If Mary Roach were to have a motto, it might be: Who wants to read a boring science book? Suffice to say, the New York Times bestselling wordsmith doesn’t write boring. Her books are, ahem, far from it.
Take for instance her most recent one, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, where, among other issues, she talks to U.S. military special operations team in Djibouti about the national security threat of diarrhea. Think “leaky Seals” deployed in the Middle East during firefights and you get the picture of how national security interests might collide with bodily functions. And with Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Live in the Void, three of her six books, Roach ventures into alleyways and crevices where few other writers go. In fact, she calls herself “the bottom feeder of nonfiction.”
I asked Roach in this 1:2:1 podcast what makes her so curious about exploring the odd, grotesque and taboo. “It’s partly because no one else ventures there,” she told me. “Everybody has a certain amount of where they’re both drawn to something and repelled by it. And, I’ll find a way, as a writer, to take them by the hand and say, 'OK, yeah, this is a little repellent, a little grotesque, but come with me.'”
I was also curious about why so many gatekeepers let her in their front door to write about subjects that are, well, icky or perhaps difficult to write about or even discuss. “Simple. I’m not a threat,” she said.
When Roach pushed for access to special operations forces overseas, she worried if a delay in approval had anything to do with her approach or prior work. A U.S. military public affairs spokesperson told her bluntly: “We don’t care about you. We’re concerned about Zero Dark Thirty. We’re concerned with special operations people writing memoirs and revealing things that are classified. We’re fine with you coming here and writing about people who are repairing genitalia that are damaged in an IED explosion. We’re fine with you writing about food poisoning out in Somalia or Djibouti.’”
In writing Grunt, the hardest part, she told me, was sitting down with a soldier who stepped on an IED and lost part of both legs and part of his penis. It’s for a chapter called "It could get weird. A salute to genital transplants." She said: "Asking him to tell me that story, what was that like, recreating the moment from the time he stepped on it clear through the time when he made it back to base. I was really awed by him, and his courage, and what a decent person he was, and what an awful thing he’d been through.”
At the end of the day, I wondered, what is she trying to convey about “the healers” in the stories she tells. “Thank you is really the message," she said. "Not just to military medical personnel I wrote about in Grunt, but also to NASA support teams reflected in Packing for Mars – the astronaut book. Whether its an astronaut, or a solider, or a Marine, those stories of saving human lives and, even more so, just healing people and putting them back together. That story doesn’t get told enough, and I think that those people deserve a lot of recognition and gratitude.”
I have to admit, Roach’s books were not sitting on my nightstand. Consider it my own ignorance. I’d not heard of the scribe whom the Los Angeles Times called "the country’s greatest popular science writer” until a colleague proposed her for a Q&A in the winter issue of Stanford Medicine. So I wondered, “Who’s your reader? Can you define them?”
“You know that scene in Being John Malkovich where he’s in a restaurant and everybody looks like John Malkovich?" she asked. "That’s how I picture it. Thousands of Mary Roaches.”
Thousands of roaches. How fitting.
Photo by Timothy Archibald