Monday, April 21, 2008
This week's Blast from the Past is an interview I did with Mary Roach, author of Stiff, Spook, and the brand new Bonk. Those of you who visit Loaded Questions often know that I get weak in the knees whenever Mary Roach is mentioned. We have maintained contact over the last couple of years and when she sent me a copy of her new book a few months ago I had the chance to email her back and tell her what parts I liked the most. She said that my boyfriend and I, who have a ritual of reading her books out loud before bed and laughing till we cry, are her favorite fans. I am sure she says that to all of her fans but I have certainly been pretending that's not the case.
I wrote a few months ago about starting to read the book, you can read my thoughts and praises of the new book by clicking here.
I emailed Mary this evening to see about doing another interview, which we had discussed doing a few months back. I will let everyone here know the moment I hear back. In the meantime here is my first interview with Mary Roach in which she discusses her best-selling Stiff and first mentions Bonk.
Kelly Hewitt: Despite the often times dour and serious nature of your books, you come across as a very funny and witty person. Is that something that comes naturally during the writing process or is it something that you go back later to add in?
Mary Roach: When I'm very lucky, and material is great and I'm in a relaxed mood and the moon is in the right position and maybe I've had a martini, it comes naturally. But usually I go back and try to massage it a bit, make it stand and deliver. I'm very hard on my prose. It's got to earn its keep or out it goes. I so envy writers who just sit down and pour it straight out into the keyboard. Bastards.
Kelly: One of the things that I like most about your work is the fact that you use such interesting ways of gaining the information necessary for your books. You're sending emails to scientific experts, soliciting guidance from strangers in India, and inviting yourself all over the place. Has there ever been a contact that you were nervous about making or that didn't work out very well?
Mary: I'm always nervous about the initial overture, because I'm usually digging around in fairly sensitive subject areas. Most of these researchers are very wary of getting critical or scornful media coverage. I worry that they're going to do a Google search on me, realize the sort of shenanigans I'm up to, and just hit the Delete button. It's kind of amazing that they don't. I mean, there's really nothing in it for them. It's exposure, but not the kind they really want (unlike, say, a New York Times piece). I'm always SO grateful to the ones who agree to put up with me. People are amazing.
Kelly: A couple of weeks ago I got the chance to see the Bodies Exhibit in Las Vegas. The exhibit is full of bodies preserved and then put on display in various poses, offering an unprecedented view of the human body. Have you been to see this particular exhibit?
Mary: I didn't see the show, but I saw a couple of Bodies bodies in the process of being plastinated, in Roy Glover's lab at U of Michigan -- back when I was researching Stiff. I'm all for these shows, with one caveat. This is a hugely profitable entertainment venture disguised as a purely educational endeavor. So I'm a little uncomfortable with using unclaimed bodies. I'd feel better if all the bodies were people who had given their enthusiastic and specific consent to be used this way. Personally, I think it'd be a cool way to end up. Beats the crap out of rotting in a hole in the dark.
Kelly: So far you've tackled the ins and outs of the human cadaver and the scientific search for the soul. What's next for Mary Roach?
Mary: More bodies in strange labs, but live ones this time. The working title of the next book is; BONK: Sex in the Laboratory. It's a humdinger.
Kelly: Where can those of us who're big fans of your writing get a Roach fix?
Mary: I think that my Salon.com columns are still in the archives.
Kelly: I was reading the introduction to Jessica Mitford's 1996 update of The American Way of Death in which she discusses the very strong response which the funeral industry had towards her when that book was originally published in 1963. You mention her book as a source when you were writing "Stiff". While the books aren't totally alike, they both tackle aspects of death that are sometimes not discussed. Did you have any backlash from certain parts of society when your book was published?
Mary: I expected a lot of backlash, though wasn't sure who from. As it turned out, I got almost none. I think that a book like Stiff self-selects for the right audience. in other words, anyone who is squeamish or very delicate isn't giong to buy or read a book called Stiff. Except for that darn Washington Post reviewer....
Kelly: I personally had not had much knowledge of The American Way of Death until I read your book. When did you first discover it?
Mary: I read it just before my mother died, about 10 years ago. When she actually died, I was all prepared to do battle with the undertaker. I made my brother take off his Rolex, so they didn't steer us to the most expensive caskets, etc. As it turned out, the guy was very low-key, very kind. He actually said, "You don't have to embalm her if you don't want to. It's not summer." He was the direct opposite of what Mitford
had portrayed in her book.
Kelly: What sort of books, movies, and music do you like?
Mary: Books by Bill Bryson, Bill Buford, Adam Gopnik, David Sedaris, Dave Barry, Michael Chabon, Birkhard Bilger, Susan Orlean. Films by the Coen brothers, Robert Bresson, Herzog, Wim Wenders (The American Friend especially), almost anything from that golden era in the 70s (Mean Streets, Rancho Delulxe, Five Easy Pieces...).