Tuesday, August 24th, 2010
“This book is the furthest thing from a diet book. It’s a memoir and it’s a story about one guy trying to grow up and say ‘no’ to himself for the first time in a long time.”
There’s nothing funny about being overweight, but even if there were, Edward Ugel would beat you to the paunch. I mean punch. In his new memoir, I’m With Fatty: Losing Fifty Pounds in Fifty Miserable Weeks, Ugel, a native of Bethesda, Maryland and self-proclaimed foodie, confronts his many nemeses in the form of Korean barbecue, walnut Danish rings, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s Mission to Marzipan in an often rocky attempt to lose enough poundage to rid himself of the scuba-like mask he is forced to wear due to weight-related sleep apnea. He’s losing it for his stunningly patient wife, Brooke (who’s actually tape recorded her husband’s elephantine snoring as evidence), his two young daughters (who refuse to let him sit in their plastic kiddy pool after he attempts to join them and ends up spilling half of the water out onto the deck), and a cast of other characters including a humorless nutritionist and a high-on-life personal trainer who actually joins him on a putrid five-day juice cleanse.
And let me just say, this guy can eat. During one memorable food frenzy, he puts on a whopping ten pounds in just four weeks. He writes, “Normally, someone who gains that much weight in a month is either pregnant, trying to win a bar bet, or preparing for their role in Raging Bull. For the rest of us–it’s not viewed as an accomplishment.”
What is a triumph, however, is Ugel’s remarkable willingness to candidly, embarrassingly, and at times shockingly examine his own private and hellish battle of the bulge. So often it is women who document their, “I used to be fat, now I’m all that” journeys. With Ugel’s book, we get a view of the male psyche as Ugel explores the under-reported issue and uncharted territory of male body image.
With unintentional cruelty, I decide to interview Ugel at a local DC pastry shop, where, surrounded by buttered goodness, Ugel hangs tough with a cup of black coffee.
Were you worried about using your humor to mask some of the emotional truths that are, quite frankly, not as funny? When did you know it was time to drop the shtick and dig for some of the more painful truths?
I know I’m a funny guy–so I was always aware of this being a very surface book if I wasn’t careful. I think that in order for this book to resonate and to matter to people, I had to go for the truth. But that’s easier said than done. I mean, throughout the course of this interview I’ll make 45 jokes because that’s how I work and it keeps me in control and not falling into a puddle of tears. So I use my humor–yes, it’s a defense mechanism, but it’s also how I communicate. I don’t think I’m a brilliant writer, I don’t think I’m the next Faulkner, but I know I’m a funny guy and I’m a storyteller and I convey a lot of my truth in my stories.
But are you the crying-on-the-inside kind of clown?
Everyone knows that funny people are probably sad people. You know funny people are kind of the most screwed up people out there. I do. You don’t meet people who are genuinely funny without carrying around some sort of pain with them, whatever that pain may be.
Still, it’s hard to write funny. Do you read out loud when you write? What’s the process for you?
The thing about making a joke in a book is that it’s a terrible way to be funny. You tell a joke and you find out eighteen months later if you got a laugh. It’s awful. I mean, it’s really awful. In a book, you tell a story, and you wait for it to get edited down and whittled by publishers and editors and then you don’t even remember telling it. It’s a terrible medium in which to be humorous.
Other than humor, you’re also good with writing simile and metaphor. For example, right at the beginning of the book, you say that worrying about your gray hair when you’re so overweight is like mowing your lawn when your house is on fire. Another great image is when you describe the color of one of your cleanser juices as looking as if you threw a gray cat in a blender and added seaweed. It’s hard to be fresh and original. Do you try out a few things or does it just come to you?
Just comes to me.
Your food writing–especially when you describe your binges–borders on porn. Were you sabotaging yourself even further by turning yourself and your stomach on?
I love writing about food. I like thinking about food. I like dreaming about food. I like everything about food. It practically is porn to me. I’d do everything but make love to food. This book is the furthest thing from a diet book. It’s a memoir and it’s a story about one guy trying to grow up and say “no” to himself for the first time in a long time. Food is a real character in this book and I tried not to vilify food because that would have been the biggest lie in the book. Food isn’t my enemy; I’m my enemy.
Toward the end of the book when you slide into your biggest food frenzy, it struck me that your story really is a confessional. Eventually, all of the people who are invested in you–your trainer, your nutritionist, your wife, your family and friends–are going to read this. It’s like reading that you’ve gone to The Bunny Ranch for a lost weekend. What was that like for you, knowing that those closest to you will be reading about this dirty and shameful time?
Don’t forget, the book hasn’t come out yet. So the only people who are seeing this dirty time, as you so eloquently put it, are people like you and advance readers and, of course, my wife. My wife, Brooke, read the book chapter by chapter and when I wrote the binge chapter, we were on vacation in Florida. I wrote it over the course of about ten days and just handed it to her and then went into the other room and curled up into a ball and thought, Holy shit, she’s reading the chapter I just wrote. And Brooke read it and was stunned. It was almost like: here, here’s a chapter of me cheating on you. It was a real punch in the nose for her. I don’t think she realized the depth of my depravity.
It is tough to read.
If it’s tough for you to read, imagine for her.
You write that you’ll always be the guy who wrote about being fat. Are you worried that that’s going to typecast you, like The Fonz? Why did you sum up yourself like that?
I think there’s an inherent truth that isn’t up for interpretation. I will always be that guy who wrote about being fat.
Until your next book.
Maybe you’re right. And also, come to think of it, it’s indicative of how overly obsessed or how much weight I put on this issue. I think one of the reasons I wrote the book is that it’s like standing up in a crowded room and saying, “I have this problem.” Somehow it’s very therapeutic to talk about it in this open way because I think that I’m trying to make it less of a bear in my life. And by writing about it, I’ve tried to minimize its impact in my life. So I don’t mind, frankly, being that guy who wrote the book about being fat and trying to own it instead of protect it. You talk about the monster in the closet enough and suddenly the monster isn’t so scary.
Where do you think you fit into the pantheon of addiction or recovery books? I’m wondering if it’s different for a man to write about weight loss than for women, who are, I think, the more typical storytellers in this arena.
I hope it’s different. If you look in this genre, this world, it’s a female world. You don’t often hear about men talking about their body image issues. It’s not very manly, is it? And I thought that was an interesting place to explore. I have been very pleased at the responses that I’ve gotten thus far from women. Women are not only relating to the book, but also appreciating hearing it from a man. When I appeared at the ALA (American Library Association), there were around 400 librarians there, the majority of them being women, the majority of them being middle-aged, and they were lining up in droves to tell me, “This is my brother; this is my ex-husband; this is my cousin; this is my dad; but also, this is me.” And while this has been a genre that has been dominated by female writers, we’re all kidding ourselves if we say that this is a topic that only affects women. That is a joke.
There are many places in your book where you address your reader directly. Whom are you imagining when you write?
I don’t think I have a good answer for that, but I’ll tell you I’m very aware that I’m asking someone to come on a very personal, some could say a narcissistic, ride. If you counted up all the times that I say ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘my’ in this book–I mean, Jesus. I think that writing the book, saying, “Come with me, watch me try to lose this weight and contemplate my navel for a year,” is incredibly self-indulgent. So for me it’s the contract that I made with the reader: Please pay the $24.95 to hear me bitch and moan and tell fart jokes…but I promise that it’s going to be worth your while in the end.
Speaking of the end: You know what I was expecting to find in the back of the book? Recipes. Did you consider adding in your favorite recipes?
I absolutely did. And if we sell a few books, maybe there will be The Fatty Cookbook. There has been talk of it, and you can actually see how it could work.
Would you include the recipe for the Harvey Wallbanger cake because I’m dying to know what was in this cake that made you hate it so much as a kid. Is there booze in it?
There’s a little bit of booze in it. There’s a bit of a glaze on it that you put on the top and it dribbles down like candle wax.
Like a Bundt cake?
Yes, like a Bundt cake. I’m not a baker so I don’t know all the terms. So for a kid, you want a chocolate cake that’s full of icing, not some sort of orangey, boozy cake.
So, you’re going on The Today Show. How do you plan on being mesmerizing?
Is that a real question?
How am I planning to woo them? By trying to not to look incredibly fat and trying my best not to break out in crazy sweat.
Finally, Edward Ugel, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Bacon is perfect; I am not.
Cathy Alter is a Washington, DC-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Self, and TheAtlantic.com. She’s the author of the memoir, Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over.
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