Behind the Book with Ally Zlatar: the monsters are alive

Ally Zlatar is an artist and activist whose work explores the intersections of mental health, art, and inclusion. After struggling to find a traditional publisher willing to publish her work on eating disorders and mental health, she pivoted to self-publishing

We caught up with Zlatar to speak about her latest book, monsters are alive, the role of print media in a digital world, the importance of diverse storytelling, and her experiences as an artist-activist. We are incredibly grateful for her interview for Giving Tuesday, as she shares how self-published art and giving back can be two sides of the same coin.

the monsters are alive author Ally Zlatar.

Thanks for joining us for Giving Tuesday! Your artistic expression is tied closely with your activism. Why is it important to link the two?

For such a long time, art has been seen as an accessory to change-making, and for that reason, it has been highly underutilized. What I aim to do with my work is show how powerful artistic voices are. I strive to highlight the role art can have in challenging our current perspectives and broadening our understanding of current issues both more deeply and authentically.

Your art tackles heavy yet critically important topics—from mental illness to eating disorders. What conversations do you hope your books begin?

My book and art come from a place of profound pain and suffering from my illnesses. For years people saw my eating disorder as an issue of vanity and not as someone trying to cope with trauma. Mental illnesses such as eating disorders are highly stereotyped as a “thin white teen girl” disease. My art and poetry are sharing my lived-in experiences, which include the grim reality that is often not spoken about. The hope is to edify and create inclusive spaces to share the diversity of lived-in experiences of these illnesses to counteract these highly problematic mainstream narratives. 

Sales from your books and gallery exhibitions fund The Starving Artist Scholarship. Tell us about the scholarship and the process of funding it. How has it changed the lives of the recipients?

Sales proceeds from The Starving Artist publications, exhibitions, and donations all are collected into a scholarship fund, and each year there is a themed grant for a specific marginalized group to access eating disorder treatment (i.e., LGBTQA+, Disabled, intersectionality of illnesses) and people can apply directly to the fund through The Starving Artist. 

This grant is extremely rare. Very few funded inpatient programs have spaces (and often, for eating disorders, they only take people in when their BMI is 15% or less due to high demand). It gives people a chance to be proactive rather than reactive and fight their eating disorders with aid to access resources that they would not be able to normally.

Also, I believe that it is important to make recovery individual tailored because we all suffer differently. Both art and creative mental health exploration alongside patient-oriented treatment models are together best to help an individual recover.

What is the most joyful part of your artistic process? And what’s the most difficult?

The most joyful is when I hear my work resonates with people. Building a connection to someone through my art is so powerful to me.

The most difficult is getting my voice heard. There tend to be the same “token” stories and experiences that keep getting repeated, so being able to find spaces to share my voice can be a struggle.

the monsters are alive book opened showing a poem and art.

Tell us about the process of designing and printing the monsters are alive. How did you decide on the format, layout, and typography? Which tools did you use?

As someone who is neuro-diverse, I love a clean, simple aesthetic. I live by Century Gothic and soft pastel colours. Throughout all my books, I kept this homogenous style as it is not only easy for me to process, but it makes me happy. Poetry and art books tend to be grandiose, and sometimes to me, that comes off as pretentious. I try to make the design as airy and contemporary as possible to build a connection with the audience. 

Also, such a simple tool, but it makes all the difference to me, is a colour matcher tool. Getting the colour codes of images helps to coordinate backgrounds and font colours with ease and continuity.

Artwork in BookWright on a computer screen.

What is your personal experience with self-publishing or publishing in general? Why did you go the self-publishing route with Blurb?

I found barriers in traditional publishing routes for publishing work on eating disorders and mental illnesses. If I wasn’t a celebrity or had 100,000 followers, they didn’t care what I had to say. Self-publishing with Blurb was so easy and globally accessible that it gave me hope to produce my own work and create my own platform to share.

Do you have any advice to offer others looking to self-publish for a cause?

Don’t give up! Writing and creating work for a cause takes time. When you are publishing for a cause, always focus on delivering it with the utmost care and compassion to create meaningful work and build a connection to your cause.

What role do you think print plays in a digital world?

Digital media makes us disconnect. We can lose that intimacy that a book can physically bring us. Print media reminds me that there is a genuine story being told, and being able to hold and explore the pages builds such a strong connection to the narratives.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get started as an artist-activist?

I come from a displaced immigrant family and grew up in Canada. My family never talked about mental health, and when I started to get sick with my eating disorder of over ten years, they didn’t know how to have these conversations. I saw medical practitioners who labeled my diagnoses but didn’t see me suffering from a disease. I didn’t know how to communicate to others the pain I was going through. 

When I started The Starving Artist, it was a way for me to share my art and voice in a way to tackle these difficult conversations and help others to understand what it means to live in an unwell body.

Where can readers go to find and support your work?

Lots of places:

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