Author weighs in with laughter

CATCHING UP WITH ... VAN WHITFIELD

Insight comes with a big helping of humor in Van Whitfield's second book, 'Something's Wrong with Your Scale!'

April 25, 1999|By Joseph Capista | Joseph Capista,contributing writer

We've all said it before. After we've loosened our belts to help forget the dessert haunting our waistline, we've told ourselves something must be wrong with our scale. It's the only logic that keeps us from the stale world of low-fat potato chips and "Buns of Steel."

Baltimore native and author Van Whitfield was no exception -- even though he gained his love handles intentionally. To write his second novel, "Something's Wrong with Your Scale!", the Lanham resident decided extra pounds would provide him insight into the plus-sized world of his protagonist. In fact, he gained 50 pounds worth of insight.

His first reaction: denial.

"On the basketball court, I went from being the guy in red to the 'fat guy,' " the soft-spoken 39-year-old tells an audience at Barnes and Noble in the Inner Harbor. Initially, a spare "ball" under his shirt didn't slow the avid hoopster. But when Whitfield complained that all his clothes had shrunk in the dryer, a friend laughed and suggested that he hop in there, too.

As he recalls this story, the audience laughs with him -- and laughter's why they're here in the first place. They've just finished reading "Something's Wrong with Your Scale!" (Doubleday, $22.95), a bittersweet romantic comedy about the perils of lost love and gained weight.

With his harmless slouch and his wide, modest eyes, it's almost difficult to believe this is the same Whitfield whose humor and insight have distinguished him as an up-and-coming male voice on the black literary scene. This month's Essence online recognizes "Scales!" as its Book of the Month, uncommon for a work of fiction.

For his first novel, 1997's "Beeperless Remote," Whitfield was nominated for six Ben Franklin Awards, the rough equivalent of the American Book Award for independent publishers (sponsored by the Publishers Marketing and American Booksellers associations). As reviews of "Beeperless Remote" moved from black publications like Essence and Rap Pages to Publisher's Weekly, it became obvious that Whitfield's tales of 30-something adventure in Washington, D.C., appealed to a universal audience.

Whitfield was born in Baltimore and raised off Cold Spring Lane. His father worked as a probation specialist for the state penitentiary and his mother taught special education. His road to literary success was not without roundabouts. He didn't really begin writing until Memorial Day 1995, when, as a public affairs specialist in the Mayor's Youth Initiative Office in Washington, he suffered through another atrocious blind date.

"I didn't aspire to write and never considered it a career option," he says, "but after that date, I was so frustrated, I went home and put it down on paper." A relative picked up that paper, and, delighted by the tragicomic tale, passed it around at a family barbecue. The story had his family in hysterics. You should write a book, they told him.

The next day Whitfield was downsized from his job because of an "inability to write with imagination." Given four months' notice, he wrote eight hours a day on his office computer (he didn't have one at home). He told his supervisor he was too busy writing his book to work. "She thought I was kidding," he says. "She'd say, 'You're so funny!' "

But Whitfield was serious. After numerous rejections from top publishing houses, he struck a deal with a small black press. "Beeperless Remote," based on his unforgettable Memorial Day and the general havoc of the D.C. dating scene, was an underground sensation. Whitfield filed suit against the press (the book was selling, but he wasn't seeing the profits), and the contract was dropped. Then he was picked up by publishing giant Doubleday -- the first to reject "Beeperless."

Publishers had suggested Whitfield's work was not "black" enough, which he guesses referred to the book's lack of profanity and violence. "They didn't want to see responsible, middle-class, college-educated black men," says Whitfield.

Whitfield is one of a handful of black writers (along with Colin Channer and Omar Tyree) whose work is the male counterpart to relationship-based comedies such as "Waiting to Exhale," which have become popular in the last few years. Readers, it seems, easily identify with Whitfield's strikingly human, yet funny, characters. (While promoting his first book, Whitfield challenged his audience to find a page without something funny on it.)

"It's just a funny book," says Beverly Butler, member of Sisters Bonding Through Books, a Baltimore-based book club.

It took time for Whitfield to develop his humor on paper, and he sharpened his ear for dialogue by attending dinner parties just to listen to the dynamics of speech.

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