On Memorial Day four years ago, Lanham, Md., author Van Whitfield got played. His blind date pulled into the parking lot, and he had a strong inclination to run. As they sat down in the restaurant, he decided to set the tone by ordering an appetizer and handing the menu over. Forget about it: His date proceeded to order a filet mignon, lobster, six glasses of wine, and an apple pie to go, in between getting up several times to answer her pager. When the bill came, Whitfield found himself short of the tip, but with frustration to spare.

“There was no one I was about to call,” Whitfield says. “I was not about to call one of my best buddies and say, ‘Hey, guess what just happened to me?’”

Instead, he got some paper and wrote everything down, not knowing it would become the first chapter of his debut novel, Beeperless Remote.

“Someone read it and thought, ‘This is really funny,’” he recalls. “But I didn’t think it was funny, because it had happened to me.”

The very next day at work, he learned he was being removed from his job in public relations for the D.C. government because his writing “lacked imagination.” So he spent his last month using the office computer to turn his first few pages into a book, which quickly climbed African-American best-seller lists and won six Ben Franklin nominations, including Best Author and Best New Author.

Now, his second novel, Something’s Wrong With Your Scale!, is also drawing attention. In the story, 30-something D.C.-area resident Sonny Walker weighs 75 pounds more than when he first met his girlfriend, and she is cutting him loose to “gain control” of the battle against the bulge.

Whitfield gained 50 pounds to see what it was like to be overweight, but the sweet freedom of eating late-night snacks eventually turned sour when he realized that no number of conversations with the extra folds would make them go away. Whitfield was outgrowing his clothing—and other people were beginning to notice. While they were playing basketball, a friend remarked that Whitfield’s shirt “needed a rest.” He countered by saying that the shirt had shrunk in the dryer, and his friend, amidst a chortling audience, told him that he was the one who should jump in the dryer.

“I wish I had gotten as small as I felt at that moment,” he says. His only armor against mean-spirited comments about his size was his sense of humor.

His insider’s point of view pleases his readers; he’s got a huge black audience, gets invited to radio and TV interviews, and speaks at various Weight Watchers conventions. He’s also been approached to write a screenplay and a sitcom pilot based on one of his characters—all of which leaves him “stupefied,” he says.

“I’d spent my entire life somewhere in between low mediocre and high mediocre, and the people around me didn’t encourage me to be anything more than mediocre.”—Ayesha Morris