Despite her first book being about the use of dead bodies in research, and her most recent one about people's quest for proof as to the existence of an afterlife, Mary Roach claims that she isn't really interested in death.
‘I'm a very normal gal,’ she says, after telling me that the column she used to write for salon.com, one of the first big online news magazines, sometimes touched on cadavers. One of these was her Thanksgiving Day column about how much the human stomach will hold before it bursts. From this came the idea for her first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which, Roach says, has had sales worldwide of between four and five hundred thousand.
Mary Roach obtained a BA in Psychology from Wesleyan College in Connecticut. Her reason for choosing psychology was not a particular interest in the subject, but rather an interest in travel. ‘The psychology department was very easygoing about what courses you took and where you took them’. As a result she spent a year at university in London. Having got her degree she had no idea what she wanted to do, so tried waitressing and a bit of copywriting and proofreading before landing a part-time public relations job at San Francisco Zoo.
‘I wrote articles for the membership magazine. For example, when they were doing experimental laser surgery on an elephant that had a wart in its foot I would be reporting. I would be there in the operating room while they were removing this basketball-sized wart’.
She also started to write for the local newspaper, and this was the beginning of her career in freelance journalism. The publications she has contributed to include Wired, Outside, GQ, Discover, Vogue and the New York Times. ‘In a sense my job hasn't changed all that much. I'm still wandering around from one operating room to the next, and one weird thing after another,‘ she laughs.
Her latest book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, does include a few visits to operating theatres. It outlines the myriad different ways people have tried and are trying to prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife, which Mary Roach recounts in a wonderfully witty way. She describes Dr Duncan MacDougall in 1901 placing a man about to die of consumption on weighing scales, and monitoring his weight loss at the moment of death. She visited the reading room at Cambridge University Library to study a piece of ectoplasm, believed to be a physical manifestation of spirit energy. She also spent time with Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona, who, using gifted mediums, is researching whether the death of a person also means the end of their personality. She sat in on tests with Allison Dubois, the person on whose life the program Medium is based. In one attempt to gain evidence of an afterlife the author enrolled in a course on mediumship where the only spirits with which she managed to commune were from the bar.
Mary Roach travelled extensivelv throughout America and England gathering facts, but she says all of the places she went she most enjoyed her time in India. She went with reincarnation researcher Dr Rawat to a village near Delhi where a young boy was thought to be a reincarnation of a man who had died several years earlier in a nearby village. ‘The people in those villages would look at Dr Rawat and myself, he with his video camera and me with my notepad, doing our best to pick apart these stories and see if they held water. They would look at us thinking how utterly absurd, of course reincarnation happensÃ¢â‚¬â„¢’.
The author describes Spook as being for people who are neither believers nor sceptics, but lie in between, and who would love to believe there is an afterlife but would like to have some proof. She does admit that bookshops are often unsure which category to place it in. It should be in the science section, she says. Religion is okay, but not ideal. ‘Some people stick it in the new age section, which is a terrible mistake. The people who browse in the new age section have very strong beliefs and this is a challenge to their belief system’.
Roach is keen to get across to people that her book is essentially fun and funny, as she believes the subject matter tends to scare people away. ‘They think this is going to be some hopelessly earnest spiritual abstract book, which it's not at all. It's a fun romp through the very surreal world of paranormal research’.
When asked about her next book, she says it is about sex research. The working title is Bonk: Sex in the Laboratory. ‘So it's just more bodies in laboratories, but this time they are not dead. Occasionally limp,’ she adds, ‘but not dead’.
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach is published by Text, rrp $24.00