I saw Mary Roach at the roadie event for Notes & Words, which is on May 18, because she’s one of the featured performers that evening, and I enjoyed her presence so much that I sent her an email (it’s no secret that Mary is charming). We set up a time to talk and when I was re-reading her Wiki page I saw that she’d asked me to call her on her birthday! Which I thought was so strange and so sweet, and when I called her she was in her office working!… though she did ask if I could call her back later because she was, in fact, on the way out, which was good because it was only noon… A couple of hours later we did talk, and obviously I didn’t want to take up too much of her birthday but I did ask her a few questions:
The first thing I wanted to ask you was what provoked the subject of the book – was it a response to Packing for Mars, or…
You know it was a lot of little things—that was part of it, I guess. Also that I came across that—while I was working on Packing for Mars—that crazy study where they had people eating bacteria, so that sort of got me thinking about the science of eating. You know, eating as science rather than as sensual pleasure. And I also had a conversation around that time with a reader of one of my books who knew a lot about the food tube and said some things about it that I found fascinating, so it was a mix of… it just struck me as kind of, you know, another quasi-taboo Mary Roach kind of topic.
Right on. You do seem to follow your curiosity (and of course that word is in the subtitle of a couple of the books), and I was wondering if you find yourself often wanting to investigate a lot more things than you have time for and, if so, what are a couple of them and what makes an idea something that you stick to and devote the time to?
Yeah. It’s easier to know what isn’t a topic that I’m going to stick to—I was going to say it’s a process of elimination but now that sounds really gross. It’s… when I see something I can kind of recognize the elements that need to be there, which is kind of a surreal quality, a little science, a little history, some fun—and it doesn’t hurt things if it’s a little—yeah—taboo or… classically off-putting.
What was your favorite part about writing this book?
Oh. My favorite part of writing that book… um, I have to say my afternoon at Avinal State Prison was—had to be right up there just because that was a world I couldn’t imagine and I also couldn’t have imagined how this interview was going to go, so in terms of just, you know, my work taking me into a place that I’ve never been and really didn’t know how to behave or what to do that was a really fascinating afternoon.
Wait, tell me more about that.
Oh, the chapter about the human rectum is essentially a storage facility, you know it’s a holding tank—that’s its main function in the human body, so I thought what would be a setting that would highlight that function, and I thought, OK, well smugglers frequently make use of the rectum to store things that they’re trying to hide, so I thought maybe if I talked to some folks who are familiar with the rectum in that capacity that would be sort of an interesting narrative framework for the science—the physiology—of the human rectum, so I interviewed a smuggler, a man who smuggles tobacco, cell phones—you name it—in prison.
Yeah. So we had an interesting conversation.
I can’t wait. That’s really smart. Yeah maybe just one more question: how has the process of writing the book and doing the research affected your daily life? Are you Fletcherizing?
No! [laughs] I am absolutely not Fletcherizing, but I do have that kind of odd hyperawareness of bodily function that you get when you do a book—whether it’s about sexual physiology or memory or whatever it is you’re studying—if it’s a human body-related thing you get this hyperawareness, so I have this kind of heightened awareness of, like, what’s going on with my nose when I drink wine, or what’s going on if I chew a cracker and I’m forming a bolus in my mouth; I have that kind of peculiar heightened awareness that is interesting but occasionally kind of annoying.
Sure. Do you think that is one of the reasons science might be off-putting to people…
Yeah, it shines a spotlight on things they might prefer not to think about it. Yeah, I think maybe people feel that science and possibly my books take the romance out of, say, eating, or—in the case of Bonk—somebody could say they really don’t want to know about the physiological specifics of what’s going on when they have sex. So yeah, I think some people they’d rather remain in the dark. For sure.
Yeah. Well I think in any case you’re putting the romance back into science, or at least illuminating it. So I do appreciate that very much!
Well yeah. Hopefully. Hopefully I’m not ruining eating for anybody. I would hate to do that. I hope people can compartmentalize a little bit.