The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton with Sarah Larson
Interviews | August 8, 2008 | Comments (36)
Following our own Sarah Larson’s review of Bonk by Mary Roach, I read the book and developed a strong suspicion that Mary was “Pajiba People.” She lives nearby and foolishly responded to my interview request, inviting me to her home to speak with her and her husband, Ed. Mary’s special talent consists of combining sharp but lighthearted humor with an intuitive grasp of a lingua franca between scientists and John Q. Citizen. Ed has achieved a kind of fame for his gallant putting-up-with Mary’s research, which on one occasion included giving her the business while a sex researcher scanned them [gulp] with an ultrasound wand. Ed also has a genial, dry wit - probably a necessity for entertaining Mary - and they both are the kind of people you’d like to have as friends.
Mary is a fan of boozy cinema, especially Trees Lounge and The Big Lebowski. When asked about her favorite drink, Mary responded like a pro. When I met with Mary and Ed, we discussed the relationship between writing what you love and paying the bills, the relative merits of Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky, and the joy of sex in front of strangers in lab coats. Because they were so helpful all the way through, I have acceded to Mary’s request that I not mention the flipper lady.
TB: Pajiba’s Sarah Larson reviewed your book, and I’ll start with one of her questions. Sarah wanted to know, and I’m quoting here, “Why are you so awesome?”
TB: Actually, that may have been an aside to me about types of questions not to ask.
MR: Why am I so awesome? I’m so not awesome, ask Ed. I’m un-awesome.
Ed: You are awesome. You’re awesome because you’re a nut job. That’s where good writing comes from.
TB: Your books focus on the application of science to critical aspects of human experience, like sex, death, the afterlife … were those conscious book topic ideas for you or does your intellectual curiosity just lead you to the good stuff?
MR: It’s more the latter, it’s just the stuff that makes me curious … I’m attracted to things that are taboo, the juicier stuff.
TB: If it’s fair to call Bonk irreverent and accessible science writing, do you feel like you’re catching a groundswell right now? Perhaps referring to what might be called the Malcolm Gladwell phenomenon?
MR: I’m actually always surprised that there isn’t more accessible science writing. It’s wonderful for me because I don’t have as much competition as I should. I think that the science writing that’s out there is wonderful, it just tends to be accessible to really smart people. I rarely read those books. They’re wonderful, and when I do read them I enjoy them. They’re not quite as accessible as they might be. I guess I’m kind of “science lite.”
Ed: Science for the rest of us.
MR: Yes, science for the rest of us.
TB: As opposed to hard, non-fiction science writing, going back to Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, for example. I guess that genre still exists today, but has it become two separate genres?
MR: Yes, I’m thinking of Jared Diamond, who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel, or someone like Carl Zimmer, people who have a hard science background, just know extraordinary amounts of information and are good writers and really good at presenting it. It’s just that it’s a little slower going for the average person.
TB: You mentioned to me before we began recording that you try to condense material down to a bouillon cube to make it more flavorful and entertaining - is that the result of a massive amount of editing on the back end, take out every passage you think might be dry?
MR: Not so much editing my own writing. I try to be a massive filtration system, filtering out the less interesting parts up front and condensing it down to the weirdest and funnest parts. So I sit down with a whole wall of the Archives of Human Sexual Behavior since 1950-something up through now, and I skim through for the stuff where I go, “Oh, god, they put two people in a room with snorkel masks and clothes pins and wired them up.” That sort of thing; I spend so much time trawling through the literature for stuff that’s fun and kind of grabby. It’s a service I provide my readers; they don’t want to know everything on a topic for the most part, they want to know the entertaining bits.
TB: That’s the accessibility part - they want to read something enjoyable and enlightening.
MR: And I can make the book funny and entertaining.
TB: Gladwell tries to condense, but it’s not as lighthearted, not as engaging probably.
MR: Gladwell is part of the reason I didn’t write books for a long time. There was once a point where I said to my agent, “How do you do a book proposal?” The agent sent me a copy of the proposal for [Gladwell’s] The Tipping Point, which was over a hundred pages. There was more work and information there than in all of my books put together. It was an extraordinarily well-organized proposal. It put me off writing a book proposal for years.
TB: Your bio states the you frequently write about science though you don’t have a scientific background - how did that come about?
MR: The first magazine I wrote a lot for was a medical magazine called Hippocrates which was around in the 80s, and it was a really smart magazine. Editors for these magazines would call [freelancers] and ask “Would you like to do a piece for us?” Discover magazine, which is a science magazine, called up and asked “Would you like to do some science writing?” I didn’t make a decision to shift into science writing. But I enjoy writing about health and medicine, I just find it fascinating.
TB: Given that subject focus, when you begin work on a book, do you have a specific research method or process that allows you to be so thorough?
MR: The first few months is essentially just random flailing, because I start out knowing nothing more than the average person about the topic. I have to go out there and grope madly into every corner I can reach and figure out where I’m going to go, what’s going to make the cut, what’s the most interesting stuff to include. I do a lot of looking around on the web. For my books I also have to find a place where I can go and observe - I like to have some on-the-scene stuff, and that’s a lot of sending out e-mails that say things like, “Hello, what are you going to be doing in your lab or facility for the next six months?” My research goes from being sort of broad and clueless, gradually get a sense of what to include and how it might fit together, and then I start doing more specific research and interviews. I don’t start interviewing until much later in the process, because I don’t really know what to ask, and I don’t know what the structure of the book is going to be.
TB: In Bonk, for example, you went to Taiwan and Scandinavia, not to mention a primarily Muslim country, Egypt, to follow up on a sexual health researcher there. Were there places that were too exotic for you to go?
MR: Oh, no. There’s no such thing as too exotic. There are some places that in my imagination are more exotic than they turn out to be. There was in India a tantric sex research institute, I wanted to go there. I’m sure that would have been—
Ed: —I wanted to go, too.
MR: [laughs] There were six different e-mail addresses for the place; none of them panned out. I contacted a reporter I knew in India, nobody could find this place. I was always searching for these exotic places. I’m sure if I had gotten there, it would have been some guy’s living room. Any time something says “Institute,” it may very well be some guy’s musty office or something.
TB: [to Ed] And this potential trip was taken off the table before you were aware of it?
Ed: Yes. Yes, it was.
TB: With the international traveling, some of it is just that that’s where the research is going on, but do you feel that there’s a more repressive attitude about that kind of research in the United States than, say, fifteen years ago?
MR: It wasn’t really the case that I was forced because of a lack of research here to go overseas. I always want there to be overseas chapters because they’re usually more interesting and colorful. They make for better chapters because life is more interesting in foreign countries.
TB: The Taiwanese doctor [in Bonk] was quite interesting.
MR: Exactly. I’m always searching for those even if there are dozens of things going on in the U.S. There’s a ton of work going on in the U.S. looking for pharmaceutical solutions for low libido in women, post-menopausal women. The money’s coming from drug companies. If it’s not funded that way, people just don’t have the research dollars. There’s not a lot of fun sex research going on in this country. There is a conservatism, the family values groups have had a bit of an effect, they can do searches and find out who’s getting money from the government, and for what, and they can find people doing sex research and target them for criticism.
TB: Now that you say that, as I was preparing for this interview, I was doing searches about the film Kinsey, and some of the web sites I found were conservative sites doing hate pieces about that film.
MR: That was extraordinary. They tried to get people to boycott the film. Kinsey is just a magnet for that kind of hatred, you know. [alters voice] “He’s to blame. If it wasn’t for Kinsey, there wouldn’t be any homosexual people. Everyone would have remained in the closet and life would have been like it was in the 1950s.”
TB: The wording on one site was literally, “How dare they make a movie about this pervert?”
MR: It’s amazing. I started working on Bonk around the time Kinsey came out, and I remember thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to get that kind of treatment.”
TB: Do you get any scolding mail?
MR: No, I think I’m just not on enough people’s radar screens. A national film release of that caliber is just so much more in the public eye than Mary Roach’s books.
TB: Maybe those people assume the New York Times’ bestseller list is just going to be the repository of Satan’s tools anyway.
MR: [laughs] Could be. So far they’ve left me alone.
TB: Bonk isn’t a how-to book about sex, but it contains a great deal of information about how female sexual arousal has mystified scientists; with a book like that, do you set out with a goal of helping readers on a practical level?
MR: I did. I wanted to provide as much useful information as I could, as long as it was in the context of being entertaining. As long as it fit. Wherever I could shoehorn it in, I did, because I just think it adds to the appeal of the book.
TB: There was plenty of discussion about male mechanical studies, but it seemed that the book skewed toward female sexual dysfunction - or is that my bias as a male reader?
MR: I tried to make it half and half, but I think there’s more work going on right now with women.
TB: Why do you think that’s the case?
MR: Because with men, there’s the historical treatment of erectile dysfunction, and I did cover that as far as it goes. But when Viagra hit, that’s kind of “the answer,” for the most part, other than implants and other treatments for people where Viagra doesn’t work. But there wasn’t a lot more with men. Women are a little more complicated. With women, sexual dysfunction means female sexual arousal disorder, female orgasmic disorder, low libido, there’s all the these subcategories that don’t really exist with men.
TB: In Bonk you separated those out as distinct medical puzzles to be solved.
MR: I think that’s why it felt to the reader that there’s more going on with women, because I had to address three separate dysfunctions within female sexual dysfunction. There’s a lot more research, a lot more to be figured out. Not to say that male sexuality is simple and all figured out—
Ed: —I pretty much have it figured out.
TB: What I took from your writing is that there’s this mechanical approach by science or medicine for male sexuality that works.
MR: Yes, right, the physiology of erections has been figured out and some pretty effective treatments have been figured out. With women, the mind is more involved, there’s that whole chapter on the disconnect for women between mind and body, so that makes everything more confusing. There’s a lot more material to work from. Also, I like to be able to go to the labs and describe things and observe things, and there’s just a lot more going with women.
Ed: You want to inject yourself, so to speak.
MR: I have gotten complaints from women saying there was too much on men in the book. [laughs] I think basically females just turn to the female chapters and men turn to the male chapters. I’m convinced my agent only read the male chapters - the Taiwan chapter.
TB: So that ended up being the entire book pitch, the Taiwan chapter?
MR: [laughing] Yes.
TB: Do you think there’s any political element to that aspect of the research, that women are getting more of a voice and so researchers are taking notice, or is something else at work?
MR: I think it has to do with the interests of the pharmaceutical companies. I think that when the pharmaceutical companies were trying to figure something out for erectile dysfunction, tons of research went into that, and then they figured it out, more or less, and they turned their attention to the other half of the planet, and how can we find a drug for them. I guess that’s political in a sense, but it’s more just financially motivated.
TB: Other than on your book tours, do you encounter readers or fans very much in your everyday life?
MR: Yes, I get a lot of wonderful emails from people, a few a day.
TB: Do people recognize you on the street or at the grocery store? [Note: Mary’s publicity photos are prominently featured on her books and on her website.]
MR: No, no no no—
Ed: Oh, it has happened, I’ve been there with you at a restaurant when it happened.
MR: That was from the credit card slip, she saw my name and came back and said, “Are you that Mary Roach?”
TB: So there’s name recognition …
MR: Yeah, every now and then somebody says that, but I don’t get people recognizing me.
TB: Based on the book tours and emails, are you able to profile your average reader?
MR: No, not at all. I can’t even say if my average reader is male or female, it seems to be a pretty even split between men and women, based on the e-mails, and the age ranges from high school to a nursing home.
TB: There was a nursing home?
MR: This friend of ours, her dad had read Stiff, my first book, and decided to buy copies for everyone in the nursing home. Our friend said, “Gee, Dad, I don’t know, maybe you should get her a scarf or something.”
TB: That’s a heck of practical joke.
MR: I don’t think that it was a very popular gift.
Ed: [Speaking as if to someone hard of hearing] “I said it’s a book about dead people.”
MR: [laughing] “Cadavers!”
TB: [laughing] Has there been any blowback at all about having two ladybugs doing it on the cover of Bonk?
MR: Oh, you should see the British cover. It’s quite X-rated, it’s fabulous. It wouldn’t wash here.
TB: No angry e-mails like, “My wife is lifting weights with her vagina” or something like that?
MR: No, I haven’t gotten any feedback from people who have put things to the test from the book.
TB: Ed, for the piece in Bonk about the radio-imaging study, where you participated in the study of people having sex in front of the researchers, did you pick a safe word ahead of time?
Ed: [laughs] No, I told Mary early on that if she needs me for this sex book, I’m there. Little did I realize.
MR: We were in an ultrasound study, and the guy was holding an ultrasound wand right here [motions to lower abdomen], which is much worse than the people doing it in the MRI, because he’s standing right there [motioning next to her].
Ed: Yeah, that’s much worse.
TB: Pretty intimate.
Ed: Yeah, you wonder how people perform in pornography. [both laugh] Somehow, [Mary laughing] much to my consternation, I was able to do this with this guy standing next to me. It was very, very odd.
TB: Nature finds a way, I guess.
Ed: Well, he had Viagra.
TB: [to Mary] What will your next book be about?
MR: The next one has to do with people trying to live in space, so I’m writing about astronauts and Martians and toilets on the ceiling and all kinds of things.
TB: Did your ideas for Stiff, Spook and Bonk come from the same type of source or completely different sources?
MR: Stiff grew out of a couple of columns for Salon, and Spook just grew out of some ideas from Stiff. Bonk, the idea for that came when I was reading a back issue of Film Quarterly. There was this reference to the films Masters & Johnson made using the Penis Camera, and I remember just having this thought, “Whoa”—
Ed: Penis Camera!
MR: “Filming a woman from the inside, sex research, next book.” There was this instantaneous decision that there has to be a lot of other really out-there stuff. And sex is this intimate, personal thing, yet it’s physiology and anatomy, and you’re going to have to study it in a laboratory, and isn’t that awk-ward. So that was really it.
TB: Now for Sarah’s next question: Do you plan to involve Ed or any of your other friends or family members in your next book? That might be difficult unless they can qualify for NASA.
MR: I’m going to launch Ed into orbit around the earth.
Ed: I told her, sex in space, that’s always been a dream of mine.
MR: I actually tried to finagle that. I tried to get the two of us on that zero-gravity flight, but they passed on that.
Ed: So we’d be having sex and vomiting at the same time.
TB: So romantic.
MR: About as romantic as the ultrasound doctor being there with us.
Ed: Would Dr. Deng be there with us? I have a soft spot in my heart for Dr. Deng.
TB: Well, you two shared a moment together.
MR: [to Ed] Remember his arm was resting on your hip?
Ed: I don’t know anything about that.
TB: Maybe the arm resting on the hip was what allowed you to break through the awkwardness of the moment.
Ed: It was very sweet.
MR: I have to say, if you’re going to have sex in front of anybody, Dr. Deng is pretty innocuous.
Ed: He handled it very well; he was very business-like. He didn’t titter, like we were doing.
MR: He was very professional, you really couldn’t get a laugh out of him. We didn’t see him laugh the entire time we were there.
Ed: No. I tried.
MR: We were his first couple. He had done scans of individual people, arousing themselves. He did a scan of himself in a cornstarch vagina or something.
Ed: Where can I get one of those?
TB: [laughing] That would be a way to explain a lot of questionable behavior. “I’m a sex researcher, honey, it’s for my job.”
MR: [laughing] That’s right.
Ed: It’s all in the corn starch.
TB: I’m sure our readership includes a number of aspiring writers; should writers follow what they want to write, or write about what can get them work?
MR: Sometimes both; I did both for a long time. You should definitely write about what you want to write about, because that’s when you do your best writing. So I think it’s always important to do that, although it might not earn you a lot of money for a while.
TB: How early in your life did you know that you wanted to be professional writer?
MR: I didn’t do any writing all through college; I graduated with a sort of useless liberal arts B.A., there was a recession going on, it was 1981, I had no job skills … I started out doing some editing, and it was the one thing I had any ability to do. I didn’t ever have this goal that I wanted to be a writer, I just had this goal of, I wanted to pay my rent. College prepares you for, you know, not a lot other than writing papers.
TB: Your bio notes that you wrote a column for Salon for a while - did they pay you in organic artisanal lettuce or bio-fuel credits?
ER/MR: [laughing - I always kill in the East Bay.]
TB: Are you doing magazine writing right now or just book work?
MR: I do a little magazine work; right at the moment I’m not. I just did a piece for “Outside,” there’s “National Geographic,” so I do a little bit of magazine work. Not a lot. I’m not good at shifting gears back and forth.
TB: Other than time pressures, how does magazine writing differ from book writing for you?
MR: Hugely different. With magazines, the magazine is the product, so you’re writing for a demographic, there’s an audience you have to bear in mind, advertisers, there are a lot of considerations that shape and limit what you can do. With a book, you are the product. You’ve been hired to be yourself in the best way that you can, and on the one hand it’s incredibly freeing, and also kind of frightening the first time you do it. You’ve got a contract and essentially they say to you, “All right, talk to you in a couple of years, whenever you’re done.” You’re on your own. Which is just unfathomable to someone who’s been writing for magazines for 15 years, where there’s a certain tone, a certain style, you have a certain word length, can’t offend the advertisers, can’t offend the reader. A lot more editorial hand-wringing goes on with magazines.
TB: So magazine writing is much more of a traditional job?
MR: Well, it’s much closer to journalism than to just writing. But it depends on the publication. Salon was not at all that way, Salon was very lightly edited and open to pushing boundaries.
TB: There seems to be that sensibility with website writing. I have no idea what it’s like at Slate, but with Salon and with our site it certainly seems to be more free environment for the writer.
MR: Yes, that does seem to be the case.
TB: I read in an interview that you write two or three hours a day?
MR: When I’m writing, that’s about as much as I can do. The bulk of what I’m doing is ferreting out information, organizing it, sending e-mails, all that other stuff that goes on when you’re writing a book.
TB: Do you have a research assistant or anyone else who helps you with the non-writing work?
MR: No, I don’t have a research assistant; my books would make it hard to have a research assistant because they would almost have to borrow my brain to research a pile of back issues of a journal. I only know what I’m looking for when I see it, as opposed to, for example, a historian looking for very particular facts. It would be hard to get across to someone what I’m looking for. So often I’ll stumble across something that I had no idea was going to be in the book, but I’ll see it looking for something else, and that becomes a whole chapter of the book.
TB: Would that be less fun, too?
MR: In a way it would, because I love those trips to archives and afternoons spent plowing through back issues of medical journals. I actually enjoy that part of it a lot.
TB: Let’s get down to brass tacks here: What’s your favorite type of booze?
MR: Martini, dry, two olives, up.
TB: [after crapping myself with joy at selection and verbiage] The true gin martini, not the bastardized vodka martini?
MR: Oh my god, thank you, thank you. I have this argument all the time with a friend of mine who says that, because James Bond drank a vodka martini, that is the true martini, and it sickens me to hear it.
[At this point we paused the interview while we discussed James Bond’s actual preference for the Vesper and how to defeat her friend’s ridiculous position.]
MR: Gin martini, two olives. My father was a martini drinker, and when I was a small girl, he would give me his olive. That’s a huge sacrifice for a martini drinker. That’s what parenting is all about. That’s the bond we have. What I learned from my father—
Ed: Benign neglect.
MR: That, but what I learned from him was to spoon the soup away from you and to use a shoehorn when you put on your shoes.
TB: Because you’ll break the backs of your shoes.
MR: That’s exactly right, that’s what he told me. These are the things I learned from my father. He was an Englishman, he was 65 when I was born. [laughs] He was a little removed from it, had a little difficulty relating to his child.
TB: So he just went ahead and started sharing the adult lessons with you?
MR: Exactly - how to drink a martini, how to use a shoehorn.
Ed: That’s right. He had to get it all in fast.
TB: How did he happen to be with your mother?
MR: My parents met in Hanover. He was a speech and drama professor, and my mother was a secretary. She and her roommate threw a party and invited all the bachelor males they could think of. A week or two later, my mom was walking back from the grocery store and my father stopped to chat and invited himself over to dinner. The ears of corn sticking out of the sack were his conversational entree, as I recall. She was 20 years younger than him. Not everyone in her family approved, but they were all back on the West coast. Thinking about it now, I realize that none of her brothers or her mother was at the wedding. Just a couple of cousins that lived out here.
TB: Did your father help with a preference for Irish whiskey versus Scotch whisky?
Ed: Scotch whisky.
MR: See, I kind of like Jameson. I got a thing for Jameson. But I like McCallan. I’m not a big fan of the heavy peat.
TB: So, Ed, for you it’s single malt scotch?
Ed: Yeah, McCallan is great.
MR: The Balvenie. Trader Joe’s has got The Balvenie.
Ed: Also, Old Potrero is really good, have you tried that?
TB: The rye? Yes, I really like that one, I did an all-Westerns column a few months ago focusing on Old Potrero.
TB: [to both] Do you have an opinion on whether a Screwdriver is a suitable drink for a gentleperson?
ER: “A gentleperson”? [laughs]
MR: A Screwdriver is a suitable drink for a child.
[Boozehound tries to stay professional but is having trouble separating burgeoning feelings of amore from of his duty to Pajiba.]
TB: The author Kingsley Amis quoted, without citation, a study purportedly showing that Western civilization would have broken down completely in the 20th Century without the relief provided by alcohol. Is there any chance you might write a book about the positive effects of alcohol on the human condition?
MR: You know, I thought about writing a book about alcohol, but there’s not enough good laboratory research going on about the positive effects of alcohol.
Ed: Well, it depends on what you define as a laboratory.
TB: [laughing] Yeah, I’ve got a laboratory, it opens at five every night.
MR: [laughing] Right, there’s a row of laboratories on MacArthur Drive with beer signs in the windows.
TB: What books are you reading right now?
MR: Right now I’m reading Disasters and Accidents in Manned Space Flight; I’m reading mostly stuff for research. For pleasure reading, I just finished John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise.
[Upon which, Boozehound takes a quick break to call the wife to see if she’s really opposed to a friendly trial separation.]
TB: Hodgman! 792 names for hoboes!
MR: Yes! Hoboes! Oh my god.
TB: He’s not on “The Daily Show” much anymore.
MR: No, he’s finishing up another book. He has just the most amazing imagination. I took his book on book tour, and you don’t really get much chance to read on book tour, book tours are stressful, so it was my therapy. He has the imagination that we all have as children.
TB: What television shows do you and Ed like to watch?
MR: “Mythbusters.” “The Daily Show” and “Colbert.” “Flight of the Conchords.” The British “The Office.” “Extras.” “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
TB: Last film you saw at the theater?
MR: It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a theater. [to Ed] You’ve been more recently.
Ed: I saw Iron Man. Actually the most recent time was Wanted with Angelina Jolie. Not so much. Iron Man I loved.
TB: Yeah, isn’t it way better than The Dark Knight?
Ed: Totally, way better.
[Note: The last two lines occurred exclusively in my mind.]
MR: In a theater, I haven’t seen anything since that run of films before the Oscars, you know, The Savages, Juno … The Savages was very good. Oh, and There Will Be Blood.
TB: Speaking of movies, who do you think is a better sex researcher, a young Woody Allen or Liam Neeson as Kinsey?
MR: I have to say a young Woody Allen. Absolutely. Yeah, Woody Allen. He had the curiosity. Somebody just today e-mailed me a question about a reference in my book to sperm “capacitating,” and it reminded me of that scene from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex where he’s one of the sperm getting revved up before they jump out.
TB: Okay, final question: Ms. Roach, I ask you again, why are you so awesome?
MR: Um, it must have been all the martinis as a child. The gin-soaked olives.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by: Che Grovera at August 8, 2008 9:47 AM