Mary Roach is a journalist who has written for Outside, GQ, Vogue, and The New York Times Magazine. The former Salon columnist now writes the humor column "My Planet" in Reader’s Digest and is a contributing editor for Discover magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and stepdaughter.
Roach’s first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (April ’03, W.W. Norton), is a comical-but-scientific exploration of the many fascinating ways in which cadavers have been used to advance the human condition. She visits a research facility at the University of Tennessee where they study human decay for forensic purposes, and she goes to facial anatomy lab where she encounters 40 severed heads in roasting pans. Additionally, she talks about how corpses have been used as human crash test dummies, as ancient confections, and even as crucifixion experiments. Never a dull moment in this book.
Matt Borondy: In the intro to Stiff, you mention that you went from writing about travel (visiting Antarctica three times) to eventually writing about science and more specifically this book about cadavers. What are the why’s and how’s of your transforming into a science writer?
Mary Roach: When I first started writing, I was doing health, lifestyle and travel pieces. I find science so much meatier, so much more interesting and surprising. I still enjoy travel, but prefer to be researching something that happens to be set overseas — rather than doing straight travel writing. How did the transformation happen? One day someone from Discover magazine called me about doing a story. I’d like to be able to say I made it happen, but that’d be a lie.
What was your inspiration for writing this book in particular? Did the subject matter intersect with the Health & Body column you used to pen for Salon.com?
Yes. When I was writing the Salon.com column, I did three or four pieces that had to do with dead human bodies, rather than living. They were some of the more interesting (to me) pieces I did, and they happened to have some of the highest hit rates. So much so that we were actually going to do a separate column, called The Dead Beat. Funding cuts put an end to that. But I’d done a lot of research gearing up for that column, and that’s what went into the book proposal.
What was the most awkward situation you found yourself in while researching this book?
Being on the phone with a researcher — whose lab I hoped to visit — while he said, "Was it YOU who wrote that horrible Salon column?!" Needless to say, I did not visit his lab. (The column was pretty flip, much more so than the book.)
You’ve done quite a skillful job of balancing informative, often shocking content with a healthy dose of humor. What are some challenges unique to writing a book about cadaver research?
See number 3, above. Researchers who work with cadavers aren’t often eager to talk to writers. They prefer to stay out of the spotlight, and I don’t blame them. That was by far the hardest part of doing this book.
Your book has been out a few months and appears to be selling quite well. What kind of responses have you been getting from readers? Lots of future organ donors? Anyone threatening to turn you into a cadaver?
I got a note just this morning from a woman who said that she and her 9-year-old daughter have decided, after talking about the book, not to be cremated. The daughter wants to take part in an automotive impact study, and the mom wants to rot in the sunshine at the U. of Tennessee "body farm" (a decomposition research facility). They were kidding (I think), but I’ve gotten quite a few serious notes along those lines, which is heartening, because I was worried that I might scare off potential body donors by giving out more information than they could handle. So far, I’ve gotten almost no angry emails or letters. Though who knows what they’re plotting over at the university that did the plastic surgery seminar from Chapter One. They’ll come gunning for my head one of these days.
Now that you’ve “written the book on dead bodies,” so to speak, what sort of plans are you making for your own body once you leave it?
My first choice would have been to be a skeleton in an anatomy lab somewhere, but alas, there are no places that use human cadavers for that. Second choice would be to have my organs plastinated — turned into permanently preserved educational models. I could be happy living out eternity as a pair of kidneys on a shelf.
What’s human composting? Will it ever catch on in America?
First you freeze a body solid. This makes it easy to shatter. Then you use vibration or ultrasound to break it down into small, easily composted pieces. These are put in a biodegradable, cornstarch "coffin" and buried about a foot and a half deep. Now you plant a tree or shrub over it. As the pieces break down and the coffin dissolves, the plant can take up the nutrients. Et voila, a living memorial. The Swede who is spearheading this, an environmentalist named Susanne Wiigh-Masak, has the support of the Church of Sweden, the King of Sweden and much of the population. Will it catch on here? I think so, but slowly. As always, California will probably go first. I like the idea. So I’m not signing up for the plastinated kidney deal just yet.
When describing Stiff to other people, I get responses like, “Oh, you mean like in CSI…” Maybe I’m just not very good at describing books, but this reply does speak to a growing presence of “stiffs” in the world of television. What do you make of these shows? Do you watch them?
People have always been fascinated by death and dead bodies. But until Six Feet Under and CSI, I think there was still a bit of a taboo about admitting your fascination. These shows really opened the floodgates, I think. Now it’s no-holds-barred. Stiffs R us! I hear there’s even a show called Autopsy. We don’t get HBO, so I don’t watch Six Feet Under (or Autopsy). I’ve never seen CSI, though I’d probably like it.
What are you working on nowadays?
Another book. No cadavers, but a similarly bizarre and fascinating topic. Stay tuned!
Photo by John Madere