• Birth—March 20, 1959
• Rasied—Etna, New Hampshire, USA
• Education—B.A., Weslyan University
• Awards—see below
• Currently—lives in Oakland, California
Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science. To date, she has published five books: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013).
Roach was raised in Etna, New Hampshire. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1981. After college, Roach moved to San Francisco, California and spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor. She worked as a columnist and also worked in public relations for a brief time. Her writing career began while working part-time at the San Francisco Zoological Society, producing press releases on topics such as elephant wart surgery. On her days off from the SFZS, she wrote freelance articles for the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday Magazine.
From 1996 to 2005 Roach was part of The Grotto, a San Francisco-based project and community of working writers and filmmakers. It was in this community that Roach would get the push she needed to break into book writing. While being interviewed by Alex C. Telander of BookBanter, Roach answers the question of how she got started on her first book:
A few of us every year [from The Grotto] would make predictions for other people, where they'll be in a year. So someone made the prediction that, "Mary will have a book contract." I forgot about it and when October came around I thought, I have three months to pull together a book proposal and have a book contract. This is what literally lit the fire under my butt.
In 1986, she sold a humor piece about the IRS to the San Francisco Chronicle. That piece led to a number of humorous, first-person essays and feature articles for such publications as Vogue, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Discover Magazine, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and Wired. She has also written articles for Salon.com and tech-gadget reviews for Inc.com. An article by Roach, entitled "The C word: Dead man driving," was published in the Journal of Clinical Anatomy. Roach has had monthly columns in Reader's Digest (“My Planet”) and Sports Illustrated for Women (“The Slightly Wider World of Sports”).
Besides being a best selling author, Roach is involved in many other projects on the side. Roach reviews books for The New York Times and was the guest editor of the Best American Science and Nature Writing's 2011 edition. She also serves as a member of the Mars Institute's Advisory Board and was recently asked to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.
Roach has an office in downtown Oakland and lives in the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland with her husband Ed Rachles, an illustrator and graphic designer. She also has two step-daughters.
While Roach has often been quoted saying that she does not have much free time between writing books, she is very fond of backpacking and travel. The latter she has been able to do a great deal of while doing research for her articles and books. Roach has visited all seven continents twice. She has been to Antarctica a few times as part of the National Science Foundation's Polar Program. In 1997, she visited Antarctica to write an article for Discover Magazine on meteorite hunting with meteorite hunter Ralph Harvey.
In 1995, Roach's article "How to Win at Germ Warfare" was a National Magazine Award Finalist. In the article, Roach conducts an interview with microbiologist Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona who describes a scientific study where bacteria and virus particles become aerosolized upon flushing a toilet: "Upon flushing, as many as 28,000 virus particles and 660,000 bacteria [are] jettisoned from the bowl."
In 1996, her article on earthquake-proof, bamboo houses, "The Bamboo Solution", took the American Engineering Societies' Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category. In this article the reader learns from Jules Janssen, a civil engineer, that bamboo is "stronger than wood, brick, and concrete...A short, straight column of bamboo with a top surface area of 10 square centimeters could support an 11,000-pound elephant."
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was a New York Times Bestseller, a 2003 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, and one of Entertainment Weekly's Best Books of 2003. Stiff also won the Amazon.com Editor's Choice award in 2003, was voted as a Borders Original Voices book, and was the winner of the Elle Reader's Prize. The book has been translated into 17 languages, including Hungarian (Hullamerev) and Lithuanian (Negyveilai). Stiff was also selected for Washington State University's Common Reading Program in 2008-09.
Roach's column "My Planet" (Reader's Digest) was runner-up in the humor category of the 2005 National Press Club awards. Roach's second book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, was the recipient of the Elle Reader's Prize in October 2005. Spook was also listed as a New York Times Notable Books pick in 2005, as well as a New York Times Bestseller. In 2008, Roach's book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, was chosen as the New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, it was in The Boston Globe's Top 5 Science Books, and it was listed as a bestseller in several other publications.
In 2011, Roach's book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, was chosen as the book of the year for the 7th annual One City One Book: San Francisco Reads literary event program. Packing for Mars was also 6th on the New York Times Best Seller list.
In 2012, Roach was the recipient of the Harvard Secular Society's Rushdie Award for her outstanding lifetime achievement in cultural humanism. The same year, she received a Special Citation in Scientific inquiry from Maximum Fun.
The common theme throughout all of Roach's books is a literary treatment of the human body. Roach says of her publication history,
My books are all [about the human body], Spook is a little bit of departure because it's more about the soul rather than the flesh and blood body, but most of my books are about human bodies in unusual circumstances.
When asked by Peter Sagal, of NPR, specifically how she picks her topics, she replied, "Well, its got to have a little science, it's got to have a little history, a little humor—and something gross."
While Roach does not possess a science degree, she attempts to take complex ideas and turn them into something that the average reader can understand. She takes the reader with her through the steps of her research, from learning about the material to getting to know the people who study it, as she described in a public dialog with Adam Savage:
Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: "Oh! Now I get it!"
Regarding her skepticism about the world around her, Roach states in her book Spook,
Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got. And so I've decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. Because I know what religion says, and it perplexes me. It doesn't deliver a single, coherent, scientifically sensible or provable scenario… Science seemed the better bet. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)
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