By ELISE GIORDANO
A little taboo, a little uncomfortable, and sometimes a little gross.
That’s how Mary Roach describes her style.
Roach, the keynote speaker for the sixth annual North Words Writers Symposium, is known for her array of funny, nonfiction science books, such as “Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” and “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” But before she wanted to write, she wanted to see the world.
“I didn’t have a passion for writing. I wanted to have fun and travel,” she said.
After 10 to 15 years as a traveling journalist, she realized she did indeed enjoy writing.
Once the passion was found, she was faced with the task of finding a topic to write about.
“I wanted to write a book for a long time, and I had a lot of issues finding something that hasn’t been written about. Nobody had written about dead bodies,” she said, calling herself the bottom-feeder of non-fiction writers.
What some people might find uninteresting, Roach finds enthralling.
For her keynote address, Roach was interviewed by Sitka author John Straley.
After reading all of her books in a matter of six weeks, Straley said he got the impression of a woman who is witty, outrageous and willing to try anything.
He called her obsessive and curious, and Roach agreed.
Aside from a sense of comedy, Straley said Roach brought to “Stiff” a surprising empathy and tenderness.
“It’s lyrical how you describe the cadavers,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a good format for humor.”
Roach said her funny style of writing was something she discovered over time.
“I didn’t think dead bodies, plus humor, plus empathy… best selling formula,” she said. “But that was the only way I could do it as me.”
And it worked.
Symposium organizing faculty member Jeff Brady said everyone fell in love with Roach, especially Straley.
“Even with her husband around, everyone fell in love with her,” he said.
Symposium founder Buckwheat Donahue echoed Brady’s sentiments, saying Roach was incredibly willing to be a part of an array of panels.
Panels covered a variety of topics, including the lives of successful storytellers, turning a true story into a readable one, bringing the wild to life, and the art of suspense writing.
The symposium also featured a return of its first keynote speaker, successful Alaska mystery writer Dana Stabenow, along with Seth Kantner, Emily Wall, Don Rearden, Leigh
Newman, Christine Byl, and Straley.
Brady and Donahue agreed that the success this year and in years past has been due to the intimacy of the small symposium.
“It’s unique in its intimacy. We kind of discovered this almost by accident,” Brady said.“People like it being small like this and the fact that they get quality time with published writers who are interested in what they’re doing.”
This year, the symposium welcomed 30 registrants, and Brady said they don’t want too many more next year.
“We’ve always said we want to hit 50, but we’ve realized that that’s not a good idea. We would rather cap it at 35 and adjust our budget accordingly,” he said.
Donahue said while the symposium isn’t growing by leaps and bounds, it does get a bit bigger every year.
“Once we reach our goal, you know there is going to be overflow, and we’re going to have to learn to say no in a very polite way,” he said.
Though the keynote speaker for next year has yet to be decided, they plan to pick a fiction writer and hope to have it nailed down within the next couple of months.
Regardless of the speaker, the symposium will remain intimate in the years to come, with attendants receiving one-on-one time with published authors and even more focus on writing.
“I thought last years conference with Simon Winchester was the best ever. I was wrong. This year’s was even better with Mary Roach,” Donahue said.