Riding a Ferris wheel: Four Questions with Tommy Tomlinson

Interviews
Tommy Tomlinson
Photo by Jeff Cravotta

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

It’s all about the reporting. We don’t write with words — we write with information. Every time I get stuck in writing a story, it’s because I don’t have the information I need and I’m trying to write around it. But fancy writing won’t patch the potholes. Make the extra call. Read the extra clip. When you’ve got the goods, the writing will be a whole lot easier.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How much people don’t stop and think about their own lives. I’ve written a bunch of stories where the subjects told me later that they learned things about themselves. What I’ve learned from that is that most of us spend most of our energy just getting through the day, and don’t step back to dwell on where we’re headed and why. I’ve realized that I’m not good at this, either.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I think of the job sometimes as riding a Ferris wheel. You’re in this constant loop of diving down low to the ground, then rising up to look from a higher vantage point. It’s the text and subtext — what’s happening in the story and What It All Means. I spend a lot of my time circling up and down, from text to subtext, trying to make sure the reader stays along for the ride.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I don’t remember who gave me this advice — I suspect I learned it by osmosis from watching some very good reporters. But here’s the advice:
If you hang around people long enough, eventually they become themselves.
At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.


Tommy Tomlinson is the author of the memoir “The Elephant In the Room “(Simon & Schuster), about life as an overweight man in a growing America.He is also the host of the podcast “SouthBound” in partnership with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. He has written for publications including Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Garden & Gun, and many others. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. His stories have been chosen twice for the “Best American Sports Writing” series (2012 and 2015) and he also appears in the anthology “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.” He has taught at Wake Forest University as well as at other colleges, workshops and conferences across the country. He’s a graduate of the University of Georgia and was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.


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