In the thirteen years since she released her first book, Stiff — which explained how scientists have used cadavers to advance human understand of the body…and plastic surgery — writer Mary Roach has applied her patented mix of intellectual curiosity and situational humor to explain how scientists study such topics as sex (2008’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Science And Sex), eating (2013’s Gulp: Adventures On The Alimentary Canal), and what waits for us after we die (2005’s Spook: Science Tackles The Afterlife) in a way that makes these science books as entertaining as they are educational. But like her 2010 tome Packing For Mars: The Curious Science Of Life In The Void — which took a different approach, and looked at how scientists were figuring out how to help astronauts survive their trips to the cosmos — her new book Grunt: The Curious Science Of Humans At War (paperback, hardcover, digital) is also more about what scientists do than how they study a certain topic.
In the beginning of Grunt, you make a point of saying that this book isn’t about how scientists make it easier for the military to kill people, but is instead about how the scientists help the military keep soldiers alive. But in your earlier books, you focused on how scientists study a subject. Why did you decide to not have Grunt be about how scientists study war?
Because I tend to write about the human body and not technology, and warfare is strategy and military history and tech, which are not things I normally write about or want to write about. If I feel comfortable in any realm of science — and I don’t have a science background, so I’m not comfortable with a lot of science — it’s physiology and the human body where I usually land.
In Grunt, a couple chapters explore how the military deals with male soldiers who suffer from genital trauma, and you’re pretty unflinching in how you describe their injuries and their surgeries. Why do you think it’s important to be that graphic, especially in a book that, tonally, tends to lean lighthearted?
I like to cover things that aren’t covered very much. But I guess I’m also unflinching as a person, and like to talk about things that people shy away from in a straight-forward way. I enjoy that challenge as a writer. I think they’re important and interesting subjects that deserve to be written about.
Speaking of your lighthearted tone, you have a fondness for cheeky double entendres, and in the book make a reference to Wee Man from Jackass. When did you realize you had the comic sensibilities of a fifth grade boy?
Ha! I guess you realize it when you’ve been told it enough times. Fifth grade is around twelve years old, and I like to think that everyone has a twelve year old boy, or girl, in them, and that we tend to push that part of ourselves out of the picture. But, I don’t know, I guess I just see the harm in being that part of myself.
So who do you regard as being the biggest influences on your comedic style?
Oh, I don’t know that there is anyone that immature out there. [chuckles] I think I have the market cornered.
I think in the literary world, the early works of Bill Bryson [who wrote such non-fiction books as 1995’s Notes From A Small Island and 2003’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything] had an element of it, and I responded to that. He’s someone who is definitely gigging inside when he’s doing his work. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t cover serious topics.
I’m also a fan of Dave Barry, he’s funny. I’m just thinking of people who I’ve read a lot who have made me laugh.
Are you as jokey when you’re in the field, doing your research? Because I could see how, in certain situation, that could be a problem. And I don’t mean to imply a situation where you’re being disrespectful, but rather one where you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t have a sense of humor.
It’s very much on a case by case basis. If I get a sense that someone has a sense of humor, I will take the brakes off and really be myself. But some people may not have same “twelve-year-old boy” sense of humor as me, so I do have a to reign it in sometimes. Though a lot of the people I’ve met who work with cadavers or are in the military are very funny. And not in a disrespectful way, but there is something about being immersed in heavy intense issues that brings out the humor.
When Stiff came out, a man came up to me at the first event I ever did in San Francisco and introduced himself, and he said that he worked at a hospice center. And then, at the end of the event, he stood up and said, “Thank you for making it okay to laugh because funny things happen around people who are dying, and it’s good to laugh.”
Well, when the first CSI started, people talked about how the characters were making jokes at crime scenes, and then some real CSIs came out and said that they really do that because you need to laugh when you’re around death and murder all the time.
Right. That’s the sense I get, that if you don’t laugh about it then you’ll get really depressed.
Though different people respond differently, and I’ve also felt that when they’re sitting there with someone who has a tape recorder running, they’ll put a check on it because they don’t want to come across as disrespectful.
Of all the books you’ve written, which have you gotten the most compliments on from scientists?
I’d say Stiff, but only because it’s the one that the most number of people have been exposed to. It’s ended up on some curricula in high schools and anatomy classes.
I’m surprised that Bonk isn’t your most popular book.
Me too! I’m not sure why it wasn’t. I wonder if it was because people didn’t want to bring the book up to the cashier.
Well, it’s not like it had a big penis on the cover. It was called Bonk, it could’ve just as easily been a history of the ’60s Batman TV show.
Which is a book I would buy.
But I’ve gotten good feedback from the scientists in Grunt. The first thing I do when I get my box of author copies is I sent them to the people who I bugged the most, the people I spent an entire day with and then endured my follow-up emails. And it’s some of the feedback I care about the most because I don’t want people to feel betrayed or misrepresented.
Conversely, which have you gotten the most criticisms from scientists about?
I’ve gotten very little criticism send straight to me. Usually, people tend to only write you if they like the book. Though I do get sometimes get people writing to point out mistakes like, “Duh! A scuba tank doesn’t contain oxygen, they contain air.” For the most part, they like it when science stories are told to a larger audience, and maybe it gets people interested in science. I’m kind of a gateway drug for science. [chuckles]
You mentioned that you send copies of your books to the people who you’ve written about. Do any of them ever say anything about the funny way you describe them?
Oh yeah. I’m getting a lot of grief from [public affairs officer] David Accetta from Natick [US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, And Engineering Center, whom Roach describes as having, “…long eyelashes and a slow way of blinking. I almost wrote doll-like there…”] He keeps sending me emails that say, “I look forward to reading more of your book, if only I could see through my doll-like eyelashes.”
How often do you start to research a topic, only to realize it’s not as interesting as you thought it would be, or there wouldn’t be enough to do a whole book about?
Pretty often. But I don’t go very far with it. I’ll usually pitch it to my agent, and he’ll tell me honestly, “Yeah, ho-hum.”
Given your last name, why have you not done a book called Ewwww about how scientists study bugs? Or a book called Toke about how they study marijuana?
Y’know, both of those have been suggested, and I have considered both of them. Toke would be great.
You can use that, by the way. I just want a copy so I can show my mom.
Ha! Thank you.
I think there have been non-fiction books on pot and pot science, and it could be funny because people would be getting stoned, but if you’re not there, it’s not as funny.
Yeah, but you could get your husband really baked.
Ha! It is important to humiliate Ed in every book.
Whenever I tell people about Bonk, I always mention the part where you got your husband to have sex with you in an MRI machine, and people are always like, “Oh, I have to read this book.”
Y’know, I said “yes” to that before I really thought it through. But in the weeks before we went to do it, the reality of it dawned on me, and I was so filled with dread, but I had to go through with it.
Well, you did get a good story out of it.
Yeah, well, the more you dread something, the better the story will be when it’s over. It’s a basic law of life.
Now, the thing for me and your books is that I love your writing style. Like when I see that you have a new book coming out, I don’t care what it’s about, I’m getting it. I even got that book that’s a collection of your columns [My Planet: Finding Humor In The Oddest Places].
Oh, the Reader’s Digest columns. Yeah, I don’t own the rights to those columns, they just put that sucker out.
Oh, sorry. Well, where I was going with this is that I was wondering if you had ever thought of writing fiction, maybe like a comic science novel along the lines of Andy Weir’s The Martian?
I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know if I have those skills. There’s so much going on in a good novel, like the pacing and the structure and the characterization, and I don’t have a clue in how to do that. I think it would be fun to just let my imagination run free, I just don’t know if I have that kind of imagination.
You’d probably have to start with a short story.
I think I’d also miss the research. I also really like stepping into these worlds and meeting these people.
Lastly, if someone really likes Grunt, but it’s the first book of yours they’ve read, and they don’t know which to read next because none are necessarily more interesting to them than one of the others, which of your books would you suggest they read next and why?
I would steer them towards Packing For Mars because it’s a similar look at bodies at extreme and strange and trying circumstances. Packing For Mars is the most similar to Grunt.