Since the publication of 2003's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach has explored the esoteric science behind everything from space travel to digestion to the afterlife. Her latest book is Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War, which examines the ways in which science is helping soldiers and veterans with a wide range of tasks, including everything from hearing loss to adjusting to combat situations to new advances being made in prosthetics. She also delves into history, including a focus on the military's research into horrific odors and ways to repel sharks. All in all, it's a fascinating and sometimes (literally) visceral look at uses of science and technology that are both urgently needed and unexpected. Men's Journal talked with Roach about one of the books that played a role in the evolution of her own take on nonfiction.
Is there any book that you’d say had an impact on how you approached Grunt?
In terms of science writing, Bill Bryson was an inspiration for me. He has this ability to seamlessly integrate information and explanation with humor and narrative. The pitfall that you can fall into with science writing is that you're going along and telling the story, and then you have to get to the science explanation, and things go all technical and wonky. It’s easy to fall into that — we just want to take the quote for the research and drop it in. You have to resist that temptation. Bill Bryson always does that. There’s never a lazy sentence. It’s always written in his way, gone through the filter of the machine of Bill Bryson. He explains stuff in all of his books, whether it's science or history. He just finds a way to keep the explanations fresh and writerly.
Was there a book of his that you read where his approach really resonated with you?
The best for me, I think, was In a Sunburned Country, about Australia. He talks about natural history, history, politics — it’s all over the map. It's a very broad coverage of Australia, but it's all woven into his being there, meeting people, having these experiences, and he's very funny. He brings the country to life, but he's pulling facts, stories, and explanations into that narrative. Some of his earlier stuff, like Rough Continent, I really enjoyed, but there wasn't as much explaining going on. That one just blew me away for its sensibility to be a really rollicking and fun read, but at the same time, you were learning so much about Australia. If you just pick up a guidebook, you never feel that way. He is so committed to the writing, even when he’s diving into a technical explanation.
The reason he's so good at it is he's a great researcher. He obviously loves getting on the phone with somebody or sitting down with somebody and talking about what they love to do and getting them going and getting them to speak to him on a level that he can understand and work with. He's obviously a very intelligent man, but I assume that he has to slow people down sometimes and say, "I don’t have a background in physics," or whatever it is.
Do you remember how you first encountered that book?
I was in the airport in San Francisco heading to Australia to report a story, and there was this Bill Bryson book about Australia. I was euphoric! A fifteen-hour flight to Australia, and here is a brand-new book by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, about Australia. I was giddy. I didn’t pick it up as a primer on good writing and explaining things — it just ended up that way. I just wanted to learn about Australia, and what better way than through a Bill Bryson book?
In Grunt, you begin with very contemporary issues, including issues facing soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq; then you go back into history and mention research done by the OSS. Structurally, what prompted that shift?
Usually, the history chapters are something that I step back for. I like to establish a present-tense feel to a book, because a lot of the reporting is done in the present tense, and I think that people relate more to things that are going on now. A lot of the stuff is things, whether it’s sleep deprivation or heat or loud noises, that everyone has in their life to some extent. The history is more of an opportunity to be a little goofier and a little more freewheeling, and step back into this esoteric chapter of the military. It doesn’t feel as crucial. It's rare that I would lead with a historical chapter.
It's also input from my editor. My editor is always concerned with what's up front in the book. I know better than to lead with shark repellant! She would say, "What? We are not leading with this." I think, actually, I led with the penis transplant chapter. She said, "No. We are not plunging people straight into penis transplants. You are not leading with this chapter."
That was just in the news the other week, too.
Yes. The first U.S. transplant happened about three weeks ago. It wasn’t my guys at Johns Hopkins. It was Mass General. I was unaware of the penis race that was underway. I know that their patient was not a veteran. I don’t know if it was military-funded research at Mass General. But yeah, the first one happened.
You had talked earlier about processing information and filtering research, and I noticed that you use footnotes extensively, but in a very conversational way. How do you determine what goes where?
Footnotes tend to be something that I’m so enamored of and can't bring myself to leave them out, but they don’t fit neatly into the descriptions in the narrative or the explanation. They're really too much of a side trip to burden the reader with. I can’t just put it in parenthesis, because it would derail the flow — such as my flow ever is. So I put them in a footnote — it’s stuff that I came across and found fun and wanted to share. It’s me indulging that desire to leave it in the book.