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One Question Q&A: Mary Roach on her New Book, "Gulp"

If there’s one person who can remind scientists not to take themselves too seriously, it’s Mary Roach. The Oakland-based writer’s latest book, just out, is a hilarious look at what happens to our food after we swallow it.

SFMag: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, and now, Gulp—what’s up with the monosyllabic titles?

It started out when I put "Stiff" on the proposal for my first book, thinking we’d change it. It sounded very crime show—no one in the [forensics] field ever uses that word. But despite months of argument, it just seemed better than the other crap my editors and I came up with. Readers tend to run away as fast as they can if they think science is involved in a book, so a title with a bit of playfulness is good.

Bonk was a tough one—there are a lot of crude one-syllable words for sex. And then so many people were like “you misspelled your title” that I gave out a peel-and-stick letter at my readings so that people could change the cover to “Boink.” For Spook, my publisher wanted to call it The Soul. I suggested Goosepimples—really bad ideas like that. But Gulp was easy. It’s such a fun word, we never strayed from it.

Of course, we never did come up with a good one-word title for [my book about space travel,] Packing for Mars. I half seriously suggested "Floaters," but god sense intervened on the part of my editor and the people at WW Norton. There are all kinds of rocket words you could use that would fit, but we wanted something that suggested the human side. I did some after-the-fact crowdsourcing at talks, asking people if they could come up with something better. "Void" is kind of clever.

The thing is, I actually like longer titles that don’t necessarily tell you anything about the book. I wanted to call Spook “The Pope’s Alarm Clock,” which is from the introduction. I love the word “monkey,” and I’m always trying to stick it where it doesn’t belong. I was jealous when David Foster Wallace got to use the word “lobster.” Consider the Lobster is a fucking great title.

The full title of Roach's new book is Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (Norton).


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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