Charlotte’s own Tommy Tomlinson is local treasure. A gifted and accomplished writer who many people know best from the many years he spent as a Charlotte Observer columnist, he’s now released his first book. His memoir, The Elephant in the Room, is a deeply personal account of Tomlinson’s struggles with weight. In addition to his writing, he also has an engaging podcast called "SouthBound," where he talks with notable southerners. Tommy talks to People of Charlotte about it:
Tell us about the SouthBound Podcast—and how you came up with the idea.
Each episode is a one-on-one interview with a notable Southerner...if you're familiar with Terry Gross' "Fresh Air," I think of it as "Fresh Air" with a Southern accent. It was an idea I had knocked around for a couple of years when I was thinking about something to do as a podcast. Eventually I talked about it with Joe O'Connor, the CEO of WFAE, the NPR station here in Charlotte. He gave it the green light and here we are.
You're known for your writing. Were you apprehensive about working in a different medium?
I was, mainly because of my voice—I had throat surgery many years ago and was left with a pretty raspy voice. I wasn't sure if people would want to listen to it. But so far people seem to be OK with it. I was also a little worried about the technical aspects of working in radio, but the people at WFAE have been great at helping me learn the ropes.
How much work is involved in preparing for each interview?
I do quite a bit of research. If it's an author or a musician, I go back and read or listen to as much of their work as I can—certainly their latest work. I also look up other stories on them, especially other Q&A-type interviews. Then I come up with a list of questions that I might or might not end up using, depending on how the conversation goes.
There seems to be something inherently powerful in the southern storytelling experience. Are there commonalities you find in people born and raised in the south?
I do think there's an oral storytelling tradition that lingered longer here than it has in other
places… I've often wondered if part of that is our agricultural heritage, where people told each other stories out in the fields. Plus it's just Southern nature to take the long way around in any conversation. We're not direct by nature. That lends color and shade to a good story.
What's the most challenging part and the most enjoyable part of doing the podcast?
The most challenging part is getting guests. We try to do most of the interviews face-to-face, or with the guest in another studio somewhere—the sound is much better that way. That makes for some difficult scheduling. The most enjoyable part is when a conversation just takes off, and I forget for a minute that we're doing a podcast, and it's just two people talking.
Do people make suggestions about who they would like you to have on, or do you come up with all the ideas?
I've done most of them on my own, and with help from WFAE staff, but we've now included a box with every "SouthBound" episode where people can make their own suggestions.
As someone who has lived in Charlotte for a long time, what are some of your favorite local places?
I love Thomas Street Tavern in Plaza-Midwood, where I live, and the Common Market out on Monroe Road. There's a coffee shop called Mugs on Park Road where I wrote a lot of my book. And my favorite secret spot is the airport overlook out on Old Down Road, where you can watch planes take off and land.
What's something people would be surprised to know about you?
My friend Bubba Cheek and I made the semifinals of the University of Georgia ping-pong tournament when we were freshmen. One of our opponents arrived with a gym bag, which he opened to reveal ping-pong shoes. Bubba and I had never seen ping-pong shoes. We did not make it to the finals.
Amazon link to The Elephant in the Room
"So begins The Elephant in the Room, Tommy Tomlinson’s remarkably intimate and insightful memoir of his life as a fat man. When he was almost fifty years old, Tomlinson weighed an astonishing—and dangerous—460 pounds, at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, unable to climb a flight of stairs without having to catch his breath, or travel on an airplane without buying two seats. Raised in a family that loved food, he had been aware of the problem for years, seeing doctors and trying diets from the time he was a preteen. But nothing worked, and every time he tried to make a change, it didn’t go the way he planned—in fact, he wasn’t sure that he really wanted to change."