Once you've read Susan Vaught's new novel for teens, you're not likely to look at an overweight person in quite the same way again. After all, that obese girl you just passed on the sidewalk (averting your eyes to avoid gawking) probably has a circle of friends, a boyfriend, hopes, dreams and embarrassments, just like you.
Vaught, a practicing neuropsychologist who recently lost 170 pounds herself, tackles the issue of obesity head-on with insight and hilarious style in Big Fat Manifesto, the story of a high school senior who has no intention of living up to anyone's expectations of how a fat girl should act. Jamie, who writes a column for her school newspaper, proclaims to her fellow students, "I'm not a jolly round person. I'm a peevish, sarcastic, smart, dramatic round person." Jamie is indeed all of that and more, and she has a voice that's both outspoken and poignant and as engaging as any recent character in young adult fiction. "I'm fat, fat, fat," Jamies writes. "If the word makes you uncomfortable, that's your problem."
Vaught, who spoke to BookPage from her farm 50 miles north of Nashville, says Jamie's voice interrupted her while she was working on another book. "It was right about the time that I had lost 70 or 80 pounds and people were beginning to notice that I was smaller," Vaught recalls. Just a few months earlier, when she weighed 350 pounds, "I had become so large that I was invisible, if that makes sense. People would look at me and then they would look away. And I knew why." The new, more positive reaction she got for being thinner and the feelings of confusion and anger that resulted worked their way into the character of Jamie, who demands that people accept her for what she is, but also struggles to accept herself.
Big Fat Manifesto is Vaught's seventh book for teens, and the follow-up to her well-received 2006 novel, Trigger, which tapped her experience as a neuropsychologist to explore the dilemma of a brain-injured boy who had tried and failed to commit suicide by shooting himself. "Trigger came out of my head so fast and so complete, and it was so based in things that I knew, I wasn't sure if I would ever write a book that strong again," the author says. "And then this book sort of wrote itself."
Vaught divides her time between her two vocations, spending three days a week in private practice as a psychologist, specializing in the care of patients with structural damage to the brain, and three days a week writing. The issue of obesity was one she had struggled with most of her life, always unsuccessfully. "Since I was 10 years old, I had been trying to lose weight and everything I tried wouldn't last or it wouldn't work or I just couldn't make sense of it," she says. Suffering from diabetes and hypertension, Vaught was depressed and disheartened, convinced that she would never lose weight. And then her literary agent recommended a computer program, the Diet and Exercise Assistant, which tracks calories consumed and expended. "It keeps up with everything I put in my mouth if I just enter it," Vaught says. "Whatever is missing in my brain that allowed me to weigh 350 pounds in the first place, this program sort of replaces like a little computer chip." With tweaking from her doctor, Vaught began a program that allowed the pounds to fall off even more rapidly than she expected. "The first month, I continued to enter the calories, even if I had a bad day, and I began to understand where I was shooting myself in the foot all along," like the steak dinner at a popular chain restaurant that added 5,000 calories to her daily total. By avoiding these dining disasters, and starting a strength training program, Vaught dropped below 200 pounds in less than a year.
The experience made her even more keenly aware of society's attitudes toward the obese. "When you're very large, life and the world beat up on you just as a matter of course. If you're going to a movie theater, you have to worry about whether you're going to fit in the seat. If you're flying, you have to worry about whether you'll be forced to buy two seats when you can't afford it," Vaught says. "You go to a store and you have to look at all the beautiful clothes you can never have." Like Vaught herself, however, Jamie refuses to dress down because of her size, always aiming to look stylish and snappy. But she's embarrassed by her overweight parents, who she feels look like slobs in their sweatpants and oversized clothes. Jamie is also hurt by her boyfriend's decision to have weight-loss surgery, causing her to question whether he really loves her as the oversized person she is.
Vaught's goal is for Jamie's "manifesto" to stir discussion, especially among thin people who are repelled by the obese. "I hope the book will open debate at different levels, she says, and force those reading it to look at their own thoughts about obesity and about big people and their stereotypes."