Wendy McClure went to her first literary reading as a freshman at the University of Iowa in 1989. The Oak Park native had come to hear poet James Tate. But first she had to listen to Meg Wolitzer read from her novel This Is Your Life, which was being made into a film directed by Nora Ephron.
"I clearly remember," McClure recently wrote on her Web site, "sitting through the Meg Wolitzer part of the reading thinking 'Whatever, I'm a poet,' and thinking it slightly vulgar that the story I was listening to was going to be made into a movie. I wouldn't have even admitted to really enjoying Wolitzer's reading, but you know, I think I did. And now I'm not ashamed to say so, dammit."
Wolitzer was on the fast track at the time. Now McClure appears to be. Her debut memoir, I'm Not the New Me, a chronicle of her attempts to shed pounds with the help of Weight Watchers, sparked a bidding war before being snapped up by Riverhead Books shortly after her agent sent out the proposal last January.
"At the time I was at Iowa I thought the stuff I was doing was really important," says McClure, who got her MFA in poetry from the Writers' Workshop there. "But I don't think it was anything different from what a lot of other people were doing. I think I have much more of a sense now that the stuff I'm writing fills a need. Just saying things about weight-loss culture that haven't really been said before--there wasn't really anything. There were Cathy cartoons and the whole Oprah culture, but I couldn't relate to that."
McClure, who works as a children's book editor, planned to write poetry and teach writing after graduation. Then, in the fall of 1998, she bought a 13-inch TV for her tiny Lincoln Square apartment. "I'd just given up on the idea I was going to be a poet and wouldn't have a TV," she says. She wound up in a love-hate relationship with Dawson's Creek, and after scouting the Internet, started posting on a fans' bulletin board called Dawson's Wrap. When the site sponsored an essay contest about the show, she submitted an entry on a whim. "I thought, 'This is so stupid. Why am I doing this?' Because it wasn't going to get me anywhere that was going to pay me money or anything. But it was fun being funny, and I hadn't really tried that before. The poetry I'd written at Iowa was not funny."
As a result McClure was offered a paid part-time gig writing for the Web site Television Without Pity--its motto is "Spare the Snark, Spoil the Network"--when it began in 1999. The following winter she met face-to-face with some of the other contributors in Las Vegas. The scene kicks off I'm Not the New Me, where she writes, "I get fatter than I've ever been in my life and then I go off to Vegas for my international karaoke debut" at Tong's Palace. After seeing the vacation photos (she was a size 22 and weighed about 230 pounds), McClure decided to do something about her overeating.
"When I was finally at a point where I admitted it bothered me, I didn't really know what to do," she says. "That's one reason I started writing."
McClure set out for Weight Watchers, then launched a Web site bemoaning her plight and taught herself "how to upload pages and all that." By the next year she'd outgrown her Earthlink account and learned enough to start Pound (the URL is poundy.com--pound.com had already been taken). The site got hundreds of hits from the beginning.
After the success of Pound, Bust magazine asked McClure to write a pop culture column, and a friend who worked for a publishing house suggested that she try her hand at a book (her memoir recounts a riotously awkward conversation she had with an agent who wanted her to lose more weight). "To be honest I didn't really know what I wanted to do," she says. "There was also a lot more trepidation about putting out a book based on something that was online. They made the point, 'Why should we publish this if you have it up there for free?' At the same time 9/11 happened, and the idea of writing a book about doing Weight Watchers seemed ridiculous."
McClure made some halfhearted stabs at the book, but not much happened until the middle of March 2003. That's when she got ahold of her parents' old scanner and posted some of her mother's Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 70s: Fluffy Mackerel Pudding, Frozen Cheese Salad, Liver Pate en Masque. By the end of the week her cards and wry commentary had been mentioned on Dave Barry's blog and in USA Today. Soon she was fielding offers from ad agencies, TV producers, and greeting-card companies.
"It was overwhelming and weird," says McClure.
She also started getting e-mails from book editors--probably, she says, because the cards had made the rounds of office e-mails. "I kind of took that as a sign--maybe I should do something," she says. She spent the fall putting together a proposal.
"I realized I was going to have to tell a story, and I sort of had to look back over the events of the past couple of years and think of how it might constitute a story," she says. "I really sort of tore my hair out about it for a while. I read a lot of memoirs where people were abused as children and had all these things happen to them and I was like, 'God, what happens in my book? I take a road trip and go to someone's wedding.'"
She wrote the book last year, knocking out a large chunk of it during two weeks at the Ragdale writers' colony in Lake Forest. McClure says she's not sure what she's going to do next. "Maybe I'll do more short, autobiographical things. People were saying I should try fiction. I'm more excited about that, actually." In June a short piece of hers about Bible camp will be included in a Riverhead collection alongside work by Margaret Atwood and David Sedaris.
McClure suspects her twentysomething self would not be entirely pleased with where her blog has taken her. "I'd thought I'd do more critical essays and be writing a lot about body image in our culture and stuff like that. But I think the whole thing with the Weight Watchers cards pushed it over into the category where people were going to want the funny stuff.
"Late at night I still hear a voice in my head sometimes being like, 'You wrote a book about the size of your ass? You did what?'"
I'm Not the New Me
When: Thu 5/12, 7:30 PM
Where: Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mireya Acierto.