Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mary Roach: Author of Bonk



Few things make me as giddy as the release of a new book by Mary Roach. Mary's latest book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex has just been released in paper book. Roach, one of my very favorite authors, and I had a few seconds to chat recently the night before she left on the book tour for the paper back release of the book. (Read my first interview with Roach from 2005.) In her latest work Roach looks at the history of sex and the role that science has played in helping humankind figure out just how our body parts work. Roach is at her very best in Bonk - traveling in person to view a penile surgery, visit a sex toy manufacturer and even participating in a ultrasound study of intercourse. (Don't worry there's more about this below.) Roach approaches her subjects with a simple dedication that is endearing. It also helps that her observations about the subject and the individuals she comes across are hilarious. Coming from another author a book like Bonk might be creepy or awkward by Mary's humor and observation make Bonk and her other titles pure joy to read.

Roach's past titles include the immensely popular Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (once featured prominently in a plot on Six Feet Under) and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. With Stiff, Mary took an unprecedented look into the sometimes stomach-churning uses for human bodies after death. It is fascinating, horrifying, incredibly informative and oddest of all, funny. With Spook, Roach looked at the history of clairvoyants and psychics and the human preoccupation with forging contact with the beyond. Roach is a detective who will stop at nothing to make the right connections in order to get unbelievable access to the subject at hand.

Already a Roach fan? Mary drops a hint about her next book below...


Kelly Hewitt: One of my questions has to do with something that you allude to but never fully reveal. I am trying to think of an appropriate way of wording this ... In Bonk you write about your interest in a particular study taking place that you are only able to visit and learn more about if you serve as a test subject. In perhaps your most outrageous and hilarious attempt to get access to the subject of your book you sign you and your husband up to be part of a study taking place in England in which researchers are taking ultrasound 4-D images via MRI of couples engaged in the act of intercourse while inside the actual MRI machine (There's a question here I promise.) You explain your husband's involvement by saying that you lured him with the free trip to Europe by offering him details about an exciting new study.

Did he really find out about your scheme only after arriving and was his initial reaction to the idea?

Mary Roach: It was worse than an MRI. It was ultrasound, which means the operator is standing right next to you, holding the wand to your skin. Actually my skin. Before Ed knew any details, he was all enthusiastic. As in, "Hey, sex research! Sign me up!" Then he entered the denial stage, choosing to focus on the free trip to England. And finally, as Dr. Deng walked down the hallway toward us, he entered the final stage: glumness and despair and horror. I did let him know what he was in for before we left, though I don't think he really thought it through. People ask us how we could do it. It was less like sex and more like some awkward medical procedure that you just have to get through.

Kelly: I imagine that being the husband of Mary Roach entails a great many adventures in the name of research. What other kind of crazy things have you had him do?

Mary: I dragged him to a Mars/Venus John Gray couples seminar, poor thing. Nothing else crazy that I can think of.

Kelly: In the chapter "Re-Member Me" you write about another research trip in which you head to Taipei to witness male genital extensions and surgeries. Having seen the actual surgeries and knowing what you know now would you ever encourage your husband to have a similar procedure?

Mary: I didn't witness any enlargement or enhancement, just surgical treatments for ED. And those are surgeries of last resort, for men whose ED doesn't respond to Viagra or its cousins. So, no, I surely would not. Maybe when he's 90...
Italic
Kelly: I know that I meant to ask this question the last time that we chatted. Were you told that your book Stiff would be a major plot point in the final season of Six Feet Under or was that a surprise?

Mary: I knew that they'd asked permission to show the book (like Norton would ever have said no!), but did not know what they had planned. I assumed it would just be a prop -- a book on Nate's nightstand or some such. The way they used it was utterly a surprise.

Kelly: In Bonk you offer the reader a very interesting rundown of the history of what you call the pioneers of human sexual response. For readers who haven't had a chance to read the book which of the pioneers (who all have equally delightful and unsettling stories) did you find to be most compelling?

Mary: Robert Latou Dickinson. He's the dude who got Kinsey to drop wasp research and get into sex research. Gynecologist in the early 1900s. Way ahead of his time. SUNY Downstate in NYC has a huge collection of his plaster castingss of vulvas. I also like the behaviorist John B. Watson -- the first to study humans having sex in a lab (him and his mistresss).

Kelly: As funny as it is Bonk, like your other two books, packs in a good deal of detailed information. I walked away from this book knowing a great deal about all sorts of anatomical anomalies. I haven't had a chance yet to use a story about Marie Bonaparte, the great-grand niece of Napoleon Bonaparte, who literally had some of her sexual necessities moved like one my uproot a tree but I am sure that the opportunity is just around the corner.

Have you heard of any instances in which one of your books has been used to teach a class (presumably collegiate)?

Mary: Bonk is part of the curriculum in at UT Austin (sexuality class) and one other school. Both Spook and Stiff have been used as a freshman reading "common book" at universities. Stiff gets used in anatomy classes and in high school writing classes.

Kelly: I know it is very soon to be asking but, you've written about the science of corpses, ghost/spirits and now sex. Where do you plan on going next?

Mary Roach: Next one has to do with the fabulous insanity of space travel.

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