Mary Roach doesn’t do her homework. She didn’t go to J-school. By her own admission, she’s never quite sure she knows what she’s doing.
“I always have the sense that I’m skating on thin ice,” she says about her life as a reporter.
Yet her closing keynote at this year’s Power of Narrative conference kept several hundred professional journalists rapt. Despite her self-proclaimed lack of credentials, Roach has earned plenty of respect, and more than a few laughs, for her growing shelf of best-selling books about quirky science. She’s the author of “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” books about human sexuality, outer space, and the alimentary canal, and her forthcoming book “Grunt” looks at ways military organizations prepare for the physical perils of war.
“I show up in somebody’s world with a very cursory sense of what they do,” Roach explained the day before her keynote speech, sitting on a couch in the lobby at the conference. Once she gets there, she lets her instincts take over.
Her process typically involves building every chapter in each of her books around an excursion to witness a researcher in action. She’s done it enough to have amassed a kind of methodology, albeit one not likely to be taught at Columbia anytime soon. But it works for her, and as she said before her talk, “there’s no right or wrong way to find narrative.”
In her keynote talk, she broke her process down into “The Seven Bad Habits of Highly Effective Narrative.”
Promise things you can’t deliver. For her book “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” Roach hoped to find a Masters and Johnson-style researcher studying the human body during intercourse. She found one clinician, who told her he’d be glad to have her observe, but was currently short on volunteers. Did her organization have a willing couple it could offer? “So my organization called its husband…” she continued, to raucous laughter. The moral of this story: Always say yes.
Be unprepared. Roach is being a bit disingenuous when she says she doesn’t do her homework before visiting an interview subject. She does do research, though she doesn’t like to be too thorough. Instead, she’ll let the circumstances dictate where her questions might lead. “The most provocative questions to ask are almost always unknown to you until you get there,” she said. To her, the work is almost like making a documentary film: as the writer, you choose the people and the setting, then let the situation go where it may.
Get in over your head. By way of anecdote, she told the story of her encounter with an intellectually bewildering scientist for her book “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.” The chapter that resulted ended up taking readers on a comical bumper-car ride through her struggle to keep up with her subject’s dazzling mathematical mind. Though she usually tries to refrain from making herself the main character in her reporting, it can be an engaging technique, she said: “Sometimes I will throw myself in front of that train.”
Sweat the small stuff. Sometimes one little detail can make all the difference. When Roach heard of a researcher who’d created tiny underpants for rats — he was studying the effect of polyester on sperm counts — she booked a trip immediately. She calls her tendency to showcase one such telling, memorable item the “Tiffany’s window approach to journalism.”
Be disorganized. Not literally “keep a messy desk,” but be willing to accept disorder. “Embrace the chaos,” she said.
Litter your prose with scientific jargon. Readers love it. Masters and Johnson had a preferred term for a couple engaged in sexual congress, she said: the “reacting unit.”
Act your shoe size, not your age. At heart, we’re all connected through our immaturity, and our fear that we’re not smart enough, she said. For her work, it’s helpful to play to that. “It’s the bait that gets people to enjoy reading about science,” she said. “I’m kind of the gateway drug.”
Roach’s eccentric wisdom, of course, is not one-size-fits-all for journalists. Yet the core tenets of her advice can be applied universally.
Her stock-in-trade, she told the audience, is her sense of curiosity and wonder. And when she’s writing, she’ll continually challenge herself to appeal to her audience in whatever way she can, to encourage them to stay with her.
“I always imagine a reader about to put the book down,” she said.
If she finds a flat passage she’s written — no humor, no surprises, “nothing remarkable” — she’ll labor over it until it grabs. She makes her insecurity and fear work to her advantage.
If that’s a habit, it sounds like a good one.