This week on the Reckon Interview, were speaking with one of my favorite voices from the South, Tommy Tomlinson.
If youre a fan of the Reckon Interview, youd love his weekly podcast out of Charlotte, North Carolina, called South Bound. Tommy approaches the South, and Southerners, with a sense of wonder and he has a great talent for drawing out interesting conversation. And hes written memorable pieces for the Charlotte Observer, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and more.
But when we met at Auburn University earlier this year, we sat down to discuss his powerful new memoir, The Elephant in the Room, an unflinching but humorous memoir about Tommys struggle with weight and food.
At the start of the book, Tommy weighed 400 pounds and over the course of the book he chronicles his efforts month by month to lose weight. He also examines the culture and personal anxieties that contributed to his weight gain and made the weight loss process so daunting.
Its a story about food. A story about the South. And a story about addiction. But its also a story about hope and resilience.
You can download and listen to the whole conversation on Acast, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Subscribe today so you dont miss out on the rest of the season.
Tommy Tomlinson on his decision to write about his weight
Back in 2011, I was working for the Charlotte Observer. And we decided to do a series of stories on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And I was on my way to New York to do one of those stories. And I called up the guy, Sloan Harris, who's my book agent and said, "I'm coming to town. Can we just get together?"
And I say he was my book agent, and still is, at the time I'd been his client for five years, and I produced nothing. Just some ideas that he didn't like that much. And so, I got there that morning, we met at a diner. I got there first. So, he came in behind me, he asked what he always asks when we get together which is what have you been thinking about lately? In that moment, I decided to really tell him.
What I told him was: the night before we got together, I googled the interior of that diner to make sure there was a place that was comfortable enough for me to sit. Because when you're a fat guy, a booth can be trouble if, if the table doesn't move, the barstools are bolted to the floor. Tables are best, but if it's rickety or narrow arms, that can be trouble too. And I did this little soliloquy about how I felt like my whole life was just arranged around what I could do or couldn't do as a fat guy. And how I always tried for years to get better. But I had not been able to do it. And I knew that if I didn't get healthier soon it would kill me. When I got done. He looked at me said well dude that's your book you should write that.
And I knew he was right, but I was afraid to do it.
I was afraid of what I might have to reveal about myself. And I was afraid of what my loved ones, people I cared about, would think if they knew the real me, so I didn't do anything about it for three years. In 2014, I did a story for ESPN: The Magazine on a guy named Jared Lorenzen, quarterback at University of Kentucky back in the early 2000s. And who was known for being the biggest quarterback anybody had ever seen. People called him the Pillsbury Throwboy. And as I started to do the story on Jared, I realized and sort of saw the way that I might be able to write about myself in a way that would be meaningful to other people but that I could also live with. And so, I wrote the story about Jared.
I called my agent back and said, I'm ready to write my story.
Tommy Tomlinson on what he learned while writing his memoir
What I've learned about myself, mostly, was a lot of awareness about the things that made me big in the first place. As I tell people a lot, if you have 20 pounds to lose, you could probably figure out how to do that one way or another. Whether it's Weight Watchers or the latest fad diet or fasting or whatever. If you have 200 pounds to lose the how is never enough. You have to start trying to figure out the why.
And in my case, why I got so big is sort of the journey I go on through book. It's kind of figuring that out. There's a lot of reasons. So, it's a mix of lots of things in the same way it is for everybody. So, I learned a lot of those things, you know about things I'd felt like I missed out on when I was a kid. Certainly, the culture I grew up in that sort of celebrated and memorialized food as not just something good to eat, but like a very symbolic thing that carried a lot of meaning with it.
And then the same stuff that everybody else deals with, sort of cultural things in this society where, you know, it's sort of this arms race to see who can deliver the biggest portions for the least price, and all that sort of thing, same thing that everybody is dealing with.
Then when the book came out, I learned certainly, and this is something I'd hoped to write, and part of the point of writing the book, was to say that you're not alone in this struggle. There are lots of people out there dealing with it, and I heard from thousands of people -- have heard from thousands of people -- who struggle with weight and with other things, because the sorta symptoms, the causes are often parallel. If you have problems with alcohol or gambling or whatever. And so, what's been really meaningful to me was to hear from all those people who felt like they felt less alone after reading my story.
For more about Tommy Tomlinsons journey, his thoughts on fat shaming and diet culture, and his career as a journalist, listen to the full episode here.
And purchase Tommys book, The Elephant in the Room, from your favorite local bookstore.