Mary Roach is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Stiff has been translated into 16 languages, and Spook was a 2005 New York Times Notable Book. Mary's new book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is now available.
Mary, described as "the funniest science writer in the country" (Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker), has also written for Outside, National Geographic, Wired, New Scientist, The New York Times Magazine, and NPR's "All Things Considered." She is a contributing editor at the science magazine Discover, a Frequent Contributor to the New York Times Book Review, a National Magazine Award finalist, and a winner of the American Engineering Societies' Engineering Journalism Award.
We are thrilled that Mary could answer a few questions for WOW! readers before leaving on a month-long national book tour for Bonk.
WOW: Welcome to WOW! Mary! Once again, you've given us a fascinating look at an unusual topic. Your research, insight, and wit make for a compelling read. Are you pleased with how Bonk turned out? And do you have any favorite parts to share with our readers?
Mary: Yes, very pleased. I'm in love with the cover and design of the book. W.W. Norton always does a fabulous job with the look of my books. Favorite parts: the Danish pig chapter—which is not really about pigs, but about "upsuck"—the contractions of orgasm and whether or not they suck the semen up into the uterus and boost the odds of conception. Also fond of the chapter called Dating the Penis Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? And the footnotes of course! There are 116 of them—Stiff only had 43!
WOW: You’ve written about a variety of topics—from cadavers and the afterlife to coupling. In the case of Bonk, you came upon a research study that started a series of wonderings. How do you decide when a subject extends beyond a personal curiosity and becomes the subject for an entire book?
Mary: It's got to be a huge subject area, because 90 percent of what exists in any topic isn't funny or strange or interesting enough to go in the book. Finding a topic is, by far, the hardest part for me. I'm always open to suggestions from readers and fellow writers!
WOW: We'll let you know if we come up with anything new for you! In the book's introduction you wrote about the "cringe factor" associated with Bonk's subject matter. Did you eventually become blasé about the strange things you were discussing, and sometimes witnessing, with others?
Mary: Yes. I'll sit down next to a stranger on a plane and start talking about the book—penis, vagina, clitoris, blah blah, intercourse, orgasm, blah blah blah, penis, vagina, vagina, semen. It must be odd for people. I don't even notice anymore. Yesterday, I got Robert Siegel to say "orgasm" on NPR. A career highlight!
WOW: That's funny! In parts of your book, you include the mating practices of animals. Did your early PR job working at the San Francisco Zoo play a part in your inspiration for Bonk?
Mary: No. It was an old issue of Film Quarterly that mentioned the films that Masters and Johnson shot using an "artificial coition" machine. I read that, and I went, "Whoah. Sex research. Next book." With the exception of the Danish pigs and the rhesus monkeys toward the end of the book, the research covered in Bonk involved humans.
“I like the audio recordings best—porcupine mating sounds…”
WOW: So, what is the most valuable lesson in studying the coitus of animals that you can apply to human relations?
Mary: If you're interested in human sexuality, it's best to bring humans into your lab. Animal sex is usually so brief that researchers hardly have a chance to see what's going on. Plus the equipment is often so different. Sows' clitorises are all the way inside their vaginas, for example, and pig penises are corkscrewed, etc.
WOW: That's some interesting information! In "The Sausage, the Porcupine, and the Agreeable Mrs. G." you discuss visiting the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, in Bloomington, Indiana. Although I'm sure it's not the ideal family vacation, if one were so inclined to visit as part of their sightseeing venture, what would they find most intriguing?
Mary: I like the audio recordings best—porcupine mating sounds, Subject No. 3641 Masturbating, stuff like that. There's a tremendous collection of erotic art from around the world, as well. Though I don't know how much of it is open to the general public.
WOW: We'll move on now to the craft of writing, since there's a lot we can learn from you. To quote Peter Sagal, “Mary Roach…is like the Platonic ideal of a dinner guest: she's whip smart, hilariously funny, endlessly curious, and she can talk about sex without making you feel like you need a shower.” In light of that marvelous description, what writing methods, or inspirational processes, do you use to bring out the playfulness in seemingly clinical subjects?
Mary: With science, sometimes it is that clinical quality—the dryness and the polysyllabic jargon—that creates the potential for humor. There was one study where the researcher had hooked up a copulating couple to a machine that measured respiration rate. He had masks and tubes over their mouths, and a clip on their noses to make sure they were mouth-breathing, plus EKG leads on their limbs. It was an absurd, a hysterical, set up—but what made all the more hilarious was the deadpan somberness with which it was written. That's often what I'm playing off of.
WOW: And in a masterful way, we might add. Your books are extremely well-researched. What is your approach to finding such interesting information and people?
Mary: I keep looking and looking and looking and asking around and looking some more. Read read read read. I'm not really an author; I'm a giant filtration system. I sift through gazillions of books and papers to find the really juicy, fun stuff (and people).
WOW: A "giant filtration system," that’s great. Let's talk about your love of footnotes, which you mentioned earlier. In addition to many funny asides, you manage to share interesting facts—not just about the book's topic, but also American history, Greek mythology, Nobel Prize nominations, and obscure magazines. What don't you know about, Mary?
Mary: Everything! I don't know anything about any of these topics until I decide to do a little research on them. I'm a complete ignoramus, trust me.
“I'm not really an author; I'm a giant filtration system.”
WOW: The footnotes sure are a bonus for the reader; they're lots of fun. You often write about science and yet you've said (on your website) that you don’t have a science degree and have to fake your way through interviews with experts you can't understand. But obviously, you do quite well in this regard. What advice do you have for aspiring authors who suddenly find themselves in the position of having to tackle difficult subject matter?
Mary: Be very straightforward with the people you're talking to. Tell them to pretend they're talking to a 7th grader. Apologize for your ignorance, but make sure they explain their work on a level that you can understand. Most of them are very good about this. I always tape record complicated discussions, so that I can transcribe it and try to make sense of it later. Often, I have to call back and have them explain this or that.
WOW: That's great advice. I read the email you sent to Dr. Deng, a senior lecturer in medical physics at University College, London, Medical School, asking to view his studies on painful intercourse. As writers, we know it's important to receive permission to reprint emails, letters, etc. In your experience, what is the proper method to garnering reprint rights?
Mary: I try to keep my excerpts below 250-words, I think it is, so that the "fair use" doctrine applies. Thus I am rarely having to request reprint rights. The photos at the front of the chapters are mostly from Corbis archives, so it's easy to get reprint rights: You just pay for them.
WOW: In an interview you did with Bookslut, you said, "I write up a proposal, which is a device that leads people to believe that I know something about the topic. In reality, I know just the barest minimum of what’s out there. So then I’ve really got to get my act together." That made me think: Geez, she writes some killer book proposals! Do you have any secrets that you can share with our aspiring nonfiction authors?
Mary: A proposal is a sales pitch, a way to get editors excited about you, your idea, and your writing. Don't get too hung up on the content, the facts. That's all bound to change anyway. Make sure it's grabby and well written, especially the first couple paragraphs. Mine are short—15 or 20 pages double-spaced. Though of course, it depends on the sort of book you're writing. I don't think there's any one right way to write them. I asked my agent to send me a sample proposal, and he sent me one for a biography of Graham Parsons. I'm like, Okay, well, they're both about dead people, but other than that, not a lot of overlap...
WOW: "Grabby and well written"—the key to all query and proposal success! Once you've decided on a project, how do you begin the book writing process? For example, do you prepare an extensive outline, or do you just start researching interesting aspects of the subject?
Mary: I spend several months flailing around inside my subject area, with no idea what I'm doing. Eventually, I emerge from this phase with a better grip on what's out there, and what I want to cover. Only then do I begin to feel my way toward an outline. Writing-wise, I just dive in and research and write the chapters as they come up. I don't worry at that point where they're going to go in the book. It's easy enough to shuffle them around later—just means rewriting chapter-to-chapter transitions.
WOW: You've also written for magazines such as Salon, GQ, Vogue, and The New York Times Magazine. What magazine work do you still do, and what do you enjoy about it?
Mary: I'm writing for National Geographic, Outside, and The New York Times Book Review. Whether I enjoy it has everything to do with the editors. I have wonderful editors at all three of these places.
WOW: A good working relationship with an editor makes the experience more satisfying, for sure. In your extensive work with writing articles for magazine publishers, and now, authoring your own books, what would you say is the biggest difference in the business structure and editorial process between these two worlds of writing?
Mary: With articles, the magazine is the product, and your writing needs to suit not only the readers' interests but those of the advertisers. With books, you are the product. Thus, you are much freer to write as you wish, about whatever you wish. Provided, that is, that there is an audience for it!
“Writing-wise, I just dive in and research and write the chapters as they come up.”
WOW: That's an interesting distinction between the two kinds of writing. What’s your trick to managing multiple writing projects?
Mary: I mostly don't. When I'm working on a book, I do few other things. I'm terribly disorganized!
WOW: Well, writing your fabulous books take great focus, we'd imagine! You've also written some great columns for Reader's Digest. I especially loved the one about dinner party debt—you confirmed that everyone's silently keeping score of dinners made, and dinners repaid. So, what do you do when you’re “culinary-challenged” and need to return the favor?
Mary: Write a column that flatters your friend Dave in print, and then give him five copies of it! (He said that would count for two dinners, so I'm still deeply in the red!)
WOW: Maybe it's time for another in-print mention of your friend! From reading your essay, his meals sure sounded delicious. Now, you're about to embark on a 12-city national book tour for Bonk. What do you like most about hitting the road to promote your work?
Mary: Meeting readers—I love my readers. They're the coolest people in the world!
WOW: I'm sure they enjoying meeting you, too. When you’re on tour, do you find time to do any writing, or squeeze in some fun?
Mary: Har. They book you so tight; you don't have room to fart! I'm lucky if I have time to sleep, eat and check email on any given day.
WOW: The "get-the-most-out-of-Mary" plan. We hope you do get some time to rest. With the book’s launch, do you have any fears that people will feel open to discussing personal issues with you that you'd rather not know about?
Mary: Nope! I'm finding it kind of fun to play sex therapist. Though honestly, it's only come up once so far.
WOW: You've probably seen and heard it all with the book's research anyway! Mary, you’ve achieved monumental success as a New York Times bestselling author. Have you had any mentors that have helped you carve the path into authoring?
Mary: A lot of credit must go to my agent, Jay Mandel. He contacted me when I was writing for Salon.com and encouraged me to think about books. He was extremely enthusiastic about Stiff, back when it was just a sort of larval, amorphous notion. He has been indispensable every step of the way and still is.
WOW: I’m sure our aspiring authors would love to know more about your writing routines. For example, where do you write? How many hours a day do you spend writing? Any favorite rituals?
Mary: I write when I can finally force myself to stop checking email for a few hours. I rarely write more than 2 or 3 hours a day. I like to have a cup of coffee by my side to sort of anchor me to my writing. For this reason, I never go out for coffee with people.
“Every sentence and paragraph should earn its keep. If it's not interesting or fresh or funny or SOMETHING, then ditch it.”
WOW: What a powerful distraction e-mail can be. Love the coffee as an anchor! Since this is the humor writing issue, we have to know, did you study comedic timing, or is it innate?
Mary: I didn't study it formally. I learned it by osmosis, by reading people like Bill Bryson, Anthony Lane, Dave Barry, David Sedaris.
WOW: Some of my favorites too. Thank you, Mary, for taking time to chat with us today; it’s been fun! Do you have any words of wisdom that you’d like to share with our readers?
Mary: Be your own harshest critic. Every sentence and paragraph should earn its keep. If it's not interesting or fresh or funny or SOMETHING, then ditch it. There's a writer whose name I'm blanking on right now who said that the secret to his success was that he "leaves out the parts people skip." I try to do that. (I'm speaking of nonfiction here. I know nothing about writing fiction!)
WOW: I believe it was Elmore Leonard who said that. If there were one bit of advice you could pass on to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Mary: Choose your readers carefully. I'm referring to people that you show works-in-progress to in order to get input and editorial suggestions. A good reader is invaluable, but a bad one can be very damaging. I am so insecure about my work that had I shown Stiff to someone who said, "Hey, this humor and cadaver thing is tasteless and dumb," I would have made massive changes. And that would have been a mistake. Trust your instincts.
WOW: Thank you, Mary, for an insightful and fun interview. We hope your book tour is going well, and you're selling lots of copies of Bonk!
For more information about Mary, visit her website:
Get a copy of Mary's latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
MARCIA PETERSON is a writer from Northern California. She is mother to Julia (9) and Sabrina (7). Her work has been published in The Contra Costa Times and The Willamette Writer. She recently won first prize in two contests: the SouthWest Writers International Monthly Writing Competition and ByLine magazine's short article contest.
Marcia is a columnist and the blog editor for WOW! Women On Writing.