PW: What sparked Thinner Than Thou, a satire on dieting?

I was at dinner with a 280-pound friend, gossiping about a 360-pound acquaintance at the next table, when my friend looked at me with a twinkle and said, "What if there was a diet evangelist?" It was like hearing the bell at the starting gate.

Fad diets or fad religions, which are worse?

I think they're probably the same thing, i.e., eaters are atoning for excesses through some kind of sacrifice, whether it's a high-protein, low-calorie or you-name-it form of self-denial. Atkins people get that fanatical glint and so, I suspect, does anybody hewing to a rigid diet.

Who inspired the book's villain, Reverend Earl?

Boy, why is the first name that comes to mind Billy Graham? With maybe a little bit of Fabio thrown in, plus Tony Robbins, Reverend Shuler, you name it. The most powerful demagogues compel because they're obsessive. I can't imagine they're a really big help, but there are people who seem to need them.

Reverend Earl's "Solutions" agenda sounds like Hitler's Final Solution.

Yes. Clearly what Hitler was doing was much more sophisticated and far more heinous, but the analogy isn't so far off. We may not be trying to create a master race, but we certainly are encouraging a cute one. A quick survey of what's out there in terms of mass entertainment suggests that we're in an age of unparalleled... physicality. Appearance seems to be at the head of the list of attributes we're all supposed to work for and preserve and cherish, and anybody who's old or fat or unfit or unattractive had better jump on an ice floe and float out to death at sea.

Why does our culture believe achieving perfect bodies are the only way to nirvana?

I think the culture doesn't think these things are the way to nirvana. I think, rather, the society suggests they are nirvana. Creativity, intelligence, charity, for God's sake, may be virtues, but the culture suggests that if you have all these things but you're overweight or over-the-hill, you might as well forget it.

Do we have to laugh to keep from crying?

There have been these huge stories in the news that weight gain is the leading cause of death and how we have to take extreme measures. It occurred to me that if I was doing the book again I would make the government say that it was a crime to weigh more than x percent over whatever the national average was supposed to be and have them put people in jail. Essentially, you have to laugh from going crazy, which is what I've always felt.

How do you define your speculative fiction?

Probably it's the plausible impossible. I take what I believe is and take it a little bit further.

What's cooking now?

I'm doing two books for Tor, the second of which is a short story collection. The other I can't talk about. It's very bad luck (laughs). I'm like the old movie star George Raft, who was convinced [that] if he died in the script, he wouldn't get paid at the end. If I tell now, I won't get paid at the end.

In writing this, what was your most surprising discovery?

I think what I came away with was not a surprise, but an understanding. Fat or thin, young or old, very few are 100 percent satisfied with the way they look. One of the things that has pushed the problem along is television. You watch enough television, you begin to believe that ordinary people look like what's on television and you're the exception.

How can we avoid falling into the perfect body trap?

The thing which is impossible for Americans to do: relax.