Getting to Know … Mary Roach

Photo by David Paul Morris
For Mary Roach, the most memorable day working in public relations for the San Francisco Zoological Society was the day they used an experimental laser scalpel to remove a plantar wart from an elephant’s foot. Roach was fascinated with the technology involved. Unfortunately, she wasn’t nearly as interested in public relations.

“I’m a terrible spokesperson,” Roach admitted. She said that when people would call inquiring about a rumor that the cheetah had been sucked dry by fleas, instead of dismissing the story outright, she found herself wondering how many fleas it would take to pull off such a feat.

While a career in public relations wasn’t a good fit for Roach, her curiosity and fascination with strange topics like elephant wart removals and cheetah-sucking flees helped her to take a different career path – as a freelance writer. She wrote columns, essays and feature articles for magazines like Outside, Wired, National Geographic, GQ and the New Yorker, covering topics such as vaginal weight-lifting, alligator-wrestling and amputee bowling leagues.

Roach’s first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, gave insight into the way cadavers are used for research purposes. Roach tackled the morbid topic with wit and charm and the book became a hit. Stiff earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, perhaps in part because it was prominently featured on the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under.

After following up on the success of Stiff with another book on death, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Roach has now turned her attention to sex research with her latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

The idea behind Bonk was simple.

“There are tons of books about sex, but nobody’s really written about sex research, partly because a lot of sex research isn’t that interesting to read about,” Roach said. “So I ferreted out the greatest hits.

“I tend to cover things going on in labs that you wouldn’t really picture or anticipate. The idea of somebody studying the physiology of sex – this personal, private, intimate thing and yet it’s also physiology and biology.”

Roach researched the material in the book for almost two and a half years, combing through published scientific studies and witnessing several research projects firsthand. A few times, Roach herself volunteered to be a research subject.

While researching material for the book, Roach discovered the work being done by Dr. Jing Deng, a University College London Medical School senior lecturer in medical physics, who was experimenting with 4-D ultrasound equipment. Dr. Deng sought to capture a real-time image of human intercourse using ultrasound technology, but was unable to find a couple willing to be the first test subjects. So Roach, along with her husband Ed, volunteered.

When asked how she was able to convince her husband to participate in the study with her, Roach said, “He’s crazy supportive. He was not thrilled to do that.”

“It was much harder for him. It was nothing for me. I was just a receptacle. I was taking notes,” she added.

Luckily for Ed, Roach has promised not to forget the sacrifice he made for her work.

“I owe him a favor forever,” she said.

Like Roach’s other books, Bonk is a mixture of historical research and research that Roach witnessed firsthand. One of the more interesting subjects in the book was Dr. Geng-Long Hsu, an expert on erectile dysfunction, who performed surgery to restore blood flow to the penis of a man suffering from erectile dysfunction while Roach observed. All of the researchers featured in Roach’s book were all very receptive to her efforts to observe their work firsthand.

“People were surprisingly supportive in light of the fact that when you do sex research, you’re constantly exposing yourself to criticisms from family values group and people who could interfere with your funding,” Roach said.

Bonk was released on April 7th. The following day she began a book tour that has her visiting 18 different locations in 30 days. This week, she has already been in Boston, New York and Miami. Today she is in Chicago, tomorrow she will be in St. Louis. The goal is to visit as many cities as possible in a given week, since the New York Times bestseller list is updated weekly.

Her typical schedule while on tour involves getting up at 5 a.m. to get to either a mid-day reading or an event at 10 or 11. Her afternoons are spent doing media interviews and at night she is at bookstores giving book talks and signing copies of Bonk. Then, it’s usually back to the hotel. Any drinking or socializing after the event cuts into her sleep time.

Typically around 100 people show up at the bookstores to see Roach in person. Everyone is supportive, but there’s usually a strange vibe in the room because of the subject matter.

“There’s nothing in the book that I can talk about without saying words like ‘clitoris’ or ‘orgasm’,” Roach admitted.

Also, the fans themselves are often reluctant to participate in the event.

“Usually what happens is I open up for questions and they sit there for a while and nobody raises a hand. And then, one or two people will ask a question and then suddenly 25 people have a question,” said Roach.

As awkward as the events can be, none were likely as awkward as her book talk last night at the Books and Books in Miami because Ed’s family was in attendance, including Roach’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

Photo by Joel Murphy

Roach said her husband’s family is very supportive of her work. When Stiff came out, Roach’s mother-in-law purchased the book, but put a brown paper cover over it while reading it (her mother-in-law claimed it was to protect the book, but Roach is skeptical). Ed’s parents have read all of Roach’s books.

“I don’t know whether they actually enjoy them, but they read them,” she said.

Roach’s family and friends have all been supportive of her work. None of her loved ones have said anything critical to her about her books.

“I’m sure a lot of the response goes on behind my back,” Roach said.

Roach is already starting to think about her next project, but admits that after covering death and sex, it’s hard to find a worthy subject to tackle (she encourages readers to send her suggestions). When looking for subject matter, Roach looks for research that has an interesting historical aspect, as well as things that she can see in person. She looks for interesting topics that are quirky and fun, and says that her philosophy for her books is simple.

“I hope that people learn something and have a good time reading it at the same time,” Roach said.

Written by Joel Murphy, April 2008. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is available now. For more information on Mary Roach and the Bonk book tour, visit her official site.

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