The Word Writer: Mary Roach’s mastery of the mother tongue in full display in latest book
By Lou Fancher
The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Boston Globe and Wired along with most national and industry trade publications, social media, Wikipedia and even the website of Bay Area writer Mary Roach have it wrong. All sources identify Roach as a science writer. Right species—literate mammal—but wrong animal.
I ask Roach 15 minutes into our phone conversation during the week prior to the release of her new book, Fuzz, if it’s OK to call her a “word writer”—which sounds dumb and likely is why the NYTimes and others resort to a more targeted moniker. What writer, after all, is not a word writer? But it’s how I’ve always thought of her; as a lover and master crafter of language who happens to be fond of investigative, participatory science and has a propensity for marvelously efficient sentences, industry jargon, geeky vernacular, odd titles and the ironic names of various scientists and experts involved in whatever topic she is excavating. Maybe “global word fetishizer” is a more apt descriptor? It’s a made-up term, but she can do it—Roach claims there is one entirely fabricated word in Fuzz and is astounded it snuck past the publisher’s meticulous fact checkers and her copy editor. If Roach can do it, why can’t everyone invent new words?
Certainly, Roach writes about science with the fervor of other bards focused—to reference a dictionary definition—on “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” Fuzz (W. W. Norton & Company), follows the best-selling trail established by Roach’s previous non-fiction books: Stiff (2003), Spook (2005), Bonk (2008), Packing for Mars (2010), Gulp (2013) and Grunt (2016). The new book features Roach’s signature deep research, subtle-ironic or guffaw-worthy humor, obsessive explorations, inner-ruminating and perform-your-own-stunt adventures undertaken while pursuing every person, animal, chemical, plant, organization, government agency and rational or eccentric scientist pertaining to her topic.
All the while, she uses every opportunity in Fuzz to highlight language, from trade jargon to ironic government conference room labels—move a single “s” of Longs Peak Room and get the full irony of Long Speak Room, a.k.a. boring. There are horrid acronyms such as WHART (Wildlife-Human Attack Response Training), suggestive publication names like the periodical Journal of Explosive Engineers and job titles like “Danger-Tree Faller-Blaster” that sound entirely made up. Roach hints in these passages—often, but not exclusively found in must-read footnotes—that it is language even more than science that provides a thrilling joy ride.
Centered in Roach’s vise-like command of tone, broadly cast net of curiosity and free-roaming humor are rigorously vetted facts pertaining to the science of human-wildlife conflict. Which begs the question; how did she settle on this topic? “I was poking around for book ideas and went down related dead ends before I got to it,” she says. “It was me flailing around, looking for a new world to step into. As always, I was stumbling onto something I didn’t even know was a science. I was initially thinking it would be a book about crimes against animals, because I was interested in the forensics of trafficking in illegal animal parts, like tiger’s penis.”
For Roach, “flailing” means traveling to a lab in Ashland to tour an extensive forensics library. “I visited this woman who’s an expert in determining if ‘medicinal’ tiger penis is actual tiger penis, which it rarely is,” she says. “That didn’t work out because, I was told, legally I couldn’t tag along on any cases. That turned my thoughts around to when wildlife are the perpetrators rather than the victims. I discovered there’s a whole field called human-wildlife conflict. Any time I find there’s a branch of science that has whole textbooks and conferences and 100s of people who do [work in] this, I get excited.”
Flipping the narrative upside down brought needed zest to Fuzz. She admits to also getting sidetracked by following an early idea to focus on agricultural crimes like Grand Theft Avocado, which happens every year around the Super Bowl. People go into fields and steal huge numbers of avocados to meet the demand for guacamole. After the sheriff’s department “didn’t want to let me hang out and play,” she nixed the angle.
The shenanigans before and during her research process do not mean Roach’s books misrepresent serious science or that she makes up fantasy facts, which would lead to the downfall of everything she holds dear about writing: actual science as a base, real data cross-checked multiple times, rigorous and relentless questioning of experts and in-person investigation.
The 336-page book presents facts and information about bears, monkeys, gulls, Douglas firs, elephants and many other creatures and plants that commit crimes against humans. Among the transgressions are felonies such as murder, grand theft and aggravated assault, and misdemeanors involving trespassing, illegal drug use and other petty crimes. Scores of experts weigh in about the collisions occurring almost daily at intersections of human behavior and wildlife biology.
Out of Fuzz’s pages rise insights about culture, an endlessly diverse and rich carpet underpinning the science. Even a chapter on walruses north of Alaska that failed to make the cut offered truths. Roach fell in love with a walrus dictionary written by indigenous local hunters that had 100 words for snow and dozens of words for walruses. She discovered tremendous cooperation between researchers and local indigenous people hunting walruses was needed to “solve a crime” and protect the walrus population. Apparently, headless walruses were turning up and scientists wanted to understand the cause.
“I also wanted to cover vultures,” she says. “Do they use sight or smell to find carcasses? They’re incredibly good at it. In the era of Audubon there was a huge debate back and forth. Somebody put out a detailed oil painting of dead carcasses to see if the vultures would go for it. It was like virtual reality of the day. I loved the fact that they actually set out an oil painting of decomposing carcasses. Oh, there were so many things in the file… . I thought about covering urban efforts to deal with Canadian geese by serving them up at homeless shelters. Eating animals as a solution: governments have sent out cookbooks encouraging people to use animals as a source for cooking because there’s too many of them or they eat people’s crops.”
Roach is most fond of the initial toe-dip into stories and says she has a short attention span, which means chapters average a brisk 15–20 pages. The sense of wonder and curiosity shared with her readers dwindles for Roach after six months spent on each focus. She insists that while a readable book that performs a deep dive into something like invasive species is possible and the mark of a comprehensive, classic science writer, it’s not her thing. The narrative is.
Curious about balancing laughter at a topic’s humor and the need to get real information from people, I ask, “Is tension created by your approach as a non-specialist, non-scientist and those accidental, sudden bursts of laughter during interviews?”
Roach says people actually enjoy a blend of spontaneous and deep appreciation because they’ve often forgotten how delightful and odd their world is. “Someone who wants to dive down into it with them and it’s not a mocking humor, they’re not threatened,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh yeah, that is a hilarious word that we use!’ There is that dynamic of me as the outsider coming in and tripping over elements of their work that they take for granted.”
The juxtaposition of serious science and silliness presents an interesting dichotomy. “Humor only happens in certain situations or if I meet with certain people,” she says. “I set myself up for humorous writing in what I choose to include. It’s not going to be funny if I just visit very straightforward, earnest scenarios. I go places that seem to be promising. If the writing later feels flat I’ll go back and liven it up. I fiddle a lot. I never know who I’m going to talk to, and I haven’t even met these people, so that’s luck of the draw. You spend a couple days and end up including 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there. The more time I spend, the more there is something I can write about in a way that’s sparkly, surprising or funny.”
About her narrative flip that positions misdemeanant animals and felonious plants as predators, and has gulls committing floral vandalism, Roach says, “To describe it as a book about human-wildlife conflict—it sounds not relatable, technical, like a textbook. Even though that’s essentially what this book is about, it’s definitely an odd way to approach the topic. It also needed a fun way to frame it: breaking it down by crimes. Instead of saying we have an issue with vehicular deer strikes, let’s make it jaywalking deer. That image is funny, nontechnical.”
People have strong political opinions about human-wildlife interactions. Is it hard for her to walk that line between semi-objective coverage of a topic and writing a camouflaged op-ed? “It was a big concern for me,” she says. “I stick to the science and talk to people doing research. That’s my world. I don’t want to write a polemic or push people or tell them what to think. I want to give them information that might change their minds, or not. The solutions are not simple. When you get mad, step back and look at how complex and hard it is to come up with a workable solution.
“I’m not looking to promote heated arguments. If anything, I want people to ask what are the details, and why is it so intractable? I’m not the person to be shouting my opinions, it’s just not me. I give a voice to both sides in every book. Even if I end up with certain feelings about what’s best, right, wrong; that’s not what interests me as a writer. It’s the complexity of that world, not the politics of it.”
Even so, when asked about public attitude toward science, or trust in government and facts, Roach has opinions. “I’m disheartened and completely flummoxed that people are turning to or trusting things on Facebook or other social media. My god, people are taking horse dewormer to treat their Covid! People are getting poor facts and poor information that are killing them! This growing dismissal of scientists, science, health professionals and Dr. Fauci … public health has been politicized. The stage was set long ago with Trump and company. It’s been a slow build that’s led us to the horrible state of affairs we have now.”
At the core of people’s doubt and anxiety is the disappearance of truth. “There’s been permission among politicians, pundits, podcasters and whoever to say whatever they want,” she says. “That’s a relatively new phenomenon: this sheer, shameless lying and manipulation. There used to be core ethics. You could spin things, but not flat-out make shit up. Most troubling is I don’t see a way out of this. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going to shut down Facebook.”
Thankfully, Roach and other writers of similar ilk will also not “shut down.” Circling back to love of language, she says people who review her books tend to focus on subject matter and her coverage of it. “People rarely write about my love of language, my love of insider jargon, that different cultures have different ways of saying things,” she says. “Please do mention that. I wanted to write about walruses because, my God, there’s a frickin’ walrus dictionary! It’s a window into a foreign universe. The terms and the language are an entry point. If I were writing a review of a book like mine, that’s the kind of thing I’d write.”
I forget to ask Mary at the end of our conversation to name the made-up word, but I don’t mind. It just means reading Fuzz again, searching for that single word to love amid thousands.