Writing Lessons from Mary Roach

gulp_300I’ve been doing some pre-book-event research to see what other nonfiction authors do at their appearances. Fiction authors and memoirists pretty much universally read from their books, but it’s a little weird to read long passages of narrative nonfiction, for the most part. Suddenly you find yourself, say, reading aloud a quote that Cloris Leachman gave you during an interview, and unless you’re a gifted impressionist, there’s no good way to dramatize this. So I have lots of activities on tap for my appearances: trivia contests, screenings, panel discussions. But I’m always looking for new ideas, so I headed to the Union Square Barnes & Noble last night to see Mary Roach, who writes these amazing books in which she investigates weird little worlds that are kind-of science-related: Stiff was about the death industry, Bonk about sex researchers. Her newest, Gulp, is about the digestive system. She’s a great example of a good writer who found not just a niche, but a thing: Her books are hilarious, filled with colorful characters and a gleeful take on the absurdity of human existence. There’s this constant sense of, Isn’t it wonderfully ridiculous that humans are so into themselves that people dedicate their whole lives to studying what we do to reproduce? She also uncovers loads of fascinating tidbits. (Example: Penguins can turn their stomachs into coolers, essentially, to bring fish back to their young.)

It was cool to hear about all that, of course. But during her conversation last night at the bookstore with Chop’t host Ted Allen, she said two things that stuck with me as a writer:

1. She follows her joyful sense of curiosity wherever it leads her during research. If she finds somebody trying to market pork testicles as a delicacy, and that person is a researcher at Ball State University, that’s funny enough to investigate further, whether or not it fit into her original vision of the book. This seems obvious, but it’s hard for me — I suspect because of my journalism training. I’m used to ferreting out whatever interests my editors, not me. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted‘s manuscript got infinitely better after my brilliant editor, Jon Karp, gave me a talking-to about finding my sense of passion for the subject. I need to remember this from the beginning when I write my next book.

2. She imagines her readers as “a bunch of Mary Roaches.” First, I love the image of one’s audience as just a sea of clones. But more importantly, this works with #1. She trusts that what fascinates her will fascinate enough other people to be worthwhile. This takes confidence as a writer, but it comes through in the writing.

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