Why do you write?

I am not trained to do anything else.


You are known as a writer who addresses distasteful things.  What is the most distasteful thing you own?

I have a small collection of anatomical coin purses. One is stamped Genuine Kangaroo Scrotum. Another is made from the hide of a cane toad (with arms, but minus the legs, and with a zipper across the mouth). The Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh has in its collection a wallet made from the skin of the executed 19th-century bodysnatcher William Burke, so I feel I’m in respectable company.  I see on the side of my Gmail page just now that one can purchase Leather Biker Wallets.  Presumably made FOR not OF…


You usually write about the human body.  Space seems like a departure, no?

Nope.  Packing for Mars is about the human body in space.  Strange, very surreal things happen to you without gravity.  Name a body part: bladder, brain, stomach, veins, head, penis, muscles, bones, legs, boobs…They’re all affected in ways you cannot imagine.  Small example:  Without gravity, you can’t burp – or not the way you want to. Air bubbles don’t rise to the top of the stomach, they just hover in the center and expand. Space burps are, to quote one expert, “often accompanied by a liquid spray.” That’s why astronauts don’t drink carbonated beverages.


Which book of yours — Stiff, Spook, Bonk or Packing for Mars —  is your favorite?

This question fascinates me, or rather the answer does.  I wonder if other authors feel as I do: That to express a preference for one book over another feels as strange and wrong as a parent stating that she/he prefers one child over another. One of the many (okay, two) parallels between writing a book and having a child.  The other is that you invariably forget how painful the delivery was and remember it as joyful and fulfilling, and you eagerly sign on for another one. (Or so I’ve heard.  I have stepkids, which are not delivered vaginally.)


Why is your new title more than one word?

I couldn’t come up with a good, sassy one-syllable title.  Orbit was under consideration, but sounded like a book about chewing gum.  I liked The Wrong Stuff, but that seemed to invite comparison with The Right Stuff, and that seemed ill-advised.


What is your favorite blog about books?

This one, bien sur!  Running a close second is LibraryThing, and I’ll tell you one reason why. A woman, or maybe it was a man, posted the following comment: “Read and reviewed The Aeneid.  I wasn’t very impressed.  Next up will be Spook by Mary Roach.  Definitely excited to get started!”  I did not check back to see how I’d fared.


What is your most embarrassing trait?

I’m cheap. Not stingy, just cheap.  I use one end of a Qtip to remove my eye liner and then set it aside until the next day, when I use the other end.  I do not, however, rinse dental floss for reuse and hang it over the showerhead to dry. That is some other author.



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MARY ROACH is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (April, 2009), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Stiff was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for 2003, a Northern California Book Awards finalist, and an American Library Association Alex Award (for adult books that appeal to young adults) winner. Spook was a New York Times Notable Book for 2005.  Bonk was chosen as a 2008 best book by the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, and the Boston Globe. The YouTube posting of her TED talk “Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Orgasm” has been viewed 315,000 times (approximately one third the number of viewings of “Cat in a Goldfish Bowl”). Ms. Roach’s books have been translated into 26 languages.



Before writing Bonk, Spook, and Stiff, Mary wrote columns, essays, and feature articles. Her work has appeared in Outside, Wired, National Geographic, GQ, and the New York Times Magazine, among many other publications. She is a former columnist at Salon.com and contributing editor at the science magazine Discover. She has always gravitated toward the peculiar, covering things like Eskimo food, flatulence, vaginal weight-lifting, carrot addiction, and amputee bowling leagues. Mary was a National Magazine Award Finalist in 1995 and in 1996 she took the American Engineering Association Media Award in the category General Interest Magazines, for which she was, let’s be honest, the only entrant. Her column "My Planet" (Reader’s Digest) was runner-up for the humor category of the 2005 National Press Club awards. Her column "The Slightly Wider World of Sports" (Sports Illustrated for Women) did not garner any awards but did afford the life-enriching opportunity to learn alligator-wrestling, jousting, dirt-biking, and knife-throwing. She is also the guest editor of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology.



Mary lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Ed and works in an office with seven other writers. She was born in Hanover, New Hampshire. She enjoys bird-watching, though the hours do not agree with her, backpacking, thrift stores, overseas supermarkets, Scrabble, mangoes, and that late-night Animal Planet show about horrific animals like the parasitic worm that attaches itself to fishes’ eyeballs but makes up for it by leading them around. Visit MaryRoach.net for more information.

2 responses to “Mary Roach: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Sarah Bell says:

    Dear Mary Roach, I am so excited to read this. I’ve read all your books, including the new one, and am forcing my husband to read them, too.

    I was also featured on TNB under the Arts and Culture section. I would be honored if you’d take a look.

    http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/scbell/2009/12/21-questions-with-sarah-c-bell/

    My husband and I are both graphic novelists living in San Francisco.

    Anyway, sorry to gush, but as I always say, you’re the David Sedaris of scientific reporting.

    Love, Sarah

    P.S. I didn’t have to force my husband. He already loved you, too.

  2. I bought this book two weeks ago and I love it. Everyone, this is one of the best reads this fall. Get it!

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