Friday, July 11, 2003

Virtual Book Tour: Corpses and Conversation II

Even though Mary Roach and the Virtual Book Tour have moved on from Media Diet, Mary agreed to a brief follow-up interview via email.

Media Diet: Yesterday, when we were talking on the phone, you said something intriguing. I had just told you which pages have made me queasy so far -- pp. 48 and 68, the sections involving the "dead houses" of Scottish churches and the process of bloat and putrefaction -- and you said something to the effect of "You get used to it after awhile." Are you at all queasy or squeamish by nature?

Mary Roach: Oh, quite the opposite. I'm happy in an O.R., standing at a surgeon's elbow as he's operating. In fact, on the several occasions I've done just that, they've had to politely ask me to step back. Bloating or putrefying bodies are about as queasy-making as life gets, but even then, my curiosity outweighed my revulsion, and it wasn't really hard for me. It's possible there's something wrong with me.

MD: Did you encounter anything that made you wonder whether you should keep going, though?

Roach: My first research excursion was to a local mortuary college to sit in on a student embalming. The guy had been autopsied before he got there, so all his organs were taken out and put in a plastic bag like giblets, and his body cavity was all hollowed out and meaty and wide open. The image stayed with me for a couple days and kept intruding in my thoughts. I'd be having a pleasant conversation with an officemate about the plants on the roof or something, and then FLASH! there's the ghoul from the embalming lab. I worried that it was a permanent condition. And that I might have made a serious mistake deciding to do this book.

MD: What helped you keep focused and driven?

Roach: The flashbacks went away after a day, and I calmed down and carried on. I'm a workaholic. I love reporting and writing. No problems there.

MD: On pp. 13-14 you mention what it was like to have the project come up in polite conversation. What drove you to write such a book in the first place?

Roach: The book grew out of a Salon column I did, which had to do with medicine and the body. As a writer, I tend to gravitate to the less-explored fringes of a subject. And I enjoy writing about topics that seem to be taboo in mainstream publications. Anyway, two or three columns had to do with cadaver research. These were among the most interesting and certainly got some of the highest hit rates. I found the topics fascinating, and clearly others did too. And it struck me as one of the very last subjects that hadn't been written about in a book. Honestly, it was either cadavers, or, I don't know, squirrels.

MD: Last year, something akin to the Scottish dead houses hit the news when a Georgia crematorium was charged with discarding corpses it was paid to cremate. What's your take on that case?

Roach: It's actually in there, in chapter 11. [I'm currently on chapter 10. -- MD] My take is that Ray Brent Marsh is either extraordinarily, unfathomably cheap (I mean, it doesn't cost that much to keep a crematory retort burning.) or he's nuts. Marsh's antics gave a real boost to a new disposition process that's waiting in the wings. It's called water reduction -- or, less euphemistically, tissue digestion. Basically, a pressure cooker with lye. Reduces bodies to liquid and a couple pounds of bone hulls. Right now, it's just used on livestock, but ever since the Marsh brouhaha, the company that makes the machinery has been getting calls about building a mortuary edition. In other words, Marsh was mondo bad PR for cremation.

No comments: