I’m Mary Roach and This Is How I Work
Mary Roach wants you to feel uncomfortable but intrigued. Her books explore the unexpected and curious details of controlling the human body and the science of how we deal with our own limitations.
Sometimes these limitations are highlighted by extreme circumstances, such as in her book Packaging for Mars , where Roach explores what a long space flight will actually be like, from space food to space toilets. She also wrote about the science of sex in Bonk , the peculiar afterlife of corpses in Stiff, and explored our inner workings at Gulp . Her latest book is Grunt: A Curious Science of People in War , where Roach tells us how to be a soldier. War pushes the human body beyond ordinary expectations of survival, requiring researchers to find new ways to solve the limitless problems inherent in the battlefield: heat, exhaustion, psychological stress, and how we deal with the consequences.
But Roach herself is not an expert on anything in particular, which allows her to be the lens through which we can learn about esoteric topics that are rarely discussed and have deep meaning. We spoke with Mary to find out how she works.
What phone are you using? Are you an iPhone fan? or a Samsung thing or what?
I have an iPhone. What is it, 5? It’s not the newest model, but it’s in my nature not to get rid of what works perfectly. My stepsons always [say] “Why do you still have this old phone? what is wrong with you?”
But now they are all good enough. You don’t really need the best one. Does this also mean that you are using a Mac?
Actually no, I’m a geek. I’ve been around the whole time. I’m just used to the system. My husband is into Mac, so we have a Mac at home, but they annoy me. I know PCs and they work for me, but I don’t do visualization, design or graphics. My needs are pretty simple.
So when you’re actually doing your job, how do you keep yourself organized? How do you keep track of all your research, notes, transcripts and all that stuff?
It’s pretty straightforward. When I start writing a book, it usually has between a dozen and fifteen or sixteen chapters, and there are fifteen or so file folders in the beginning, and when I find material, I put it in there, including the transcripts. After reporting, I go back and transcribe it, even if I don’t intend to write the chapter immediately. Over time, the folder may split into two or three file folders. And then when I write, no matter what section I write, I just have all the material right on my desk.
I cannot switch between different windows. I have to underline and outline. I have a system: I highlight the best material in different ways, for example, by tracing or underlining, [noting] one star, two stars, and I’m used to doing this with a pencil.
Does this mean that you print a lot or write in books?
No, I mean the interview transcripts, or is it a magazine article. I don’t use a lot of secondary sources, although I can find some cryptic history book. And in this case I just use sticky notes or sometimes – because I get a lot of stuff from little-known interlibrary books – I just mark up the pages and just photocopy them. Or scan and print. I just love it when all this stuff is in the folder right here. I don’t want some of this on the ream of paper, some on the screen, and some on the other. I guess it’s just because I’m old. Old school and old.
No, I’m the same. I don’t like the fact that I have files saved in Google and stuff in Evernote, and then I don’t remember where I saved something, because there are several file systems.
Right. Exactly. I just want everything to be there because I am constantly looking at this and I just want to leave the text on the screen. I know you might have multiple things open, but it just doesn’t work for me.
So when you’ve actually collected all your research and finished your field work, what are you actually using to write? Just open Microsoft Word or what?
Exactly. Just Microsoft Word.
No fancy software specifically designed for books or something similar?
No. I think for scenarios where you have all sorts of formatting, repetitive languages, and a real pattern, I think it makes sense, but I’m really just paragraphs on a page for the most part and a table of contents. … It’s really simple, so Word is fine.
Speaking of being straightforward, part of your job is for you to find out about these very complex ideas or strange or bizarre ideas, and you know that you will 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 scientific principles, right? So when you get to the topic, do you mean it? Like, how can I explain this to someone else?
This happens during the reportage, because I am my reader, I am you. I have no background to any of these materials. Each book is in a new area, and I don’t know anything about it. It makes my job both harder and easier. I have to master basic science because I approach it from the point of view of a complete ignoramus. I will never get to the point where I need to bring it back and simplify. My job is to get the researcher to explain it to me in the way that I can figure it out. And then I just talk about it, because I’m really at the level of most of my readers.
You accept your own ignorance in order to use yourself as a lens.
Yeah. So my job is to be a shepherd dog and keep their conversation on a level that I can understand. And a covering material that will be of interest to most people. A lot of people I talk to, the research they do is very limited and specific, and that’s not why I came. So I have to kind of push them towards something wider. I allow them to direct the conversation, but from time to time I distract them from something too detailed. Or sometimes they just show me Powerpoint and I have a zero-tolerance policy for Powerpoints. No, take the computer away!
Yes, you need to go beyond Powerpoint, this is always an important step.
And a lot of what I do on the trip is collecting scenes, dialogue, characters and people. This is my main goal – I need to get away with the scene that I am about to describe, and I will put science into it. Science I can always call them back and ask them to explain it to me or ask someone to explain it in a different way, sometimes just to get the other person’s opinion to make it clear.
Are you always working on something or are you the type of person who wanders between projects? Or are you confusing all the time?
I prefer to always hang around. I am not working on a large project right now because I have no idea for the next book, and this gives me discomfort. I would prefer to move from one book to another – from one big project to the next. It worries me less.
I am also curious how you choose these topics. Because most of your books talk about similar, not necessarily rude things, but about the unexpected difficulties of controlling the human body.
So what attracts you to such a topic?
Well, these are often taboo things or things that people turn away from. I like to kind of get people involved in this topic and go from “wow, this is just disgusting” to “oh, I thought it would be disgusting, but this is really interesting,” and sometimes it might even be important. This is just a fun area to poke around in, and since these topics rarely come to anyone’s mind as worthy books, I think they leave a little bit of peace. I always try to write about things that have been little written about. That’s why. But that’s a limitation – I’m struggling right now to figure out what the next one will be. Usually I experience this clinging, groping, panic – nothing remains! I’m done! I’ve used it all.
Are you feeling stuck in a niche now? How are you doing? Write about these awkward subjects?
Yes. I mean, this is definitely what is expected of me. This is what I like, but on the other hand, on the other hand, I have reviewers who say these books are formulaic, she needs to do something more important and you know you really feel like a writer. have to try something completely different. ” Then you go and try something completely different, and you fail, and for that you get shoveled over the coals. But I definitely, yes, I have a niche that I like – like any creature, you know? A place where you feel comfortable.
Have you ever wanted, wanted to do something completely new, like fiction or something like that?
Fiction, no, I just know I would suck on fiction. I love reading really good fiction books, and I know I can never even get close to the bottom rung of fiction. While in nonfiction it seems to me that if I do my best, I can get to some point, which, you know, is far from the top, but somewhere in the area of ”yes, she’s pretty good.” … And what I love about what I do is research. This is not to say that you are not researching fiction, but I like the limited facts. I would feel relaxed if I could come up with everything and go anywhere. Don’t take me out of my reality!
Out of curiosity, if you weren’t writing, do you have a penchant for what you might be doing?
Oh god, what would I do? I think if I had to start all over again, I would probably choose a different academic path. For example, I would study anthropology or entomology, some discipline that involves a lot of travel to very unusual remote places. I think something like this could be really interesting.
You travel a lot for work now, right? How do you do it? Because it can be quite difficult to travel all the time trying to keep track of all your notes, your notes and everything else.
For me it’s pretty simple and analog: a reporter’s pen and notebook and – well, not quite analog – a digital tape recorder. That’s all. It’s actually very simple. The problem for me is that during my research I cannot know what will happen. It all depends on someone else’s schedule, the researchers, the person I’m going to see. Therefore, it is very difficult to schedule conversations or training. Because of this, I cannot combine my books with teaching, lectures, or other things. Otherwise, I will have too many calendar conflicts. This is the most difficult thing – timing and arrangement.
In terms of managing this schedule, are you just using a simple calendar? Or how do you track it?
I use my iPhone calendar, but I have to see a month at a time and be able to write a whole arrow in a week, you know? You cannot do this with the iPhone calendar. I need to see large chunks of time, so in addition to my phone, I have a monthly paper calendar.
What tape recorder are you using?
This is an Olympus DS30 digital recorder . I have two of them, and I always take them with me on a trip, because I’m afraid I’ll throw one in the toilet or something like that, because they are so small. Just so cute and perfect. I am very attentive to tape recorders and pens, that’s all.
Tell me when you are not traveling. Tell me about your office – you have an office that you go to, right?
Yes, I share office space with about a dozen other writers and some of NPR’s producers, and it’s just a great mental health tool. This keeps me from social isolation when I’m not on the road. This is a corner with a small hallway and there are seven or eight rooms. People have their own door, and everyone has a window, and you can close the door if you really want to focus and get the job done, or you can leave it open.
And it also helps you treat it like a nine to five job?
Yes exactly. Some of my colleagues laugh at me because they say I work as a banker. I’m like nine to five. But I think it’s great. I have worked outside the home, but there is a tendency – work just flows into everything else.
Right, yes. Sometimes when I talk to CEOs they talk about working at 2 am and sleeping only four hours a day or something crazy – I think what I mean is that you tell me like a normal person.
Yes, no, I’m pretty straightforward. I think that maybe because I worked from nine to five for a year and a half, maybe I just got into a habit. Or was it that my early years were when most people were working during those hours, so if you wanted to socialize or have a family life, you kind of followed the hours of people who had full-time jobs, so I I think I just got into the habit. Otherwise, it’s easy to just dive into work late at night and then sleep later, later, and later. You can gradually become nocturnal. Nothing wrong with that, but just to keep up with other people’s schedules, I usually behave quite normally, yes.
Even after you finish all your research and sit down to write, are there any banker’s opening hours?
Mostly. Because I always do research and write at the same time. I research two or three chapters and write one, so I kind of break it down. I often do my research in the morning because from the east coast I often have to email and phone, so the morning is a more productive time. Things are pretty bad during the day, so I usually write in the afternoon. This is usually the case.
I can easily continue to work from home just because I have an office – I have a computer at home, I can work from home, but I am not very inclined towards that. I often work on Saturday mornings – I spend a few hours, especially when I get close to the deadline, I work on the weekends.
So you write chapter by chapter? Or do you do all the research and then try to write everything down?
When I finish researching a chapter, I will write it straight away. That’s why I have such a division, where morning is research and noon is writing. I usually write one and work on several 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 becomes gray over time. Better to do while fresh.
And I hate that feeling when growing pile of research material – transcripts, printing and notebooks, and this stack is becoming more and more, and a stack of pages that you wrote – you want it pile grew larger, and the other stack became more and more. get smaller. Otherwise, it just drives me crazy. It’s scary to see this huge pile. But I know there are writers who wait for them to finish their research before starting, especially if they have a narrative line where they need to know the whole story before they know how to go through each section. But for me, since each chapter is a separate topic and a little independent of the others, it’s easy to write one, even if you don’t know what the others are.
When it comes to editing, do you cut a lot? How does the editing go after you get the first draft?
It’s not as if I’ve finished a draft, printed it out, tagged it, it’s not. This is more micromounting. I’ll write the section and then go back to it, finalize it, it’s just a hundred micro-revisions, not two or three drafts. I believe that “checkers” are a product of the era of typewriters.
After you’ve written, do you turn to humor and try to make it more interesting? Are you trying to punch this?
Yes I know. But in choosing a topic and a place where I’m going to go, and, to some extent, a person, the work takes more time. So I try to imagine that this is some kind of surreal, amazing, or silly scenario. The work is more about exploration and tuning. But, to answer your question, yes. If there is a passage that seems boring or just straightforward, and there is nothing funny or surprising about it, or the text is not brilliant, you know, I will go back and type it, whether it makes it funnier or just makes it more interesting. It can be any number of things, but sometimes when you read it you feel like it’s flat and I don’t want it to be too flat. But the humor is that it sits where it sits and you cannot force it when it is not working.
When you want to step back from work and stop thinking about all these corpses, what do you do to clean yourself up and recharge?
There are some great parks in the hills of Auckland and I’ll meet a friend and go hiking for an hour or two. It’s nice to have it right here because it will completely get you out of your head.
What are some of your best everyday activities? What are you proud of?
My superpower is that I can read infinitely small print, which is superpower only when you are over 45. Otherwise, anyone can do it. But I am very short-sighted – I have minus seven diopters, which, in my opinion, is comparable to wearing seven reading glasses. This is my superpower that I brag about when I walk with middle-aged people.
If you were to ask someone these questions about their work – I mean, I know you already do it, depending on the work of the people – who would you ask?
You know someone you already asked, Maria Popova from Brainpickings . It was fun to read, but you asked her, so I don’t need to ask her. It was exciting for me, because I had no idea how she does it, she is the most wonderful curator on the Internet. She just finds these amazing things.
But let’s see, somebody else … let me think, let me see.
We can come back to this. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you like to give?
The best advice would be: “Don’t submit this.” Like an email. Or wait 24 hours before sending it, which is the same advice because when you wait you realize you shouldn’t be sending it.
The general advice in my job is never to tweet. Never say anything on Twitter, it’s like “don’t post this” because people say something stupid on Twitter and it becomes a big deal. So don’t post this, I agree with that.
Yes, don’t send it. It’s great to write it down; it logs it out of your system and you can move on, but just don’t click submit. Do not post this letter.
Are you reading anything right now that you really like? Any book you would recommend?
I just started Before the Fall , Noah Hawley’s novel. He is the creator of Fargo for television. He’s a screenwriter who has become its producer or creator, but he’s been writing really good novels for years. Here’s what I’m reading right now.
Do you watch a lot of TV?
No, I hardly watch TV. My husband often watches the giants during baseball season. No, there are so many shows. Someone from the night manager told me I needed to see. The last time I actually followed the show, I watched every episode, well, there were two: Flight of the Concords, and before that, Curb Your Enthusiasm . These were shows where I filmed it all and watched them all. Breaking Bad I got to the middle and just felt it tired me. But no, I don’t watch much TV.
This is clear. There will be another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm though. He is coming back.
Aha! I heard that. It’s great, I’m looking forward to it.
What else would you like to say to your readers and fans?
I admire immensely people who do two or three things at the same time. I’m so mean. Why I succeeded was that I could only turn on one burner at a time. These four people are burning me. So I would like to hear Elon Musk. Did you talk to him?
No, but I would be happy.
His! This person – how does he do it? He would be the kind of person I would really like to hear how he deals with all of this. Not only in terms of time, but also in terms of money, risk, in personal life? Lord, I can’t imagine.
This interview has been edited for clarity.