MARY ROACH IS A SCIENCE JOURNALIST, top-notch storyteller, and Orion advisor. She’s the author of six New York Times bestsellers, including STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, and PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Orion editor Kathleen Yale connected with Mary about her latest publication, FUZZ: When Nature Breaks the Law, looking for a little extra insight into her writing, research process, and feelings on airplane seat ergonomics.
Kathleen Yale : How often do you set out to write about a particular topic, versus stumbling headlong into something unexpected and delightful?
Mary Roach: It’s typically a headlong stumble preceded by months of blind groping. This book started out with a blind grope at the National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. I’d stumbled onto a wildlife law enforcement guide entitled “Distinguishing Real vs. Fake Tiger Penises.” (Dried tiger penis is sold, illegally, as a virility booster in some parts of Asia.) I went up there thinking, maybe this wants to be part of a book—what book, I wasn’t sure. While I was there, I was told that for legal reasons, I would not be allowed to tag along with investigators on open cases. Which is a dead-end for me. So I sort of turned the topic inside-out: What about animals as perpetrators rather than victims? I was encouraged to head farther down this road by a blind grope on WorldCat, which led me to a strange 1906 book entitled The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. That’s when the idea gelled and started to make some sense, as much as my book topics ever really make sense.
KY: I love the title Fuzz and the play on words you often bring in your zippy titles. Your books bring so much humor and outrageousness, but they’re ultimately serious and reverent in their own way too. I remember that really standing out when I first read Stiff years ago. Does that kind of tonal balance come naturally to you, or is it something you find you need to consciously map out?
MR: With Stiff, Grunt, and Fuzz, especially, the issue of that balance was always hovering close by. Though I don’t go through assessing and pinpointing places where I need to add pathos or humor. It’s more that there’s a sort of internal tone thermostat that sets itself naturally as a consequence of all I’ve learned in the reporting. For me, tone is a vector of two sometimes competing forces: the desire to entertain and amuse the reader, and at the same time to respect and take seriously the people and issues I’m writing about. It causes me a fair amount of stress.
KY: You have a particular gift for writing delightful footnotes. I got excited when I saw one at the bottom of a page, which is usually not the case. Do you think most people are doing it wrong?
MR: No, I’m pretty sure I’m doing it wrong. But no one can stop me now!
KY: For every funny anecdote about forensic role-playing scenarios or scarecrow antics, there is a sad or disturbing incident of human/animal conflict that leaves one or both parties dead. I live outside of Glacier National Park and spent years working on wildlife field study projects, particularly on large carnivores. Just last week our local FWP officials had to put down a food-habituated grizzly family. I wept reading the account, and I’m sure those agents wept to do it. I know some of them. Is there a particular story from Fuzz that haunts you?
MR: I spent time driving around bear country with a Colorado Parks and Wildlife agent. I asked him about that part of his job. The mood in the truck quickly went dark. He told me about having to destroy a black bear and her cub because the pair were regularly breaking into houses looking for food. He talked about how he wasn’t sure how he would do it, as he didn’t want the cub to have to see its mother killed, or the mother to see her cub killed. He ended up tranquilizing one of them first. To this day, I have a pretty emotional reaction when I hear about people leaving food out on the deck of their vacation rental because they want to see a bear and take some videos for YouTube.
KY: That passage stuck with me, too, and I feel the same way about food violations. Before you began researching Fuzz, did you have a sense of the depth and breadth of human/animal conflicts across the globe?
MR: Not at all. I remember being shocked to learn that snow leopards cause enough problems in the Himalayas that researchers felt a need for an acronym (HSLC—human-snow leopard conflict). I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that elephants are a major conflict animal. Five hundred people a year are killed by elephants in India.
KY: What’s the worst thing that has happened to you on assignment?
MR: For me, nothing is worse than a reporting trip that yields little of interest. When things are awkward or disgusting or painful or embarrassing, I can console myself with the knowledge that it’s going to be a fun scene to write up—and, hopefully, read about. I once took an assignment that involved being a subject in an airplane ergonomics study. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was me and ten other people sitting and reading for six hours in an airplane seat. Why did I think I could make that fascinating?
KY: If you could be any animal for a day, what would it be?
MR: Since it’s just for a day, I’d want to experience something utterly foreign and unimaginable. A fly, maybe, or a hammerhead shark or even some kind of bacterium.
KY: I love that thinking. No dolphin or falcon, give me a pair of compound eyes! You have such a curious mind and appreciation for wonder. To what degree do you think either can be taught or learned?
MR: We all start out with curiosity and a capacity for wonder, but some of us seem to lose it as adults. In the 90s, I used to go down to Antarctica on an NSF reporting program. The first time I was accepted, I mentioned to a friend of my husband that I’d be doing some reporting at a remote field camp in Antarctica. He seemed puzzled by my excitement. “Why would you want to go there?” he said. “It’s just a bunch of snow and ice.” I was stupefied. How does a person end up like that? Was it something in his education? His upbringing? His genes? I really can’t say.