At a time when people refuse to believe in science, facts, reason, or the experts, a new book by science writer Mary Roach is just what her fans need right now. Especially since her newest, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) seems like it could be her funniest one yet. But as she explains in the following interview, while Fuzz has her usual mix of information, insight, and humorous observations, it’s not like watching videos of bear stealing food.
Photo Credit: © Jen Siska
Let’s start with the basics. What is Fuzz about?
Fuzz is a book about people and wild animals getting in each other’s way, more or less. The subtitle is When Nature Breaks The Laws, but these are human laws, laws written for people. Animals don’t read, have no reason to know about these laws, and they break them all the time. They kill, they steal, they trespass, they jaywalk. How do you deal with that? You don’t arrest them and fine them, so how do you deal with it? And can science help?
The science of human/wildlife conflict is the boring way to say what the book is about.
Where did you get the idea for Fuzz?
That’s a tough one to answer, I don’t have a great origin story, I rarely do.
I got interested in wild life crime forensics — not wild life as the perpetrators, but as the victims — after I stumbled on this paper by a researcher named Bonnie Yates, who is the foremost authority on how to tell counterfeit tiger penis from real tiger penis. Tiger penis is illegally obtained and sold as a virility potion. But while I wondered what direction that would take me, it took me to a dead end because you can’t tag along on an open case because that’s illegal.
So, I flipped it around and thought, “What is the animals were the perpetrators? What are those crime scenes like? How do you prevent these crimes?” So that’s how it unspooled.
It seems like a weird topic for scientific research. It’s not like we’re constantly dealing with bears stealing pic-a-nic baskets. Were you surprised at how many scientists there are studying animal behavior of this nature?
Yes because I had never heard of the science of human/wildlife conflict. There are people who are human / elephant conflict specialists, human/snow leopard specialists. I think because I don’t work in agriculture, I’m not a rancher, and don’t live in bear country, I don’t encounter a lot of animals who are trespassing or stealing from me. I have some racoons and skunks and possums who wander around my yard, but I don’t care.
So, yeah, it was a surprise to me, both that these professionals existed, and the sheer number of species who are considered pests around the world.
I was going to ask you if, when doing research for this book, you learned anything that really surprised you, but it sounds like everything surprised you.
Yes, but I typically dive into things I know nothing about because I like to be surprised. If I was smart, I would follow a book by another book on the same subject because then I would have encyclopedic knowledge to draw upon and to produce a more scholarly look, but I never do that. I’m always like, “Okay, I’m done.” I’m always just trying to surprise myself, and the more I surprise myself, the more I want to put it in the book.
So how often did you learn about an animal crime that just made you laugh or yell out, “Shenanigans! I call shenanigans!”?
The one that really got me were the gulls who vandalized the Vatican. Before Easter Sunday, the Pope comes out and says Mass to like 80,000 people, and there’s a massive floral display. Like three huge semi-trucks full of flowers are driven down from the Netherlands. Well, a couple years back, in the wee hours of the morning, these gulls just came in and wreaked havoc. But gulls don’t eat daffodils. There was no logical explanation, they were just being assholes. So yeah, that one was like, “What the hell, birds?”
So do you have any pets? I’m curious how writing Fuzz changed your relationship with them. Like when they’re being assholes.
I don’t. I used to have cats, but my husband is more of a dog person, so we kind of cancel each other out.
Your books always have humor in them, usually situational or self-deprecating. But it seems like Fuzz could be the most out-right funny yet, given that it’s about animals breaking the law. In writing it, how often did you dial back the humor to keep this from being not serious enough to be a science book?
Not really, no. There’s always something funny that happens, no matter where a book takes you. And yeah, in this one, there is a lot of absurd animal behavior, but the things that animals do, they make for funny videos, they’re not as funny when you’re describing them. So, while there’s definitely humor in the book, no, I didn’t have to dial it back at all. I don’t dial anything back.
You also make your husband do stuff in your books…in the name of science. What did you have him do for Fuzz? Did you make him put on a bunny costume and rob a bank?
That would be entertaining, but no.
I did drag him to New Zealand for this. Though it’s hardly a drag. In this case, he actually benefitted from it.
Well, I think what he did for Bonk was beneficial for him as well [in that book, she got him to have sex with her…in an MRI machine].
Eh, no, that was really awkward.
I know from following you on Twitter that you read a lot of science books. Are there any that you’ve read since writing your previous book, Grunt, that had a big influence on how you wrote Fuzz?
No, I don’t think so. I wrote Fuzz like I wrote anything.
But I also tend to do the opposite of what you’d expect: I stay away from other people’s books on the subject. Like, when I was writing Packing For Mars, you could not pay me enough to read [Tom Wolfe’s] The Right Stuff because I would’ve just thought, “What am I doing? I can’t possibly top this.”
I also haven’t read Susan Orlean’s book on animals [On Animals]. I have it, I just haven’t read it. But she’s one of those authors who makes me push myself harder because she’s so annoyingly good. She’s good, smart, funny, fresh. I have it, I just haven’t read it.
Now, along with Fuzz, you have a “young readers” version of your book Packing For Mars coming out called Packing For Mars For Kids, which is Whose idea was this?
My publisher didn’t used to do books for the middle grades, but now they do, and the editor there asked me if I wanted to do it. And Packing For Mars seemed like a logical place to start. Obviously, Bonk [her book about sex] would not work for a middle-grade adaptation. It’s actually been banned from some high school libraries, which is ridiculous.
How different is Packing For Mars For Kids from Packing For Mars? Like for hardcore fans of yours, who I assume are called Roach-heads, is there enough for them to read?
No, no. Well, unless they have kids. I didn’t do anything new for it. I just chopped out more than half of the book — went from 80,000 words down to about 20,000 words, just keeping the chapters that would be interesting for kids between the ages of 8 and 12 — and then rewrote what was left to make it interesting for kids.
Normally I can’t imagine one of your books being turned into a movie or TV show. But I could see Fuzz working as a cartoon, like an animated mock documentary.
Oh, that’s a good idea.
I guess then that no one’s anyone approached you about this?
No, though I do have a film and TV rights person. But the book just came out, so she hasn’t shopped it around yet.
The rights to my books get sold, and things get proposed, but then nothing happens.
I could also see someone proposing a romantic comedy in which a female science writer falls in love with someone while working on a book about sex, though you wouldn’t want to call it Bonk.
Yeah, there have been ideas like that. There was one that would be a scripted TV series about a woman who worked at a sex institute, and they even got this writer — who’s good, I just can’t remember his name — to write the pilot, but the guy behind it decided not to do it. I was pretty excited about that. And I went through the same with Packing For Mars, where they wanted to turn it into a workplace comedy set at NASA, and it also got to the pilot script before it got cut.
Well, if you make the Fuzz cartoon I’ll come on as a producer, but I’ll be a silent producer. Mostly.
[laughs] I think it would be a good idea.
Finally, if someone enjoys Fuzz, what funny science book by someone else would you recommend they read next?
Yeah. If they haven’t read Bill Bryson, I would steer them towards him. He’s very funny. Though some of my favorites are his non-science books. I loved the one about Australia [Down Under], though it had a little bit of science in it. But he’s just really entertaining, funny, and informative. A Short History Of Nearly Everything is also really good. And I really liked At Home, which is a history of the house. It sounds really boring, but he goes room by room, and it’s fascinating.