Talking Comics with Tim: Carol Lay

Name another graphic memoir that has readers raving about how it motivated them to lose weight or change their diet. A quick scan of the Amazon reviews for Carol Lay's The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude reveals a sampling of folks who praise the book for helping them diet.  As noted at the book's website: "Cartoonist Carol Lay has had her work published everywhere from The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal to More, Salon, and MAD Magazine. Her weekly comic strip, WayLay, has appeared in many papers here and abroad including The Hartford Courant, The San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Weekly, Salon.com, The National Post, and Hong Kong Weekly, to name a few." In a recent email interview, I was able to get Lay to discuss the book,  the challenges of being a cartoonist in a struggling economy and other matters.

Tim O'Shea: The Big Skinny initially got started as a pitch to a weight-loss clinic that evolved into your book--have any weight loss clinics contacted you since the book has been published?

Carol Lay: My idea was actually started as a pitch to do a continuing comic strip for Weight Watchers. They didn’t bite, but I just kept coming back to the idea. So a couple of years later I took time off to write and draw a proposal for a book. THAT worked out. But, no, I have not yet been contacted by weight loss clinics, perhaps because I lost weight and maintained that loss on my own. (You don’t have to spend money on packaged food or weekly meetings to lose weight! In fact, I’ve found that eating healthy, nutritious foods is cheaper than maintaining a “chunky” diet in the long run.)

The beauty of this book is that with comics I’m able to SHOW people how I lost weight instead of just telling my story. Studies have shown that people absorb and retain information better when it’s presented in a story and even better still when they can see it visually. Comics are the best possible hybrid, as good or better than film because you don’t need a lot of money and talented people to make it. All one needs is paper, a pen, and a good story to tell and draw.

O'Shea: Do you consider The Big Skinny to be more memoir than a self-improvement book?

Lay: I always thought of it as a cartoon diet book. Two chapters qualify as memoir, but I also tell other people’s stories, so it is not strictly that. It’s a fun and useful mix of fact, experience, science, my story and experience, social studies results, and other information and tips that I used to help me lose weight and maintain that loss for over five years. Some people claim that diets don’t work or calorie management is too hard, but I’m proof that it can work and I tell ya – it’s not as difficult as you think. It’s kind of fun once the pounds start disappearing.

O'Shea: Do you think the positive response to The Big Skinny might motivate other graphic novelists to pursue health-minded themes along these lines?

Lay: The Big Skinny is a first in that it is essentially the first self-help type book to be done in comic form. It’s a tough sell, though, in that booksellers don’t know where to file the book – in graphic novels, memoirs, or in the diet section? It’s been getting great press, though – Publishers Weekly, People, USA Today, and more.

O'Shea: In coming to terms with your weight struggle you reveal a great deal about yourself. What would you say was the most painful scene to recreate?

Lay: Nothing was hard to deliver – my past behavior seems like it was that of another person. I’ve gained a lot of detachment since those times when I was sort of self-destructive so drawing those scenes just felt like regular storytelling. Plus, I know that when I share my story there is potential for me to help someone who identifies and learns from my experience. That’s one reason I wrote the chapter, “Ghosts in the Graveyard.” The other reason I did it was to sort things out for myself, so I would have a solid understanding of what made me the way I am and what to beware of so I don’t slide back into old behaviors.

When I visited my parents’ graves soon after I roughed up that chapter I had an almost real-seeming argument with my long-gone mom. She REALLY didn’t want me to put that chapter in the book. I cried and said I was sorry (all in my head), but I stood up to her and told her it was my story now. It was very cathartic.

O'Shea: When you set out to do this book, were you hoping to attract more mainstream attention then the standard graphic novel usually garners?

Lay: I wasn’t looking at other books as competition or as standards to beat, but I did want to get my foot in the door with a major publisher. I knew that a book this work-intensive would be tough to do unless I had an advance that would float me for a year or more, so I aimed for a major. I got lucky, and now it looks like I will get to do another book, which will not be self-help or involve food but will have lots of words and pictures.

O'Shea: In a recent "New Baby" strip, you mentioned that a reader sent you an email that brought a tear to your eyes. Can you give folks an idea of the range of positive or appreciative reactions you've gotten from readers?

Lay: I’ve received some great emails from readers who responded to my presentation so well that they have made big decisions to change their lives. One young man lost 20 pounds in three weeks after stumbling on my book in the graphic novels section of his bookstore. A woman who hinted she weighed a few hundred pounds also wrote a letter that warmed my heart. I’ve been doing comics for over 30 years and readers have written me nice notes before but these letters are extremely gratifying. Sharing my story and experience helped these people change their lives so they can be healthier and happier. I can’t explain how happy that makes me.

O'Shea: When I visited your site and started reading your strips, I was impressed that you name each of them quite wittily. When developing a new strip, do you create the title before you start drawing the strip, or vice versa?

Lay: Usually the idea comes first and the title is the icing. I love the puns used for titles in old Bullwinkle cartoons and clever segment titles on The Daily Show. Stupid, ridiculous puns. But quite fun to come up with, although sometimes I really have to work at it.

O'Shea: Any chance you might do a companion book to The Big Skinny?

Lay: The usual follow-up to a diet-type book is a book of low calorie recipes, but that is not in my game plan. My editor pointed me in a certain direction (which I am keeping under my hat) and it thankfully doesn’t involve cooking or food. That recipe section was tough! There’s a specific style of writing recipes that is one huge pain, lemme tell you.

O'Shea: What's on the creative horizon for 2009?

Lay: A new book and a lot of work. I just heard through the grapevine that the corporation that owns the LA WEEKLY is going to drop comics so I think that’ll be curtains for WayLay. Everyone is hurting – another paper dropped the strip today even though the editor is a big fan. But I don’t take it personally – we’re in a depression.

That said, it’ll be tough to make ends meet again – cartooning is not the most financially secure profession one could choose – but I will plow ahead and hope our new president sets us back on a good course.

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