notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
In October 2011 I wrote this blog post for the Phoebe literary magazine’s blog. An early birthday present from my editor, I was given the opportunity to interview Mary Roach, author of five super interesting, amazingly researched, and often hilarious nonfiction books such as Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (my personal favorite), and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.
What is your writing process like? Do you require a quiet environment? Do you set aside a set number of hours a day as a goal, or write in the mornings, or evenings?
Mary: Sometimes I get my best writing done in a noisy environment, like a café or in an airport, because it forces me to focus. [Mary was in an airport waiting for a flight to Seattle while we conducted this interview. During this question, a small child began screaming next to her. “Well, I don’t think I could work right now, for instance,” she laughed.] I don’t usually listen to music. I try to set a chunk of time aside, but it depends. Usually I write in the afternoon; interviews are done in the morning, and then I write afterwards. I have an office in Oakland that I share with eight other writers. I don’t do much writing at home since I do have an office.
It’s fascinating how you use your own personal search for answers to frame the research narrative. When you write, how do you decide how much of your own story to put in? Do you find that you need to go back and revise it to include more or less first person?
Mary: I have to police myself in terms of using first person. I tend to put it in when it’s not adding anything, so I go back and pull some of it out. Usually it’s along the lines of “so and so told me” or “I called so and so,” and this became a habit from early in my career. I only like to put myself in the narrative if the presence can help to hold the reader’s hand. It shows the reader, “I’m the same as you are.” I used this technique when writing about the body farm, for instance. I use the “I” to help identify with the reader. If it’s adding something, I keep it in; if not, I’ll simply take it out when revising. I usually make the decision up front when writing to put myself in the scene.
You do a lot of technical science writing, while having a psychology degree. What are the challenges unique to scientific writing from a non-scientist as opposed to other forms of nonfiction writing?
Mary: It’s just more of a limiting factor; mostly, I write under physiology and anatomy, and basic medicine. There are definitely areas of science that I just wouldn’t go near; I have a limited terrain. Nothing molecular, like protein receptors, or genetics. It’s not my background, and it’s not where my interests are. I have to get up to speed on science since I don’t have the background. My sources are like unpaid tutors; I’m not just doing an interview, I’m also asking them, “Can you explain to me how this works?” My own life is not as interesting as the world, and that’s why I write about science. I don’t have a lot of material to work with in a genre like personal essay, because I don’t have a childhood that lends itself to that genre. The real world is much more interesting than what is in my own head.
How do you fact check your research? Does your editorial team do that for you?
Mary: I don’t hire anyone to fact check the research; I fact check it myself as I go through the transcripts of interviews to make sure I have it straight. If it’s a technical chapter, I’ll send it to my source, who’s always an expert in the field. When I was writing Packing for Mars, I gave it to a space engineer and amateur pilot who worked at NASA to check the more heavy scientific material. They let me know if something is weird, or doesn’t seem accurate. After all, I don’t have a background in aviation or space engineering. I do have a technical reviewer, but publishers don’t have fact check people; only magazines do.
Do you record each interview, or do you usually take notes (by hand or laptop)?
Mary: Both. I will turn the recorder on and off if something get’s boring, but if it’s technical I always turn on the tape recorder. It’s always in my hand—a small digital Olympus recorder. It’s a judgment call on what should be recorded and what should be taken down by hand. You can come home with forty hours of interview and that can be dangerous, because then you have to log it all down.
What was the weirdest/craziest/most challenging interview you ever conducted?
Mary: Years ago, I wrote a piece about the surgery that was preformed for nearsightedness before there was laser eye surgery. It involved a procedure of putting a slit in the cornea, and the eye would then reshape itself. I went to Moscow to interview a doctor performing these surgeries. He was also running for president in Russia, and his operating room had a conveyor belt of patients. He had a huge ego. The whole wall behind his desk was filled with television screens of eyes that were currently being operated on! So, I’m trying to interview him, and behind his head are twenty-four blow-up eyeballs staring at me! A very strange setting for an interview. I would ask him something like, “What’s your vision?” (speaking literally about eyesight) and he would reply with his political position on an issue. He kept confusing eyesight and his vision for Russia’s future. So I’d say, “No—your eye! Eye!”
When writing, what is the time balance between research spent locating sources on the Internet or in the library and actual writing time? Which is more exhausting, or time-consuming, for you?
Mary: It’s about an even split. I do a fair amount of emailing, tracking people down, trying to get in contact. I don’t spend too much time in a library or in an archive, but it takes a lot of time tracking people and journal articles down via the Internet. I’ll have to go to the UC Berkley library if the journal articles aren’t online. The interviewing takes the most amount of time. It’s about 50/50 between research and writing, but usually a bit more heavy on the research side. Travel also takes a lot of time—both going places and setting trips up.
What other nonfiction authors do you enjoy? What was your favorite book you read in the past six months, nonfiction or otherwise?
Mary: I just read Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean. She’s one of my favorite nonfiction authors and a beautiful writer. The book goes beyond the dog. I haven’t really seen the show, but the book is just great.