Meeting author-artist Carol Lay in the flesh is wonderfully disconcerting. So closely does she resemble the cartoon version of herself in her whimsical cartoon memoir about dieting, The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude (Villard)—tall, brunette, with black horn-rimmed glasses and, yes, a slender figure—that shaking Lay's hand becomes an almost metaphysical experience.

“I've drawn from everything I know as an artist and a person and put it in this book,” says Lay. She brought elements of memoir to the story to give the book more drama, adding her family history, and she deeply probed her inner life while writing the text. “It was painful,” says Lay, although her wicked sense of humor as a cartoonist brings an equal measure of laughs to her dieting struggles. In the book, a cartoon George Clooney occasionally shows up at Lay's door bearing bags of fast food. Time and again she slams the door in his face to forgo the fat and carbs for healthier, low-calorie choices.

The Big Skinny is a first; a cartoon diet book with recipes, menus and a calorie counter. “It combines memoir with solid information—in a story context—on how to lose weight and keep it off,” Lay explains. “It's for food strugglers like me; it's experiential and it's fun.”

After a lifelong battle with her weight, poor eating habits and a negative self-image, in 2002 Lay had an epiphany that set her on the path to changing her lifestyle. An unflattering photo of herself shocked her into taking a painful look at the layers of denial she'd smothered herself in for decades. “I told myself, 'I don't want to do this anymore,' and I got into a solid reality about how I was harming myself,” Lay says. What worked for her was simply counting calories and exercising several times a week. She lost 35 pounds in two years and has successfully kept the weight off by being conscious of how and what she eats.

In the process, Lay, 56, was able to confront her fears, the very things that had always kept her back not only from being happy but from losing the weight that trapped her in a cycle of self-loathing for most of her life (at her heaviest, she weighed 206 pounds). “The book gave me a chance to reveal things about myself and my compulsive eating that I'd never told anyone before. We're only as sick as our secrets, so it was an incredibly cathartic experience for me.”

A California native, Lay graduated from UCLA with a B.F.A. before taking additional art classes. Her first job was as a commercial artist for the Yellow Pages in 1975, and she's been a working artist ever since, with a successful career in the animation industry and in film and advertising creating storyboards. With the release of The Big Skinny, Lay might return to her long-running syndicated comic strip, WayLay. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, and although she's had four other books published, the most recent by Last Gasp (Goodnight, Irene), this is Lay's first book with a major publishing house. Villard has said it would be happy to work with her again.

“I gave up an animation job to do this book,” she says. “It took me 13 months to produce it, working 70 to 80 hours a week toward the end. I called it The Big Book of Holy Sh*t because I was constantly saying, 'Holy sh*t! I have to draw all these pages,' or 'Holy sh*t! I have to letter all these pages, and ink them and then color them!' ”

Getting on the scale every day has become second nature to Lay, who used to make a meal out of “peanut butter and brown sugar mash.” She wears a size four now and sees The Big Skinny as her insurance policy. “After the book comes out,” she laughs, “I'll never be able to get fat again.”