Q & A: The World’s Fittest Man

Decker dropped out of college and moved to New Orleans, where he alternated between binge drinking and fattening himself on burgers, fries, and pizza. One morning he woke early with a throbbing headache, having hardly slept. In the mirror he saw his swollen eyes bulging from an ashen face. He picked up the phone and asked his parents for help. Back on the family farm in Illinois, he soon focused his addictive tendencies on fitness and marathon running.


Eventually, he tried the Badwater 135, a 135-mile race through Death Valley that left him dangerously dehydrated, but in the end whetted his taste for further athletic challenges.


Q: How did you meet Joe Decker?


ERIC NEUHAUS: I had run in the New York City Marathon for the first time. The last two to three miles were painful. I didn’t realize my leg was broken until I went to the doctor a few weeks later. While recuperating, I read an article about Joe. He had been on the front page of the Washington Post, so the Today Show, the Early Show ?everyone under the sun was calling him. We arranged to meet at the Plaza Hotel: I with my cane and he, the world’s fittest man. I told him my injury story. He told me his stories. He had a dynamic personality, but we ended up not doing the story at 20/20.


Q: So you decided to write a book with Joe?


EN: Not right away. I left ABC in 2001. I had been there eight years and wanted to do something different. I was looking through a men’s fitness magazine and saw an article on the fattest cities. I thought, the fattest cities, the world’s fittest man: there has to be something in that. I imagined a television show in which Joe would go to the fattest cities and put people on his fitness program. He would also uncover why the city was so fat; he would go, for example, to a barbecue party in Dallas where the dishes were huge. It would be part travelogue, part reality show.

The title was Fat City USA. I went to a couple of conventions for television producers but couldn’t get the show going (though Al Roker Productions optioned the idea just before the book sold). So I asked Joe if he wanted to do a book.


Q: Did you have any experience in writing a book?


EN: No, I had no idea. I went to Barnes & Noble and got a book that explained the process. Step One was to write a query letter to literary agents. I did that and the phone started ringing off the hook. I was shocked. I knew that there was something to this idea. I interviewed five or six agents.


Q: Why were the agents so interested?


EN: I think we were all captured by Joe’s personal story. Otherwise, he’s just another fitness guy. He’s not a celebrity trainer. He grew up on a farm. He has an average-Joe personality and that attracts people.


Q: How did you find a publisher?


EN: I wrote a 60-page proposal. My agent took it to publishing houses. She gave me daily e-mail updates telling me that Rodale, McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins and others were interested. We spent two days in whirlwind meetings with publishers. I remember going to St. Martin’s. There were about 20 people sitting around the room, and they all had my proposal marked up. We kept going. We’d get in a cab and go to HarperCollins; we’d get in another cab and go to Penguin. My agent told everyone that an auction would be held Thursday and bids were due at 11 a.m. She was trying to create a bit of a buzz with the three publishers that were interested. On Thursday my cell phone rang and she told me, “You are going to be a published author. We got our first bid.” I was standing in Washington Square Park and was ready to scream. The final bid from Dutton was in six figures.


Q: What approach to fitness did you take?


EN: Joe is a no-gimmick, no-nonsense type of guy. We wanted something scientific that would actually help people get fit and lose weight. We came up with a four-week plan that would get people started, something that they could repeat over and over again. We packaged his ideas by calling his eating plan, for instance, the “Power of Positive Eating” and the fitness plan, “Shock Your Body.”


Q: Diet is a controversial area. How did you handle that?


EN: Joe doesn’t believe in taking supplements. We had to have a plan with regular food, nothing out of the ordinary. We didn’t want it to be Atkins or South Beach or the Zone, but we did want it to incorporate the latest thinking about food. We based the program on good carbs?that are high-fiber?and on good fat. It’s also based on calories. We wanted something that a wide variety of people could follow. It’s not a diet book; it’s a fitness book, but the diet supports the program.


Q: Who devised the recipes?


EN: My diet consultant came up with the recipes. We made healthy recipes for meat loaf, pasta primavera, fajitas, things that you can buy in the supermarket. The kitchen in my one-bedroom apartment in New York City became the test kitchen. I bought another book on how to write recipes. All of this was trial by fire. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be testing recipes in my kitchen.


Q: How long did you spend writing the book?


EN: We sold it in May of 2002 and it was due January 1. That was a tight deadline. I wrote it in the New York Public Library. I went there every day and treated it like a job.


Q: How did you get the fitness photographs?


EN: That was a crazy adventure. Dutton wanted a female fitness model, but we couldn’t afford to pay. We had $10,000 to do the whole shoot. I took out an ad on Craig’s List, a community bulletin board. My e-mail exploded. I sat in Starbucks and met women who wanted to be in the book. We also needed equipment for the 50 images. I called all the fitness equipment manufacturers and pleaded with them for donations in exchange for having equipment featured in the book. Finally, Life Fitness in Chicago agreed. That was a huge relief because there was quite a bit of equipment that we needed. We shot the photographs in two days.


Q: How is the book selling?


EN: Very well. Joe went on a seven-city tour. I was looking at the Amazon ranking every half hour, and my friends were telling me to stop. It’s like watching the stock market.


Q: Are there any disadvantages to working on your own?


EN: There is no water cooler. No place to talk about the Sopranos and Sex and the City. You have to be really self-motivated. You are constantly working for the next project. I want to go back to working for a corporation, but my friends think I’m crazy.


Q: What’s the most important lesson of this project?


EN: Taking an idea and making it happen. Seeing that if you persevere you can achieve your dream. To walk into Barnes & Noble and see my book on the front table is kind of awesome. It’s a dream come true.


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