Losing weight, one chapter at a time

It's one thing to know you're too big, to feel your stomach straining against your waistband, feel your knees groan when you stand up, feel your lungs struggle to propel you up a flight of stairs.

But it's quite another to have strangers or loved ones point out your bigness. Whether they say it in a whisper or straight to your face, with malice or with care, the sting of their words can be sharp, a verbal pinch that sears through all of your layers to the tender spot of your self-esteem.

Which is kind of what author Alice Randall felt a while back when she overheard someone make a comment about an overweight black woman being "as big as three houses." The person wasn't talking about her, but she felt the pinch nonetheless. She had gained a considerable amount of weight since 2001 when she turned the Civil War canon "Gone With the Wind," on its head and wrote "The Wind Done Gone." The novel told the story of the war and its aftermath, not through Scarlett O'Hara but her half-sister, a fair-skinned black slave. Despite a very public lawsuit by the Margaret Mitchell estate to thwart its publication, the book wound up a bestseller.

In the aftermath, Randall — also an established country music songwriter — went on to a writer-in-residence post at Vanderbilt University, penned two more novels, kept the media out of her personal life, which she had filled with a good second marriage, a literal ton of cookbooks and a full pantry.

Before she knew it, she was 225 pounds. Funny then that her new novel, "Ada's Rules," (Bloomsbury, $24) is a 53-chapter/53-point common-sense guide, of sorts, of how a 50-year-old, 5'2", 220-pound African-American preacher's wife in contemporary Nashville tries to lose enough weight to feel better without becoming bone thin. With the lead character wondering if her husband is having an affair — or whether she should have one herself — the plot craftily straddles the line between self-help and romance.

This isn't Randall's autobiography, though she and her protagonist, Ada Howard, share some distinguishing features. Randall is 53, her husband is a white-collar professional (a lawyer), they live in Nashville and, like Ada, Randall is a teacher. Also like Ada, Randall has been battling her weight.

Randall will read from her book on Friday at 1 p.m. at the Atlanta Fulton Public Library's main branch.

Her work has always dealt with some aspect of the African-American experience, whether in her second novel "Pushkin and the Queen of Spades" or "Rebel Yell," her third. But "Ada's Rules" especially is directed toward African-American women, particularly those who are overweight. And according to the CDC, that's 4 out of five black women. The other statistic that braced Randall: 1 in 4 middle-aged black women have diabetes. A fact she learned, ironically, during a student's presentation in Randall's literary history of soul food class that she teaches at Vanderbilt.

"I weighed over 225 pounds when I was touring with 'Rebel Yell,' and I saw too many other — particular young women — who were very large, and I just decided I truly needed to do something about it," Randall said. "I decided I was either going to lose the weight or have [gastric bypass] surgery, because I wasn't going to go into the second half of my life being that overweight. Then I decided I could really put it on the agenda by writing a book about it."

Randall caused a minor two-news-cycle dustup this spring when she wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in which she said many black women are fat because they choose to be. She maintains the reasons are cultural and longstanding, but her book gives context to that statement, often hilariously so, in a laugh-with-you-not-at-you kind of way.

"I believe we are beautiful in all shapes and sizes and colors, but I also believe that we have the right to pursue our health and to be the shape and size that is healthiest for us at the age and stage we are in life," Randall said. "It's not trying to do miracles, it's trying to do good enough."

So Ada decides that soul food is a baked sweet potato rather than greasy chicken, that a 30-minute walk each day is better than none at all. Each rule, which Randall developed in part from reading everything from academic weight loss studies to low-fat cookbooks, is one she tried herself.

There was a payoff for Ada. And in the end, there was one for Randall.

"I may never get small, but I'm way under 200 pounds now," she said.

Book Reading

Alice Randall, reads from her new novel "Ada's Rules"

Free. Friday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Atlanta Fulton Public Library Central Library auditorium, 1 Margaret Mitchell Square; www.afpls.org, 404-730-1906