When organizers of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum's First Fridays series asked the public what sorts of programming it wanted to see, people overwhelmingly said that they wanted (a) sex, and (b) science author Mary Roach. Oddly enough, organizers found they could kill two birds with one stone.
So, on a rainy Friday evening in February, Roach, having just flown in from her home in the Bay Area, is sitting in the Hall of North American Mammals, waiting to talk about her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. As sound techs fiddle with microphones, Roach looks around and declares the stuffed badger to be "fabulous."
People who love dioramas and museums and dark stormy nights also love Roach for her deeply, and humorously, reported stories about bizarre subjects. Roach is the kind of person who will figure out exactly how much food it takes to make a stomach burst. She is the kind of writer who will eat boiled rodent knees with a blow dart–wielding tribe in the Amazon, just to tell the tale.
"You really have to choose carefully," she says. "If you're not interested in something for 2½ years of your life, it's gonna show in your book. You have to ask, will your readers read 300 pages of it?"
So far, they have. Each of Roach's past four books has been a New York Times best-seller. Her first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, grew out of a series of pieces she wrote for Salon.com. Her agent, she says, "thought it sounded like a topic that would be surprising, that hadn't been covered before and that people would be fascinated by." And if Roach and her agent are excited, so is her editor, "though she's usually left scratching her head."
Bonk, Roach's third book, was a particularly easy sell. "So," Roach said. "Sex labs, sex research. What about that?" Done, and done. Her agent and editor were immediately on board.
Granted, Roach isn't really one for false starts. She has a good sense of what works for her. She needs to be able to do some on-scene reporting. She needs a little bit of humor and some interesting history to dig into. Grossness? A plus.
She is ruthless with the wrong ideas. "People have said, 'Oh, you should write about sleep.' But that's, you know, I'm gonna go to the research facility and there's gonna be a person sleeping. And, um ... there's not a lot you can do with that for 15 chapters."
Or drugs. "Somebody said, 'How about drugs?' But then that's an internal state. So other than taking them and describing it ..." she says, letting the thought trail off with a shrug. "Hearing someone describe their internal state, it's not the same as describing people doing things in a lab."
Stylistically, she is a first-person kind of writer. It is, she says, "more fun" to write in first person, to figuratively walk alongside the reader and go, "This is weird for me, too."
Certain scenes demand a first-person approach. Take, for example, the scene in medical physicist Dr. Jing Deng's lab, which appears in Bonk. Deng was looking for couples who were willing to let him scan their genitals with a 3-D ultrasound imaging machine while they had sex. Roach volunteered. "My poor husband. I will never be able to pay him back."
The idea for Bonk came while she was reading Film Quarterly, of all things. "I came across a brief reference to films Masters and Johnson had made with a device called a penis camera. I read that one sentence and thought, 'Whaahaa? Really? OK. Laboratory-based sex research. That's my next book.' Because it's so delightfully awkward."
Up next: her new work
She struggles to recall the genesis of her newest work, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, which comes to bookstores in April and which she characterizes as "entertainingly revolting."
She happened upon the idea for it while reporting book No. 4, Packing for Mars. Roach had met a researcher who was investigating the possibility of making food out of dead bacteria — because if you're going to Mars, you want to be able to grow your own food. Preferably something simple.
She laughs. Just saying "dead bacteria" cracks her up.
"There was a study at UC Berkeley where these guys — these poor guys — went into the metabolic chamber and ate this slurry of dead bacteria." That got Roach interested in the difference between eating to stay alive and eating for pleasure.
"We have so much emphasis on food and foodie-ism and gourmet-ism, but once it's in your mouth and it gets chewed, it's taboo. It goes from something we practically worship and obsess about, to it doesn't exist." Gulp emerged from that inquiry.
Roach doesn't have another book under contract currently, and she isn't sure what's next. "Ideally I would have had a topic a year ago," she says. "When I'm winding down one, I would love to have another to go to. But I often don't.
"It gets harder the longer you do this, to come up with ideas that fit the realm of what I'm looking for. Because there's really only so many things that work for me."
A lot of what goes on in science today, she continues, is on the molecular level. "You're looking through microscopes. It's all protein receptors and genetics. In terms of larger-scale things going on in labs, there isn't as much as there used to be." Her voice echoes as she speaks, and she suddenly experiences a moment of trepidation as she takes in the room. "It's a large place. There's a lot of chairs."
Mary Roach, however, is a rock star. An equally large crowd has built up in the hallway. It ends up being a full house.
Onstage, she brightens, the touch of laryngitis seeming to melt away. Roach speaks just as she writes: She's charming, funny and intimate.
She describes what it was like to have sex in a lab while a scientist watched: "It didn't seem like sex. It seemed like one of those awkward things you go to the hospital for."
She talks about what she did during the act (took notes), and about how Dr. Deng offered to play mood music on his laptop (the soundtrack to Les Miserables).
Then to the Q&A.
"Do you have any fetishes?" a young woman asks.
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Without missing a beat, a wry smile flitting across her face, Roach answers, "Research."