When Mary Roach researches a book, she doesn't do it half way. For the best-selling "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," she spent a year in morgues, medical labs and crematoriums. Researching "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife," she went around the world talking to psychics and scientists about what happens when we leave those bodies behind.
Short of actually dying, it's hard to imagine that anyone could be more familiar with the subject—or funnier about it. So it's no surprise that when writing "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," she didn't just interview sex researchers, or pore through centuries of lab notes—she actually volunteered to have sex in the name of science. And by that we mean she brought her heroic husband, Ed, from their home in California to an exam room in London to have a physics professor do some real time, 4-D ultrasound footage of their bodies (or at least the relevant parts) in motion.
It's difficult to say who deserves more credit for bravery, Mary or Ed, but the result is a hilarious scene for a book that she calls a tribute to the men and women who brave ridicule to investigate why we do what we do, in bed--or don't. She writes about Danish pig farmers who take animal husbandry to a whole new level, a researcher in Cairo who investigated the effects of polyester on sexual activity. (He dressed rats in polyester pants, and found that they, unlike John Travolta in the 1970s, got less action than the cotton-clad rats.) And she went to a sex-machine trade show—why not? But perhaps most interesting, are her observations on how changes in attitudes toward sex are mirrored in the way the research has been done from the Victorians to the Viagrans.
NEWSWEEK's Susanna Schrobsdorff talked with Mary Roach about the perils and pleasures of her latest obsession. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK:
Are you perhaps the only writer who has had sex in front of a stranger in the name of research?Mary Roach: Well, there are all those prostitutes who keep writing books, but they're doing it for money, not research.But your books make money….[Laughs.] True, I guess we're basically having sex for the same reason-- me and the prostitutes.
How exactly did you get your husband to agree to have sex in an exam room?
He's been a such great sport about my work. He'd do anything to help. Once I did a "Mars and Venus" story and we had to talk to these other couples about our love needs, which of course he hated. It was a tongue-in-cheek piece. [Laughs.] When I told him [about the ultrasound project], he said, yeah, sure, without really thinking. By the time he thought it through, it was too late, the tickets were booked. Afterward, he said, "I feel really weird."
I bet. Sex at home must seem great after that
Yeah, especially since I don't have to wear a hospital johnny [gown].
You spend years intensely researching these books, is it all-consuming?
Yes, I get really immersed. After I wrote "Stiff," I got an e-mail saying you got a good review in the Kirkus Review. But I heard that as "You got a good review in the Carcass Review. "I thought, oh, OK, that's nice that the industry liked it. Now, I'm so used to saying penis, vagina, orgasm, that I forget other people aren't.
You must be fun at parties.
I have to be careful. When unsuspecting people asked about my book I used to launch right into clitoral this and penis that, and I'd see that they were sort of stunned. I guess they were expecting a little bit of foreplay first.
Is it impossible to avoid double entendres when you write about sex?
I really tried to avoid them, but my editor said, Mary, I think there are too many puns in here. I didn't even realize it. For example, you can't use the phrase to come, you can't use the adjective hard. There was a guy doing an orgasm study in New Jersey, and he said to me, "You could be a subject." Basically I would have had to masturbate inside an MRI machine. I said, oh, OK, if I have to. I didn't end up doing it, but I wrote to say I'm looking forward to coming and then realized I can't say that.
You're writing about some pretty complicated science—were you writing to pass muster with scientists, or relate to lay people—I mean nonscientists?
The scientists who are in the book realize the value of having the material explained to the lay people. Oh no, I guess I can't use that phrase now. [Laughs.] There's a guy in "Spook" who felt that there should have been more statistical detail. Some researchers might think that by omitting stuff, I'm compromising what they're doing, but I think they find that there's value in getting the public excited about their subject. We'll see what they say about this one, I haven't sent it out to them yet.
You use some pretty explicit colloquial terms for sex, did you worry that might cause problems?
No one has complained so far. And I think I only used "f--k" once, and that was in a footnote.
And what about interviews, is it harder to talk about some of the graphic details than it was to write about them?I was on NPR yesterday, and I actually had my publicist ask in advance: "Can I say 'clitoris' on NPR?" And she said yes, so I did. Afterward I asked them, "Did I go too far?" And they said: "No not far enough!" Apparently everyone's OK with it.Well, let's see how much of this interview gets into NEWSWEEK….[Laughs.]
The scientists you write about are really quirky characters. Is that common to sex researchers?
The book is about how the science was done as much as it is about the science itself. I did try to find interesting people, but there was no one I thought was too dull to be in my book. Sometimes, they're a little wary about how they appear in print, and whether they're going to get criticized for getting funding for this kind of research.
You're kind of like the Bill Bryson of sex and death. He also manages to be hilarious while weaving tons of information into his books.
Oh, he's my hero. He gets the perfect ratio of information to humor. It is a challenge to keep it amusing without interrupting the flow of an explanation. It was really tough in my last book, "Spook." I was talking about quantum mechanics and trying to keep it funny—it's not easy. I put a lot in the footnotes.
Like the guy in "Bonk" who was the "chief visioneer" of a company that makes videos of sex machines? You say in the footnote that he also has a waste management company… Their motto was, "No. 1 in the No. 2 business." I just couldn't leave that out. I've been called to task for putting too much in footnotes, but I do try to keep it entertaining.
"Bonk" is already climbing the charts. That must be gratifying.
My books have done well. "Stiff" is the book that won't die. It's on a lot of high-school and college curriculums. If you put severed heads in a book, boys will read it.
Do you think "Bonk" will go into classrooms?
That will be more of challenge, but it's already in some human-sexuality college classes. Possibly the sex-machine chapter will throw some people off.
You mean the part about the sixtysomething-year-old woman testing the "Thrillhammer" machine?
Yeah, that part might be a bit much.So you've written about sex, death and the afterlife.
Space. I'm going to write about traveling to Mars and vacuums and all the weird early exploration.