hear that, does it strike you at all as odd? Or it’s like “Oh of course, here’s my unstimulated saliva coming up.”
ROACH: Well right now, yes. I need more unstimulated saliva right now because otherwise you can get those horrible mouth sounds that radio people hate. But that’s the kind of thing I get very excited about, the fact that there are two different kinds. Not only are there two different kinds of saliva, but there’s two different ways of collecting it, so that’s kind of exciting for me — we don’t have to go into that.
The fact that there is stimulated saliva, just chewing — it doesn’t matter what you chew. Your mouth is like, “Well whatever it is that you’ve got in there, I’m going to help you get it down.” So if you’re actually chewing on, essentially it’s like a tampon, and you chew on that, and your body, your mouth confusedly generates saliva to help you swallow that tampon — unused. Unused.
ROACH: Anyway, I’m not sure exactly what you wanted me to say about stimulated versus unstimulated saliva, but I’m off and running, obviously.
On Freud and disgust
COWEN: Arguably it was Freud’s view that disgust is there to act as a kind of barrier to satisfying unconscious desire. Do you agree?
ROACH: Wow, I never really brought Freud into that chapter. That’s interesting. I always discussed the things that are disgusting or often stinky, smelly, dangerous, bacteria-laden things. So it makes evolutionary sense that we would want to push it away.
Tell me again, what did Freud say?
COWEN: One way of reading Freud is that we have these unconscious desires to do things, and we want them very badly. But we’re not quite aware that we want them, and we repress ourselves by erecting obstacles to doing those things, and one of the ways we do that is by having evolved the sense of disgust.
So what disgusts us is, in some way, connected to what we deeply desire, which we’re somewhat unaware of.
ROACH: Right, right. So you’re talking about taboos like incest and things like that, right?
COWEN: But also stimulated and unstimulated saliva and other, perhaps . . .
ROACH: Uh-huh, yeah. Other. Right. Gross, yeah.
COWEN: Facts about dead bodies, facts about sex . . .
ROACH: Right. Dead bodies. OK, yeah.
ROACH: Sure, that’s an interesting theory.
What I found interesting about the things that disgust us, whether it’s saliva or urine or whatever, it is to me interesting that we draw this line: When it’s inside of us, we don’t have a problem with it, but as soon as it leaves the body, even if it’s our own saliva, it becomes disgusting. And you can map the boundaries of the self. If there’s saliva on your tongue and you stick your tongue outside the body, is it gross still? You can map the boundaries.
Paul Rozin writes a lot about disgust. And I believe he talked about that, but you extend those boundaries to include your loved ones. You’re not disgusted by your child’s diapers, you’re not disgusted by your lover’s saliva, so you’ve extended the boundary of the self to include these people very close to you. So I found bodily fluids interesting in that way.
COWEN: It is striking that two of your main topics, food and sex, are areas that are some of our deepest, strongest desires and they’re areas where disgust is quite prevalent.
COWEN: That’s getting, I think, at Freud’s point.
As a writer, how would you think about — writer and researcher, interviewer — how would you describe what is your special talent?
ROACH: “My Special Talent” by Mary Roach.
ROACH: I think that I don’t have any — it isn’t a talent, it may be a character flaw — I don’t have a lot of hesitation or self-censoring when it comes to asking questions. I’m just balls out with my curiosity.
ROACH: It is never uncomfortable. People sometimes say, “The questions that you ask people, is it an awkward interview? When you went to Avenal State Prison for the rectum chapter of Gulp, and you, talking to this convicted murderer about using his rectum to smuggle cellphones and other things, was that not a very awkward conversation to have?”
A little bit, but then you have to keep in mind, this is somebody for whom hooping, as it’s called, is . . . everybody does it. It’s just something that you do; it’s everyday to him. Like for a sex researcher, talking about orgasm is like talking about tire rotation for a car mechanic.
ROACH: It’s not like, “Ooh, you just made me uncomfortable, asking me about orgasm.”
It isn’t really a talent. Secretly, it’s nothing. I don’t know if that’s my special . . . Well, I don’t know. I guess that’s what I’m going to go with. [laughs]
On chatting with the dead and freezing one’s head
COWEN: To do a whirlwind tour of some of your books, you have a book on corpses. If you could chat with the dead, what would you ask them?
ROACH: Oh, if I could chat with the dead. Are we assuming the personality or the body?
COWEN: Well, both.
ROACH: The corpse?
COWEN: The corpse.
ROACH: Oh, is this a research corpse or . . .
COWEN: It’s a research corpse.
ROACH: It’s a research corpse.
ROACH: OK. I’m just defining our parameters here. If you could talk with a research corpse — OK, I know what I would ask it.
As somebody who wrote this book, Stiff, about medical cadaveric research, it kind of behooves me to donate myself, and yet, I still trip over that image. Instead of having the image of my husband, tears coming down, scattering ashes over the Pacific, which is quite lovely and romantic, I have first-year medical students eating a sandwich and looking at, “Girls, look at her skin here. It’s really . . .” You know that.
So what I’d say to the cadaver is, “Is this embarrassing for you? Are you OK with this? Are they treating you respectfully? Do you wish you had some clothes on?” [laughs]
COWEN: One of my friends, Robin Hanson, is always trying to talk me into having my head frozen, either before I die —
COWEN: — when I’m dying, after I die —
COWEN: — depends on your view of death. And he says the amount of money I would have to spend on this, it might be a small chance of being revived in the distant future, but I have no better way to spend the money. Does this argument convince you or does it disgust you?
ROACH: [laughs] To be just a head.
COWEN: Just a head.
ROACH: Yeah, just a head.
COWEN: But with a chance of resurrection.
ROACH: Yeah, Jack, good luck with that. No.
ROACH: No. Because first of all, they’ve got to solve the whole freezing-thawing and that’s going to destroy the cells. Right now, what can they do? One layer of cells, freeze and thaw, right? Your basic sperm and egg . . .
ROACH: You got that freeze-thaw, but a whole head, I just don’t see that coming anytime soon. And then to reattach, and then the spark, how are they going to . . . ? It’s not like you pull the cord on the lawnmower and rev the thing up again. I’m not sure.
You know what else? You know what’s interesting about cryogenics . . . cryonics . . .
ROACH: I never know if it’s cryogenics or cryonics. A lot of interesting legal issues because those people who’ve done that believe they’re coming back. They feel like they’re in suspension and they’re not dead, and that one day, they will be back, and they’re going to need their cash to live. So their heirs, their estates, like, “This is my money,” but legally, they’re saying they’re not dead.
COWEN: The power of compound interest, right?
ROACH: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. [laughs] Who gets that money?
On life after death experiences
COWEN: Why do only 18 percent of people who are in the position to have a life-after-death experience actually have one? What’s your view on that?
ROACH: The trouble seems to be remembering the near-death experience.
COWEN: You think most people or all people have it, but not all remember it?
ROACH: I don’t know whether most people do, but I know for sure that most people forget everything that happens in the OR now because of the . . . Versed is one of the drugs that’s used, and people are coming out of surgery — it’s very, very rare now that anybody said, “Darndest thing, I was floating up above and . . .” They just don’t remember anything.
My favorite study from Spook, my second book, was a University of Virginia psychologist who studies near-death experience, had this idea, because near-death people who’ve had a near-death experience often report floating in the operating room, looking down onto their body on the operating table. So in this, specifically, an operating room where they put in defibrillators, which they then test by flat-lining you, and then making sure the defibrillator will —
ROACH: Hope that works. They put a laptop computer, open, up on top of one of the banks of lamps with a randomly generated simple image, so that if the person travelled up there, left the body, and looked down, not only would they see their body, but they would notice, “Huh, that’s peculiar. There’s a laptop computer here with a flower,” or whatever it is.
Then, when they came out of surgery, they routinely interviewed people, “Did you remember anything about your experience?” And they gave up because nobody remembered anything.
COWEN: Why are bedpans dangerous?
ROACH: Well, funny you should ask. Bedpans are dangerous . . . OK, this is going to bring us to defecation, and it’s your fault.
COWEN: That’s OK.
COWEN: And Jonathan Swift.
ROACH: All right, if you’re using a bedpan, you’re lying flat, and that’s not a natural and facilitative position for defecation. Squatting would be great. Toilet, pretty good. Lying down, not good. You’re going to have to push harder, and if you are in the ICU, if you’re a heart patient, you are at risk of defecation-induced sudden death.
COWEN: How did Elvis die?
ROACH: Defecation-induced sudden death.
COWEN: That’s what I thought.
ROACH: Pushing too hard. Don’t push too hard, people. No, you can induce an arrhythmia that can be fatal. This is why they put heart patients in the ICU on stool softeners. This is why, so you don’t have to push so hard.
This is a first for your show, isn’t it?
ROACH: Defecation-induced sudden death. That doesn’t come up with Atul Gawande. Well maybe Atul Gawande, possibly.
On biases toward death and the dead
COWEN: The economist Adam Smith in the 18th century, he actually had a view on some of these issues following Lucretius. He thought that we, sympathetically or mentally or emotionally, we associated ourselves too much with dead corpses. And we felt sorry for them, and this was a kind of defect of the sympathetic or empathetic imagination, and that we would go through life feeling sorry for all kinds of situations that actually were fully neutral.
What do you see as some of the biases we have in terms of how we think about the dead and death?
ROACH: Well, we have a tendency — because dead people look very much like live people — there’s a tendency to project the emotions that we had previously with somebody that you know who has died. It’s a tendency to treat them as though they’re still people and to accord them the same sort of courtesies and respect.
This is problematic for people who do cadaver research because there’s a tendency to say that to cut this person open, and to take their pancreas and do one thing, and send their arm over to the automotive safety lab, and take their brain over here to put them in pieces like that, and to do these sort of seemingly brutal things is disrespectful.
It would be disrespectful if the person were alive. Well, it would be criminal; it would be actionable. But they’re dead; they aren’t the person anymore. And as a cadaver, they have this wonderful superpower, and that they don’t feel anything. And so, you can use them to get answers that you couldn’t in any other way because you don’t want to do that to a live person.
So we trip over this fact that “they look like people,” which is why frequently the face is covered, the hands are covered. Even in surgical practice labs, there’s a lingering tendency to depersonalize and dehumanize the body.
COWEN: I’m a fan of the Zoroastrian practice in Mumbai of having my dead corpse carried away by birds in pieces. If I could have my wish at zero cost, I think that’s what I would opt for.
But let me give you a general sense I get when reading a lot of your work, and you tell me if there’s anything to it. I think of a lot of the books, in a funny way, as a kind of response to actually Catholic philosophy, this notion of the incorruptibility of the body.
It’s in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology. There’s a notion that relics of saints, they don’t corrupt — or you can revisit and it will still be intact in some manner. And that you’re writing a kind of scientific polemic against that, giving us some different conception of the body, coming out of a response to Catholicism. Is that at all in what you’re doing?
ROACH: Not consciously, but my mother was a very . . . not strict, but very Catholic. My mother was very Catholic, and I went to mass. I had to go all the way through high school, so I was definitely steeped in that.
It wasn’t that I decided to take on the church in any way or incorruptibility. I have a personal fascination for those relics though. My cousin, Dominic, who grew up in England, and he’s always telling stories. I never know if they’re true or not, and he did tell me that he’d met someone who is a forensic relicologist, whose job was to figure out, “OK, this saint — how many fingers and toes do we have?” Keeping track, trying to figure out which ones were fraudulent and which ones were . . . Where did they, when did they . . . you know, carbon dating them or whatever and exposing the frauds.
And I thought, “That’s cool. I’ll build a book around that.” And, of course, there’s no such thing as a forensic relicologist. Although, I did find that Oxford University does have someone there who does carbon dating, who has a specific interest in religious relics.
COWEN: Writing so much about bodies and corpses and death and the idea of disgust and also sex, do you feel it has helped you come to terms with your own death at all? And if so, how does it help you or maybe hinder you from processing that fact?
ROACH: I still really don’t want to die.
COWEN: Not even a little?
ROACH: Not even, no. And I haven’t even . . . This is embarrassing to admit, but I haven’t even signed . . . I went so far as to get the forms for donating my body for research. My two choices would be UCSF and Stanford, which are the two schools near where I live that take cadavers. And I have the forms, and I never made the decision.
I’m like a high school senior: “Who’s got the better view from the anatomy lab?” I didn’t pull the trigger. So obviously, I talk, the talk. I believe it’s really important. I think and, practically speaking, I know that I’m dead. I’m not going to feel any pain. I won’t feel any embarrassment. I’m gone! So why don’t I do it? Obviously, I haven’t completely . . . I didn’t glean anything at all from all of the work that I did.
But I sometimes get a nice note from a reader who’s lost someone recently, who found that book, Stiff, helpful in some way, I guess maybe demystifying things or making death, being dead, just the next phase of life. I don’t know. It didn’t help me in that way, but it seems to sometimes help other people. Does that count? [laughs]
On why zippers are (sometimes) problem
COWEN: Your book on soldiers, Grunt — also, I believe, your latest book — why are zippers a problem?
ROACH: Well, a zipper specifically would be a problem for a sniper who’s spending a lot of time lying down on his . . . I’m going to say his, though there may be his or her. Let’s just say his or her belly. So buttons or a zipper would be uncomfortable.
This is the kind of thing that Natick Labs — where they design clothing and accessories for soldiers — the kind of thing they think about. While I was there, their fashion studio, which is staffed by fashion people with fashion degrees — they had designed a quite streamlined sniper top with a side closure for that reason. Also, if you have a zipper here and you’re lying in the dirt, the dirt gets into the teeth of the zipper, and then it doesn’t work very well.
COWEN: You’re a sitting target for flies also, right? Is there anything you can do about that or do the flies just feast on . . .
ROACH: You mean if you have a zipper?
COWEN: Well, if you’re a sniper.
ROACH: Oh, if you’re a sniper.
COWEN: Without a zipper, a zipperless sniper.
ROACH: OK. Oh yeah, zipperless; a naked sniper even more so.
But flies, yes. There’s a term that is used in agriculture called “fly worry” and that is when flies are particularly dense. In a desert climate or dry climate, where there’s not a lot of food and water, flies are very aggressive — any moisture at all, including the eyes. So they’re going for a cow around the eyes so much so that the cow is so obsessed with and focused on getting rid of flies that it doesn’t eat. And they can die that way.
Anyway, fly worry, it’s a concern. It’s a thing. I have a lot to say about . . . I don’t know how much you want to go into flies in the military. I have more to say than the average person on flies. Flies are both good and bad. Young flies, maggots, can be helpful.
COWEN: Helpful with wounds, right?
ROACH: Helpful with wounds. A maggot does a natural form of debridement. Maggots, as we know, they like dead bodies, they like dead tissue. Their menu preference is dead tissue, so a wound that is infected — This is something that was figured out in World War I. These soldiers would come in with these horrific wounds. They’d been lying in the field. They’d come in, they’d have maggots in the wound.
This one surgeon, William Baer, noticed that, when you remove the maggots, there was this healthy, pink, new tissue growing in and there wasn’t infection. And he saw it over and over and realized that maggots were therapeutic, and they are used to this day. There is a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.
This one surgeon, William Baer, noticed that, when you remove the maggots, there was this healthy, pink, new tissue growing in and there wasn’t infection. And he saw it over and over and realized that maggots were therapeutic, and they are used to this day. There is a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.
On the wounded soldier’s top concern
COWEN: You talked to a lot of soldiers and doctors to do your book, and other experts. Let’s say I’m innocent and naive, and I haven’t read your books, but I’ve watched plenty of TV and movies about soldiers. What conception am I most likely to have that your book would disabuse me of?
ROACH: Well, one specific thing that you hear a lot about soldiers, particularly in the most recent conflicts in the Middle East with IEDs — I heard this a few times — they say if an IED goes off, the first thing that a soldier asks or says when the bomb goes off and the medics come over, the first thing he’s going to say is, “Is my junk OK?”
I did a chapter that had to do with injuries to the genitals, which, as the explosions have gotten bigger and the medical care has gotten better, you’re seeing more and more — more men are surviving to have that kind of injury.
I interviewed somebody who just had surgery to repair his urethra. I said, “Tell me the story of how that happened.” I was waiting for the point where he said, “And I looked around, and the medic came over, and I said, “Is my junk OK?”
But it was just so not the first thing he said. He was the head of a unit, and after the bomb had gone off, and he put on his tourniquet — they all carry their own two tourniquets fortunately — the first thing he said was, “Who’s hit? Who’s hit? Is everyone OK?” And he was actually trying to stand up. They had to hold him down. His junk was not the first thing on his mind. That’s the misconception. That’s the misconception that comes to mind because it’s the thing I reported on.
On the correct way to eat french fries
COWEN: Your book Gulp, which is about food and eating . . . Do you ever think, what’s the correct way to eat french fries? You could eat them one at a time, or you could push a bunch of them through your mouth at the same time. There’s a lot of different strategies for eating french fries. Which do you use, and do you think about it?
ROACH: The french fry to me is a vehicle for mayonnaise. I’m using it essentially to spoon up small globs of mayonnaise. I’m a one-fry-at-a-time gal. Though if they’re those skinny ones, there’s some of the skinny ones, those you need to shove in at least four or five of the little skinny ones.
COWEN: Would we enjoy food more if we forced ourselves to eat a little more slowly?
ROACH: Yes. I think, yes, you would enjoy food more. Yeah, mindful eating as they say. I think a lot of times you don’t even notice it, I’m speaking personally. I often eat without really thinking about it. If you think about it and you chew it . . .
Also here’s a tip. This is something I hadn’t realized: We have two sets of nostrils, one in the back, up in the back of your mouth, and on the exhale you are smelling. You know how you’re smelling on the inhale? You’re also smelling on the exhale. You’re wafting those vapors, those volatiles up into the nose, so while you’re chewing, if you exhale — or with wine in your mouth — you’re experiencing so much more of the flavor.
Most of what your experience of food is flavor, which is olfactory. So if you slow down and also let it heat up, that also releases vapors. If you hold it in your mouth and you exhale a little bit, it’s just a completely different experience. Don’t exhale too much because then you have, what is it, nasal regurgitation, where it comes out the nose, so don’t do that.
But holding it in the mouth, heating it up, and exhaling a bit . . . There’s just so much more going on in there, and that is something from Gulp that kind of changed how I eat. I do, when I think to do it, slow down, hold it there.
COWEN: But people do this with chocolate.
ROACH: Yes, they do it with chocolate.
COWEN: But they don’t do it very much with french fries.
COWEN: So it seems we’re capable of doing it, but with french fries there’s almost a market failure.
ROACH: True, but chocolate has this, I don’t know the number . . . It’s the number of different, amazing, volatile vapors, gases, coming up. It’s very complicated — coffee, wine, beer, chocolate. The reason people do it with those and not french fries — not to belittle the french fry — but it’s not quite as complex, perhaps.
On eating roadkill
COWEN: You may know that very recently in Oregon they legalized the harvesting of road kill for food.
ROACH: I did not know that.
COWEN: It’s the third state in the union, and you’re allowed to do this, but only if you have a government permit. Now, would you describe this as an instance of too much government regulation —
COWEN: — meaning the permit, or too little government regulation? That is, they shouldn’t allow it at all.
ROACH: Oh, they should definitely allow it. But I think that it might be good to have — I’m assuming that the permit — you have to take a little test, perhaps?
COWEN: I don’t know.
ROACH: I think there should be some basic things: that you should…
COWEN: Have read your books.
ROACH: …detect. Yes, have ready my books. Detect fresh road kill from quite old, you know, the kind that you would have to scrape up. That’s probably not good for dinner. I don’t know, I suppose cooked well enough it would be safe, but there’d probably be some certain guidelines that you might want to share with the novice road kill eater.
On larvae, bee and otherwise
COWEN: I was in Southwest China lately, and they served me bee larvae. I had some, and it seemed fine. But some people would be disgusted by this. What exactly is it about bee larvae that’s disgusting? Is it the thought that they’re larva? That it’s a bee?
ROACH: Were they alive or were they dead?
COWEN: They were dead.
COWEN: I’ve had live octopus, and that was disgusting. I wouldn’t do that again. In Korea.
ROACH: Eww, frightening and guilt-inducing.
ROACH: Yeah. So dead bee larvae.
COWEN: And cooked.
ROACH: And cooked.
COWEN: Should it just be a normal thing, and we’re all weird because we don’t eat bee larvae?
ROACH: I think perhaps we need to blame the maggot.
COWEN: Why blame the maggot?
ROACH: Because the maggot is associated . . . We associate maggots with dead, decomposition, danger, horrible rotting nightmare horror movies.
COWEN: We’re so silly to confuse larvae and maggots.
ROACH: Well, maggots are larvae. But bees, bee larvae and fly larvae, I think only the connoisseur of larvae could comfortably make that distinction. And obviously you’re one of them.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: There’s a segment in each one of these conversations, in the middle. It’s called overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss something out, and you tell me if it’s overrated or underrated.
COWEN: Of course, you’re free to pass.
If you could, taking a trip to Mars.
ROACH: Oh gosh. Overrated and underrated.
COWEN: Tell us why.
ROACH: OK. Overrated because just a lot of drive time, just a lot. You know, speed it up, yes.
And then underrated because people go . . . like when I began to work on the book, I sent my agent this photograph: “Look, this is Mars.” And he goes, “Looks like the outskirts of Las Vegas.” Some people think, “Hey, it looks like a cat litter box.” It doesn’t, but it’s another planet! The moon or Mars, either one, just the fact that you’re on another planet, it can’t be rated highly enough, but the getting there . . . nah.
COWEN: You’ve been four times to Antarctica. Overrated or underrated?
ROACH: It’s a place of light and sky and ice and snow, and all of these things interplay in a way that, three or four times a day, the same place looks magically different. And just the light . . .
Again, it’s the kind of place, somebody might go, “Why would you want to go there? It’s just a bunch of snow.” But the amazing, stunning, beautiful, ice. There’s 17 different kinds, there’s brash ice, and I can’t remember the other 16. [laughs] Just more varied and spectacular than you would think. The word barren gets used a lot. That should be retired from descriptions of Antarctica.
COWEN: The genre of horror movies.
ROACH: Ohhh . . .
COWEN: And do they explore the notions of disgust and bodies and severability in interesting ways?
ROACH: I don’t go to horror movies.
COWEN: Are you underrating them?
ROACH: Probably underrating, I’m probably underrating them. Horror movies, yeah, underrated. I’m probably underrating them.
COWEN: What is it that you personally find especially scary, other than maybe horror movies?
ROACH: What do I find scary? Oh . . . getting oooold.
ROACH: Which is a kind of horror movie unto itself.
COWEN: Traveling to Mozambique, overrated or underrated?
ROACH: I haven’t been lately, but when I went, it was right after the peace treaty with Renamo. There was no tourism, so it was a fascinating place because there wasn’t the “Hi, come buy my wares.” There was an honesty and a realness to people’s interactions with you.
ROACH: On the rug in the . . . Anyway, it was really interesting.
COWEN: You were born in New Hampshire. Last week, the Census Bureau released new data, and I was quite surprised to see that of the 50 states in the United States, New Hampshire now apparently has the highest measured median income. I don’t mean this as a rude question, but how did you all possibly manage this?
ROACH: New Hampshire has . . .
COWEN: New Hampshire.
COWEN: It used to be Connecticut.
ROACH: I don’t believe that.
COWEN: I didn’t either.
ROACH: Wow. What industry is there . . . New Hampshire? Wow. Well, I know for a long time there was no income tax. There was no state income tax, so perhaps people have been compounding savings. Over the years.
COWEN: And New Hampshire. Overrated or underrated?
ROACH: Uhhhh, it’s rated just about right.
COWEN: Just about right?
On beginnings and endings
COWEN: Your book on sex. William Miller, he wrote a book on disgust that’s very interesting. He said the following, and I quote, “Desire requires that we suppress entirely thoughts of beginnings and endings.” Agree or disagree?
ROACH: Desire requires suspending thoughts of beginnings . . .
COWEN: And I think he meant birth and death by that.
ROACH: Yes, yes, I think that we all do a really good job of putting the icky things out of our heads because everything that comes in between is kind of miraculous. Yeah. Getting pregnant and bringing life into the world is this emotionally exciting and amazing and uplifting thing, and you try not to think about the afterbirth and the labor and all that. Well, sure.
COWEN: Freud, of course, had the view that a lot of our repression and suppression is socially valuable, probably necessary. There’s another set of views, like Marcuse, where it’s simply restrictive and it makes us feel alienated or makes us unhappy. Erich Fromm. Which of those two approaches are you closer to? How useful is repression in the Mary Roach worldview?
ROACH: We’re talking about taboos, the things that we tend to shy away from. There’s a reason that cultures do that, but that you can take it to an extreme. I think it is unhealthy.
If you think of the way that we, as a culture, used to deal with the death in a family. There was a process of laying the body out in the parlor, I think it was, and dressing and cleaning the body and having people in. And there was a level of comfort with the body that made people a little more comfortable with death.
At a certain point, the mortuary business took that away and put it behind a curtain. And we all became more uncomfortable, in general, with death in a way that wasn’t helpful or healthy. I think the pendulum has swung back. So some medium ground.
COWEN: You’ve reported having sex with your husband in an ultrasound for research purposes. Did this push you closer to the Freudian view?
COWEN: Or farther away from it?
ROACH: It pushed me toward not saying yes so readily to things because, while it was wonderful for the book — one of those things that, as it’s happening it’s tremendously awkward, but I knew that it would be really fun to write up. As a writer, it was going to be really fun.
But I don’t want society to reach a point where we’re all casually having sex in front of someone like Dr. Deng, as lovely as he was as a person, to be there in the room. I think we’re all better off with some sense of quiet reluctance.
On sex robots
COWEN: What’s the main technological barrier hindering the further spread of sex robots? And what will the world be like when that barrier goes away?
ROACH: What’s the barrier to the further spread of them?
COWEN: Right. Because maybe they’re not that good, right?
ROACH: I was going to say that maybe they’re not as fun as people think they’re going to be.
COWEN: But for what reason? Is it actually that it’s simply not another human being? Or is it . . .
ROACH: I think that, yes.
COWEN: Or Moore’s law will kick in, and in five years, it will be a fifth of the market.
ROACH: No, because it’s not another person, and there isn’t any emotional connection. There’s not any exchange of intensity, energy, all the things that makes sex . . .
COWEN: But Tinder is pretty popular, right? I’m not sure how much the emotional connection is with Tinder.
ROACH: But Tinder is the same as, for my generation, walking into the party and going, “He’s cute. He’s cute. All right, those are the three I’m going to talk to.” That’s all Tinder is. At a certain point you have to actually touch each other, make a connection, and have a conversation. Right? Tinder isn’t replacing anything, but that initial selection, right?
COWEN: After you wrote your book on sex, did you conclude that people really know what they want? Or the contrary?
ROACH: I think that people may know what they want, but they are sometimes reluctant to go for it because there’s a tendency to do things that they think are expected of them, particularly with pornography and it being quite ubiquitous.
I think there’s a sense of performance whereas before, if you lose yourself in the moment and you are just gone in that wonderful place that you go and sex is great, you’re not thinking about “What part of my body am I showing?” or “What position?” or “What’s expected of me?” or “What was done in that film?”
On bamboo structures
COWEN: One of your famous early articles from the ’90s —
ROACH: I don’t even remember what the question was there. [laughs] I have no idea.
COWEN: — was about earthquake-proof bamboo structures.
ROACH: Oh yes. A high point in the career, in the oeuvre. [laughs]
COWEN: Do poorer countries need more of these? And if so, why aren’t they doing it?
ROACH: Yes, bamboo. It’s a marvelous structure. It’s like a very, very lightweight reinforced concrete. In an earthquake, you want something light that can ride the waves.
And the other thing with bamboo is that it grows quickly, it’s sustainable, it’s renewable. So it’s great for building houses in earthquake-prone areas. I don’t know how much progress has been made since I wrote that piece. I don’t know how widespread, how many people are building out of bamboo. I suspect not as many as optimally would be, but —
COWEN: But as you say in the article, bamboo can burn very easily. So do you think people are properly weighing the risk of fire versus the risk of earthquake? Or there’s some kind of institutional failure?
ROACH: I don’t know. I don’t know what is getting in the way of the vast spread of bamboo housing construction in earthquake-prone areas. I wish that I had that answer.
COWEN: Your book on astronauts —
ROACH: I forgot about the fire thing.
ROACH: You’re probably the fourth person on this planet that read that story. And I want to tell you that piece . . . I won the, what is it? The American Association of Engineering Societies has a journalism prize, and that piece won, and I went, and I collected the award. At dinner, I said to the president, “So just how many people in the general-interest magazine category did you have this year?” And he said, “Just the one.”
ROACH: So thanks for reading that. [laughs] Shucks!
On thinking like an astronaut
COWEN: Your book on space travel. How would you describe thinking like an astronaut?
ROACH: Oh, thinking like an astronaut. Here’s my example of thinking like an astronaut, or just being like an astronaut. This is what you need to do. This is how you need to be and think and respond. This was Commander Peggy Whitson. When I worked on this book, I’d watch NASA TV, which, I don’t know what it is now, but for a while, it was just raw feed of the earth going by, or Mission Control, or the ISS.
Anyway, there was in the ISS, and Commander Whitson . . . You could hear the communications. Someone said, “Yeah, those photographs you took earlier.” Apparently she took some photographs of — I don’t know what it was — but a whole series of photographs. They said, “You know, we can’t find those.” If I were Commander Whitson, I would have gone, “Well, look again, Lamb Chop, because I don’t have time to take those pictures over again. I sent them, and here’s the email where I sent . . .” She just went, “That’s not a problem. We’ll redo them.”
That’s how to think . . . I don’t know think, but that’s, to me, the essence of an astronaut in today’s astronaut corps. Not necessarily back in the glory days of “I’m the first person to the moon.” Then there was some other elements, but the modern astronaut: long missions, long days, getting along with other people, that kind of amazing placid, accepting, patient — not me. That person.
COWEN: So you would say, not thrill seekers. Or do you think there’s some subtler level at which that’s how they seek their thrills? The thrill of placidity.
ROACH: [laughs] The thrill, the agony of defeat, the thrill of passivity. No, I don’t know that thrill seeking is so much a component anymore.
The original astronauts were test pilots, and they were the ultimate thrill seekers. These folks now, they’re top of their class in the engineering department, or the top of their class at West Point. They’re high achievers, and they’re motivated and determined and driven, not necessarily, “Wahoo!” Not that kind of person.
COWEN: Is it disgusting to eat in space?
ROACH: That depends on what era we’re talking about. It was really disgusting to eat in space.
COWEN: How so?
ROACH: Gemini, Apollo — Mercury weren’t up there long enough to really need to eat anything — but Gemini, Apollo, the food tended to be highly, highly processed because the food was solving the problem of, there’s no toilet. There’s only a bag, and no one wanted to use the bag, the fecal bag. Nobody. For reasons we don’t . . . You can imagine. Let your imaginations run wild. Zero gravity.
So the food was low residue, meaning low fiber, nothing left. You just absorb it, it’s highly processed, very dry, and it tended to be a little tiny cube, like toast cubes because crumbs were a problem. You didn’t want crumbs floating around, getting into the equipment, so they were little pop-it-in-your-mouth bacon cubes, which were awful.
Some of the stuff was designed by the veterinary corps — similar concerns because pet food . . . You may or may not know that one of the concerns with designing pet food is, again, residue. The pet owner wants something that’s easy to pick up, so that is part of the design of the food. What kind of poop will it create in the dog?
COWEN: But now astronaut food is french fries and mayonnaise?
ROACH: No, now astronaut food has gotten a lot better. It tends to be bland because anything spicy and exciting, you get tired of. So there’s lots of condiment bottles up on the ISS, like hot sauce and Sriracha and pesto tubes, that kind of thing. But it is better.
The one that was most popular was shrimp cocktail. Shrimp cocktail in space was almost exactly the same as it was on Earth. There was one astronaut, Story Musgrave, I believe was his name. You got a menu when you’re going up into space, and you check off what you want. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he just went, “Shrimp cocktail, shrimp cocktail, shrimp cocktail, shrimp cocktail.”
COWEN: But Coca-Cola is different in space, right?
ROACH: Yeah, Coca-Cola. A lot of money went into trying to get carbonated beverages in space. The problem is in the stomach because the bubbles don’t rise to the top. In a stomach on Earth, the bubbles rise to the top. They’re lighter, they end up at the top, and that’s where the exit valve is and you burp them out. If you swallow air, it comes back up.
In zero gravity, the bubbles didn’t rise to the top, so you couldn’t belch, so it was very uncomfortable. Carbonated beverages made the astronauts feel bloated and uncomfortable because they couldn’t burp, so it was an expensive fiasco.
ROACH: Well, there’s a collection of things that happen in zero gravity that actually has been referred to as the zero-gravity beauty treatment. And that is because there’s more fluid in the upper half of the body because you don’t have gravity bringing it down to the lower half. So your wrinkles sort of plump up and your hair is fuller, your breasts are perkier, more buoyant.
COWEN: And for men?
ROACH: [laughs] And your organs migrate up a little bit so your waist is tinier. Yeah, the aging . . . I don’t know what specifically he’s referring to. Oh, OK, I know. Your bones get thinner.
COWEN: Your bones become weaker. Your organs are less effective.
ROACH: Yeah, you’re right.
COWEN: Because they’re designed to operate with normal levels of gravity.
ROACH: You’re right. OK.
COWEN: Earlier in your career, you spent quite a few years writing for Reader’s Digest. What did you do for them?
ROACH: Three years.
COWEN: And how was that a formative experience for what you did later in your books?
ROACH: I wrote a humor column called “My Planet.” I didn’t name it, but that was the name of it. And it was a short, fun column about random, day-to-day things. It wasn’t reported so it was the only writing that I’ve done, for the most part, that didn’t involve being a parasite on somebody else’s world.
Well, my husband Ed I wrote a lot about. Ed is very entertaining. So it was purely fun. It was just fun. I wrote that right around the time, right up through the release of my first book, which was the cadaver book. So there was a period of time where the two overlapped, Reader’s Digest and cadavers. And that was confusing for some people.
On the Mary Roach production function
COWEN: Now, you have six main books out, and they’ve all been very successful. Forgetting about what might be your central talent intellectually, but just in terms of your work habits or schedule or how you organize what it is you do, I would call it the Mary Roach production function. How would you describe to us the Mary Roach production function? What is it you do that you think other people maybe could learn from?
ROACH: I am essentially a massive filtration system. So when I begin a project, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what will be in the book. I know that my job is to cherry-pick the most interesting, surprising, funny, bizarre material within this quite broad topic that I’ve selected.
So there may be mornings when I . . . For Bonk, I recall going to the basement of UCSF Medical School Library where they had the Journal of Sex Research, which started sometime in the late ’50s, I believe, and going through every table of contents and going, “Boring, boring, boring . . . Oh! Masturbation is a potential treatment for intractable hiccups.”
ROACH: And then running off to the Xerox machine, or these days, taking a picture.
So 99 percent, I suppose, of what I come across I’m jettisoning, isn’t making the cut. And that whole process helps me figure out what it is that this book is about. I don’t know for the first few months, really, even six months, I don’t really know what this book should contain, what fits and what doesn’t fit.
It’s not very good advice to give anybody, to feel comfortable with randomness and chaos — because I think that is the healthy first stages of a book — well, for me anyway.
So 99 percent, I suppose, of what I come across I’m jettisoning, isn’t making the cut. And that whole process helps me figure out what it is that this book is about. I don’t know for the first few months, really, even six months, I don’t really know what this book should contain, what fits and what doesn’t fit.
COWEN: If you had to name two or three other writers or other books that were influences on what you’ve ended up doing, what would those be?
ROACH: Bill Bryson’s writing, not a specific book of his, although In a Sunburned Country is a wonderful mix of everything that you would want to know about Australia. This book came out as I was on my way to Australia for the first time. I found it in the bookstore. That’s a perfect moment as a reader: Here’s my favorite writer, and he’s written a book about this place that I’m going.
The way that Bill Bryson is able to mix information — sometimes complex, not always — but information and a tone that’s engaging and funny. Sometimes writers, including myself, you can get lazy. And when you’re going into explanation mode, you drop your charming, funny, witty self, and you just got to explain that in a way that’s clear. But the tone needs to flow, it needs to be even. It needs to be that . . . what’s that osmosis thing — equilibrium. Finding the balance. It shouldn’t lurch. No lurching. No lurching, people.
COWEN: What did you learn working as PR director for the San Francisco Zoo?
ROACH: I learned that I’m not well suited for a job in public relations.
COWEN: And why is that?
ROACH: I would answer the phones when the press would call. And sometimes the press would call with a question. Like this happened: Someone called and said, “I heard a rumor that the cheetah was sucked dry by fleas.” And the proper response for a public relations professional is to say “No.” Deny, if it’s not true, or to do damage control — somehow spin it.
I don’t know how you spin “the cheetah was sucked dry by fleas,” but I didn’t. My response was “Wow, how many fleas? How much blood in a flea? How much blood in a cheetah? How many bites? Is this even possible? Wow.” I was having a great time, talking to the reporter. Then my boss was, of course, horrified to learn that this is what I was doing.
COWEN: And was that your first job?
ROACH: My first job was a copy editor at a legal publishing company.
COWEN: And are lawyers good writers?
ROACH: It’s not really writing, it’s . . .
COWEN: [laughs] An excretion.
ROACH: An excretion. [laughs] A bringing forth of multisyllabic words in a very important order that I’m getting wrong all the time. Yeah, that didn’t last long.
COWEN: And if there’s someone out there, and they want to be some version of the next generation’s Mary Roach, of course not exactly what you do, but following on it, and they were to come to you and ask you for advice, what would you tell them?
ROACH: Don’t try to be me. Don’t try to be anyone because the reason I’m successful is that I didn’t. I didn’t show this weird, kind of funny book about dead people, which sounds like a bad, bad idea, as a book, really. “I’m going to write a kind of funny book about things that are done with dead bodies.” Any sensible person would have said, “That sounds ill advised.”
So not only did I not ask anyone going into it, I didn’t show it to anyone until I turned it in to my editor. Had I shown it to people, I think they would’ve said, “Yeah, this whole humor, dead person, I don’t know, I’m uncomfortable with it, I think it’s inappropriate.” I would have gone, “You’re right.” And I would’ve stripped a lot of it out, I would’ve backed off. I would’ve made it more center-of-the-road, and I think that’s a mistake.
You want a book that people are going to talk about, and I think the reason that that book succeeded . . . my publisher did a lovely job with the release, but it wasn’t a big . . . it was my first book, it was a surprising book that people talked about. Word of mouth is so important with books, with book sales, and finding something that is both interesting to you and that will be interesting and surprising to readers.
On sense and nonsensibility
COWEN: Last question before I turn it over to the audience: To write that book and the others, what is it you did or what was done to you to get the sensibleness out of your system? I don’t know how else to put it.
ROACH: [laughs] I don’t . . .
COWEN: You have a very sensible nonsensibility, right? Which works, and that’s scarce, so how did you get that way?
ROACH: I lucked out in that the editor that I was given . . . I assumed when I wrote, I said, “I’m just going to write this. I’m just going to have fun and follow my curiosity and my sense of humor, and I’m not going to worry. I’m not going to second-guess because I have an editor, and her job is to go and strip out things that are over-the-top, too disgusting, immature, stupid, not funny. And she didn’t do a lot of stripping out, and that made us both very nervous, but we put that book out there, having no idea what would happen.
So I was very lucky in that she was courageous and said, “Let’s throw it out there to the wolves and see what happens.”
COWEN: Mary Roach, thank you very much.
ROACH: Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve had a great time. I recently read Gulp, and I could barely, barely get through the saliva chapter, oh my God, but I really struggled through it, but made it just great. Is there something that actually disgusts you where you just can’t . . . I can barely say the word saliva. Is there anything that actually is disgusting that you can’t stomach?
ROACH: Yeah, I’m with you. Actually of all the things in that quite — from here to here [full digestive tract], there’s lot of disgusting terrain — but saliva was absolutely the toughest one, and even, as you remember from the book, the woman, the saliva researcher herself. We collected this stimulated saliva, which is just water, really — it’s clean and pure — and she wouldn’t . . . This woman who bows down to saliva, she wouldn’t even drink her own saliva — so you’re not alone.
So yeah, unstimulated saliva is pretty tough for me, but what’s even tougher, weirdly, is the thing in the plant world that resembles unstimulated saliva, and that is, if you don’t cook okra properly, that mucilaginous strand —
ROACH: — that I call okra snot, I just put down my spoon. I’m done; that’s pretty tough.
Also I’m friends with the Alameda County medical examiner, and I’ve been to a couple of autopsies where I had to leave the room gagging. So it can be done. Mary Roach — you can make her gag.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m a fifth grade science teacher, and what I really love about your books is that you make the most detailed science topics really interesting and inspiring, and it makes you want to learn more, and I share a lot of stories about things I’ve read in your books with my kids. Have you ever thought about going into young adults’ or children’s writing?
ROACH: I have. Yeah, it’s interesting. Thank you very much for saying that. There’s a magazine called Muse, which the Smithsonian . . . I think Muse is still around. It’s a science magazine for middle schoolers, and that magazine ran an excerpt from Stiff. I remember saying to them, “Do you need me to make the words smaller and the writing more simple?” She said, “No, we’re good.” So, I don’t know, I may be already writing for that age group and internally am that age group.
But I have thought about it. My publisher is W. W. Norton, and they don’t have that segment of the market. So I would have to go to a different publisher, and that was not welcomed. [laughs] But I do think about it, and I think it would be fun. I think I would enjoy it because, as I said, I relate to that age group.
COWEN: A question from online: When interviewing people about sensitive or private topics, what are strategies you use to get them to open up?
ROACH: Well, frequently I’m interviewing someone for whom that’s their day-to-day, and the problem is getting them to shut down.
ROACH: Because they’re so excited that someone wants to hear about their work. Their spouse doesn’t want to hear about it and nobody —
COWEN: Because it’s disgusting.
ROACH: Well, because they’re just tired of it. Or because it’s disgusting.
But to be direct, if you convey a sense of awkwardness and shame and tension, then that will be reflected back. You just have to say — like if you’re in the operating room and then the surgeon is using the laser incision thing, and it smells like cooked meat — you just have to say, “Do you find . . . Do you like that smell?” Just say it. I don’t know. Just say it. Yeah, say it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You sort of touched on this towards the end of the conversation, but I was wondering if there was anything that your editor had cut and you really wish it made it into one of your books and print?
ROACH: [laughs] That’s a great question. When my editor cuts something, I’m almost always grateful because it tends to be . . . I don’t even know if I should . . . It’s rare that she will cut something. My initial response would be, “Ohhh, it’s my favorite part!” But fast-forward, when the book comes out, I’m quite relieved that she took it out. I don’t think we have probably time for me to tell the story of —
COWEN: Tell it, tell it.
ROACH: When I was working on Bonk, there’s a researcher in Egypt, Dr. Shafik. One of the things he looks at is reflexes during sexual intercourse, and he said to me, “I can demonstrate some of these for you if you come to the lab.” And I thought, “I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but sign me up!”
So I went to Cairo and I’m like, “Oh, this is going to be a really epic afternoon.” I get there and he said, “Well, the volunteer has left.
ROACH: Oh, OK. He said, “But I’ve arranged to show you some other reflexes. So he had this nurse there, this male nurse, and the reflex that he had arranged to show me is called the anal wink, which is, essentially, if you scratch next to the anus, it winks. Goes like that. So this poor guy had dropped his scrubs, and he’s standing on the bed so it’s eye level.
I describe all this in a scene, and then I further went on to talk about how I’ve had this flashback, as a child on Easter, those little glass eggs that you look through the hole, right, the little opening, and there’s a little scene of bunnies and chicks inside. My editor put a line through that whole thing and wrote, “No!”
ROACH: And initially I thought, “Hey! I really like that scene!” But I’m very grateful to her that she crossed that out.
COWEN: There’ll be a director’s cut someday.
ROACH: Yes, exactly, the director’s cut.
My editor put a line through that whole thing and wrote, “No!”
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Several years ago, I remember trying to spit-shine a car window during a snowstorm, and the saliva changed color. I was just wondering — I’m not trying to stump you — I was just wondering what might be the cause of change in color.
ROACH: What had you been eating?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I don’t remember.
ROACH: I’m guessing maybe something that you . . . What color did it become?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Black.
ROACH: The saliva turned black.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes.
ROACH: I don’t know why the saliva would turn . . . Do you have any mouth fungus?
ROACH: Because there is something called black tongue or something. I don’t think that you have that though.
ROACH: I don’t know, now I really need to . . . You stumped the chump. I don’t know.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How do you choose your topics? You spoke about the chaos of gathering your information and not knowing where you’re going. But you have to gather it from the topic.
ROACH: Yes. That is always a difficult phase for me. Sometimes I’ve read a sentence somewhere that sparked an idea. Bonk came from reading a sentence. It said, “The colposcopic films of Masters and Johnson.” And I went, “Colposcopic films; does that mean cervix? It sounds like someone was filming a woman from the inside during sex. Is that what was happening?”
And yes indeed, there was a penis-camera contraption that they had built. And this was in the ’50s. Wow, that was the moment where I thought, sex research — that’s incredibly brave and awkward and interesting, and that’ll be my next book. I wish it were always that much of a sudden flash.
Packing for Mars was . . . I’ve been to Johnson Space Center for a Discover story, and that was really interesting, and I know someone who works at the bed rest facility in Galveston, where they simulate zero gravity, and that’s interesting. And in the back of my mind is this . . . Years and years and years ago, I interviewed an astronaut about bone loss, but we went off on a topic that had to do with the toilet training that is given to astronauts and this video camera that you have to dock with, basically — it’s a closed-circuit TV, and you’re watching your butt. And I remember thinking, “I can’t fit this into the Vogue story on osteoporosis, but one day I will write about the video toilet.”
So the combination of the video toilet, the trip to Johnson Space Center for Discover, and the bed rest facility — I thought, I’ll build a book around that. There’s got to be another 10 chapters that are interesting that have to do with the astronaut existence. Because it seemed to me that the things that happen to astronauts in training were sometimes more interesting than what happen in orbit, which could be quite mundane.
It’s a hodgepodge, and I wish it came more frequently and promptly, this sense of what makes a good topic.
COWEN: Online question: If you had the opportunity to eat penguin, would you?
ROACH: To eat a penguin?
COWEN: Eat penguin. I don’t think you have to eat the whole penguin.
ROACH: Oh, is it endangered? No, I don’t want to eat an endangered…
COWEN: A Malthusian penguin.
ROACH: Ok yes. I like to try new food, especially an egg. A penguin egg would be interesting.
COWEN: Another online question: Is there a visceral difference between viewing the body of someone who died traumatically versus the body of someone who died of natural causes?
ROACH: Oh, sure. Someone who died traumatically, I think it’s very upsetting to see. First of all, the knowledge of what happened, and you’re imagining what must have happened, and the violence of it and the suddenness of it. And often, the people in car or motorcycle crashes, they’re quite young.
So it’s a combination of those three things adds up to it being much more upsetting than to see someone who’s lived a long life, died of natural causes, for sure.
COWEN: What is your favorite food that you are slightly ashamed to admit to?
ROACH: [laughs] Pringles.
ROACH: More than slightly ashamed.
COWEN: Also from the online: What is a topic you’ve rejected for a book that you wish you could make work?
ROACH: I had wanted to write a book that had to do with natural disasters and the human elements of preparing for them. Also how do you rescue, how do you take someone from rubble? There’s all kinds of very specific medical things that happen when someone is crushed. Or avalanche — how do you find someone in an avalanche? And then, there’s things that happen after; the before and after.
I spent some time on this, thinking that I might do that. The being on the scene is very difficult because you don’t know where it’s going to happen, and that determines which organization will be sending in teams. You have to set that up ahead of time. Otherwise you’re just in a press pool. That was a challenge that I failed to master.
COWEN: I’ve heard the Department of Defense has a 26-page specification for preparing brownies. Do you know any more about this?
ROACH: Well heck, there is a 22-page specification for buttons, so I’m surprised the brownies isn’t more like 120 pages [laughs]. Yes there are very, very specific specifications. They’re wordy. It sounds like more than it is because they’re very specific, but yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Following up on the natural disaster — that’s an idea that you could end up pursuing. Do you have a folder of like, “Oh, man, I really want to write about that someday, but not yet.” Do you have a folder of things and what are some of those things that you may want to write about?
ROACH: I would kill to have that folder.
ROACH: I would kill to have that folder, especially right now. I’m trying things on and rejecting them. They’re not quite working because most of science doesn’t work for me. Most of science now is protein receptors and genomes and it’s gone very, very tiny and invisible.
I’m a bodies-on-the-slab kind of gal, and that’s an anachronism. There’s not a lot of science that has people doing things that you can describe and talk to them about as it’s happening, which is what I like to do. Especially as it relates to the human body. I’ve done all the bodily fluids. [laughs]
And there are certain parts of the body that belong to other people — the brain . . . Oliver Sacks, David Eagleman, the people who are well educated in these parts of the body, and they have patients and cases. These are the people that should write those books, not me. I’m the rectum gal.
So yeah, I’d love to have that folder, I really would.
COWEN: Online question: “Why are bodily functions so stigmatized, like flatulence, when everyone does them?” This question they were afraid to ask in person.
ROACH: Yeah, it’s funny . . . Why are they stigmatized? It’s funny we have shame, and the idea of anybody seeing you having sex is, of course, unless you’re in Dr. Deng’s office. Unless you’re into that, it’d be really awkward and weird.
But having had the Dr. Deng experience, and having written Gulp — the chewing chapter of Gulp, chewing and saliva and bolus formation where you break down this thing in your mouth, and then you do intraoral bolus rolling, and you form the bolus, and you use saliva to stick it together. I started watching people in restaurants eating, and I thought, “God, people should have sex in restaurants and chew behind closed doors. It’s disgusting.”
So I didn’t answer the question. That’s an iPad question. Oh, there’s somebody here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well it’s not really a question, it’s just a thought. Would you please explain current politics?
ROACH: Oh, gosh. Yeah, no, no, I can’t.
COWEN: Is that one of those home things or in the restaurant?
ROACH: Yeah, right. I don’t, I can’t. I’m more flummoxed and confused by this situation than I have ever been about anything. I don’t get it. How did this happen? What? Yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is going to be an easier question answering. You’re obviously a very outgoing person, and I can say your work is quite rebellious. Were you always that way? What’s the most rebellious thing you did in high school?
ROACH: As a kid and all the way through high school, I was pretty shy and boring. High school, just did my homework, got good grades, watched a ton of TV. Then I got to Wesleyan and realized that I’m not going to go to graduate school. I don’t care what my grades are, and I just want to have fun. Then I began traveling. It kind of went off like this[traces a line with her finger: first it’s flat and steady and then erratic with peaks and valleys].
But as a kid, I don’t remember myself, although they’re certain things. I remember I had a friend named Mary Hewitt who gave me a Barbie doll. I didn’t like dolls particularly, and what I would do is: I would pull the head off, and I’d say, “You have five seconds to put the head back on or she dies.”
ROACH: And that’s kind of accurate — if you could put the head back on that quickly, the brain would probably be OK, and she probably would live. So I have to read a lot into these very specific moments, or when I used to play with my dinosaurs in the cat litter box. So there were some elements.
COWEN: The origins are becoming more clear.
ROACH: Yes. And my dad was a real eccentric character. He was 65 when I was born. My favorite animal was an elephant. So he painted a life-size elephant on the basement floor. He was definitely a bit of a rebel, and I guess maybe it comes from him.
COWEN: Online question: Was there ever an experience where you felt very uncomfortable or afraid during your interviews?
ROACH: I was a little apprehensive . . . OK, scratch that. Here’s where I was nervous: I was very nervous of Grunt. I had a chapter that had to do with diarrhea, specifically in special operations teams. These are the guys, they’re eating in little villages in Yemen or Somalia. They’re out eating off the economy, as they say. Their food isn’t necessarily refrigerated, the water may not be treated, they get really bad food poisoning all the time. If you get food poisoning, and you’ve got, say, a mission to go into Osama bin Laden’s compound, and you’ve got to go, you just go in your pants.
So I went to Djibouti, which is way over in North Africa, specifically to talk to someone in the special operations. I didn’t know they had their own compound, which was off limits to me. They only came out at dinner, and, as the PR guy said, “And to steal our women.” They are very imposing, they’re like the guys with the beards, they don’t mix a lot and they keep to themselves.
Basically my only chance was to accost one of them in the dining facility, this big huge dining facility, and the public affairs guy is like, “Mary, there’s your guy over there.” Very imposing guy, shaved head, beard, eating by himself, and I remember crossing the dining facility, feeling like a fifth grader at the dance, going, “I don’t want to do this.” It was a very awkward overture to make, to go up to a stranger and somehow explain why you want to ask him about diarrhea.
ROACH: Also, he doesn’t know why I’ve chosen him.
COWEN: Do you know why? [laughs]
ROACH: As it turned out, he thought I was NCIS.
COWEN: What’s that?
ROACH: Naval Criminal Investigative Service. When I approached him, he said, “I’m done, I’m leaving.” He started to get up to leave, and I had to go into this song and dance, “Well, I’m writing a book actually, and it sounds like a really trivial topic, but I want to talk to you about diarrhea.” He actually cut me off, and he said, “It’s not silly, you’re welcome to sit down.” It was a really interesting conversation, but I was really nervous; it was kind of dumb, but I was nervous.
COWEN: Question online: Have you considered writing and exploring the effects and habits of technology and artificial technology?
ROACH: I’ve thought about robots as a topic, but I feel that my complete and utter ignorance in the world of coding and artificial intelligence — I don’t think I could get up to speed to the point where I could do that topic justice.
COWEN: Does your humor come naturally or do you have a method behind it?
ROACH: [laughs] The only method I have is to self-police, especially with written humor. If you’re reading it over 20 times, going, “I think it’s funny, right? I think that’s funny, yeah, that’s funny. If I read it again, it’ll be funny,” to get rid of it. It’s probably not funny. My editor helps with that too.
COWEN: And being funny in person? What’s your method?
ROACH: [makes bewildered noises] Don’t know.
COWEN: From online: what’s the most mind-blowing fact you learned in all of your research?
ROACH: That’s a terrible question because whatever I say, everyone out there, they’re going to go, “Whoa, if that’s the most mind-blowing thing, that means everything else is less mind-blowing. I’m going to cross her off my to-read list.”
COWEN: Last question, this is from online: you’ve traveled quite a bit. How is it you think that other people are doing travel wrong or could improve how they travel?
ROACH: Well, when I travel, I’m often traveling in the context of research, which is my favorite way to travel because it’s a way in.
So any time you can find a way into a country or a culture or a home, beyond the sightseeing, I think it always makes the trip so much more interesting. And there are various ways to do that. You can volunteer, you can go to places where you know someone, anywhere where you have a personal connection that takes you beyond the surface.
COWEN: Let’s have a big round of applause for Mary Roach.