Best-selling author Mary Roach sat down with The Write Stuff to give aspiring writers an insight into her fascinating career as a nonfiction author, columnist, and popular science writer. Mary’s books include Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Her magazine articles have appeared in National Geographic, New Scientist, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.
And to think she also sat down with Jon Stewart four months ago…
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary over the phone and she was incredibly kind, candid, and more than happy to answer all of my questions which you will see….I had more than a few!
1) Have you always been a writer?
In one way or another. I started out doing a mix of magazine articles, newspaper writing, and part-time jobs doing press releases. I haven’t been paid to do much else other than writing!
2) How did you get started writing nonfiction books?
My first nonfiction book, Stiff, came about when I was writing a column for Salon.com. An agent approached me and asked whether I had any book ideas.
Me: Really? (insert gasp here)
Yeah–the book grew out of that conversation. I had done a couple of columns that included cadaver research, which got pretty high hit rates. That suggested that people found this topic interesting. Being that it was an unusual topic, there hadn’t been much written about it. So, I suggested it thinking that he would say, “Oh. I don’t think so.” But he didn’t. He said, “It sounds like a cool idea…why don’t you write up a couple of pages for me and we’ll take it from there.” I wrote up a proposal and we shopped it around.
4) That leads me to my next question: What does a person have to do if they want to write a nonfiction book? What are the steps?
First, you need a good idea. It should be something that you yourself will be interested in for a couple of years. I also have advised people who want to make a living as an author to pick something that will have a fairly broad audience. After that, you write a book proposal.
Me: So you don’t actually have to write the book first?
Not for fiction. A proposal is about ten to fifteen pages including an outline of the chapters and a sample chapter. As a selling tool, it doesn’t have to be terribly accurate. In fact, your book may not resemble your proposal at all. It’s just something to get publishers excited about the prospect of the book.
The next thing you need is an agent. You send your proposal out to a bunch of agents and I recommend that people look at AgentQuery.com which is a database of book agents. You can search by genre or topic. It’ll give you some names and ideas of where to send your proposal. Then once you sign on with an agent, the agent shops the book around to publishers, and hopefully you’ll end up with a publisher and a contract.
5) What has surprised you the most about the publishing process?
When it was my first book, everything was a surprise. They don’t really give you a manual on what to expect. I thought the revision process would be more extensive than it was. It’s really more up to you to get the book in a good shape. They don’t go over it as endlessnessly as magazines do for an article. So while that was a surprise, it was also very liberating.
6) Your book topics are varied from one to the next. How do get your ideas for a new book? Or do you just have a question that you wonder about?
It’s kind of intuitive. There are just some topics that appeal to me and they tend to be things that involve the human body in unusual circumstances which is a general trend that they all have. It’s really a process of elimination and what is left standing after I’m done. They are a lot of things that won’t work for me such as something that’s completely abstract or historical…or politics. It just wouldn’t be fun for me and fun is a crucial element!
7) What has been your favorite author experience so far?
Going out to champagne in New York with my editor and publisher when my first book made the Bestseller List—it was incredibly exciting. I’ll never forget that.
8 ) What has been the hardest thing so far as an author?
Sometimes it’s hard to get access to places. For all of my books, there have been access issues for different reasons. For Stiff, people who work in cadaver labs are a bit weary of publicity. They don’t know if you’re going to disapprove or if someone will pick up a story and say something negative about them. Often times people can misunderstand what they do. For Spook, people in the paranormal world are very hesitant because they have been ridiculed a lot in the media. For Bonk, in the sex labs privacy was an issue. In Packing for Mars, it was difficult to gain access to certain parts of NASA.
9) Was it difficult to get interviews with NASA Astronauts…?
It depended on the astronaut. A retired astronaut is freer to talk but a current astronaut was easier to get in touch with. As for any of the Apollo astronauts or anyone who walked on the moon, they’ve gotten really tired of talking to the media! And I don’t blame them. But it wasn’t too difficult. On the other hand, if you want to talk Neil Armstrong, forget it! If you want Buzz Aldrin, that’s probably not a problem.
10) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I spent a lot of years talking myself out of writing a book. Thinking that it’s too daunting or I don’t have a good enough idea or I don’t write well enough…I always had a reason for why I couldn’t write a book proposal. And then when I sat down and did it, it took me a week. It was surprisingly simple. Now I wonder why I waited so long! I always tell people to believe in themselves a little bit, then just dive in and do it.
In addition, I think there is a thought out there that you need a connection with an agent. An agent is nice but it’s the book proposal that really sells a book. You don’t need a connection to get an agent. Agents do read unsolicited mail; their job is to find new and exciting writers.
The other piece of advice I tell people is to make that first paragraph in the proposal really sizzling because a lot of the time, the decision is made on that first paragraph. Make sure it’s the best that you can do.
11) Tell me in your own words about your latest book, Packing for Mars:
Packing for Mars is all about the surreal challenges of trying to live without gravity and what it would take to send someone to Mars. The human body is not evolved to living in space. Trying to create a way for people to survive up there is a strange and fascinating process.
12) When you were writing Packing for Mars, what was the one thing that surprised you most about space?
I didn’t know anything about it so everything was a surprise to me. You name a body part and it doesn’t work the same way it does on earth. For instance, you’re three inches taller in zero gravity because your spine actually straightens out. Your bladder doesn’t work they way it should. You actually have to toilet train adult astronauts. Everything that you do day to day has to be relearned up in space. It’s a pretty weird world.
13) What was it like being in zero gravity on a parabolic flight?
It was fabulous….I want to do it again! It wasn’t like floating in water, it’s much different. You don’t weigh anything; you weigh the same as air. You have this sudden sense of euphoria where you feel completely comfortable. And you can fly across the room which is incredible.
14) You were interviewed by Jon Stewart from The Daily Show in August, what was it like? What was he like?
He’s the greatest human being on earth! He’s a very nice and down to earth, funny guy. Probably the funniest man alive. I felt very comfortable. The studio where they film is much less intimidating in person than it looks like on T.V. In the background, they’re a lot of blinking lights and all of that is green screened in. It’s not on the set. It was really just a guy at a table and a chair….and an audience.
It was so much fun, I wish it had lasted longer. After the interview, the book went to #12 on Amazon the next day.
Me: That’s incredible. Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you!
*Be sure to check out Mary’s interview with Jon Stewart and come back in a couple of days for a chance to win one of three copies of Packing for Mars!