If it is not evident from her choices of book topics—Stiff; Spook; Bonk; Packing for Mars—the far-ranging conversation below with author Mary Roach will make it clear that she is a funny, fun-loving, engaging, and wonderfully curious storyteller.
In addition to touching on her latest opus, Packing for Mars (WW Norton), our chat touches on the foibles of recording interviews, writing about chimpanzees, the joys of dusty archives and library stacks, Erik Larson, the True History of the Ned Kelly Gang, where on Earth she hasn’t been, Coca-Cola in space—well, you see what I am talking about.
And there is this from a profile on her website:
I have no hobbies. I mostly just work on my books and hang out with my family and friends. I enjoy bird-watching—though the hours don’t agree with me—backpacking, thrift stores, overseas supermarkets, Scrabble, mangoes, and that late-night ‘Animal Planet’ show about horrific animals such as the parasitic worm that attaches itself to fishes’ eyeballs but makes up for it by leading the fish around.
See what I mean?
Robert Birnbaum: I like Jon Stewart very much, but I thought his interview with you was pretty dumb—he picked out all the potty, scatological, sex stuff from your book—
Mary Roach: Oh, I don’t know.
RB: I was thinking, “Would I want to read this book?”
MR: Well, it went up to no. 18 on Amazon the next day.
MR: What does that tell you about the American public?
RB: Why don’t you write a book about that?
MR: That will be next.
RB: Speaking of which, do you have long list of prospective subjects for books?
MR: No, I have no list at all. I am listless.
RB: Lethargic also?
MR: This week very, listless and lethargic.
RB: I surmised that you had a backlog of ideas that you were champing at the bit to get at…[interlude while we are trying make sure my device is recording] Don’t worry about it…
MR: I worry about it because I am a tape recorder person too. There should be a word for the peculiar anxiety when you are tape recording someone and fearing that you are not getting it.
RB: Statistically, I am fine—in my life I have only blown three, out of multitudes.
MR: Do you do that thing where you plug the microphone in the earphone jack?
MR: I have done that twice.
RB: How many have been completely lost?
MR: I’ve lost two. One time the voice-activated was on; I don’t like voice-activated. You miss the first two words and if you are too far away—I was interviewing the president of Mozambique.
RB: No doubt there is a large clamoring for that.
MR: Anyway, a long list of things, no. Not very many things work for me. There’s got to be—I want there to be some history, a little science, something to have fun with.
I am so disappointed when I find out something is already on the internet.RB: Not even a list of possibilities that you want to think about?
MR: Sometimes I think something will work—when I do a magazine story, invariably I think, This should be a book. And then I come home and I get a little more rational and realize—I was doing a story about this woman—
RB: I noticed that you tempered that: “a little more rational.”
MR: A very, very small amount. I went to Senegal with this chimpanzee researcher and I thought, “Maybe I’ll do a book about chimpanzees and humans.” And then I realized that you can’t interview them, you don’t know what they are thinking. You have to describe them. They are very visual animals. That’s something for a film documentary.
RB: Would you do that?
MR: No, the overhead is too crazy. And there are too many checked bags.
RB: Right. But the equipment has been so compacted and downsized.
MR: True. You have lighting, though.
RB: Not natural light—you are going to take the chimps inside?
MR: The photographer who covered that story, Frans Lanting, he had—it was like going in to space, he had a backup for every piece of equipment. Also, I kind of like to hang out a little longer with people. I used to work with photographers; they’d show up and shoot in two hours and be gone. And they never got to meet the people and really experience where they were at all.
MR: Yeah, and they made 10 times what I made for those two hours. Documentary filmmaker is probably the ideal job.
RB: If you can get funded.
MR: If you can get funded—because you can go in depth. It’s basically doing what I do, only focusing longer and not having to write it. [laughs] I do like the writing; I would miss [it]. I am not a visual person—I am much more a word person.
MR: You don’t take pictures when you are doing a story?
MR: I don’t. I don’t. I bring a camera and I don’t bring it out.
RB: I am trying to think of a writer who has more fun than I imagine you do. On the other hand, you clearly spend a lot of time in dusty archives and looking through library shelves.
I have done a lot of traveling. I have been to all seven continents twice, but not intentionally.MR: Which is fun for me.
MR: The idea of going down to the basement of the UCSF [University of California, San Francisco] medical library—like for the last book, I remember going down there and getting all the back bound copies of the Journal of Sex Research and just sitting down and going through and reading the table of contents and finding one in 200 articles. I’m a pretty quick scanner and blaze the material through pretty quickly. I love archives: the dustier, the better. Also now because of the internet, I still want to find things that are surprising. I am so disappointed when I find out something is already on the internet. So I am going further and further and further into archives to try to find things that people don’t know about—everything is on the internet.
RB: No, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m impressed with Erik Larson, who refuses to use the internet and does his research in libraries.
MR: I once went to a talk he gave on how he does what he does. Somebody said, “How can you describe the corner store in London in 1847? How do you know what was upstairs?” Assuming he was making it up. He said the Sanborn Insurance company went out and documented every street in London: Here’s the year, here’s the address and here’s what it looked like, and here’s who was upstairs, here’s what was down the street. So he had this resource to recreate the street scene. Amazing—and that was just in one example. He probably has 15 resources like that.
RB: Readers presume that it is made-up.
MR: I think the reader is just baffled—I was until I heard that. I know he doesn’t make things up I but I never understood how he or any writer—I remember I wrote Stiff, my first book, and I wanted to talk about that guy who put cadavers on a crucifix in his office in Paris—Pierre Barbet—and I wanted to set the scene. He published a book, A Doctor at Calvary—there was a typo and they changed it to Cavalry [laughs]. I wanted to set the scene and all I knew of him was his book and I couldn’t find information about him. I wanted him walking along carrying a briefcase of some kind. a leather portfolio, and I thought, I don’t know if he had a leather portfolio. I was very uncomfortable with it.
RB: Were there catalogs at that time?
MR: But I didn’t know which one he had. So in just two sentences I felt [like] a scammer, making it up.
RB: I was reading a novel by Charles McCarry [Shelley’s Heart—ed.] and one of the characters mentions the small number of Yale and Harvard graduates that died in the Vietnam War. And I am immediately wondering if he made that up, though it seemed plausible. I wrote him about it and he wrote back that he would not make that up. But made up or not, it did stop me as I was reading.
MR: That’s why I don’t enjoy historical fiction, because I want to know: Is this made-up or is it real, and I don’t want to have to guess which parts are based in fact and which are made up.
RB: On the other hand, Edward Jones’s The Known World had all sorts of made-up “facts.”
MR: Sometimes it’s so well done that you are drawn in. Like that book by the Australian author, Peter Carey, who wrote about the famous robber who wore a steel suit and got shot down—they shot his knees out—Ned Kelly. That was so mesmerizing, and the language, everything about it, I stopped caring what was real and what was made up. Ned Kelly’s life was so basic—he was living out in the bush; there weren’t a lot of facts to go on anyway. It was an amazing book. When I was in Australia I found a gift shop selling sterling silver Ned Kelly charm bracelets.
RB: Where haven’t you been on the planet that you would like to get to?
MR: I have done a lot of traveling. I have been to all seven continents twice, but not intentionally.
RB: That’s 14.
MR: Fourteen, I’ve been to 14 continents. I have never been to the Himalayas. I’ve never been to Nepal or Tibet or Bhutan. I’d like to go there.
RB: You’ve been to Tierra del Fuego?
MR: Yeah, because when you go to Antarctica you take the boat from Punta Ramos, Chile, which is right near Tierra del Fuego. Beautiful—I’d like to go back there.
RB: Been to Greenland?
MR: Never been to Greenland. I have spent a fair amount of time in the high Arctic and the Canadian Arctic. I would love to go to Greenland; I love the wide-open spaces; big sky, where the light is always shifting. Like dusk.
RB: Gretel Ehrlich writes really well about that area. Back to your book—the enthusiasm for space exploration and travel seems to have dimmed significantly in my lifetime. What is your sense of people’s interest today?
MR: I have been amazed by the number of questions people have. They seem utterly fascinated by the topic—we have just been going around in circles since Apollo—people are bored with that. But anytime you give them a chance to ask, people are still fascinated by life in zero gravity or life in a place that is so foreign and strange and that affects everything that you do. We always have to cut off the questions—people ask, “Is your period the same in space? And what about this and what about that?” The coverage that you see about space is not very interesting. It’s very, “There was a cooling coil that was malfunctioning and there is a lunch tomorrow at 6 a.m.” There is sort of a sameness to it.
RB: When it comes down to it, the data that you are dealing with and the information you cover in Packing for Mars is as much about the variations of human adaptability to different environments.
MR: Yes. It’s much more about the human organism than it is—it’s not a book about Mars and it’s not even a book about outer space. Space itself, to me—the rocket science, planetary science, it doesn’t interest me that much. I don’t have the background for it to interest me. You have to have a degree to have an interest in planetary science. Unless they find life on Mars—then people get excited.
RB: Life forms—there would be excitement if an amoeba or one-celled organism were discovered.
MR: An extremophile. Actually that’s pretty amazing where these things can live—
RB: Just think, in a few million years these things can turn into two-celled animals.
MR: I know, I know.
RB: You made a convincing point at the end of your book, which was a response to the perennial complaint, “What are we spending money on space travel when we could use that money on problems on Earth?” So if we had that money would we spend it on hospitals and education and so on?
MR: I know—if you could guarantee me that money would go directly to eradicating poverty, earmarking [it] to improve education, then I would say, Yes, let’s not do it, let’s spend it on education. But that’s not how it works. And there is enough good that comes out of it. I would love for it to be a multinational cooperative venture, so it’s not that “let’s get there first” mentality.
RB: There is still that nationalistic imperative in space?
MR: I think there is.
RB: What do all the space station “joint efforts” mean?
MR: If the Chinese space agency could get to Mars first, they’d love to. NASA would love to, but the whole point of the international space station was as an exercise in global space cooperation and the whole idea was that the next step was Mars, training for Mars. So now it doesn’t make sense to go back to single-nation efforts.
I’ve had a Fisher Space Pen for 15 years and I finally got to test it in zero gravity. The most exciting moment in the book—“Holy cow, it works.”RB: Now that you mention it, as you describe it, planting the flag on the moon or anywhere in space is not a legitimate claim.
MR: Yes, it’s just showing off. The Outer Space Treaty—nobody gets to conquer a planetary body. Most nations are signatories—certainly the U.S. is.
RB: What was the most exotic piece of information that you discovered in your research for this book?
MR: There were a lot. I was fascinated by the things that happened to the human body. I love that discussion about Coca-Cola spending $450,000 to have Coke in space because carbonation is not lighter up there. Everything weighs the same. The gas stays in the middle, it doesn’t rise to the top, so they spent $450,000 making carbonation work in space so they could say, “Official Carbonated Beverage of the International Space Station.” And then they realized that in the human stomach, if gas doesn’t rise to the top of the stomach, you can’t burp it out. So your stomach expands, you feel uncomfortable, you finally burp it out, and get a liquid spray. So nobody wanted to drink this very expensive Coca-Cola. They have this huge technology and then you’re undone by a simple fact.
RB: Was there much competition for product placement?
MR: Yes, Coke and Pepsi were both spending money—a space race.
RB: That affiliation thing has gotten absurd—“the Official Glass Installer of the Red Sox Baseball Network.” [both laugh]
MR: When you are watching baseball—my husband likes the Giants, it’ll be, “It’s the Speedy Oil Change play of the game.” Every little step of the way has a corporate sponsor. Not just the parks—
RB: How much private money is being funneled into space research?
MR: There’s SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and they’ll make money doing cargo hauling and putting satellites up, but eventually tourism. They are spending huge amounts of money. There was supposed to be—Obama had envisioned having these folks take over astronaut shuttling—
RB: Privatizing some of the enterprise?
MR: Yeah, but there’s already—NASA has so many contracts—Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas—these people are all building the parts of the hardware; it’s not being built by NASA. So there is already a mixture of government and private.
RB: You could also argue the money being spent is going back into the economy.
MR: Yes, it is.
RB: You’d croak Seattle if Boeing left.
MR: I know. It’s expensive but its not expensive. Plus NASA makes the point that new technology that comes out of it.
Anytime somebody sells bodies illegally, anytime someone discovers a severed head or a foot washes up on shore, all my readers write, “Did you see this?”RB: There are ballpoint pens that work better because of being tested in space. [laughs]
MR: I’ve had a Fisher Space Pen for 15 years and I finally got to test it in zero gravity. The most exciting moment in the book—“Holy cow, it works.” [Both laugh]
RB: You spend X amount of time working on a book. When you are done, what’s the residue—besides the book, obviously? That’s it, you move on to something else?
MR: No, no.
RB: What of Packing for Mars is going to stay with you?
MR: There’s always ghosts; you always find traces of the books in the next book. So, there is a cadaver in a chapter of this book; there is sex. These things linger and they pop up in other books. Now that I have all these contacts in NASA and they do intricate, interesting stuff that isn’t space-related. I always meet people that I stay in touch with that I like. You can’t shake a book very easily after two years, I find. Plus anytime some one is exhumed, anytime somebody sells bodies illegally, anytime someone discovers a severed head or a foot washes up on shore, all my readers write, “Did you see this? I thought you’d be interested.” So I never shake these books.
RB: Do you have a Facebook page?
MR: I don’t have a personal one but there is a Mary Roach page. Actually there are a couple of them—anyone can start one.
RB: I just read Amy Tan thanking somebody for starting a page for her, and she hoped she could live up to it.
MR: Yeah, there is an official Mary Roach page, but I don’t know who this person is—I can’t even post. My husband posts—it’s through his Facebook [account]. I don’t even understand Facebook. Do you have one?
RB: I do but I am only mildly engaged with it. I actually de-friended someone, which may be a big step—
MR: You can also turn them down, so their posts don’t—
RB: The de-friending was as much as I wanted to understand about it.
MR: When you de-friend do they get a memo?
RB: I thought not, but I am not sure. But there is only so much self-serving dribble one can take.
MR: It’s really useful for marketing, the fan page is—anytime someone becomes a fan it tells all of their friends. Like Mary Kay cosmetics—it’s a pyramid scheme.
RB: I have over 600 friends—mostly writers and journalists.
RB: Wow? There are people with thousands. If someone has more than 1,000 friends, I don’t friend them.
MR: I’m not on it so I don’t know, but it becomes a contest; you become a collector. If a reader writes to me I always write back, unless they are clearly psychotic. And then I don’t.
“I’d like to thank 17 readers.” I think, Doesn’t that drive you out of your mind? How do you know who is right?RB: How is it clear?
MR: It is clear. If it’s a gray area, I do write back, but if they are clearly nuts—
RB: What’s an example of a “clearly nuts” inquiry?
MR: Frequently involves long strings of capital letters—
MR: Without any exuberance behind it. Multiple exclamation points. It’s a typeface thing.
RB: That’ll do it.
MR: Easily diagnosed by typeface.
RB: More than one exclamation mark on a page—
MR: It’s definitely a symptom.
RB: Your books are successful in the publishing world—so is it the case that almost any idea you deliver to Jill Bialosky, your editor at Norton, is accepted?
MR: First, I run it by my agent and he’ll very delicately say, “This doesn’t seem very fresh. This seems a little…” and then I know. I trust him—he has steered me away from things. Sometimes [Jill] has been puzzled—like this space book. My agent told me, “Jill is a little surprised.” When she first heard about it before she read the proposal she went, “Space?” I think she thought it would be more about space travel, warp speed, and rocket trajectories. Her feeling is, if you’re enthusiastic, if some thing makes you excited and triggers that reaction that makes you write a good book, she will pretty much go with whatever it is. I haven’t had a situation where they say, “I don’t think that will reach a broad enough audience. “I do always have in mind [things] that have a pretty broad scope of interest.
RB: Jill is an interesting kind of editor.
MR: She’s good.
RB: A writer was telling me that the reason she liked her editor was because she sent him a manuscript and he sent it back, and he might have had one or two questions on it, but she found them infuriating, and she wrote back. And he didn’t respond, and she waited and he still didn’t respond, and she thought about his observations and she finally decided he was correct.
MR: Oh, yes, invariably Jill—usually with every book there has been a strong reaction to one or two chapters or sections—she wanted to take them out, or a line or a paragraph or a chapter—and my initial response has been, “But that’s my favorite part of the book. Are you out of your mind?” [both laugh] And I know just to set it aside. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi. There has never been a case when she hasn’t been right. I have ended up doing what she suggested; she has a really good instinct, better than me, about what’s good and what’s not good.
RB: That must be wonderful. And rare?
MR: I don’t show it [the draft] to anyone else. I read acknowledgements and there are often, “I’d like to thank 17 readers,” and I think, Doesn’t that drive you out of your mind? How do you know who is right? They all have a different suggestion. What do you with the 17 people who read various drafts? How does that do you any good? And whom do you trust? Who’s right? Particularly in Stiff: What if I had given that to five people? Someone would have said, “This humor-in-cadaver thing is kind of offensive. Don’t you think you are going to alienate people and won’t they be upset?” I would have thought, You are absolutely right.
RB: From the same publisher who published Thomas Lynch’s book (The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade).
MR: The same editor, Jill. I think that’s why Jill bid on it. So, yeah, you just need one person whose instincts are righter than your own. And you cling to that person and you don’t listen to anyone else. Simplify—who’s got time for 17 readers?
RB: Do you know 17 people who read? [laughs]
MR: I wish. I know.
RB: Speaking of acknowledgments—you read them so you must know—but have you noticed that in the past five to seven years it’s more often the case that writers are acknowledging their publicists than thanking their editor.
MR: Equally. I do that, too. I am surprised—I hear so many people complain about their publicists. Norton has phenomenally good publicists.
RB: There seems not to be much turnover. And Norton seems to be a very good publisher.
MR: Yeah and then you think, “I should be thanking the people in the art department who did the cover and oh shit I didn’t thank the guy in the mailroom who got all those FedExes out and what about the publicist’s assistant”—where does it stop? I haven’t actually noticed that. I was thinking I was an oddball for doing that.
RB: One might draw the conclusion that publicity has become more vital than editing. [laughs]
MR: Yeah, well, hour-by-hour, publicists are spending a lot more time with their books than editors—not in my case, but in a lot of cases.
RB: It is true that many publicists read the books and have an understanding of what they are representing and have a sincere commitment to their success. So, have you already started your next book?
MR: I have.
RB: Can we talk about it?
MR: I don’t want to jinx it.
MR: I keep under my hat for a while and I can’t even say why—it’s kind of larval right now.
RB: Oh, it’s about insects? That’s a really fascinating—
MR: That’s another one of those books where I thought, Wow, insects, maybe I’ll do something on insects. What do you say about insects? Again, you can’t really interview them. I do think they are interesting, but not my bag.
RB: Are you always writing/working on a book?
MR: Yes, unless things are going horribly wrong. Or finishing it up, or going over the proofs, or researching, yeah.
RB: No slack period or downtime?
MR: No, I am very unhappy if I don’t have a project; I fear I’ll never have a project again; I’ve entered some amorphous void of no work and no focus.
Back then, when you needed to send a fax, you would go down to the fax place. That was exciting for me. I’d flirt with the guy at the fax place.RB: Does Oakland have a much of a literary community?
MR: Yeah. I work with seven writers in an office; we all have our own corner. Really great writers, I mean, a wonderful little community. Daniel Alarcón, one of those New Yorker, what is it, “40 under 20,” “20 under 40”? Michael Lewis may be just over the border in Berkeley. Lisa Margonelli is a New American Fellow, a really smart writer—she wrote that book about oil, Oil on the Brain. Anita Amirrezvani, an Iranian American novelist. She wrote The Blood of Flowers—she’s in our little cluster. We have an Economist writer, Rabiya Tuma.
RB: Do you have meetings?
MR: No, no meetings: lunch. Just having people to hang out and go to lunch with. We share resources—names to put people in touch with—editors, agents. We frequently have recent graduates from the Berkeley journalism grad school who will sublet offices, and it’s a way for them to make good contacts and get in touch, get going. We do have a mix of people starting out and people who are established. It’s not planned that way, but that’s how it worked out.
RB: How important is affiliation to you? You are a freelance individual and don’t have the security of any support by an organization
MR: I’m much happier not working for an organization.
RB: Have you ever?
MR: Yes, I worked one year as a copy editor at a legal publishing house, a job for which I was constitutionally very poorly suited.
RB: Didn’t it require research?
MR: No it was just copy-editing—so it was consistency and spelling and detail and punctuation and following a format. You can’t be the kind of person who goes, “I see you are in chapter 11, but this is capitalized differently than it was earlier.” I was the sort of person who goes, “Yeah, yeah, who cares?”
MR: I wasn’t good so I didn’t last long there. I worked half-time for a year at the San Francisco Zoo, writing press releases. I kind of liked that gig. And then I was freelancing for a long span of time. I didn’t work with other people. It’s not good for me to be home alone all day.
I think it would be interesting to live in a small town. I don’t know that I would do well. If I could choose the people that would be in the small town.RB: You end up talking to yourself—
MR: Or the FedEx guy shows up and you want to invite him in for lunch.
MR: Back then, when you needed to send a fax, you would go down to the fax place. That was exciting for me. I’d flirt with the guy at the fax place.
RB: Some days the UPS or FedEx guys are the only people I talk with—
MR: Yeah, that was my life for a while. I am much better with having people around. Affiliation is very healthy for me. They [the writing-group members] are really great people. Every single one of them is a pleasure to be around. I don’t want to be in a situation where you have a group [in which] there are only two people you like and there’s three egotistical assholes.
RB: Yours is not really a formal writer’s group—it just turned out to be a kind of an ad hoc collection of people. Like, you don’t have a softball team.
MR: Two of us used to be in the Grotto—
RB: Po Bronson’s writer’s place.
MR: A bunch of us moved to the East Bay, and we just wanted office space and someone to go to lunch with—people kept saying, “Oh, you’re the East Bay Grotto.” Beth Nissen, who was with us and very funny, would say, “We are not the East Bay Grotto; we are the Notto.”
RB: What is Oakland like these days?
MR: It’s great—we love Oakland.
RB: Because Jerry Brown was mayor?
MR: Jerry Brown was a pretty decent mayor. Oakland is great, it’s huge: It encompasses East and West Oakland, which are pretty rough, and then Oakland Hills, which are really snooty and expensive. In between all that there are these great communities like Lakeshore and Glenview, where it’s not just multiethnic, it’s integrated. You go to the Peet’s Coffee and every single age group and race is in there buying the same $4 cup of coffee. I love that. There are a lot of artists and families. The area skews very young.
RB: Can you imagine living somewhere other than the West Coast?
MR: Yeah. I can. I would.
RB: Like where?
MR: Sometimes I think it would be interesting to try and live in a small town. I don’t know that I would do that well. If I could choose the people that would be in the small town—
RB: Sure. Also choose the parking regulations and the property taxes. I lived in Exeter, N.H. for a while. That was pretty sweet.
MR: I grew up in Hanover, N.H.
RB: On the other hand, the animal control officer there seemed to be a fascist; I think he didn’t like my dog. Anyway, what do you like to read? What is the content of your recreational reading?
MR: OK, one of the worst things about writing books is the small amount time you have to read, the books that you choose to read. Right now I am reviewing a book for the Times; there is one I am supposed to blurb; there are two or three that I would like to read.
RB: Isn’t there a blurb handbook that you can go to for easy reference? [laughs]
MR: Yeah, don’t get me started on the blurbs. It’s just a necessary evil. I tried to go 100-percent blurb-free. “January first, I’m not going to put them on my book. I am not going to take them or give them—I’m done.” But it was harder to say no, and I felt worse and more torn apart than I did irritated by having to do them. So now it’s a mix—sometimes I say no, sometimes yes.
RB: Blurbing is simply log-rolling.
MR: It is, but not always; sometimes you pick up a book and you don’t know the person. And I have had friendships that have come out of blurbs, like this woman—she’s a law professor at Boston College [Ray Madoff]. She wrote this book called Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead. And I picked it up and there was this chapter on the legal aspects of cryopreservation—if you freeze your body you can come back to life in 40 years. These people consider themselves not quite dead. Say that this person come back to life in 40 years—is that person still married to their spouse?
RB: What laws apply to them?
MR: What happens to their money? If they want to save their money for 40 years from now and their family takes the position that they are dead and we want the money and we are the next of kin, somebody else claims, “No, no, no, he’s put in a trust.” This kind of brave new world chapter. So anyway, I blurbed this book I thought it was incredibly interesting—some of it was more legal than I could understand. I’m going to see her for a drink tonight. Sometimes the world of blurbing brings people together in this kind of magical way. I am not totally negative about it. But anyway, what was the question?
RB: What have you’ve read you liked or would like to read? Movies, music—what gets in?
MR: I just read Little Bee [Chris Cleave], finally. I read—the author just sent it to me, didn’t want a blurb—it was called Poorly Made in China [Paul Midler]. It was about the cultural clash: he was the go-between for people who wanted to make crappy stuff, as in cheap knock-offs—Americans and the Chinese who had the factories. He spoke fluent Chinese—he was a Chinese major at Yale or something.
RB: He wasn’t Chinese?
MR: No but he’s fluent. From both directions, this culture clash—a wonderful book.
RB: What was it his job to resolve?
My husband rides his bike up in the Oakland hills. He saw Jerry Brown carrying some dog shit, walking his dog: “There’s Jerry and his shit.”MR: He was supposed to bring everyone together and make them happy, and there are just endless misunderstandings and cultural confusion. But it’s done in a way that’s—it’s not slapstick but it is humorous. It’s a surreal situation to be in—so I loved that book, Poorly Made in China. Someone gave me The Help and said I should read it.
RB: I don’t know that book.
MR: It’s been on the bestseller list—a fictional account of a maid in D.C.
RB: By a woman named [Kathryn] Stockett? I have heard of it.
MR: Now that I am back in the research phase of the new book I am back reading all these bizarre wonky books.
RB: Do you go to movies?
MR: Movies, yeah.
RB: Theaters or DVD?
MR: I used to prefer to go, but now they have jacked up the sound, not just in the trailers but also in the main attraction. I sound really old, don’t I? [affects an old woman voice] “They jacked up the sound too much. You’re gonna lose your hearing, young man. Young man, listen to me.” [both laugh] But anyway now I’m on Netflix.
RB: The screens aren’t much bigger than the new high-def TVs.
MR: We finally we got a new one.
RB: You are not interested in urban crime and gritty sociological stuff, are you?
MR: No, I don’t like to read about urban crime because I don’t like to be reminded that those people are out there. When I lived in San Francisco for a while I was watching the 10 o’clock news and I was in the habit, and during that period of time I felt uncomfortable going out at night, which is unlike me; I am the kind of person that walks anywhere at night. I started to become a very paranoid, suspicious person—I had this impression of San Francisco as this quiet little place where you could be shot at any moment.
RB: I had the sense that Oakland was a violent place.
MR: Oakland is. East Oakland has a lot of gangs. West Oakland is mostly black; East Oakland is a mix. [The crime] is all gang-related. In our neighborhood there are break-ins from time to time.
RB: Is there a Huey Newton statue or memorial in Oakland?
MR: I’ve not seen a Huey Newton statue. There is a Jack London statue.
RB: Speaking of Jerry Brown, what are his chances? Whitman is spending obscene amounts of money.
MR: Whitman will probably win. This is a state—Proposition 8, it just floored me. It’s California. It is shocking to me that maybe Whitman could be the governor. I will be voting for Jerry; I think he is a pretty decent mayor.
RB: Do people remember he was once governor?
MR: No. I do. I know, and [Whitman] is just running this advertising campaign that is just a slur campaign, which I hope turns people off. I hope Jerry wins. Ed, my husband, rides his bike up in the hills, in the Oakland hills. Not long ago he saw Jerry Brown carrying some dog shit, walking his dog: “There’s Jerry and his shit.”
RB: Do you listen to music?
MR: I do, I listen to this embarrassing mix. I was taking the bus home in Oakland—I walk partway home and then get on the bus at some point, so I’m at the bus stop—some teenage black kid says, “What are you listening to?” I couldn’t come up with a lie quickly enough: “Oh, it’s just some Al Stewart.” [laughs] He goes, “Oh yeah, Al Stewart.” He had no idea. He though he was some jazz musician.
RB: Is he still alive?
MR: He is. I went to see him with a friend of mine as a joke. We discovered that we were closet Al Stewart fans. We would never admit it to anyone else. And he was at Freight and Salvage. He is an amazing guitarist. He is probably in his 60s.
RB: There are a lot of singer-songwriters who are very lucky to have that one hit—mostly they perform on a nice little circuit of clubs.
MR: It’s all [the] touring which must be brutal. And then you hear about Leonard Cohen: His manager ripped him off. Ay, God, I love Leonard Cohen.
RB: He’s amazing. He came out with a book of poems in ‘94, ‘95 and I interviewed him. I wasn’t a fan of his at the time—Suzanne and Bird on the Wire were not my kinds of songs. But his 10 New Songs made me a believer.
MR: I know someone who interviewed him. She is sort of this legend, Sylvie Simmons; she’s interviewed Mick Jagger three times. She used to write for MOJO, the British version of Rolling Stone. She must be 60 now; she’s sort of hard-bitten but very pretty. She has a book of short stories, and she gave it to him [Cohen] at the beginning of the interview—this was probably 10 years ago—but he looks at her and he takes it and he goes, “Thank you so much, I’ll just keep it right here.” And then he sits on it. [both laugh] I like that album where he redid—do you know that song, “Who by fire”? And he redid “Hallelujah”—that period, his voice, I like it so much better than when he was younger—“I’ve seen your name on the marble arch,” that’s just the most amazing song.
RB: I like that song “That Don’t Make It Junk.”
MR: That low slow stuff is incredible.
RB: And there is that film I’m Your Man.
MR: It’s on our Netflix queue. Have you seen it?
RB: I don’t know. I’ve seen 10 or 15 minutes of a film where he is in Greece walking around with Sharon Robinson [who sings with his band], who I take it is his girlfriend—
MR: Oh I didn’t know that. I always wonder when you see the backup singers which one he is doing—probably all of them.
RB: Can you imagine being 72 and—
MR: Having to start over? Because some asshole took all of your money.
RB: Well, every good thing has to come to an end. Let’s do this again.
MR: We should. Absolutely.
RB: I’ll be a little grayer.
MR: I’ll be a little deafer. I’m this age where my iPod Shuffle is full of songs, I don’t who did them. I don’t know what the singers look like—my stepdaughters are listening to them and so I download.
RB: We used to know what the musicians looked like—
MR: And who the singers were and what they played and a little bit of gossip about them. And now it just—I can’t really tell you what I am listening to. I love what it is—
RB: We just sort of sample from a big pool. And on that note—
MR: Till next time.