Mary Roach wants to you to be uncomfortable, but intrigued. Her books examine the unexpected, curious minutiae of managing the human body and the science of how we deal with our own limitations.
Sometimes those limitations are put at the forefront because of extreme circumstances, like in her book Packing for Mars, where Roach explored what longterm spaceflight would actually be like — from space food to space toilets. She’s also written about the science of sex in Bonk, the peculiar afterlife of cadavers in Stiff and explored our internal workings in Gulp. Her latest book is Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, where Roach guides us through the science of being a soldier. War pushes the human body beyond normal survival expectations, requiring researchers to find new ways of dealing with the limitless challenges inherent to the battlefield: The heat, the exhaustion, the psychological stress, as well as how we deal with the aftermath.
But Roach herself is a expert in nothing in particular, really, which is what allows her to be a lens through which we can learn about esoteric topics that are rarely discussed and deeply implicative. We spoke with Mary to learn about how she works.
What kind of phone you use? Are you an iPhone person? Or a Samsung thing?
I have an iPhone. What is it, a 5? It’s not the newest model, but it’s in my nature not to get rid of something that’s working perfectly well. My stepchildren are always [saying], “Why do you still have this old phone? What is wrong with you?”
But they’re all good enough now. You don’t really need the best one. Does it also follow that you use a Mac?
In fact, no, I’m a PC person. I have been all along. I’m just used to the system. My husband is a Mac guy so we have Macs at home but they frustrate me. I know PCs and they work fine for me, but I don’t do visuals, I don’t do any design or graphics. My needs are pretty basic.
So when you’re actually going about your work, how do you keep yourself organised? How do you keep track of all your research and your notes and your transcripts and all of that?
It’s pretty basic. When I start out writing a book there’s typically a dozen to 15 or 16 chapters, and in the beginning there are 15 or so file folders, and as I find stuff I stick it in there, and that includes transcripts. After I go on a reporting trip, I come back and I transcribe, even if I’m not going to write the chapter immediately. As time goes on, a folder may split into two or three file folders. And then when I write, whatever section I’m going to be writing I just have all the material right there on my desk.
I can’t toggle back and forth between different windows. I need to be underlining and circling. I have a system: I highlight the best material in various ways, like circling or underlining, [marking] one star, two star, and I’m used to doing that with a pencil.
So does that mean you’re printing out a lot of stuff or writing in books?
No, I mean interview transcripts, or it’s a journal paper. I don’t use a lot of secondary source material, though I might get some arcane history book. And in that case I’m just using sticky notes or sometimes — because I get a lot of material from obscure books on inter-library loans — I just flag the pages and just photocopy them. Or scan and print. I just like to have all of that material in a folder right there. I don’t want to be having some of it on a pile of paper and some of it on a screen and some of it on another screen. I think it’s just because I’m old. Old school and old.
No, I’m the same way. I don’t like that I have stuff saved on Google and stuff on Evernote and then I don’t remember where I saved something because there’s multiple file systems.
Right. Exactly. I just want it all there because I’m sifting through it constantly and I just want to leave the writing on the screen. I know you can have multiple things open but it just doesn’t work for me.
So when you actually have all your research together and you’re done going out in the field, what do you actually use to write? Just open Microsoft Word?
Exactly. Just Microsoft Word.
No fancy software that’s specifically for books or anything like that?
No. I think that for screenplays where you have you all kind of formatting and language being repeated and a real template, I think that makes sense, but really, I’m just paragraphs on a page for the most part and a table of contents. It’s really straightforward so Word is just fine.
And speaking of being straightforward, part of your job is that you learn about these very complicated ideas or weird or bizarre ideas, and you know that you eventually have to explain them so that we can all understand them. Even an idiot like me can read a book like Grunt and understand the scientific principles, right? So when you approach a topic, do you have that in mind? Like, how am I going to explain this to someone else?
That happens during the reporting because I am my reader, I am you. I don’t have a background in any of this material. Each book is in a new field and I don’t know anything about it. That makes my job both more difficult and easier. I have to get up to speed on the basic science because I’m coming at it from the point of view of a total ignoramus. I’m never going to get to a level where I need to pull it back and simplify. My job is to get the researcher to explain it to me in a way that I can understand. And then I just relate it because I’m really at the level of most of my readers going in.
You embrace your own ignorance to use yourself as the lens.
Yeah. So my job is to kind of be a sheep dog and keep them speaking at a level that I can understand. And covering material that most people will find interesting. A lot of the people I’m speaking to, the research they’re doing is very dialed down and specific and that isn’t what I’ve come for. So I’m kind of having to steer them to back up to something much broader. I’m letting them steer the conversation but every now and then pulling them away from something that is too detailed. Or sometimes they will just show me a Powerpoint and I have a zero tolerance policy for Powerpoints. Nope — put that computer away!
Yeah you need to get beyond the Powerpoint, that’s always an important step.
And a lot of what I’m doing when I’m on a trip is collecting the scenes, the dialog, the characters and the people. That’s my main focus — that I need to come away with a scene that I’m going to write up and into that I’ll set the science. The science I can always call them back and have them explain it to me or have someone else explain it in a different way, sometimes just to get a different person’s take to make it understandable.
Are you always working on something or are you the kind of person who wanders between projects?
I prefer to be always churning away. I am not working on a big project right now because I don’t have the idea for the next book, which makes me uncomfortable. I would much rather go pretty much from one book in to the next — from one large project into the next. It’s less anxiety provoking for me.
I’m also curious how you choose these topics. Because most of your books deal with like, not necessarily gross stuff, but the unexpected difficulties of managing the human body.
So what draws you to that kind of topic?
Well, they’re often kind of taboo things, or things that people turn away from. I love kind of pulling people into the topic and going from “ew that’s just gross” to “oh, I thought it would be gross but it’s really interesting,” and sometimes maybe even important. It’s just a fun area to poke around in, and because they’re topics that rarely occur to someone as being worthy of a book, I think they get left alone a little bit. I’m always trying to write about stuff that hasn’t been written about a lot. That’s kind of why. But it is limiting — I am struggling right now to figure out what the next one will be. I typically go through that grasping, groping, panicking — there’s nothing left! I’m done! I’ve used it all up.
Do you kind of feel stuck in a niche now? Like this is your thing? Writing about these uncomfortable subjects?
Yes I do. I mean, it’s definitely what people expect of me. It’s something that I enjoy, but on the other hand, the other side of that, I do get reviewers saying that these books are formulaic, she needs to do something more important and, you know, you do feel as a writer “oh maybe I should try something completely different.” Then you go and try something completely different and you fail and they rake you over the coals for that. But I do definitely, yeah, I have a niche that I enjoy — like any creature, you know? A place you feel comfortable.
Do you ever like, want to do something drastically different like fiction or something like that?
Fiction no, I just know I would suck at fiction. I love to read a really good literary fiction book and I know that I could never even get close to the bottom rung in fiction. Whereas in nonfiction I feel like if I try my hardest I can get to some point that’s, you know, nowhere near the top, but somewhere in the realm of “yeah, she’s pretty good.” And so much about what I love about what I do is the research. Not to say that you don’t do research for fiction but I like the constraint of fact. I would feel unmoored if I could make everything up and go anywhere. Don’t take me outside of my box of reality!
Out of curiosity, if you weren’t writing, do you have an inclination of what you might be doing?
Oh God what would I be doing? I think if had to completely start over, I probably would have pursued a different academic path. Like maybe I would have studied anthropology or entomology, some discipline that involves a lot of travel to very peculiar far-flung places. I think something like that could have been really interesting.
You do travel a lot for your work now, right? How do you manage that? Because it can be pretty difficult to be travelling all the time while trying to keep track of all your notes and your recordings and everything.
For me it’s pretty basic and analogue: Pen and a reporter’s notebook and — well not really analogue — a digital tape recorder. So that’s really it. It’s actually super simple. The challenge for me is that the research I do, I can’t know what’s gonna happen. It’s all dependent on somebody else’s schedule, the researchers, the person I’m gonna go see. So it’s very difficult to schedule talks or teaching. I can’t really combine my books with teaching or speaking tours or other things because of that. Otherwise I’ll get too many calendar conflicts. That’s the trickiest thing, the timing and the arranging.
And in terms of managing that schedule, do you just use a simple calendar? Or how do you keep track of it?
I use my iPhone calendar but I have to be able to see a month at a time and be able to write a whole arrow through a week, you know? You can’t really do that very well on a iPhone calendar. I need see big blocks of time and so I have a paper month-at-a-time calendar in addition to the phone.
What kind of tape recorder do you use?
It’s an Olympus DS30 digital tape recorder. I have two of them and I always bring two on a trip because I’m afraid I’m gonna drop one into the toilet or something because they’re so small. Just so cute and perfect. I’m particular about tape recorders and pens and that’s about it.
Tell me about when you’re not travelling. Tell me about your office — you actually have an office that you go to, right?
Yes, I share office space with about a dozen other writers and some NPR producers and it’s just a great tool for maintaining mental health. It keeps me from being socially isolated when I’m not on the road. It’s a corner with a little hallway and there are seven or eight rooms. People have their own door and everybody has a window and you can shut the door if you really want to concentrate and get work done, or you can leave it open.
And that also helps you treat it like a nine-to-five job?
Yeah, exactly. Some of my coworkers make fun of me because they say I keep banker’s hours. I’m kind of nine-to-five. But that’s healthy, I think. I have worked out of my home but there’s a tendency to — work just bleeds into everything else.
Right, yeah. Sometimes when I talk to CEOs they talk about working at 2:00AM and sleeping only four hours a night or something crazy — I guess what I’m getting at is that you sound like a normal person to me.
Yeah, no, I’m pretty straightforward. I think maybe because I spent a year and a half working a nine-to-five job, maybe I just got into a habit. Or it was that my early working years were during a time when most people were working during those hours so that if you wanted to socialise or have a family life, you sort of kept the hours of people who had staff jobs, so I think I just got into the habit. Otherwise it’s easy just to drift into working late at night and then sleeping later, later and later. You can sort of gradually become nocturnal. Nothing wrong with that but just to sort of fit in with the schedule of other people I tend to be pretty normal, yeah.
Even when you’re done with all the research and you sit down to write, is it still banker’s hours?
For the most part. Because I’m always researching and writing at the same time. I’m researching two or three chapters and writing one, so I kind of split it up. I’m often doing research-related stuff in the morning because also there’s a lot of emailing and phone calling that’s happening to the east coast, so morning is a more productive time. And things kind of quite down in the afternoon so I tend to do my writing in the afternoon. That’s usually how it goes.
I can easily continue working at home just because I have an office — I have a computer at home, I can do it at home, but I tend not to it all that much. I’ll often work on a Saturday morning — I’ll put in a few hours, especially when I’m heading towards a deadline I’ll do some work on the weekends.
So you write chapter by chapter? Or do you do all the research and then try and push through all the writing?
When I finish the research for a chapter, I’ll write it right away. That’s why I have that split where morning is research and afternoon is writing. I’m usually writing one and working on a few others. I try to write it while it’s relatively fresh. Otherwise you start to write and you can’t even remember what people looked like. I try to take some pictures when I’m there but it kind of fades — it greys over time. It’s better to do it while it’s fresh.
And I hate that feeling of that pile of research material growing — transcripts and printouts and notebooks and this pile getting bigger and bigger, and the pile of pages that you’ve written — you want that pile to be getting bigger and the other pile to be getting smaller. Otherwise it just makes me crazy. It’s daunting to see this massive pile. But I know there are writers who wait til they have finished the research before they start, particularly if they have a narrative through line where they need to know the whole story before they know how to pace each section. But for me, because each chapter is a different topic and a little bit independent of the others, it’s easy to write one even when you don’t know what the others are.
In terms of editing do you cut a lot back? How does editing go for you after you do a first draft?
It’s not like I’ll finish a draft, print it out, mark it up, it’s not like that. It’s more micro editing. I’ll write a section, and then go back over it, fine tune it, it’s just a hundred micro edits rather than two or three drafts. I think ‘drafts’ are a product of the typewriter era.
After you’ve written, do you go through with an eye towards humour and trying to make it more interesting? Do you try to punch it up?
Yeah, I do. But the work is more upfront in the selection of the topic and the place I’m going to go and to some extent the person. So I’m trying to set myself up for their being some kind of surreal or surprising or goofy scenario. The work goes more into the research and setup. But to answer your question, yeah I do. If there’s a passage that seems to drag or just be sort of straightforward and there’s nothing funny or surprising or the writing isn’t sparkly, you know, I’ll go back and punch it up, whether it’s making it funnier or just making the writing more interesting. It could be any number of things but sometimes you get this sense when reading it that it’s flat, and I don’t want it to be too flat. But the thing with humour is that it sits where it sits and you can’t force it in when it doesn’t work.
When you want to step away from work and stop thinking about all these cadavers, what do you to remove yourself and recharge?
In the Oakland hills there are a number of gorgeous parks and I’ll meet a friend and go hike for an hour or two hours. It’s nice to have that right there because it just completely takes you out of your head.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your point of pride?
My super power is that I can read infinitely tiny type, which is only a super power when you’re over 45. Otherwise everybody can do it. But I’m extremely nearsighted — I’m minus seven diopters which I think would be like wearing seven power reading glasses. That’s my super power that I show off when I’m out with middle-aged people.
If you were to ask someone these questions about their work — which I mean, I know you kind of do already, depending on people’s jobs — who would you ask?
You know somebody that you already asked, Maria Popova of Brainpickings. That was fascinating to read — but you asked her so I don’t have to ask her. That was fascinating to me because I had no idea how she does it, she’s the most amazing curator of the internet. She just finds this amazing stuff.
But let’s see, someone else… let me think, let me see.
We can come back to that. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s a bit of advice that’s kind of stuck out to you?
The best advice would be: “Don’t send that.” As in, an email. Or wait 24 hours before you send that, which is the same piece of advice because when you wait you realise you shouldn’t send it.
Common advice in my work is to never tweet. Never say anything on Twitter, which is like “don’t send that”, because people say something dumb on Twitter and it becomes a big whole deal. So don’t send that, I agree with that.
Yeah, don’t send that. It’s great to write it down; it gets it out of your system, and you can move on, but just don’t hit send. Don’t send that email.
Are you currently reading anything that you really like right now? Any book that you would recommend?
I just started Before the Fall, Noah Hawley’s novel. He’s the creator of Fargo for TV. He’s a screenwriter who became the producer, or creator of it, but he has written really good novels for years. That’s what I’m reading right now.
Do you watch much TV?
No, I watch hardly any TV. My husband is often watching the Giants during baseball season. No, I don’t, there’s so many shows. The Night Manager somebody told me I need to be watching. The last time I really followed a show, seeing every episode, well there were two: Flight of the Conchords and then before that, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Those were shows where I’d rent the whole thing and watch them all. Breaking Bad I made it halfway through and just felt — it wore me down. But no, I don’t watch a lot of TV.
That’s understandable. Although there will be another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s coming back.
Yeah! I heard that. That’s great, I’m looking forward to that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to your readers and fans?
I have a tremendous amount of admiration for people who do two or three things at once. I’m so pared-down. Why I’ve succeeded is that I’ve been able to only have one burner going at any time. Those four burner people amaze me. So I guess I’d want to hear from Elon Musk. Have you talked to him?
No but I’d be happy to.
Him! That man — how does he do it? He’d be the person I’d really love to hear how he manages all that. Not only time-wise but money-wise, risk-wise, personal life? Jesus, I can’t imagine.
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