From the Saliva Lab to the Body Farm, Mary Roach’s Reddit AMA Did Not Disappoint

W. W. Norton & Company
4 min readApr 13, 2022

Whether in a Reddit AMA or her latest book, author Mary Roach has the answers. In Packing for Mars for Kids, the new young readers adaptation of her bestseller Packing for Mars, “America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) guides us through the irresistibly strange, frequently gross, and awe-inspiring realm of space travel and life without gravity.

Mary Roach’s new book, Packing for Mars for Kids.
Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for Kids, in stores now.

In a recent “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, Roach fielded readers’ questions about endlessly patient scientists, her trustworthy journalism techniques, and the only time a smell has ever made her gag. Read on for some of her funniest and most informative answers.

On getting started in science writing:

I wrote for magazines for about a decade before my first book. One thing leads to another. Editors move around, take you with them. For books, you start with a book proposal and a sample chapter, which you send around to agencies. If you get an agent to represent you, this person shops the proposal around to publishers. People are surprisingly open to being interviewed. Never hurts to ask! Astronauts are a bit tougher, though. Very busy.

On the writing process:

I’m recording and taking notes. My memory cannot be trusted! For each chapter, I’m looking for a setting, a scene, things happening. So a researcher who can provide that is key. Additional sources I find by poking around on PubMed or Google Scholar and by asking others I’ve already spoken with. I consider my work more creative nonfiction, I guess. Though I always worry that that term implies that one is making things up! And accuracy is important to me.

On a special trick for nabbing interviews:

I am very persistent. I wear em down to a stub! I do all my own calling and emailing and stalking on social media. And I get ignored plenty of times, bounced around, etc. All part of the job.

On whether her fame makes interviewees nervous:

Scientists are endlessly generous and patient. I can only recall one being nervous or uncomfortable, and it was long before I was an author. This woman researched the biomechanics of baculas (penis bones), and as I was leaving she said she’d been dreading the visit. I think there was a concern that I’d trivialize her work or misrepresent it or her. There is an element of trust when you invite a writer into your lab, and I wouldn’t blame folks for being a bit wary. It’s lovely that so many are not!

On the research trips that didn't work out:

For the restricted hygiene chapter of Packing for Mars, I wanted to smell the Space Shuttle the moment they opened the doors. Needless to say, NASA turned down this request. I wanted to visit the sweat shop in China where Gunther Von Hagens makes the plastinated bodies for Body World, but the timing didn’t work out.

On what she’s been aching to write about:

For Fuzz, my last book, I wanted to become a certified egg addler. It’s a Canada goose population control technique. Couldn’t find an outfit that was doing a training, though. I just thought it would be a cool thing to have on one’s resume!

On a book that deserves more attention from readers:

I’m very fond of Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, but I think the topic put off a lot of readers. For me, as an author, the more foreign and unknown a world is, the more appealing. But I think a lot of people thought, Oh, I don’t want to read about the military. But the stuff in that book is just so interesting. And quite moving.

On the worst smell:

Fermented saliva, hands down.

On another harrowing smell:

The only time I ever actually gagged was not for a book. It was in the lab of a friend who is a medical examiner. I visited on a day when she was autopsying two people who’d been dead for about a week in a hot room. The smell when she cut them open was overwhelmingly awful. Nothing in Gulp or Stiff actually made me gag. I’m going to say saliva lab was worse than body farm.

On whether she plans to donate her body to science:

I’d like to become a classroom skeleton. Everyone looks good as a skeleton. Or equally bad. Or something.

Mary Roach’s new book, Packing for Mars for Kids.

Packing for Mars for Kids is now available wherever books are sold.

Amazon | Apple Books | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | Indiebound

Learn more about Mary Roach on her website.