Science writer Mary Roach was supposed to talk about her fun forthcoming book, “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law,” during her May 9 Seattle Arts & Lectures Literary Arts Series appearance.
One problem, though: The pandemic pushed the release of “Fuzz” from April to Sept. 14, and now her publisher says she probably shouldn’t talk about what’s in the book … for four more months.
So Roach isn’t sure what she’ll be talking about Sunday during her virtual appearance. Or in our interview, for that matter.
“We’ll just think on our feet and be flexible,” Roach said. “We’ll just roll with it. Like I was saying, it’s a little bit weird.”
Because of this, the rest of this article will largely be about Roach’s awesome patch collection and tiger penises. Buckle up.
One fact that’s already out there is “Fuzz” is up for preorder, and comes with a special offer. The cover features a totally rad patch. You know, one of those adhesive patches that go on the shoulders of uniform shirts and once covered the drab olive jackets of a previous generation (and are now making a comeback in hip boutiques and tourist shops all around Seattle).
It is something to behold — and can be yours if you preorder the book by Aug. 1 at select independent Washington booksellers (Vintage Books of Vancouver, Island Books of Mercer Island and Third Place Books, which has multiple locations).
“The story that you can break — OK, I don’t think this has been mentioned, or whether I’m supposed to mention it, but I’m going to because I can’t tell you the details of the book,” Roach said. “But here’s the story of the patch and the title ‘Fuzz.’ The title ‘Fuzz’ was a last-minute change because they were going to call it, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Criminal.’ [Expletive] clever, right? It was so great.”
But New York Times writer Mark Bittman beat her to the punch with his food history, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk.”
“And so my publisher decided it’s going to look like we stole the idea,” Roach said.
They returned to Roach’s original title, “Fuzz,” to headline the book about animal criminals, but felt challenged by the limitations of slang and the passage of time.
“I’m like, people don’t know ‘fuzz’ means ‘cop’ if they’re under 50,” Roach said. “Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. The patch was a wonderful visual hint because it looks like a wildlife officer kind of patch. So we were pretty excited and then we were like, ‘We’ll do an actual patch!’ Whether or not people sew patches on jackets, I don’t know, but I myself have a collection of obscure patches that I’ve gathered over the years at various government agencies and other entities, and so I was pretty excited about the patch, personally, from the perspective of my own incredibly nerdy patch collection.”
She keeps that patch collection in a Nivea tin, gathered together in a grab-and-go clutch of items she’d rescue in event of a fire. She spends the next 10 minutes looking for the tin. It is elusive.
She fills the time by talking about the patch she had commissioned. It’s a Rosetta Stone for the book, it turns out. It is striking and bright, sewn largely with gold and yellow thread that re-creates striking flowers under a blackbird-filled sunset.
“Those are sunflowers,” Roach said. “As you can imagine, sunflower farms in North and South Dakota are right along the migratory path of a lot of blackbirds and grackles and things that like to eat birdseed. Grand theft sunflower seed is one of the crimes in the book.”
There’s also a bear rummaging through a garbage can and a cougar stalking in the background. Oh, and an incongruent elephant.
“The elephant is there because I spent some time in India,” Roach said. “Yeah, sorry I’m talking about the book. See what you’ve done, just by focusing on the patch? I can tell my publicist, ‘But we only talked about the patch. I didn’t talk about the book.’”
When Roach does finally find the tin, she pries it open and relives her bibliography through the patches she’s collected over the years.
“Oh, here’s the best one: I have a patch from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, AFRICOM, from the Tree Traveler’s Diarrhea Program, and in the patch it’s got little bacteria and protozoa along with the nation of Djibouti,” Roach said, delighted.
Each has meaning and corresponds with a book or article. She went to Djibouti for “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.” The one from the Antarctic research vessel Nathaniel P. Palmer came from her work on climate change. And she has several NASA patches from her book, “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” including an STS-107 patch to mark what turned out to be the final flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
“Now you understand why I thought this patch was pretty great,” Roach said of the “Fuzz” installment.
Another interesting fact about the book that doesn’t appear in the book is that it had its origins in the Pacific Northwest — kind of.
Early in her research, Roach spent time at the National Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.
“It didn’t end up in this book because at that point I thought I was writing about wildlife and crime, but from the opposite direction,” Roach said. “In other words, people being the criminals and animals being the victims. I got interested in that because there was a piece I stumbled onto about how to tell a counterfeit tiger penis from a genuine tiger penis and was like, that’s something I need to know. I want to write about this.”
Turns out no one wants nosy science writers tagging along on enforcement operations … “for legal reasons,” she said. “So I kind of turned it inside out. It’s now the animals that are the ‘criminals.’”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum will be moderating Sunday’s discussion, so it’s unlikely tiger penises will come up. But Roach is prepared if they do.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ll just spend the whole 45 minutes talking about tiger penises,” Roach joked. “I have some things to say about tiger penises. They are not what you think. I’ve got photographs. I’ve got everything that you need to know, so tell people to ask me questions, because God knows what else I’m going to talk about if I can’t talk about my book.”