Thursday, July 10, 2003

Virtual Book Tour: Corpses and Conversation

As part of the Virtual Book Tour, Media Diet conducted a brief interview with author Mary Roach via email.

Media Diet: Early in the book, you find yourself in a University of California, San Francisco, medical school anatomy lab to witness head dissections. Yvonne, the lab manager, gives you a hard time: "Does publications know you're here? If you're not cleared through the publications office, you'll have to leave." Did this exchange surprise or worry you?

Mary Roach: Both. I'd had a hell of a time getting into that lab. The surgeons who were running it turned me down -- not that I blame them. If you were a plastic surgeon giving a nose job to the severed head of someone who'd donated their body to science, would you want a journalist there? Not likely. I'd even considered paying the $500 fee and showing up as an ersatz surgeon, hoping no one would notice that I was dissecting my head with a pickle fork and an Exacto knife. In the end, I'd had to call in a favor from a plastic surgeon I knew. I was cleared, though not through publications.

MD: When organizing your interviews with the various sources and at the different facilities, did you regularly have to seek permission and clearance? From people and departments other than your direct source?

Roach: Yep. I'd wanted to visit a military plane/helicopter crash site, because the military routinely does injury analysis of the bodies, and I had a chapter on that. The pathologists were fine with it, but the legal department turned me down, saying they had to protect the privacy of the deceased and their families. No way around that one. With all the military sources, I had to get permission from highers up. Meant of a lot of letter writing, assurances, and stating my case -- followed by out-and-out pleading. Definitely the hardest part of doing the book.

MD: In chapter four, you describe how cadaver UM 006, which was used at the University of Michigan to research side-impact car crash damage, was masked and gloved to obscure his identity. How careful were sources to disguise cadavers' identities in your presence? How careful did you have to be to ensure anonymity?

Roach: In most cases, the faces were not covered. They explained the importance of my not revealing identifying features, and they pretty much trusted me. (Except for the military folks.) In one case, the researcher had the identity card lying out on a table. But I had no reason or wish to reveal anyone's identity, and I think they knew that.

MD: What kind of fact checking did you do with sources and others involved in the book? Did anyone request to clear what you wrote about them before the book went to press?

Roach: I did a round of fact checking, double checking my notes and sources. Ideally, you want a hired fact checker to do this, but it's an enormous and costly undertaking, and few authors do it. (Magazine pieces, on the other hand, are almost always fact checked.) People often ask to be shown what you've written. Usually they phrase it as an offer to read the manuscript over for accuracy. You never say yes to this. They may intend to read for accuracy, but invariably they want you to emphasize something else, change what they said, or omit something that might get them into hot water. Your job would never be over.

MD: Without giving up too much of the ghost, what would have liked to include in the book -- but couldn't because you didn't get permission or approval? What interviews did you miss out on because you couldn't get clearance?

Roach: I wanted to visit Gunther Von Hagens' cadaver sweat shop in China. He's the guy who did that plastination exhibit of preserved, flayed humans that caused the big furor in London last year. His technique is time- and labor-intensive, and he hires a lot of Chinese to do the work. His staff stalled me for weeks, and I finally decided that they were never going to grant permission anyway. To be fair, though, if it were my operation, I wouldn't want a writer coming to visit either.

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