Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Mary Roach

In books, nonfiction, writing on September 3, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Mary Roach

Mary Roach. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2010).

An introduction to the author of Stiff, Spook, Bonk, and most recently, Packing for Mars. Mary Roach began her career as a freelance copy editor, and went on to research and write articles for magazines and journals. While writing is her business, she admitted it can be a lonely one: “Writing can be such a solitary pursuit. Sometimes I go to writing conferences just because I think it would be fun to spend time with other writers.”

Quick Facts on Mary Roach

  • Roach’s website
  • Home: Oakland, California
  • Comfort food: macaroni and cheese, homemade chicken noodle soup with matzo balls. When on the road, a BLT (when you’re ordering room service, you want to have a food that it’s almost impossible to screw up).
  • Top authors/reads: Bill Bryson, Jonathan Franzen, Burkhard Bilger, David Sedaris, and Dave Eggers’ What is the What
  • Current reads: You Don’t Look Like Anyone I know by Heather Sellers & Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

What are you working on now?

Book tour, and when I’m done with that I’ll start a new book. But I’m keeping the topic under my hat for now.

Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?

The idea for Packing for Mars came from an acquaintance of mine who works in a bed rest facility. NASA pays people to lie in bed for months and months so they can test the effects of zero gravity.  I wondered what other bizarre space-on-earth things were happening, then it occurred to me that this could work for a book. Really, it’s another book about the human body in unusual spaces.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I don’t write with an audience in mind. I guess I picture people who I would sit down with at a table and have fun. I suppose that sort of makes it a room full of me. I’m not really writing for myself, nor anyone in particular. In Seattle, Washington I had an audience where the average age was 23, and then in Lafayette, California the average age was probably 65.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I do most of my writing in the afternoon. In the morning, I usually email, make phone calls, try to arrange travel or interviews. I write until six or seven in the evening and then walk home from my office. If it’s a really nice day, I’ll stay home and work.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Right where I am. I love my neighborhood and my house. I suppose anywhere, if I could bring it all, move my friends, family, and network of other writers, to a house with an ocean view in a place where there’s no fog. I don’t know where that would be.

Do you listen to anything while you work? Music?

My own tedious thoughts—no, no music.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

So much of what I do is dependent on the research. I can’t write a good book based on lame research. I try to find what will be entertaining to write and read. It’s only a struggle for me when I’m trying to make something out of nothing. My philosophy is that without a foundation, without collecting really good stuff, the writing is doomed.

How do you balance content with form?

It’s a two-way street. I need to have good narrative scaffolding on which to hang the information I want to present to people. I do want people to learn something from my books. I try to create that scaffolding first and then find places to hang stuff (I don’t know what I’m building here with my scaffolding and my hanging). I find an opening place to start the scene and then I quickly sketch where I think I’m going to go. I try to build that, and then I move stuff around. It’s largely intuitive; I’m not big on outlines.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

This only applies at a certain phase in writing each book, but I’ll give it to you anyway. George Orwell said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.”

Lewis Carroll from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I think of Elmore Leonard who said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Especially for nonfiction writers, when you do a lot of research, sometimes you feel compelled to put something in your book just because you worked so hard to get it. There’s a tendency to include things just because you have them, and this can bog a book down. Let it go if isn’t earning its keep.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

When I was working on my first book and having doubts about whether it was working, my editor at Discover magazine, Burkhard Bilger, finally said to me, “Mary, at a certain point you’re going to turn this in, and they’re going to put a cover on it, and it will be a book. Nobody will notice that it’s not a book.” I was worried that it wasn’t a book if the tones between sections were too different, and because there was no narrative through-line. Writers over-think things.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

What question do you find most surprising that people ask you about writing?

I’m surprised by the extent that people are focused on the titles of my books.  A lot of people have asked why this new book has a three-word title instead of a one-word title. Also, it surprises me how often people assume the topic of your book, especially with first books, is a lifelong obsession. For instance, Stiff grew out of a couple of magazine columns I had written. When the book came out, people assumed it had been a lifelong fascination for me. I just thought it would be a fascinating topic to a broad audience. I’m surprised that people are often surprised by my choices in topics. There’s an assumption that I’m writing for a passion, and not because it is my job.

Is there something that you wish more people would ask you about your work?

People don’t ask about the insecurities and self-doubt that probably most writers grapple with. I don’t know if they realize how common it is for writers to feel lost, unsure if they are taking the right approach, and to feel like it won’t work. I always hit a low point with each book when I feel like I should give up. Then there’s a high when it all comes together. I’m guessing that’s more common than people realize.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Backpacking. After this book tour, I’ve got a trip to the Sierras planned. I love my walk home from the office each afternoon. I like to read. I hang out with family and friends.  Like travel, but that’s also part of my work.

About Mary Roach

Mary Roach grew up in Etna, New Hampshire. She moved to California in the early 1980s and now lives in Oakland. Working first as a copy editor, then in PR, she went on to write newspaper articles and publish a column for She has published four books: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, and Packing for Mars.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Mary Roach.” Words With Writers (September 3, 2010),


Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (WW Norton, 2010)

  1. […] • Popular science writer Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War W.W. Norton, June 2016) from a September 2010 interview with Marissa Bell Toffoli at “Words with Writers”: […]

  2. this is awesome man

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