A book with a canary-colored cover holds a place of honor on my bookshelf. It’s Tommy Tomlin’s 2019 memoir: “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.”
Tomlinson is brutally honest about his weight; at one point the scale read 460 pounds. He strips himself naked, literally, to describe what his morbidly obese body looks like and explores the addiction to food that began as he grew up in a fat, salt and carb-loaded Southern household. He talks about his sex life with his wife, Alix Felsing.
He balances his own story with the larger crisis of the county’s obesity epidemic, bringing to his reported memoir the journalistic skills honed during a career as an award-winning reporter and columnist for The Charlotte Observer and magazine writer.
Before I interviewed his last summer for Nieman Storyboard, I made a list of questions. “I wanted to know,” I wrote back then, “why someone who feels the stigma of obesity every day would expose himself so nakedly, to the extent that he describes how it affects his sex life. How did he weigh the honesty needed to tell a true story with the need to protect those who are part of that story? And perhaps most important when considering memoir—or any intense reconstruction that relies on the quirks of memory—how did he report the past with any assurance of its accuracy?”
These are the kind of intimate questions that anyone writing memoir, especially about sensitive topics, must confront. Tomlinson’s answers provide crucial answers.
Here are excerpts from our interview. reprinted with Nieman Storyboard’s permssion.
Of her memoir, “Hunger,” Roxane Gay said: “When I was writing it I was worried about exposing myself like this, and being this honest.” Did you feel the same way?
There are things in this book that I had never told anyone – my wife, my closest friends, anyone – before I put them on the page. But I decided early on that if I was going to do this book, I had to do it right. Other overweight people – or people with any other addiction, really – would be able to sniff it out if I faked it. Even more, I’d always know. So I kept pushing myself to be more honest, to tell the truth the best I could.
Your prologue starts with a very brief memory. Then the book launches, on New Year’s Eve 2014, with the bluntest of statements: “I weigh 460 pounds.” From there you spool out what that means in every part of your life in pretty graphic detail. How do you decide how far to go? And how do you walk the line between exposing and protecting yourself and others, like your wife and mother?
I held to the same standard I’d hold any story I do: What are the details that tell the most? What’s necessary to tell the whole story? I don’t tell EVERY detail about my life, but I did my best to leave in everything that I thought mattered to the story I’m trying to tell.
I told my family I was doing the book and that they might be part of it. I also showed them the manuscript ahead of time – not something I’d normally do, but I think the rules are a little different in memoir. They all felt it was fair and true. My mom died in January (2018), but she got to see an early version. She thought it was good, except for all the curse words.
You write frankly about your sex life as a teenager and a married man and your inability to have a child with your wife. How do you balance the memoir’s demand for intimacy and honesty with respect for people you care about?
That was the hardest line for me to draw. Early on, when I read a section at a writers’ retreat, somebody asked me: “Is there gonna be any sex in the book?” It’s not the kind of thing Alix and I talk about with other people. But I thought it was important to give a glimpse into our private lives (and it’s only a glimpse) because one, it’s something people naturally wonder about, and two, it speaks to some of the consequences of my weight. As far as my sex life before Alix, it’s intentionally vague – I didn’t want to drag anyone into this book who didn’t want to be there.
When I interviewed you in 2004, after you won the ASNE award for profile writing, you said anytime you have a long story, you need a way to break it up. For your book, how did you decide to use a one-year time frame and the scale (your weight) as a structural device? And how did you decide to weave the story of the fattening of America – which is essentially an extended nut graf – throughout the book rather than deal with it in one place?
The calendar is always a handy way to frame a story, and it especially made sense for this one because everyone who has tried to lose weight measures at least month by month. So that made for a natural 12 chapters. The book is not really about how much weight I lost – it’s more about learning about yourself as a way to get ready to lose weight – but of course I was trying to lose along the way, so I marked the end of each chapter with how I did that month. And along the way I wanted to zoom out from my story into how this is a more and more prevalent American story, so I circled back to that idea several times along the way.
How do you report your own past? You vividly reconstruct scenes and remembered conversations from as far back as early childhood, your college and early newspaper years. How do you know these memories are accurate?
One role model for me was David Carr’s great memoir “The Night of the Gun,” where he went back and reported out his drug-fueled early life – there were a lot of things he didn’t remember. I remembered most of the things I wrote about in this book. But I did check out my memories with Alix, my family and friends. I wasn’t a reporter in quite the same way, because a memoir, at heart, is a really long essay. But I did check the facts.
One thing I made sure not to do is quote stuff from decades ago as if it was verbatim. I’m always skeptical when people remember long conversations from 30 or 40 years ago with such accuracy they can put it in quote marks. I don’t believe I have anything like that in the book. I do have a few moments where I remember the gist of what somebody said, and I might put that in italics.
Having said all that, there are some scenes in the book where I had to rely on my memory. There’s a scene early on when I’m 3 or 4 years old, playing in our front yard, watching kids on the other side of the fence play kickball. I don’t know who any of those kids are. But it’s a really vivid memory for me – in fact, it’s the first memory I have. So I went with it, hoping the reader will know that what I wrote is the best I can remember.
You can read the entire interview with Tomlinson here.