|PLAY IT FAST AND LOOSE WITH MARY ROACH, AUTHOR OF STIFF.|
Mary Roach loves dead bodies in a way that most people probably prefer she wouldn't. Her book Stiff, now out in paperback, is study of what we can learn from ourselves when we're gone. Or, rather, what the living can learn from us when we're gone.
You see, those poor suckers who donate themselves to science could end up in a lot of places. Their heads could be used for face-lift practice. Their limbs may be used in auto-impact testing. Love "CSI?"
You could help forensic scientists learn more about human decomposition by, well, lying in a field and rotting.
Roach writes science for English majors. Stiff is funny, compelling and, at times, surprisingly poignant. Her respect for those bodies willing to be ravaged for the living is obvious. Somehow, she makes death a little softer.
With a new book already complete, Roach took some time to answer The Black Table's off-color questions:
BT: The reviews all call Stiff funny or witty, and it is. Did you use humor as a coping mechanism for yourself or to make the subject
matter more palatable for readers?
MR: Neither, intentionally. It's just how I write -- or how I prefer to write. I like to make my prose as entertaining as possible, and it's more fun for me that way, too. Though I think the humor did have the effect of making the subject matter go down a little more easily.
BT: You recount a story in the book about posing as a writer for a funeral-industry magazine to get an interview about alleged cannibalism in China. Were your sources wary of you? How did you convince them that you weren't looking to paint them as weirdoes?
MR: Yes, lots of wariness. And I don't blame them. I think I'd be wary too if I cut off heads for a living. Whenever possible, I simply explained the premise of the book -- without mentioning that it would be a funny book -- and assured them that I support cadaver research.
The China folks were trickier. There's no tradition of books like Stiff over there, I don't think. There was just no way to do it but to lie! The plastic surgery seminar was the trickiest. I was just about ready to pay the tuition and get my own head. I was going to show up with an Exacto knife and a pickle fork and just fake it. Thankfully, an acquaintance in the industry got me in at the last minute.
BT: There's been a lot of "How X (salt/cod/nutmeg/umbrellas) Change the World" or "The History of X (zero, orgasms, uppity royals)" books published in the past few years. Stiff isn't like that but could have easily fallen into that rubric. Did you consciously avoid that structure? Is "How Cadavers Changed the World" still waiting to be written?
MR: I think I consciously avoided all structure! You're right -- the first cadavers to be dissected really changed the course of medicine. Up to that point it was all potions and hocus-pocus. Until someone dug in and really figured out how everything worked, the art of healing would have remained in the dark ages. Go cadavers!
The trouble with a structure like that -- for me -- is that it's limiting. You get a nice, cohesive through-line, but you have to jettison some of your livelier stuff, and I have trouble doing that.
BT: Stiff was used as a fairly significant prop on the last season of Six Feet Under. How did that role for the book come about, and did you like the portrayal of your book?
MR: Manna from heaven! God love and protect Alan Ball!! Portrayal was perfect. I didn't mind at all when Brenda called it macabre or morbid or whatever she said. Especially loved the close-up -- my Amazon numbers went way up they day after that shot.
People ask me if it was product placement, which is a logical question. But it wasn't. I don't think HBO does product placement, and if they did, Norton couldn't afford it.
I heard that it was going to happen about six months prior. A friend of mine was interviewing Ball and mentioned Stiff. (He played me the tape.) Ball says, "I know that book. Look, it's right here. We're putting it on the show next season." That's all I knew. I didn't realize it would be part of the plot. I figured someone might be reading it in the background.
BT: What's the biggest annoying consequence of writing Stiff?
MR: I get some peculiar phone calls and emails. A documentary producer for The Discovery Channel wanted to know where he could get a cadaver for a documentary about human sacrifice. He had heard that the Mayans sacrificed 20,000 people in three days (or something like that), and he had worked out the killings per hour and wasn't convinced it was possible. He wanted to get a cadaver and give an obsidian blade to a surgeon and time how fast he could get the heart out. Like maybe I had a torso down in the basement that he could use. I heard that show ran recently, sans the cadaver.
BT: I have to admit -- I was a little bummed about the lack of pictures. Except for the cops hanging out with the skeleton, there weren't any visual aids. Though your descriptions are vivid, are photo clearances that hard to get? Or I am just a repulsive person who should have kept that question to myself?
MR: Well, you are a repulsive person, and I love you for that. The feeling 'round Norton was that literal pictures (as opposed to the sort of whimsical ones we ran) might put people off. I think that with written descriptions you can sort of mete out the details, temper them with humor, step back here and there, really control the level of luridness. With photos, it's all there in your face, all at once, and you run the risk of shocking/nauseating your reader. Perhaps there should be a separate X-rated edition for people like you (and me). I tried to convince my editors to do a special Scratch 'n Sniff edition, but they ignored me.
BT: What about the use of cadavers in art? Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists were rumored to have obtained cadavers to learn more about the human form. Modern artists such as Joel-Peter Witkin use cadavers as part of their art. Was this not an area of interest to you, or did you find it to be so rare that it just wasn't worth commenting on?
MR: I was going to do a chapter on this. I wanted to go to Gunther Von Hagens's art/anatomy plastination facility in China, but Gunther managed to give me the slip (no fool he). It was mostly a matter of having to make the cut somewhere. If I were to expand Stiff, I'd add this chapter, and also a chapter about military uses of cadavers. I heard about Operation Mincemeat after the book came out. This was a WW2 ploy where the Allies dressed a dead guy up in an officer's uniform with fake maps and plans and set him adrift so that he'd wash ashore into enemy hands. (It worked.) Also would have looked into the catapulting of plague-ridden corpses over rampart walls in medieval times.
BT: Did you find it difficult to come back to the land of the living when you were writing the book? How did you mentally balance, say, finding yourself among 40 heads on a platter with making sure your stepdaughter's homework was done?
MR: There were definitely times when the one leaked over into the other, with disturbing consequence. When I was flying back from the head lab, I kept looking around at all my fellow passengers, thinking, "I know what you'd look like as just a head."
BT: The book's title is almost too perfect. What were some other suggestions that didn't make the cut?
MR: I tried to talk them out of Stiff, even though I came up with it. I felt it was too flippant and would horrify all the researchers in the book. And second, because I thought "stiff" was a cops and forensics term and didn't really fit. I came up with "Things To Do When You're Dead," which is a little too close to the indie film Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. And the marketing people nixed it because it was too many words. The marketing people prevailed.
BT: I don't know what you're working on next (in other interviews you've declined to reveal the subject of your forthcoming books), and I'm not going to ask. But what's the next logical extension, if there were to be one? What comes after cadavers? Morticians?
MR: The next book is a sort of a spin-off from the chapter about people looking for the soul. It's about scientists and other enterprising types trying to PROVE that the soul exists/persists. More fun shenanigans in peculiar labs. Similar tone and (lack of) structure to Stiff. I just turned it in. Won't be out 'til fall 2005. One cadaver book is enough for me, I think. Morticians are interesting, but I think we might have reached market saturation there. Ditto forensics.
Aileen Gallagher is managing editor at The Black Table.