In this special episode (a live recording at Zibby’s Asheville Retreat!!), Zibby interviews Pulitzer Prize-finalist Tommy Tomlinson about his new book, DOGLAND, and his previous memoir, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. First, Tommy shares insights into the connection between humans and dogs (through the lens of the Westminster Dog Show) and discusses themes of bonding and companionship. Then, he talks about his memoir, which tells the story of his life as an overweight man in America. He offers raw and vulnerable reflections on his addiction and subsequent health problems, the broader societal factors contributing to this epidemic, and how it has impacted him and the people he loves.


Zibby: Welcome, Tommy. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.

Tommy: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me. 

Zibby: My pleasure, too. So we have two books to talk about, and we are doing this as a live event in the Asheville Retreat Ballroom here. And my dog Naya is literally next to your foot, so I could not have arranged this any better. It's the perfect setting. It's the perfect setting.

Okay, two books to discuss your book that is just coming out now is called Dogland. Can you tell everybody what it's about? 

Tommy: Sure, it's about, well it's about a lot of things. It's, it's kind of about the Westminster Dog Show. That's what the subtitle is. Uh, glory, passion, and a lot of slobber at the Westminster Dog Show.

But the Westminster is just sort of a prism to talk about the connection that people and dogs have, which 30, 000 years. I think there's a case to be made that the dog is mankind's greatest invention because we created them. from gray wolves and every dog that exists in the world today has descended from the same gray wolf and we have developed them over thousands of years to do all sorts of things for us but it turns out that they have developed us too.

I think we can say that they domesticated us as much as we domesticated them and that book is about that connection. 

Zibby: So you talk in the book about how you can go to all these dog shows, each one's a little different, nobody's barking, and are the dogs even happy? What could they possibly be experiencing?

What is your view on this now that you've been on the road and checked it all out? 

Tommy: Well, I think this is kind of what the book comes around to, is that, the idea of what makes us happy. So this, the book kind of originated with this idea as I was watching a dog show one night, and just sort of thought, Are those dogs happy or not?

Because they live such a different life than regular dogs. And after experiencing that for about three years, going to probably a hundred dog shows, and just being really immersed in that world, I think they are happy. But I think it depends on how you see happiness. And, I, I don't want to kind of spoil the ending of the book, but I sort of come around to a philosophy of happiness, that I think applies not just to dogs.

But to everybody and I think they have figured out how to get us to make them happy in the same way that they make us happy. 

Zibby: Okay, you can't keep the secret of happiness a secret. 

Tommy: Oh yeah, I can, sure. I can keep the secret of happiness a secret until the book's been out a couple weeks. I mean, I think basically it gets down to, the way I describe it is treats in time.

So, just think about the people in your life. That make you most happy. What do they do? They, they provide you with treats. They don't mean they like, shower you with gifts. But they're fun to be around. They give you things, through their personality or their heart, or whatever it is, that makes you want to be around them more.

And they spend time with you. They spend enough time that, they, they know you, they care about you, you come to care about them. This is what Dawg has figured out. If you give a dog enough treats and you spend enough time with them, they'll love you forever. And they figured that out about us, too. And so I think that's, for whatever the secret of happiness is, uh, in regards to this book, anyway, I think that's enough.

Zibby: When you set out to uncover the secrets of this whole world, best in show style, if you will, what is something that you were not expecting that you saw or heard on the road? 

Tommy: Well, the first thing I was expecting at the beginning of the book, I talk about this, is, is the lack of things. Like, when I first got to the Westminster Dog Show and no dogs were barking, it's just such a weird experience to be around.

2, 000 dogs that aren't making any noise, and so that, that thought of that, they're so well trained that they don't bark even when they're around, you know, the old dog I had, if he was around one other dog, he would go crazy, right? But um, beyond that, I think the day to day thing that really struck me was how incredibly detailed the grooming of each dog is.

So I follow this one dog through the whole narrative. Striker is a long time champion show dog. It takes about six hours to get Striker ready for the show every day. Just combing, bathing, there are like six different types of combs. There are all these different, you know, there's three different blow dryers.

It's like when you see these time lapse photos of like a Hollywood actor who's in a, some big budget movie with lots of special effects. It's amazing. And you see him, like, put on makeup for six hours, that's what this is like. And I was not expecting that level of detail to make them look as perfect as possible.

Zibby: He's like a talk show host. I referenced this last night, but you wrote so beautifully about, and I'm just gonna find this passage, you wrote so beautifully about your own dog, Fred, and how much joy he brought you. So let me just, can I read a paragraph? Is that okay? Okay. Okay. This is just one, one paragraph to talk about Fred.

Fred was an orphan, and we tried to imagine what the first few weeks of his life were like before he found us. He startled easily. For a while, he would camp out under our coffee table, but any time there was a sudden movement, he'd leap up and bonk his head on the underside. We suspected he got a couple of dog concussions, but he was also scared of odd, specific things.

He cowered from white vans. He was terrified of children. Not just children, but stuff that was child adjacent. One morning, when we were out on a walk, he circled way out into the street to avoid a big wheel some kid had left on the sidewalk. We pieced together a dark story in our heads, about mean children and white vans.

We wished he could tell us what had happened to him, so we could keep him safe. 

Tommy: Yeah, so there's a, kind of an interlude in this book where, in the midst of all the adoption stuff, I talk about the talk my wife and I had for fourteen and a half years. Um, who showed up in our front yard one day in her, in a ditch as a puppy, a stray puppy that we believed somebody had let go and we had him his entire life and, and I think that all the stages of bonding with a dog and that connection and all the things that I try to get to in the bigger picture of the book, try to tell in sort of a miniature version when it comes to friends.

You know, the thing about dogs and this, you know, they're a funny part of the book too, so I want to make sure that it's clear, but. The thing about the dog or any pet is it sort of inverts the natural order, right? As a, as those of you who are parents, you expect to die before your children do. But when you have a pet, when you, as soon as you take that pet on, you probably know that it's gonna die before you do.

And so you have to experience that sort of reversed wave of grief in a way that you don't usually have to. With your human children. You know, there's a lot of research involved in anecdotal evidence about how sometimes people grieve harder for a pet than they do for the other humans in their lives.

There are a lot of reasons for that. I think the main one being that it's just a less complicated relationship. But um, but also, but also, it does, that order's reversing is something that our nature does not expect to happen and do it now. 

Zibby: Yeah. Well, this book is truly beautiful and anyone who has ever had a dog will not only be interested, but it will bring tears to their eyes and make them laugh, which is just great.

And I know Naya really appreciates us discussing it today. 

Tommy: She seems to be handling it well. There's no criticism so far. 

Zibby: She literally has her paw wrapped around Tommy's heel at the moment, as we're like literally. But today is a twofer because Tommy also wrote The Elephant in the Room, One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.

This book is so beautiful. It's so good and I am so sad I have not finished it in time for this interview because I only got it when we got down here and it's so good. I've already started recommending it and it's amazing. And this I definitely want to read. Can I read the beginning of this? Just like the first page.

Okay. I'm going to just jump to New Year's Eve 2014. Okay. New Year's Eve 2014. I weigh 460 pounds. Those are the hardest words I've ever had to write. Nobody knows that number. Not my wife. Not my doctor. Not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs 195 pounds.

I'm two of those guys with a 10 year old left over. I'm the biggest human being most people who know me have ever met or ever will. The government definition of obesity is a body mass index of 30 or more. My BMI is 60. 7. My shirts are size XXXXXXL, which the big and tall stores shortened to 6X. I'm six foot one or 73 inches tall.

My waist is 60 inches around. I'm nearly a sphere. Those are the numbers. This is how it feels. I'm just going to read one more paragraph. I'm on the subway in New York City, standing in the aisle, clinging to the pole. I live in Charlotte and don't visit New York much, so I don't have a feel for how subway cars move.

I'm praying this one doesn't lurch around a corner or slam to a stop because I'm terrified of falling. Part of it is embarrassment. When a fat guy falls, it's hard to get up. But what really scares me is the chance I might land on somebody. I glance at the people wedged around me. None of them could take my weight, it would be an avalanche.

Some of them stare at me and I figure they're thinking the same thing. There's an old woman sitting three feet away. One slip and I'd crush her. I grip the pole harder, my palms start to sweat, and all of a sudden I flash back to elementary school in Georgia, standing in the aisle of the bus. The driver hollers at me to find a seat.

He can't take us home until everybody sits down. I'm the only one standing. Every time I spot an open space, somebody slides to the edge of the seat and covers it up. Nobody wants the fat boy mashed in next to them. I freeze, helpless. The driver glares at me in the rearview mirror. An older kid sitting in front of me, a redhead, freckles, I'll never forget his face, has a cast on his right arm.

He reaches back and starts clubbing me with it, below the waist, out of the driver's line of sight. He catches me in the groin and it hurts, but not as much as the shame when the other kids laugh and the bus driver gets up and storms toward me. And the train stops and jolts me back into now. So incredibly powerful.

Tommy: Well, thank you. So, when I, there's a fairly long backstory to this book. I, I was afraid to write it for years and years. My, this scene at New York is a scene where I'm actually sitting down with my agent, telling him kind of the story, or similar story, and he's like, well dude, that's the book you ought to write.

And then I didn't write it for like three more years after that. But, when I did decide to write it, I thought, so I've, you know, I've written a lot of profiles for other people. Long time journalist. Wrote big profiles for like, Esquire, ESPN, those sorts of places. And I decided when I was going to write it, that if I was going to do it, I was going to hold myself to the same account that I would hold somebody else.

Which is, I want to tell the truth the best I can, and not leave anything out that needs to be in there. And so, once I set out to do it, I, you know, I tried to treat myself like somebody I was doing a story on. Because that's kind of what was happening. And of course, I knew a lot more about myself than I would about anybody else ever covering it.

And so, I didn't write a lot in there. I tried not to write sort of lurid details just to have them in there. I wanted everything to have a meaning. to it and, you know, to be part of the larger story. So there are stories that I left out of there, but that was sort of the litmus test for me as I was going through, like, does this story mean something to the story I'm trying to tell in this book?

And if it does, I'm going to leave it in, whether it makes me look good or not. 

Zibby: And you talk a lot in the book about how you are essentially slowly killing yourself. And how you don't know why you're doing this to yourself, but you are. How there are so many experiences in life that you wish you had lived, but you've been held back your entire life.

And then you go into not only, Does it put you at risk? But then you talk about the loss of your sister and how tragic that was and the impact of that on you and your family and the suit you had to wear and the meals that showed up and the way you process the grief and your mother who lived next door.

Can you just talk about that a little bit? And I'm so sorry for your loss. 

Tommy: Oh, that's talk about. Oh, so one of the things that sort of pushed me to do this book was that my sister died just long Eight years ago now, almost ten years ago now, on Christmas Eve, she had been overweight like me and had not really paid attention to her health very much.

She had a sore on her leg that got infected and didn't get it looked at, and she died. And we went to her funeral, and I wore like the one suit that I own basically, and as I was, we were sitting there in the family. And I turned around and looked and saw all these people I've known all my life. And I thought, you know, if I don't get healthier, they're going to be back soon for me.

And so that's what sort of pushed me to sort of not just write this book, but to go on a path to be healthier. I'm much, I'm in much better shape now than I was in this, telling you this book. I've lost probably a little over a hundred pounds. And all the, like, health markers are much better. I can't get on the damn, like, Moongjaro or whatever, because I don't qualify.

I'm like, What? Diabetic or pre diabetic, and I'm not. My doctor's like, you're too healthy to be on this damn obesity drug. And so, so that, you know, there's mixed blessings there. Um, but, but that sort of pushed me in many ways. Because I didn't want to be a burden. I don't want to be a burden on my family.

You know, my wife has put up with me for, you know, Twenty five years. She's depended on me in lots of ways, similar to how I'm depending on her. And I don't want her to feel like she gets left behind because I didn't take care of myself. And so, all those things sort of play into, if you're obese or if you have lots of other problems, all those things sort of play in your head on a loop.

And, you know, you mentioned the funeral food. Can Especially in the South, I'm sure everywhere. When somebody dies, what do they do? They bring food. And so there's like this giant parade of like, you know, fried stuff coming into the house at the very moment that I needed the least, right? And so, um, so those kinds of things.

And just sort of my upbringing. I think one big thing that, you know, people I try to think about, like, why did I get this job? Because nobody in my family was like this until my generation. And there's several people in my generation who are obese. My family was, worked very hard to move out of jobs, all the way up to my generation.

They worked very hard so that I wouldn't have to. But we ate the same food that was fueled for them, um, when they had to go out and like, you know, work at the seafood plant all day. But for me, going to a desk job, it just landed on me differently. And that's been a huge reason, I think, for obesity in America.

Is that most of us now do sedentary jobs, and we eat the same meals that we ate when people were working in factories. 

Zibby: Also, I think the way they make, the way they make food today is even less healthy with all the chemicals and all of that too. The way that you talk about your parents and the things that have happened to them, all they've sacrificed, their hard work.

You talk about when your dad has a stroke, or your mom had a stroke. Somebody has, your mom had an accident at the SeaTac factory and that damaged all the nerves in her neck and shoulders and then your dad Got sick and couldn't work and then she had to go back to being a waitress at Denny's carrying trays on the shoulder that was injured for 16 years.

Talk about that and what does that do for you? How do you, how do you carry that and then go out into the day and write an article or profile a celebrity keeping all that? 

Tommy: Well, for one day, I've never had any illusions that what I do is hard. You know, um, there are difficulties to it and there are days when I feel like I'm struggling But I've never worked a day in my life that was as hard as, like, a normal day that my mom and dad worked.

And so, you know, I mentioned a little bit the other day about how they were not very educated, but very smart and big readers. In fact, that's, I think, the key to why I do what I do is that my dad read his two sacred texts, which were the Bible, and the Bass Pro Shops catalog. 

And my mom devoured those little paperback romance novels.

She would go to the used book store and literally buy like a box full. Take them home, read them all, fill up the box, take the box back and fill up another box. You know, this would happen like six times a year at our house. And so they were a voracious reader. And also big readers of the newspaper. And so that's, I think, why I became a journalist.

It's because I saw how much it meant to them to read and to keep up with the world that way. Even though they didn't have much of an education, they could understand the world through the newspaper. And so, they were great role models to me. They, I think, struggled mightily with trying to figure out why I was a fan and they weren't.

Because we were all eating the same thing. My mom told me much later that she and my dad used to sit in bed at night and talk about it and try to figure out what they could do. And back then, you know, there weren't many good plans. I remember going to some diet doctor when I was like 12. And as far as I could tell, he gave me like amphetamines.

Yeah, like this like very bright colored pills that made me feel great. I could play basketball all day, but it didn't really affect my appetite one way or the other. And so There's just been, I think, until these, this like, last group of weight loss drugs, it seems to be pretty amazing. As Americans, we just haven't had a really good way to tackle this problem because it goes far beyond just willpower, right?

There's, there's so much chemistry and genetics, and not only that, the outside force is like the way they make food now, and the way that food gets advertised, and all those sorts of things. They just make it very, very difficult for people who have this problem. And so I think people who don't have it often really, especially if you're a friend or a family member, just really struggle with how to like bridge that gap.

Zibby: Yeah. You, you wrote in the book that people who don't get it, you know, feel like it's, it's in your control. It's a laziness factor. It's something wrong with you. And then you have to carry that sort of shame around with you when you're already struggling. So how do you reconcile those two? 

Tommy: Well, I, I, first of all, I don't put it all on outside forces.

I've made a lot of really poor decisions in my life when it comes to food. But, you know, I think at some point, no matter what your addiction is, everybody's got something, right? Whether it's, you know, something mild or something that's like life destroying. Everybody's got some little vice that they indulge in.

Yeah. I think one key to getting over the top of it is to give yourself a little grace and to understand that it's not, it's like that scene in Good Will Hunting, it's not your fault, it's not your fault, it's not your fault. Well, I do believe that anybody who has some problem with diction like this, part of it is their fault, it's my fracture.

And you have to address that as well. But I think you also have to realize that it's part of a much bigger picture. Much of which is not in your control. And to give yourself the grace to say, I'm going to tackle this, not because I'm a bad person and want to become a good person, but because I'm a good person and just want to be healthy in this way.

That, I think, is a switch that a lot of people find very hard to flip. But when you do, it kind of leads you out of the wilderness. 

Zibby: And the vulnerability in this book is just so impressive, raw, open, wonderful, but also paired with fabulous writing. And as you told us yesterday, you endeavor to write in a way that is accessible to everyone, which comes across because it just feels like the most immersive story that anyone's ever told you.

How did it feel with it coming out? And how has the reception been? And has, has there been any blowback in any way? Like, are you glad you did it? 

Tommy: I'm extremely glad I did it. First of all, I'm extremely glad I did it. First of all, it was a story that I just had bottled up inside me for a long time just to get it out.

It felt better. It was like a giant belt or something, you know? And there were, there were things, as you read the excerpt, there were things I had not talked to my wife about, not talked to anybody about. And part of the process of the book was, as I was writing these things before, It, you know, even turned it in.

I had a conversation with my wife and family members about all this stuff, and that was not just enlightening, but really made our relationship stronger, I think. So, that was sort of the pre publication. Once it came out, um, I was, I was and have been um, so gratified at the reception. The only downside at all, and it's very, very odd, is that I had lots of people emailing me every day.

Tell me about their new diet plan. You know, and it's whatever's, whatever's hot at the time, like, when this came out, like, fasting was a really big thing. And so I had, like, a hundred people a day emailing me, well, if you would've just done this, you know, you'd be fine. And I, you know, people aren't mostly coming at this, kind of, uh, of an angle of wanting to help.

Right? And so I, I took it that way. That was just a small portion of it. The vast majority. of the feedback I've gotten was just these incredible stories, thousands and thousands. This book's been out five years. I still get emails about it every single day from people who saw their story and my story. And what really interested me about it, or the thing that's continually interesting to me, is that it's not just people who are colleagues.

Like, I, I got a letter in the mail, like an actual postal letter from a guy in Austria. I don't know how the hell he found my book in Austria, but he did. And he wrote me like this teenage page letter about how much he enjoyed the book, and how much it meant to him, and on like, page 8, he said, By the way, I'm, you know, I'm perfectly healthy, I don't have obesity at all, but I suffer from depression.

And depression has many of the same symptoms, many of the same root causes, it just manifests in a different way. And I thought that's true for most sort of addictive, obsessive behavior is that there's so much in common between alcoholics and problem gamblers and obese people and all that sort of thing.

So I think a lot of people have found something meaningful in my story even if it's not their particular details and that to me is just the best thing that could happen. 

Zibby: Well, in addition to being so open, the way you write and the way you use details, we were just talking about this and Kelly McMaster's writing workshop yesterday, even the details of how you go into a diner and have to scope out the seats and is there enough room in that banquette and how you looked at the floor plan ahead of time and how some chairs are too creaky and how navigating even just the simple act of sitting down is such a massive challenge.

I mean, you put us in your head and it is so, it's just amazing. It's just, you're such a brilliant writer and anyway, it's amazing. What advice do you have for aspiring authors? 

Tommy: Well, I think first of all, you have to author something, right? I know a lot of aspiring authors who seem to have great ideas. And I'm like, so how much have you written?

And they're like, well, I haven't really put anything on the page yet. You're not a writer until you put something on the page. And even if it's like the crappiest crap imaginable. I read an interview with a New Yorker a couple years ago with a guy who writes for The Simpsons. They wrote many of their most famous episodes.

And his process is, he says, I pretend that there's this crappy little elf who comes in while I'm not looking and writes the first draft of my story. And, and this crappy little elf has no idea how to write. And he just puts in like Homer says something funny, and they move to the new planet. It's just like the worst thing in magic, right?

And the crappy little elf tips his hat and goes to bed. So the next morning, the writer, the actual writer gets up and sees what the crappy little elf has done and says, Well, this is terrible, but I can work with this. Right? It's a start. And the biggest leap in any creative endeavor is from nothing to something.

And so If you're still at the point where you have nothing, you gotta do something. And I promise you that once you have something on the page, it gets better from there. That blank page just kills more writing careers than anything I can think of. So once you get started, once you get something going, you'll find, I think, that the revising part, for me anyway, is the fun part.

It's that first, getting out that first sort of crappy draft or whatever it is. That is the hard part. And once you get that done, the rest is relatively easy and so, just all there is to it. 

Zibby: I used to say I was a non practicing writer. I'm like, why do lawyers get to say that? Right? Like, sometimes things get in the way.

Anyway, Tommy, thank you so much for coming on. This was amazing. Thank you. Congratulations. The elephant in the room. Five years strong. Dog land. Just coming out. Congratulations. 

Tommy: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. 

Zibby: Thank you.


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