Alice Randall On Race, Weight, And 'Ada's Rules'

Author Alice Randall recently raised eyebrows when she wrote in an op-ed, "black women are fat because we want to be." This comes after the release of her new novel Ada's Rules where a preacher's wife takes care of everyone but herself, until she realizes she's gained 100 pounds. Host Michel Martin speaks with Randall and regular moms contributors.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, though, we're taking a book break. There's a holiday weekend coming up and we thought you might be looking for something to tuck into that bag you're taking to the pool or the beach or just to keep you company while the grill warms up.

The moms are joining us to talk about the new book "Ada's Rules," a sexy, skinny novel by Alice Randall. Ada is a preacher's wife who's taking care of everybody else, the congregation, her husband, her elderly parents, his elderly parents, her children. She's managing, but an invitation to her 25th college reunion pushes her to take a hard look in the mirror and she does not like what she sees, especially that 100 pounds she's gained since college.

The story follows Ada as she tries to take control of her weight and her life, and Alice Randall is with us now. She's also the author of the best-seller "The Wind Done Gone." She's a writer in residence at Vanderbilt University. She's also a best-selling country music songwriter - sorry, I just had to throw that in - and she's a wife and mom.

We're also joined by three of our regular moms/contributors, Jolene Ivey. She's a state lawmaker in Maryland and the mom of five. Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author, most recently of "Crazy Love," and a mom of three. Dani Tucker is an office administrator, a freelancer, a mom of two and a part-time fitness instructor.

Welcome, ladies, moms. Thanks for joining us.

DELEGATE JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

ALICE RANDALL: Great to be here.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Hey.

MARTIN: So, Alice Randall, what inspired you to create this character?

RANDALL: I created Ada in response to my own journey of recognizing. One day, I woke up and realized I was over 225 pounds and, as a mom, not the role model I wanted to be for my daughter, who was still fit, but I thought she might not always be if I stayed as big as I was.

MARTIN: You know, the people of - in fact, one of the blurbs on the book by Pearl Cleage, the wonderful writer, said, well, is this a novel disguised as a diet book or is this a diet book disguised as a novel? It's very interesting. You've got some very interesting ideas embedded in the novel about fitness, about what weight means in each culture. I'm very curious about how you kind of came up with that approach.

RANDALL: Well, throughout my novels - my first novel, "Wind Done Gone," was a diary. My second novel was either a love letter or suicide note. This one is - Ada is writing her own diet book. She's thought about writing a children's - how to raise your children manual. Instead, she writes a diet book and, in it, I capture the best of science and wisdom that I had come across that helped me get from way over 200 pounds to significantly under.

But it's basically - I love experimenting with different forms and diet books are a form of literature that many people read and cookbooks are a very important form of literature, so I thought it was wonderful to just - part of the spirit of play of the whole book, of taking a serious subject, but engaging it playfully was to playfully write, have Ada write a diet book.

MARTIN: And it is a lot of fun. Jolene, you are - weight does not seem to ever have been an issue with you in all the years that I've known you. But you told us that, despite that, you really identified with Ada.

IVEY: Well, for a number of reasons. One is, of course, every woman in America at least worries about her weight. I don't care how big or small you are. You're always thinking about it, just because it's our culture and I certainly have my own struggles. I just don't let it go so far, you know. I figure, if I'm five pounds overweight - well, it's a lot easier to lose the five than it would be to 50, so I just try to attack early.

But, beyond that, when I look at her life, I mean, she's overwhelmed. She's got too much going on and so do I, so I can totally relate to what she's - with the struggles that she has.

MARTIN: But it's also just some of the points of comparison we've talked about on the program. You are a state lawmaker yourself, but your husband was also a public official. There was a...

IVEY: Exactly.

MARTIN: There was a time in which you were kind of the first lady in that role.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: And then you're both public officials and you've got kids and you're caring for elderly parents, as well, so there was all that you were...

IVEY: At least, I was until recently, you know, when my dad passed. But, up until, you know, February, I was taking care of him, too, so between the elderly parents, the kids - of course, her kid's a little bit older than mine - and, you know, everything else you have going on, the expectations from the community. She wants to look good and she wants people to like her and, of course, everybody feels that way, so I think there's something here for everybody.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? Did you relate?

TUCKER: Oh, totally, because Ada is every woman in my Zumba classes. I teach three Zumba classes and the sisters are - and they relate a lot to Ada because they also struggle with the thick and fit part of it. You know, a lot...

MARTIN: Talk about thick and fit.

TUCKER: Well, you know, because black men like their women thick, you know, and, you know, it's that gray area of, you know, if I get a size four or five, am I too small or, you know, is it OK to be thick and fit? And I teach my sisters it's OK to be thick and fit. You can still be a size 12 and be fit, you know, and...

MARTIN: But do you have folk in your Zumba classes saying I don't want to get too skinny because if...

TUCKER: Oh, yes. I'm one of them and I'm the teacher. No, I do not want to get too skinny. I don't - I like my curves. I love my curves. And we teach them, and I teach in my class to embrace your curves. Many of us are not going to get that skinny, so get over it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: You know, I tell them all the time, last time I was that small I was born. It ain't happening, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK.

TUCKER: But, you know, but it's OK.

RANDALL: I love you.

TUCKER: I love you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And she looks good, too.

But, you know, Leslie, you were telling us that you were really taken by the cultural piece because you are - as you don't mind sharing - white. And you were saying that you've never heard anybody say, a white woman, a white friend of yours say: I don't want to get too thin. In fact, there's that famous phrase that attributed to - it's attributed to Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, that you can never be too rich or too thin. Tell me more about that.

STEINER: Well, reading the book, you know, I - every time one of the black characters would say, now Ada, don't get too skinny, I would laugh or kind of feel like crying, too, because I in my whole life have never heard a white person, male or female, say to me or anybody else, don't get too skinny. And I think it would be wonderful to be more comfortable with being normal or even being overweight. And it really made me think so much why white women are so ashamed of being fat and why black women seem to have that part of the equation more balanced, more figured out. Although, it's really complicated because being fat is unhealthy, but so is obsessing about your weight and dieting and thinking that, you know, you're not - no one can love you if you're overweight. I mean, that's just as crazy and just as unhealthy. And that's the world that I live in as a white woman.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our moms are having book club today, and we're talking about the new book "Ada's Rules." It's by the best-selling novelist Alice Randall and three of our regular moms contributors, Dani Tucker, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Jolene Ivey are talking about it.

"Ada" follows the story of Ada. She's a preacher's wife who is trying to get her weight - and the rest of her life - kind of in more balance and on the right track.

And Alice Randall, you talk about - we talked a little bit about the structure of the novel and there really are rules and some of them are really fascinating to me and you talk about things that I don't often see connected to the discussion around weight loss, like getting enough sleep.

RANDALL: You know, that is key. It is turning out that science is suggesting, there's a wonderful Harvard sleep study that exhaustion is actually the unexamined culprit in many cases of obesity. And you really need to get eight hours a night, particularly if you've ever gotten to be significantly overweight. The 8-8-8, walk eight miles each week, sleep eight hours each night, and maybe drink eight hours of - eight glasses of - water each day, is Ada's key. But sleep is the culprit and it's a problem with me. I only get five hours a night's sleep, almost all of my life. That's how my life works, how I got to write, publish four books in the last decade and raise a daughter. But it also is part of what got me to over 225 pounds. It's the part I struggle with the most daily now.

MARTIN: Don't forget all those country music songs, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know I'm going to keep bringing that up. I just love that idea. You know, Alice was like the first African-American woman to have a, to pen a best-selling country music song?

RANDALL: Woo hoo.

MARTIN: Did you know that?

TUCKER: That's great.

MARTIN: So she had to squeeze that in somewhere along the way, too. But you know, Alice, you also sparked this controversy with this New York Times op-ed earlier this month where you wrote, quote, "Many black women are fat because we want to be," unquote. And your take was this, you know, you talked a little bit about this. What was it, Dani? Thick and fit.

TUCKER: Thick and fit.

MARTIN: It's kind of the thick...

TUCKER: Yeah, thick and fit.

MARTIN: Did you get a lot of pushback on that? I got the impression that there was a - that they're a lot of people who said absolutely true, and that there were some people who really did not appreciate your talking about that. What was your take on the response?

RANDALL: Well, the letters I got to my home, I get hundreds of letters saying - like, one I have right in front of me: I too grew up in the era of Joe Tex and prayed for more pounds on my bony frame; they never came and I made peace. And I - but I also did get some pushback. But mainly I realize this is just such a painful topic for so many women and I was so glad that I wrote the novel and wanted to get off the facts and into the fiction that can make this all more joyful and playful, that I realized that we have so much to share with each other about what is our wisdom and how - and Ada is so quick to jump in there and be creative once she takes on the problem. But largely, the letters I got to my home were overwhelmingly saying, you told one of my stories.

MARTIN: Hmm.

RANDALL: You told a part of my life. And I also know it looks so different. I write and live in the Stroke Belt. I live in Tennessee, and my daughter lives and teaches in Mississippi. My father's family is from Alabama. And as I said to one of my beautiful sisters up in New York who wanted to talk about fat McDonald's making black people heavy. I said, there is no McDonald's in Woodville, Mississippi. There's more to it than that. But that is also a problem. So I'm so glad that we have so many voices at the table and I'm so glad that on a day like this we're focusing on what we have in common and how all of us can come together and attack this problem and engage this problem playfully and joyfully because it has to be engaged. One of ev...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Go ahead. I was just going to bring Jolene into this because you've dealt with this both as a lawmaker and as a parent and also as just as a mom, as a person yourself...

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: ...and, but you experienced that. I mean you've shared that, you know, your hubby has expressed to you that he would like you not to be too thin.

IVEY: You know, from the very beginning when we first started dating, he told me a couple of things negative about myself and one of them was that I was too thin. And I was like, well, that's your problem. That's not my problem because I don't really care what anybody else thinks. I want to be comfortable in myself. And he still wishes that I weighed a few more pounds but we've been married, you know, almost 24 years, so I guess he's not going anyplace.

MARTIN: Shall we share with him some things we'd like him to change?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We'll, Alice, can we send...

IVEY: Not on the air. Not on the air, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Alice, will you get busy with that letter?

Leslie, what about you? Are there, tell us also what struck you about the - there were things that you did also identify with in the book?

STEINER: Yes. There was a lot I identified with. One of the funny things is that actually tomorrow I'm going to my 25th college reunion. So it's a time of reflection and I really identified with Ada looking at herself and trying to figure out what she wants out of life. And what struck me quite a bit was her and my own and many women's inability to see ourselves clearly, to see our strengths, to appreciate our own beauty at any age, to make peace with ourselves. And to lose weight, as she does in the book, or somehow to get healthy and take care of yourself for yourself, not for your husband or kids or society or to look good at your 25th reunion. And I loved that message of the book. It was really empowering to me.

MARTIN: Dani, one of the things that I also liked about the book - I have to be honest - is the fact that Ada had to figure out not just how to fit fitness in but also how to pay for it. You know what I mean? She had to figure out, well, I can't just go out and buy a treadmill. I can't just go out and redo my wardrobe. You know, she's running a day care center and as we said, she's a preacher's wife, they're trying to be fiscally responsible and transparent with the congregation. And I bet that, you know, resonated with you. One of the solutions you've found is to do what? To teach.

TUCKER: To teach Zumba now instead of just taking it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TUCKER: I mean, 85 pounds ago and three years ago that was my biggest problem. How do I do it as a single mom on, you know, and not making a lot of money? And, of course, you started by walking and, you know, I learned to start with what all these ladies are start - what Ada started with - what she knew - walking.

RANDALL: Mm-hmm.

TUCKER: And OK, I know how to dance, you know, something I know how to do and to get myself moving, and you take it from there. And then, you know, and then and nowadays, to be honest with you, there are some affordable things out there. I had to look for them - $10 gym memberships for the month, they're out there. Didn't know that, you know. And then after taking so many classes I said well, you know what? I'm going to teach and make me some money and then teach other women. I have like four of my students now who are now certified instructors. You know, and it's about just motivating. My mom will be a - she's one of my students and she will be a certified Zumba instructor in August. My mama.

MARTIN: I'm scared of her. I'm scared of her.

TUCKER: And my Mama can't...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm scared of her.

TUCKER: ...she can't find the beat, not if you gave her one. But she does her thing. And...

RANDALL: But she's in Ada's army. I want all of that.

TUCKER: That's right. That's right.

RANDALL: Those are more members of Ada's army.

TUCKER: We are all members of Ada's army and I love it because we do it together. And that's the thing I like about the book. It - Ada shared her story and when women can identify they realize that they're not alone. That's the biggest thing, just knowing that you're not alone.

RANDALL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Alice, I was cracking up, though. Some of the rules - there are rules and the book is titled "Ada's Rules," and Ada has a lot of rules. I just want to read a couple of them and curious about your favorite. (Reading) Don't keep doing what you've always been doing. Weigh yourself daily. Get therapy. Don't initiate things you can't stick with for five years. Seize the power props - scarves, shoes, purses, sunglasses and respect.

Just pick anyone and tell me about the inspiration or just tell me something about one of those rules, if you have a favorite one I didn't cite.

RANDALL: Well, I love massage your own feet. That's rule 30.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RANDALL: And what I love about that is it's free. It's an immediate self-help. Instead of reaching for something to eat or getting a little, you take care of yourself in a brand-new way. Because I think that's, Ada's adventure is to with all her practical challenges, how to improve her life and not make the shape-shifting about deprivation, but actually about adding wonderful new things, like Zumba into her life, or a walk.

I love that it's practical, that the thing about, you know, all the ones that you've said are they're practical and easy to do. So some of the other ones, the harder ones, are even consider surgery. I'm not, she's not advising people do it, but consider it. I also, of course, being a country songwriter, love self medicate with art. I think your iPod can be your best friend if you know enough, like Ada, to create a playlist that is going to chill you out or lift you up. If you've got that ready, that's a perfect part of anybody's emergency kit.

MARTIN: You don't talk about an emergency kit in the book. Talk about it, what is an emergency kit, very briefly?

RANDALL: Well, life is going to give you some - one moment when your daughter calls with some huge problem or, you know, you are running out of money or someone has bounced a check and you, instead you need to have a new way to react. You need to have something that's going to lift your spirits right then or chill you out or give you the moment. And it can be as simply as a postcard that you've picked out of something, a picture you love that's in your purse, and it's music. It's planning in advance for those hard moments, including sometimes of just weighing yourself daily and you pick that rule. A lot of women, particularly if they're seriously overweight, weighing yourself daily may actually help you keep on plan and actually up your metabolism. It's not for sure but something to play with and we surely don't any of us need to be afraid of a number on a scale.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I like medicate with art. Can we slip NPR in there? Medicate with NPR?

RANDALL: Yes. Absolutely.

STEINER: Medicate on TELL ME MORE.

MARTIN: Medicate - right.

TUCKER: Medicate on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RANDALL: I do that all the time.

MARTIN: Alice Randall is the author of the new book "Ada's Rules," a sexy, skinny novel. It is sexy. I did want to mention that. I'll just throw that in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: She is also...

RANDALL: Skinny is comfortable in your own skin.

MARTIN: That's right. She's writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, and she was kind enough to join us from the campus there in Nashville. Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author, most recently of "Crazy Love." She was with us from New Hampshire Public Radio. We caught up with her while traveling. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker and a mom of five. Dani Tucker is a freelancer, a Zumba instructor and a mom of two. They were both here in Washington, D.C.

Ladies, moms, thank you so much.

IVEY: Hey, thanks, Michel.

STEINER: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thanks for having us.

RANDALL: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thanks, Alice.

RANDALL: Join a Zumba, everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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