In 16 years as a columnist for the Charlotte Observer, Tommy Tomlinson earned a reputation for telling the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things — the teenagers who integrated a Charlotte high school; a college math professor breaking a code; a police recruit with disabilities trying to pass a fitness test.
For his new memoir, “The Elephant in the Room,” Tomlinson turned the spotlight on himself, examining in his trademark plain-spoken prose why he has been morbidly obese for most of his life.
“I weigh 460 pounds,” he writes in the opening pages. “Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write.”
Tomlinson, 55, infused his columns with gentle humor, empathy and age-old wisdom. He was never snarky or mean. As a consequence, he exuded a sort of affability, the lovable big guy. Inside, Tomlinson was hurting from a lifetime of cruel jokes and the realization that his weight was keeping him from his best life, one filled with traveling, playing sports and the simple pleasure of just wearing a pair of Dockers.
At a lunch meeting with his agent in Brooklyn in 2011, Tomlinson told him that he had scouted the diner beforehand to make sure the seating could accommodate him — booths and counter seating are bad; tables with sturdy chairs good. The agent floated an idea of Tomlinson writing a book about navigating life as a 400-plus pound man.
Tomlinson said he was game, but he wasn’t ready to commit.
“I was afraid to reveal myself in a way that I would need to do,” said Tomlinson, who has taught writing at Wake Forest University. “And I was afraid how my family would feel about it. I think they come off pretty well, but in some of the stuff, they don’t look so great.”
A few years later, Tomlinson wrote a story for ESPN The Magazine on the weight struggles of Jared Lorenzen, a former quarterback for the University of Kentucky, known as the Hefty Lefty. The story was popular, in part because of Tomlinson’s willingness to identify publicly with Lorenzen’s obesity.
In January, 2015, Tomlinson set out to do what he had tried — and failed — to do countless times before. But this time, his approach would be different. He’d focus on slow, sustainable weight loss, and he’d take a hard look at his life, to find out why he was so big.
Released in January, the book has received good reviews, including one from the New York Times, which called it “inspirational.” Tomlinson is also making the rounds with the national media, with interviews on “Today” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition.” This weekend, he’s at Bookmarks’ annual Movable Feast, a meal that includes readings and visits with 18 authors. It will be at Bookmarks, 634 W. Fourth St.
As Tomlinson describes it, his book isn’t about dieting or nutrition as much as it about his struggle with being fat. He sticks closely to his own story, resulting in a tightly written, page-turning narrative.
“I read a bunch of studies and science papers to have a grounding in my head so I could speak with authority on (weight loss). What I had not seen as much was the really personal in-depth, heartfelt story,” he said. “Besides, everybody knows this country is getting bigger all the time. They know all the issues and the right way to treat them. It’s a matter of doing it, and all the things that get in your head to keep you from doing it.”
Tomlinson was raised in a working-class family in Georgia, too poor to express their worth through fancy cars and designer clothes. But the eating was always good at the Tomlinson house, with piles of fried catfish, hush puppies, biscuits, gravy, banana pudding and peach cobbler covering the kitchen table. All were invited to dig in. Seconds and thirds encouraged.
“It was a symbol of affection. It’s hard to push that plate away, beyond the fact that it tastes incredible. In our family, if you don’t eat, somehow that was a rejection of the wealth and love that is shown in that cooking. And that’s a hard thing to navigate nutritionally and emotionally,” Tomlinson said.
Decades ago, such a spread of food was needed to nourish farmhands and factory workers, but for the couch-potato kids of the ‘70s such as Tomlinson, the calories made him chubby and eventually obese. Self-loathing soon took hold.
In the book, Tomlinson mines his life to figure out why he let himself get so big and looks at holistic ways he can change, such as gaining more discipline. Understanding the “why” is at the heart of a weight-loss plan, he said.
Since the book’s release, he has heard from lots of obese folks — and their relatives — around the world, seeking advice.
“The important thing for me wasn’t coming to understand how I was going to lose weight but why. The how is relatively simple. It didn’t click for me until I started to self-reflect and understand why I was eating so much and not taking care of my body,” Tomlinson said. “If all you think about is how you’re going to do it, it’s unlikely you’ll get there.”