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The highlights and lowlights of creating a 384 page art journal novel

Image: A double page spread of the inside of Future Girl / The Words in My Hands. On the left side is an artwork of a girl holding a rabbit. She wears a long sleeved blue dress with a white collar and her long, wavy black hair is blowing in the wind to her left. The background is blue paint with pink roses floating around her. Her eyes are blue, cheeks blushing and her tiny lips are tinted red. The left side page has a painted yellow background with blue and red roses in the margins. A small piece of brown paper collaged over the background to form a heading with the text, ‘TUESDAY 14 JULY’. The page also shows the text content of Future Girl book page 62. There is collaged brown text paper on the side and splashes of green, red and pink paint on the borders.

A friend of mine asked me, what were the best and worst parts of creating my recent book, titled Future Girl (in Australia) and The Words in My Hands (in North America). It’s a 384 page book of full colour art that is the art journal of 16-year-old Piper, a Deaf girl who lives in near future Melbourne just as peak oil hits. I thought I’d share my answer with you.

I wrote the book entirely from scratch three times, as well as doing multiple edits on each of these drafts. One of the lowlights was attempting to process feedback from my editor, Elise Jones, after rewriting the book for the second time. The manuscript came back to me with over a thousand comments in it, stipulating the changes the publishers were suggesting. The requests often felt contradictory, such as:

overall the book is too long, please make it shorter.’

versus

‘this is so interesting – please show this unfold (in a scene, with nuances/meanings implied) instead of telling it (with meanings stated/explained or as an info dump’), which is less engaging for the reader.’

One of the suggestions was to remove what for me was the central theme of the book, peak oil, and focus on other aspects of the story instead. I can see how every single one of these comments had a sound rationale behind it and formed part of a strategy to make the book stronger. But at the time I was very sick from arsenic and lead poisoning and my brain wasn’t functioning well, so it was an overwhelming task to try and assimilate all the information and work out a game plan going forward.

It took me an entire two years to process everything and decide how to go forward. I took some leaps of faith and decided to keep peak oil as a central theme, and as soon as I made that decision, suddenly I could see my way. I just had to write a manuscript that would convince my publishers. 

I rewrote the book again from scratch, and this time I had this nagging voice in my head with every word I wrote saying, ‘It’s too long! It’s too long!’ But I ignored it and ploughed onwards, trying to incorporate the rest of their feedback, and taking steps to mitigate their concerns about peak oil. In the end, although I submitted a manuscript at double their desired word length, and fully about peak oil, they loved it! Phew!

Elise also worked out a clever way to shorten the manuscript again by cutting an entire thread of the story, which ended up making it so much stronger. It was hard to let go of that thread – there was a really awesome character in there who I just loved! But I’ll keep her for another book.

As for the best parts, well there were a few…

Making 384 pages of art is a surefire way to hone your design, composition and technical skills, both with art-making and Photoshop. I am thrilled with this. Here are just some of the pages I made for the Australian edition:

Image: Artwork of two printed book pages with different shades of pastel colours of yellow, olive green, pink, blue & brown. The left page has paintings of blue and pink roses in the corners, and flower doodles done in black pen. In the centre is a rubber stamp in a box that says ‘This book belongs to..’ It has been filled in with handwriting saying ‘Piper McBride. PRIVATE! (Do not read.)’ The right page has pink roses at the top. Text below the roses says, ‘WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE’ and text content from Future Girl book, page 1. It also has a black and white border on the left side of the right page and the background is a collage of pink and brown text paper. There is a hand drawn doodle of a flower in the margin.
Image: Artwork of two printed book pages with collaged patterned papers in different shades of blue, green, brown, pink and yellow pastel colours. The left page has a piece of torn brown paper collaged over the background with the text heading, ‘SATURDAY 27 JUNE’. It has red and pink roses on top. There is a sculpture of a frozen Charlotte doll in the bottom left corner and light pink flowers on the middle bottom. It also has the text content of Future Girl book page 32 in the centre. The right page has a border of different kinds of pink and red flowers with a black spraypainted curlicue. It has the text content of Future Girl book page 33 in the centre.
Image: Artwork of a boy with blond, wavy, medium length hair standing on the right side of the page. He is wearing a grayish brown turtle neck sweater and both hands are inside the pockets of his tight black jeans. He wears large black boots. The page is surrounded with black line drawings of bicycles on top of a grungy watercolour background of bluish green, black and yellow. The boy has a speech bubble saying, ‘Your hearing aids are whistling.’ The left page is black text handwritten with a text saying ‘On the wall, someone written: Imagine: if the GDP was replaced with a contentment index.’ Below that is the text content of the book page 34.

Once the book was put together, I re-read it for a final check. I hadn’t read it for a long time and I had fresh eyes. One of the scenes I’d written about Deafness gave me goosebumps and made me quite teary – I just couldn’t believe I’d written it. In fact, I felt that way about the whole book. I set out to write the book I wanted to read, and in the end, I got to read it and found myself fully immersed and emotionally moved. Wow.

Receiving the hard copy of the book for the first time, I cried. Eight years in the making and finally I got to hold it. It was perfect. The paper, the textures, the colours, the weight, everything. I am so in love with this book. And it struck me that if I had not created it and was seeing it for the first time, I would want to cancel my whole life for a month just to dive into it and absorb all that beautiful art.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is futuregirl_words_low_res.jpg
Image: Two similar book covers. On the left is Future Girl (Australian edition) and on the right is The Words in my Hands (North American edition), both by Asphyxia. They show a girl with long, black, wavy hair. She wears a gray sleeveless top and holds a magenta pencil and paint brush in her fist, with a light blue paint dripping from the brush. She has large black cross over her right ear. Her eyes are green and her lips red. The background shows drawings of buildings. The left background is green, brown and teal textured paint; the right background is teal, pink and ochre textured paint. On both covers is a review by Amie Kaufman, a New York Times bestselling author, which says, ‘Brilliantly imaginative, totally immersive…’

If you’d like to read it, get your copy here if you’re in Australia, and here if you’re in North America.

The impossible feat my printers had to pull off to print my full colour illustrated novel

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Image: Two similar book covers. On the left is Future Girl (Australian edition) and on the right is The Words in my Hands (North American edition), both by Asphyxia. They show a girl with long, black, wavy hair. She wears a gray sleeveless top and holds a magenta pencil and paint brush in her fist, with a light blue paint dripping from the brush. She has large black cross over her right ear. Her eyes are green and her lips red. The background shows drawings of buildings. The left background is green, brown and teal textured paint; the right background is teal, pink and ochre textured paint. On both covers is a review by Amie Kaufman, a New York Times bestselling author, which says, ‘Brilliantly imaginative, totally immersive…’

When I first had the idea for my book, titled Future Girl (in Australia) and The Words in My Hands (in North America), I told my publishers I wanted to make a young adult novel that included full colour art on every page, because I believe that picture books should not just be for young children. I now know why this is a genre-breaking concept – it was way more complex than I could ever have imagined.

Usually picture books are printed on glossy thick paper, which makes the art look great, but when the pages add up (384 of them, in the case of my book), it can make the book prohibitively heavy. There’s a reason coffee-table books are called that – they sit more easily on a coffee table for viewing than in your hands while you lie back in a bath or in bed. We had to find a way to print it that would result in it feeling like a novel, not a coffee table book.

Using thinner paper is an option, but if you go too thin this risks ink bleeding through from one side to the other. If I have an artwork with heavy black on one page, then light colours on the next, the light page could be contaminated. My publisher selected a thinner stock than they would for a picture book, and printed special colour proofs double-sided on the actual stock (the first time they’d ever done this!) to ensure there were no problems here. The publisher also insisted we print on ‘woodfree’ stock, which is what most ‘normal’ novels are printed on, instead of glossy/shiny stock like picture books are often printed on – to ensure it still felt like a novel. This sort of paper knocks back the colours, so the designer had to ramp up colour in our files to compensate, and again, there were several test colour proofs done to check this colour before the actual book printed.

Not only that, but areas of very heavily saturated ink on a page can take a while to dry – risking the ink transferring on to page opposite it. If ink saturation gets too heavy, special measures need to be taken by the printer – such as separating out and drying pages individually, or putting a special varnish over the top of each page. These sorts of measures take a ton of extra time and cost a lot of extra money. So, the book designer also needed to knock back some of my heavier blacks to avoid this, walking that fine line of judging how much to knock them back in order to receive the best printed product possible while remaining true to the look of the artwork.

I am amazed that my publishers didn’t just tell me where to go with my idea. Instead they took a punt, consulted with highly experienced printers, and eventually came up with what we all hoped would be the perfect combination of paper, ink and techniques.

I am super-fussy about colour, and choose the precise shades of each colour in my artworks very carefully. I spent hours tweaking the colours for every page. This is further complicated by the fact that what you see on the screen doesn’t represent what will come out of the printing press. That meant I had to hand the final colour tweaks over to my publishers as they use professionally calibrated screens, special lights, and make further changes depending on the type of paper used and what they see in the proofs. Woodfree stock sucks up far more ink than shiny paper so a concern was that all the bright colours in final book would end up dulled. You will understand why I was extremely nervous when I ripped open the package containing the very first copy of the book. I didn’t know how much all the paper, ink and technologies used would mess with my vision for the art.

As I flipped through it for the very first time, my jaw dropped open. I couldn’t believe it. It’s perfect. JUST PERFECT. The colours are rich and vibrant and just as I wanted them. The paper, the texture, the size and weight of the book combine to be a sensuous feast. There’s no bleed-through, none! It’s just small and light enough to hold comfortably while still being substantial and delicious.

I cried. Eight years in the making and at last I could hold it in my hands. It struck me that if I had never seen this book before, I would be so blown away that I would have to cancel my entire life for a month in order to absorb all that beautiful art. I truly did create the book I wanted to read, look at, have and hold.

I hope you’ll love it too. It’s available here if you’re in Australia, and here if you’re in North America

What’s wrong with big corporations?

Beware - the big corporation

In my book, Future Girl (in Australia) and The Words in My Hands (in North America), one of the key subtexts is the idea that big corporations are dangerous to us.  This is something I feel very strongly about. I created this painting to express my outrage at the central place that big corporations occupy in our society, and their irresponsible, harmful behaviour.

So what’s wrong with big corporations?

You could say that we are the new serfs, with big corporations as our lords, regulating every aspect of our existence and requiring our servitude.  Is this really so?  Are big corporations actually bad, and if so, why?  I’ve done some research to try and understand the ways in which big corporations impact and shape our society.

The thing about big corporations is that they are just that: big.  They rake in the bucks, and as a result, have enormous spending power.  Since the ethos that underpins most big corporations is the aim to increase profits, values such as quality and meaning of life, job satisfaction and health are often cast aside in pursuit of the dollar.  But surely we, as individuals, have the power to make our own choices about how we live, how we bring meaning to our lives, and to look after our own health?  The reading I’ve done suggests that no, actually, we are dominated in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways by the corporate monoliths that surround us.

How did we come to need them?

Let’s take the fast food industry as a general example, and look at McDonald’s in particular.  Since 1973, once adjusted for inflation, the hourly wage of the average worker has declined.  These days it’s very hard to run a household on one income, and with two adults out at work, there’s a need for some of the domestic tasks that used to be performed by women at home (such as food shopping, cooking and washing up) to be outsourced.  McDonald’s is just one large corporation that has stepped up to the task.  The company is the largest owner of retail property in the world, America’s largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes, and an estimated one in eight workers in the US has at some point been employed by McDonald’s.  The company has the world’s largest marketing budget, and even operates the most playgrounds and distributes more toys than any other brand.

Targeting our children

With playgrounds and toys, McDonald’s is very appealing to young children, a deliberate part of their marketing strategy.  Not only will children bring in extra customers in the form of parents and grandparents, but their ‘pester power’ can be harnessed to increase sales.  ‘Cradle-to-grave’ advertising strategies involve getting young children to see a company as being like a beloved family member, allied with good values such as health and patriotism, and the aim is life-long brand loyalty.  Young children are mainly reached via television, and studies have showed that most cannot distinguish between programmes and advertisements.  While McDonald’s and Disney pioneered the targeting of children in marketing, it is so effective that these days it is a standard part of the long term selling-strategy for most large corporations.  The result is that many youngsters today grow up with an overall feeling that their favourite brands know and care about them.

Fast food companies extend their marketing reaches into schools, knowing that children are still establishing their tastes and habits, and have many years of purchasing ahead of them.  Schools on tight budgets often accept lucrative advertising packages offered by large corporations, justifying that this increases their revenue and allows them to expand what they offer to students.  It is not just food companies that employ this technique.  Corporate-sponsored teaching materials have now become commonplace, and in 1998 a study in the US by the Consumers Union found that 80 percent were biased.  For example, they would teach that logging was good for the environment or that fossil fuels created few environmental problems.

Walt Disney has hosted numerous ‘entertainment’ broadcasts which are really propraganda, such as “Our Friend The Atom”, sponsored by a manufacturer of nuclear reactors, which makes nuclear fission sound fun instead of terrifying.  By reaching our children through television programmes and commercials, schools and prominent billboards, big corporations have significant power to shape the values and messages our children grow up with.

Exploiting vulnerable workers for cheap labour

Teenagers, too, are targeted by big corporations, and often used for cheap labour.  The two brothers who opened the first McDonald’s restaurant quickly tired of having to retrain staff when they left.  They created an innovative solution that has since been replicated by large, profit-seeking companies everywhere.  They restructured the workplace to an assembly-line format, where each worker contributes only a single, small skill.  A staff member might spend, for example, an entire eight hour shift just flipping burgers.  If that worker leaves, it doesn’t take long to train the replacement in burger-flipping.

With the de-skilling of jobs, corporations are able to hire unskilled workers who will accept low pay, often teenagers and migrants who are also easier to control, and less aware of unions and fair work standards.  They can be manipulated into working long hours, without overtime pay, by managers whose annual bonuses depend on them increasing profits and reducing costs.  While an after-school job has been shown to be good for children, studies have shown that when kids work long hours in addition to schooling, and when the job is boring, overly regimented or meaningless, it can create a lifelong aversion to work.

For teenagers, working at a fast food outlet can be surprisingly dangerous.  The injury rate for them is about twice as high as that of adult wokers in the United States.  With a high staff turn-over, many disgruntled ex-employees return to rob their former workplaces, sometimes resulting in violent crime and murder.  While being a manager at McDonald’s is a far more interesting and rewarding job than lower positions, and even includes training at McDonald’s ‘university’, managers are most often targeted in violent crimes by ex-employees.  In America, four or five fast food workers are murdered on the job every month, making it more dangerous than to be a police officer!

Fast food restaurant chains use their buying power to keep the minimum wage as low as possible.  For example, the Nixon administration received $250,000 in donations from the head of McDonald’s franchising, and in the same year supported a bill to reduce the minimum wage from $1.60 to $1.28 per hour – the bill was even known, informally, as the ‘McDonald’s bill’.  Meanwhile, the income of the company CEOs has consistently risen.

Side-stepping regulations

The Fair Labour Standards Act was designed to prevent unfairness, danger and injury to our workers, and unions aim to enforce these laws.  However, McDonald’s and other large corporations use their immense purchasing power to sidestep regulations.  When workers attempt to join unions or fight for fairer conditions, McDonald’s will simply close down the restaurant and fire all its staff, reopening new premises nearby.  When re-hiring, they avoid all staff who have previously signed union cards.

Franchise risks

Workers higher up the chain in the fast food restaurant business also face challenges.  For example, franchise owners absorb all the risk involved in starting a new branch, often legally waiving their right to file complaints, while the corporation maintains control, forcing them to buy from certain suppliers and follow fixed price schedules.  Corporations often practise “encroachment” – placing new franchises close to existing franchises, driving down the sales of the established buisness.  As with the minimum wage, large corporations use their significant financial power to lobby the government to thwart regulation of franchising.

Forcing suppliers to cut corners

As well as negatively impacting the lives of our children, vulnerable workers and franchise owners, large corporations often impose stringent requirements on their suppliers, forcing them to run manufacturing premises which are both dangerous and unpleasant for workers.  It is common for the few buyers of a single product (say, potatoes, used for chips), to band together and make a behind-the-scenes agreement about the price they are willing to pay.  Potato growers and processors cannot then turn to an alternative market for better pay, which would enable them to maintain better conditions in their plants.

Price fixing

In America, only four firms slaughter about 84 percent of the cattle (ConAgra, IBP, Excel and National Beef), and they have devised an ingenious method of price-fixing to ensure that cattle prices from independent ranchers remain low.  They buy up 20 percent of the nation’s cattle and hold them in feedlots.  Then when ranchers try to increase their prices, the meatpacking giants flood the market with their own captive supplies, forcing prices to drop.  In twenty years, the rancher’s share of the retail dollar has dropped from 63 cents to just 46 cents, forcing small farmers out of business, and forcing large enterprises to cut corners to maintain their ranches.  Ranch owners need to take second jobs or sell their cattle at break-even prices or a loss, and the suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in America is now three times higher than the national average.

In a similar fashion, chicken growers must adhere to strict feeding schedules, equipment upgrades and veterinary services, in order to sell to the meatpacking giants.  The necessary growing house, which holds 25,000 birds in overcroweded, stressed conditions, costs about $150,000, forcing the growers into significant debt before they can earn anything.  The average chicken grower in America earns just$12,000 per year, and about half of them quit after just three years, selling out or losing everything.  Growers who complain often find themselves suddenly unable to sell their birds.

Dangerous factory conditions

Like the fast food restaurants who slashed costs by creating an assembly-line format for their workers, enabling them to hire unskilled employees at minimum wage, the meatpacking giants have also restructured their plants to use assembly lines.  The meat travels on a large conveyor belt through the factory, and staff members stand in a single spot for their entire shift, making exactly the same cuts or moves over and over again.  One way for a meatpacking company to increase profits, is to run the line faster.  The same systems that once processed 50 cattle per day, have now been sped up to process 400, resulting in enormous danger to employees.  The injury rate in a meatpacking factory is about three times higher than elsewhere, and every year more than a quater of a factory’s workers are injured.  The work is heavy and repetitive, causing strain injuries, back problems and tendonitis, and lacerations are the most common form of injury.  The injury rate correlates directly with the speed of the production line.  It is common for workers to lose limbs on the job, and anecdotes in Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser suggest that these limbs, and sometimes entire people, end up ground in with our meat.

Such a high injury rate usually results in pressure from insurance companies to improve work practices, but large corporations like ConAgra and IBP are self-insured.  Like McDonald’s, they avoid unions and regulation by firing employees after an average of four months on the job, maintaining a vulnerable workforce (often of illegal migrants), and closing down plants when things get out of hand.  They also use in-house doctors to medically assess injured workers, and these doctors are under pressure to deny the existance and severity of injuries, so as to minimise compensation costs borne by the company.

Food poisoning – the spread of dangerous bacteria across the nation

Food poisoning, while rarely reported in the media, is a surprisingly common result of eating in a fast food restaurant.  In America, every day 200,000 people become sick from food poisining, 900 are hospitalised, and 14 die.  Food poisoning has been shown to have long term effects, beyond the initial gastrointestinal illness, and can herald chronic disease such as autoimmune disorders, kidney damage, heart disease and inflammatory bowel disease.  In 1996, a study showed that meat samples taken from meatpacking giants had a high rate of contamination with salmonella, listeria, staphylococcus and clostridium, all of which can make people ill.  E. Coli is also frequently found in meat samples, along with faeces, hair, insects, metal shavings, urine and vomit.

The reason for this high rate of contamination relates directly to the speed of the production line.  These bacteria are found in the faeces of infected animals, and at the time the stomach, bowel and intestines are removed from the animal, great care must be taken not to spatter the carcass with their contents.  It takes a skilled butcher to do this job well, and accuracy depends on taking the time to do it properly.  With the high speed of the line, and the reduction in skill of the workers, spillage of faeces onto the meat happens in as many as one in five carcasses.  The contaminated meat remains on the production line, and is mixed with cleaner carcasses, resulting in a very wide spread of dangerous bacteria.  In pursuit of profits, the meatpacking giants are endangering the health of the entire population.  Although they claim that once cooked, the meat is safe, the reality is that by bringing contaminated meat into our kitchen, we risk the spread of dangerous bacteria onto our knives, chopping boards, into our sinks and more.  Charles Gerba, a microbiologist, discovered in a series of tests that the average American kitchen sink contains more bacteria than the average American toilet seat!

Disregard for the public and workers is endemic

While I have focussed on the fast food industry, the danger faced by workers of corporate monoliths, the disregard for the health of the population, and the pursuit of profit at the expense of all other values appears to be endemic across large corporations.  For example, as I write in 2014, Apple has fired 24 employees (leading union members) for refusing to work on public holidays.  Conditions in factories where clothing, mobile phones and other consumer goods are made are regularly reported in the media as being miserable and dangerous for workers.  Even the courts agree that big corporations often behave irresponsibly.  In a case against McDonalds, Justice Bell concluded that the company did exploit children through its advertising, endanger the health of customers who eat there several times a week, pay its restaurant workers unreasonably low wages, and bear responsibility for the cruelty inflicted upon animals by many of its suppliers.

The reality is that large corporations use their immense budgets to sidestep regulation and to lobby the government for laws that will make them richer and more profitable.

What can we do?

Is there anything we can do?  The single, most powerful act an individual can make, is to refuse to give them our money.  It is our money that makes them powerful, and by withholding it, we are one step closer to diffusing their dominance. 

Choose carefully to whom you give your dollars, and vote now, with your purse. Aim to shop at farmer’s markets, to eat out at family owned non-franchise restaurants, and to avoid mass-manufactured products. Make your own or look for similar items in second hand shops.

Choosing to spend your money ethically cannot be done in a day.  It takes time to change habits and work out a new way to provide Christmas presents, a new way to eat, a new way to do all the things we regularly rely on big corporations for.  But it can be done, one step at a time.  If you have tips or ideas for making the change, leave a note in the comments.

If you’d like to read a book that highlights where we could be going if the big corporations gain even more control than they have now, check out Future Girl (in Australia) or The Words in My Hands (in North America).

Image: Two similar book covers. On the left is Future Girl (Australian edition) and on the right is The Words in my Hands (North American edition), both by Asphyxia. They show a girl with long, black, wavy hair. She wears a gray sleeveless top and holds a magenta pencil and paint brush in her fist, with a light blue paint dripping from the brush. She has large black cross over her right ear. Her eyes are green and her lips red. The background shows drawings of buildings. The left background is green, brown and teal textured paint; the right background is teal, pink and ochre textured paint. On both covers is a review by Amie Kaufman, a New York Times bestselling author, which says, ‘Brilliantly imaginative, totally immersive…’

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A spotlight on Future Girl by Asphyxia

Future Girl is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

Future Girl is a remarkable illustrated story about Piper, a Deaf girl, who lives in a near-future inner-city Melbourne where food security is under threat. Our judges described it as ‘thought-provoking and hopeful.’

We asked author Asphyxia about her inspiration, writing advice and balancing text and illustrations.


What was the initial inspiration for this story?

For a long time I have believed it wouldn’t take much for the world as we know it to change dramatically in the face of a crisis, and the starting seed for Future Girl was to highlight how very possible this is and the need for us to develop resilience and to prepare for such scenarios. Strangely, just as the book was about to go to print, the pandemic hit and life did change dramatically, in many of the ways I had imagined. Future Girl is an eerie mirror, in some ways, of the world we find ourselves in today.

In the book, the crisis is caused by peak oil. We all know about the dangers involved with climate change, but few people know about the risks we face due to peak oil, which could be just as serious. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is to show what could happen if we don’t prepare for peak oil.

For those who are fuzzy on what peak oil is, it’s the point at which the demand for oil becomes greater than our ability to supply it. Why is this important? Because we use oil for every part of our lives – to make petrol for transport, to make plastics and fabric. Every year we use more and more oil for our lifestyles, but the amount of oil in the ground is finite. When our demand for oil becomes greater than the amount of oil available, the price will shoot up, and we’ll all start fighting over it. Peak oil is about oil becoming so expensive that we can’t afford to use it any more for petrol and everyday basics. When that happens, it could happen suddenly, and if we haven’t prepared for it, we could face severe shortages. That’s what happens in Future Girl.

In Future Girl, I wrote the book I wanted to read. Piper, the main character, is Deaf. I was hungry to read books and watch movies about Deaf people. As a Deaf person, it is deeply disappointing to me how rarely we are represented in the media. I almost never get to read stories that depict my own language (Auslan), my culture (the Deaf community) and in which characters go through the same struggles and tribulations as I do. I am frustrated by media that send poor messages about us, such as the picture book Boy which features a Deaf child who is routinely excluded from his community and yet somehow magically becomes a hero for completely unrealistic reasons. Another example is the movie MVP: Most Valuable Primate which features a little girl and chimp who sign to each other… using gibberish! 

 Yes – made up sign language! These portrayals of us and our language suggest that it is fine to make a mockery of our language. Imagine a kids’ movie in which all the spoken language was pure gibberish and it was promoted as being an example of English.

We need authentic, accurate portrayals of Deafness so that hearing people develop realistic insight into what it means to be Deaf, and to validate the lived experience of Deaf people, so that we can see ourselves reflected in the media. It is easy to take for granted the privilege of having yourself and your lifestyle reflected back to you in movies and books, but when you don’t have that, it’s very painful, it creates a huge hunger and appetite within that community. In Future Girl, I set out to satiate some of that appetite.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope the book will inspire people to make changes to the way they live: to search for work that is meaningful to them, to build resilience so we are better prepared for crises, to learn to grow food. I hope it will inspire people to develop creative forms of self-expression through art journaling. Most of all I hope it will provide an insight into Deafness for hearing people, and validation of Deafness for d/Deaf people.

I hope that readers who are unaware of Deaf culture will find out that it exists. Most people have no idea. Parents whose baby is diagnosed as deaf by medical professionals do not realise that there is a Deaf community out there. If they knew, it could transform their grief about their child’s ‘defectiveness’ into delight that their child will receive an automatic passport to this wonderful community.

The most striking difference between the Deaf community and the hearing world is that we celebrate Deafness, while the hearing world tends to view it as a ‘defect’. We love our language, as it is expressive and poetic and delightful. We are so direct – there is no need for the euphemisms and careful politeness that is needed to navigate hearing culture – we just say it like it is and that’s ok. While in the hearing world, people feel sorry for me when they realise I am Deaf, in the Deaf community I have a high status and no-one would dream of feeling sorry for me – instead people want some of what I have. Readers of Future Girl will go with Piper on her journey as she meets the Deaf community.

On the environmental front, as well as raising awareness about the risks associated with peak oil, I want to inspire hope and a path of action. It’s easy to fall into thinking traps such as that what I do is insignificant and it’s the job of the government to solve our environmental crisis, but I believe that individuals can make a huge difference, not just through using fewer resources themselves but through the ripple effect that occurs when others see what they are doing and decide to have a go too. Many of the greatest changes in history have been wrought by passionate individuals who ended up part of grass roots movements. I hope that through Future Girl, readers will get to feel the sheer pleasure that comes with growing your own food, becoming more resilient in terms of potential future crises, and knowing they are contributing less to the damage we are doing to our planet.

What has been the best writing advice you’ve received?

Margo Lanagan joined a Facebook writing group I created while I was writing Future Girl. I love her books, which are so rich and evocative. She said that in her first draft she never tries to ’show not tell’. Instead, she simply gets down the story as it occurs to her. Then in later drafts she’ll go back and look at the emotions, and find ways to show them instead of simply saying what they were. This affected me profoundly and also freed me up to work very loosely. I found that it was much easier to work following her process. Future Girl was written from scratch five times, and with each draft it became so much stronger as I was able to build on the rougher and less sophisticated writing of the earlier drafts.

Asphyxia, Future Girl is such an incredible, immersive experience for the reader. What came first: the illustrations or the story?

They were both developed together. Since I was a young child I have embraced almost every kind of creativity I came across – writing, drawing, painting, sewing, felting, metal-work, woodwork, knitting, crochet and more. As my repertoire of skills has widened, I have enjoyed incorporating multiple forms of creativity into a single piece. It feels natural to me to draw on what I have available to me and combine and mix in pleasing ways. For example, on my small farm I am making use of food growing as an aesthetic and incorpating it into a functional visual artwork. Before I plant a tomato I consider the size, colours and placement of surrounding plants, fences, arbours, rocks and so on, and picture how they will all work together. I have written song lyrics about my artistic vision for the farm and intend to paint the words onto the fences along with paintings of images and found objects, which will all be integrated with plants.

My point is that for me, every form of art can be combined to make something that is more magnificent than a simple sum of its parts. Writing and visual art have been an intrinsic combination for me for many years. I have kept art journals in which text and images were ways for me to express my emotions as well as pour out my experiences. It felt natural to develop this further by creating an art journal that belonged to a fictional character and told her story rather than mine. If anything, it seems strange to me that this has not been done before!

I created the artworks as I wrote the story. As the story changed and was redrafted, some artworks got tossed out, and others were added. It was a very amorphous process, as the book could not be laid out until we knew how many pages there were, but we couldn’t know how many pages there would be until the artworks had been developed!

As I immersed myself in Piper’s story, I found myself naturally expressing elements of her experience through art journaling, just as I express my own life through my art journals.


You can read more about the Readings Young Adult Book Prize 2021 shortlist here. We’ll be announcing the winner at a very special evening event on Thursday 15 July 2021 at Readings State Library.

Interview with Asphyxia by LoveOzYA

Image: Asphyxia has honey-coloured hair that is short on the left and frames her face on the right. She has bluish grey eyes and a big smile. She has fair skin and wears khaiki quilted vest with a black singlet. Her necklace is an original artwork of Piper, the main character in her book, Future Girl. On her left shoulder a little bit of tattoo can be seen. Asphyxia’s name is in large text across the bottom along with the #LoveOzYA logo.

LoveOzYA asked me some very interesting questions when they interviewed me, such as how microaggressions I have experienced because of my Deafness have impacted me. I had not thought that through before, and realised the impact was quite profound.

Check out the interview on LoveOzYA. I’m also pasting it below….

Asphyxia is an artist, writer and public speaker. Author of the much-loved junior fiction series the Grimstones, Asphyxia has also been a circus performer and puppeteer. An avid art-journal creator, she loves to share her process and help others benefit from this amazing tool for self-expression, problem-solving, planning, goal-tracking and self-esteem.

Deaf since the age of three, Asphyxia learnt to sign when she was eighteen, which changed her life. She is now a Deaf activist, sharing details of Deaf experience. She raises awareness of oppression of Deaf people and what we can do to change this. Her free online Auslan course has had over 15,000 students.

Asphyixa’s latest book, Future Girl (Allen & Unwin) is out now! She kindly answered questions from #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios for this Q&A.

Why did you want to write this story?

For a long time I have believed it wouldn’t take much for the world as we know it to change dramatically in the face of a crisis, and part of what I wanted to do with Future Girl was highlight how very possible this is and the need for us to develop resilience and to prepare for such scenarios. At the time, my publishers actually asked me to pull back as the world I had created went too far, they thought. We were putting the final touches on the book when coronavirus hit, and we all looked at each other and said how utterly spooky it was that the book reflected so very closely what is going on now, today. I think the truth is that scientists have known this kind of crisis is heading our way, for a long time, but it’s hard for the public to wake up and see how precarious our world is. I hope that now we all have first-hand experience of how dramatically a crisis will change our world, reading Future Girl will help people see how easily another crisis could tip things over as well. Resilience and preparation will help us be ready for all kinds of potential future scenarios.

In addition I wanted to write about Deafness, to give an insight into what it is really like to be Deaf. I want people to know about Deaf culture, that it exists. Most people have no idea. Parents whose baby is diagnosed as deaf by medical professionals do not realise that there is a Deaf community out there. If they knew, it could transform their grief about their child’s ‘defectiveness’ into delight that their child will receive an automatic passport to this wonderful community.

The most striking difference between the Deaf community and the hearing world is that we celebrate Deafness, while the hearing world tends to view it as a ‘defect’. We love our language, as it is expressive and poetic and delightful. We are so direct – there is no need for the euphemisms and careful politeness that is needed to navigate hearing culture – we just say it like it is and that’s ok. While in the hearing world, people feel sorry for me when they realise I am Deaf, in the Deaf community I have a high status and no-one would dream of feeling sorry for me – instead people want some of what I have. I wanted to convey all of that in a mainstream book so that people could understand it on a visceral level through experiencing it themselves as they read.

If Future Girl was a question, what would that question be?

I guess the ultimate question in Future Girl is, ‘How should I live? How can I have an existence that is rich and meaningful in the face of current limitations?’ For Piper, her deafness poses a limitation and also an opportunity. The chaos of Melbourne presents another limitation, which Piper responds to creatively, and manages to find very positive outcomes as a result. I hope that people will use the book to ask themselves the same questions – especially relevant right now during the pandemic.

Piper, the 16-year-old main character of Future Girl, learns Auslan in the book, leading her world to open up ‘magically’. What did you want to capture and communicate about the process of learning to sign, through Piper’s experience of it in the story?

I grew up oral, which meant that I did not learn to sign (in fact I never even saw sign language until I was sixteen!), but instead focused on lipreading and speech. This is very common as usually deafness is diagnosed by doctors, who have a medical approach of trying to ‘fix’ us to help us fit into the hearing world and be as ’normal’ as possible. However, in their late teens and early twenties, many deaf people discover the Deaf community, and that that stage everything changes as they dive into a new culture where their Deafness is celebrated, and embrace Auslan (sign language), which means they can socialise without the headaches and stress associated with lipreading. This is exactly what happened to me.

My story is very common and I wanted to reflect that in Future Girl. For me and other Deaf people in the same situation, the magical opening up occurred as I embraced my Deafness with zeal and stopped trying to hide it and pass as hearing. I stopped making phone calls, I added a flashing light to my home to tell me when people arrived, I stopped going to movies that have no captions, and I started communicating visually with others. This meant that others communicated with me visually too, and suddenly it was easier to understand what was going on around me. By demonstrating visually to others that I am Deaf I was able to remind them that I was different and thus that they could not just talk at full speed with blank faces and expect me to understand them. When I took the pressure off myself and stopped trying to pass as hearing, the world became a pleasanter place for me to be in. When I met the Deaf community and found my passport, I suddenly had friends all over the world, I had status and a beautiful language to play with. It was so different to my upbringing where I was so low on confidence. This is what I wanted to capture in Future Girl with Piper’s experience – that learning sign language is like stepping through a door into another world, a world where you are included and valued and appreciated instead of sidelined.

The teachers’ resource for Future Girl is excellent, including the list of microaggressions that Piper regularly encounters. I also note in your YouTube video about Future Girl that you describe the process of writing about Deaf experience as challenging, because it was such an ‘ordinary part’ of your existence that you rarely thought about it. With that in mind, what was it like to consider the frequency and impact of these microaggressions as part of your work on this story?

Before I wrote Future Girl, I hadn’t really examined the microaggressions I experience on a daily basis, but their impact on me was significant. For example, growing up, I felt inherently defective. I assumed no-one would want to marry me because I am deaf. This was the cumulative effect of tiny comments that praised me for ‘passing as hearing’ and thus implied that deafness was undesirable and so much more. When I examined the microaggressions closely, I began to see how they influenced my behaviour and responses to the world. For example, I thought I didn’t like socialising. But when I looked closely at it, I realised it was the exclusion I experienced when attempting to socialise with hearing people that was the problem.

In the book, Piper experiences a reluctance to go to Northcote High School, but she is not able to articulate to her mum why she just can’t face it. Hopefully the reader, who has been at her side during previous school experiences, will understand on a visceral level what a challenge a change of school poses for Piper, especially with no assistance to help her transition nor accommodation for her deafness. Piper has not been taught to fight back against microaggressions, nor to ask for her needs to be met. If she had received more education about this, perhaps she could have more clearly articulated what she needed in order to make a successful transition to Northcote High. My closer examination of the microaggressions I face and how they impact me have led me to be more articulate in terms of fighting for change and increased accommodation. I hope that readers of Future Girl will be similar galvanised.

Future Girl itself, featuring your artwork, is visually stunning. What inspired these visual elements? Did you have a set vision for the ‘look’, or did it emerge spontaneously?

The artwork for Future Girl arose from my own art journals. I have been passionate about art journaling for years and used my art journals as a mechanism to get down the story of my own life, both in writing and expressed visually through textures, colours and images.

I have loved writing fictional stories since I was a child and it seemed natural to me to combine these two passions by creating a novel that was also an art journal. Initially when I made the proposal to my publisher, I picked a particular sub-set of pages from my journal to show them, which I felt had a suitable look and feel for the book.

By the time I completed the artwork, eight years later, I had that many more years under my belt of art experience, having sold hundreds of paintings and filled many more art journals. My increased skill, technique and experience meant I was inspired to revisit my initial vision and expand upon it. I didn’t so much have a ‘look’ in mind for the book as draw on my own past experiences of painting specific emotions. For example, to express Piper’s growing joy in her connection with nature, I recreated the background of a painting I did some years ago that was rich with flowers and vibrant colours. I suppose you could say that over the years I have developed my own set of symbols and styles and techniques to express specific feelings, and that I drew upon that library in order to create Future Girl.

Broadly – in writing, in life – who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by activists. Stella Young, a disability activist and feminist who died in 2014, inspired me to become a Deaf activist. I love the current efforts of people like Carly Findlay and Jax Brown. I also love the work of environmental activists, especially Sharon Astyk and those involved in the Transition Towns movement. These people have galvanised me to make changes in my own life and to make an effort to get these ideas out there so others can benefit from them too.

Do you have any favourite LoveOzYA stories? If so, what are they?

I have long been a fan of John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – I did a lot of fan writing in response to that one! Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park is a classic that really captured my imagination as a child. More recently I enjoyed Highway Bodies by Alison Evans – so refreshing to read about queer and gender diverse characters. I loved Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley as I enjoyed immersing myself into a world filled with spray paint and street artists.

On a similar theme: has a book changed your life? If so, which one?

Lots of books have changed my life! Probably one of the most striking, and the one that eventually led to me writing Future Girl, was Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk. She gave me a model for confronting chaos such as that which could be created by peak oil with community spirit and resilience efforts – different from the ‘survivalist’ attitudes I had previously seen which are have a focus on each-to-their-own. Years ago I began incorporating the ideas put forward by Sharon Astyk into my own life and it led to a much richer, happier life which simultaneously felt ethically right and good. After I read her book, I thought that everything she had written was obvious and had been touched on in something else I had read, and yet I had been unable to SEE it clearly. She laid it all out for me in such a compelling vision, that I was sold immediately and inspired to change my life on the spot. I made pages in my journal detailing all the changes I wanted to make, and then worked towards them steadily over the coming months.

After a year, my life was unrecognisably different and fantastically so. For example, I had built a rocket stove and could cook using twigs as fuel, I had a pet rabbit whose fur I used to make sustainable textiles – yes, clothes I actually wore! – and I had learnt to make shoes and grow food and raise my own meat and use cloth instead of toilet paper (handy once we hit the pandemic!) and to live locally using sustainable transport instead of driving everywhere, and had an incredible community on my street. You’ll see much of this is reflected in Future Girl.

What advice would you give to emerging writers who are seeking practical tips to find the time, creative energy or inspiration to write?

I believe that instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, the best structure is to plan specific times for writing into your week, and at those times you sit down and do it, no matter how hard or uninspired it is. I believe in the 10,000 hour theory – that if you do something, anything, for 10,000 hours, you will become an expert at it. Simply put in the hours and you’ll get better at it. When I started out writing Future Girl, my rule was that I would not get out of bed until I had written 1000 words on my laptop. I might find the first 800 words incredibly hard to write but usually by the time I hit the 1000 mark, I was on a roll and could easily write more.

‘Asphyxia tilts the world sideways..’

Video shows Amie’s brief review of my new book, Future Girl with subtitles.

Amie Kaufman, fabulous YA bestselling author of The Aurora Cycle books and The Illuminae Files, read Future Girl and said:

‘Brilliantly imaginative, totally immersive – Asphyxia tilts the world sideways and invites you to see what was always there. Don’t miss this book!’

Wow. I am honoured. I really love the bit about tilting the world sideways and inviting you to see what was always there. I think that’s EXACTLY what I set out to do with Future Girl and I feel thrilled that she thinks I nailed it.

Amie, amazing as she is, learnt some Auslan so she could make this little video of herself signing about the book. Amie, you rock! Thank you!

If you want to read the book, it’s available here.

The highlights and lowlights of creating a 384 page art journal novel

Image: A double page spread of the inside of Future Girl / The Words in My Hands. On the left side is an artwork of a girl holding a rabbit. She wears a long sleeved blue dress with a white collar and her long, wavy black hair is blowing in the wind to her left. The background is blue paint with pink roses floating around her. Her eyes are blue, cheeks blushing and her tiny lips are tinted red. The left side page has a painted yellow background with blue and red roses in the margins. A small piece of brown paper collaged over the background to form a heading with the text, ‘TUESDAY 14 JULY’. The page also shows the text content of Future Girl book page 62. There is collaged brown text paper on the side and splashes of green, red and pink paint on the borders.

A friend of mine asked me, what were the best and worst parts of creating my recent book, titled Future Girl (in Australia) and The Words in My Hands (in North America). It’s a 384 page book of full colour art that is the art journal of 16-year-old Piper, a Deaf girl who lives in near future Melbourne just as peak oil hits. I thought I’d share my answer with you.

I wrote the book entirely from scratch three times, as well as doing multiple edits on each of these drafts. One of the lowlights was attempting to process feedback from my editor, Elise Jones, after rewriting the book for the second time. The manuscript came back to me with over a thousand comments in it, stipulating the changes the publishers were suggesting. The requests often felt contradictory, such as:

overall the book is too long, please make it shorter.’

versus

‘this is so interesting – please show this unfold (in a scene, with nuances/meanings implied) instead of telling it (with meanings stated/explained or as an info dump’), which is less engaging for the reader.’

One of the suggestions was to remove what for me was the central theme of the book, peak oil, and focus on other aspects of the story instead. I can see how every single one of these comments had a sound rationale behind it and formed part of a strategy to make the book stronger. But at the time I was very sick from arsenic and lead poisoning and my brain wasn’t functioning well, so it was an overwhelming task to try and assimilate all the information and work out a game plan going forward.

It took me an entire two years to process everything and decide how to go forward. I took some leaps of faith and decided to keep peak oil as a central theme, and as soon as I made that decision, suddenly I could see my way. I just had to write a manuscript that would convince my publishers. 

I rewrote the book again from scratch, and this time I had this nagging voice in my head with every word I wrote saying, ‘It’s too long! It’s too long!’ But I ignored it and ploughed onwards, trying to incorporate the rest of their feedback, and taking steps to mitigate their concerns about peak oil. In the end, although I submitted a manuscript at double their desired word length, and fully about peak oil, they loved it! Phew!

Elise also worked out a clever way to shorten the manuscript again by cutting an entire thread of the story, which ended up making it so much stronger. It was hard to let go of that thread – there was a really awesome character in there who I just loved! But I’ll keep her for another book.

As for the best parts, well there were a few…

Making 384 pages of art is a surefire way to hone your design, composition and technical skills, both with art-making and Photoshop. I am thrilled with this. Here are just some of the pages I made for the Australian edition:

Image: Artwork of two printed book pages with different shades of pastel colours of yellow, olive green, pink, blue & brown. The left page has paintings of blue and pink roses in the corners, and flower doodles done in black pen. In the centre is a rubber stamp in a box that says ‘This book belongs to..’ It has been filled in with handwriting saying ‘Piper McBride. PRIVATE! (Do not read.)’ The right page has pink roses at the top. Text below the roses says, ‘WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE’ and text content from Future Girl book, page 1. It also has a black and white border on the left side of the right page and the background is a collage of pink and brown text paper. There is a hand drawn doodle of a flower in the margin.
Image: Artwork of two printed book pages with collaged patterned papers in different shades of blue, green, brown, pink and yellow pastel colours. The left page has a piece of torn brown paper collaged over the background with the text heading, ‘SATURDAY 27 JUNE’. It has red and pink roses on top. There is a sculpture of a frozen Charlotte doll in the bottom left corner and light pink flowers on the middle bottom. It also has the text content of Future Girl book page 32 in the centre. The right page has a border of different kinds of pink and red flowers with a black spraypainted curlicue. It has the text content of Future Girl book page 33 in the centre.
Image: Artwork of a boy with blond, wavy, medium length hair standing on the right side of the page. He is wearing a grayish brown turtle neck sweater and both hands are inside the pockets of his tight black jeans. He wears large black boots. The page is surrounded with black line drawings of bicycles on top of a grungy watercolour background of bluish green, black and yellow. The boy has a speech bubble saying, ‘Your hearing aids are whistling.’ The left page is black text handwritten with a text saying ‘On the wall, someone written: Imagine: if the GDP was replaced with a contentment index.’ Below that is the text content of the book page 34.

Once the book was put together, I re-read it for a final check. I hadn’t read it for a long time and I had fresh eyes. One of the scenes I’d written about Deafness gave me goosebumps and made me quite teary – I just couldn’t believe I’d written it. In fact, I felt that way about the whole book. I set out to write the book I wanted to read, and in the end, I got to read it and found myself fully immersed and emotionally moved. Wow.

Receiving the hard copy of the book for the first time, I cried. Eight years in the making and finally I got to hold it. It was perfect. The paper, the textures, the colours, the weight, everything. I am so in love with this book. And it struck me that if I had not created it and was seeing it for the first time, I would want to cancel my whole life for a month just to dive into it and absorb all that beautiful art.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is futuregirl_words_low_res.jpg
Image: Two similar book covers. On the left is Future Girl (Australian edition) and on the right is The Words in my Hands (North American edition), both by Asphyxia. They show a girl with long, black, wavy hair. She wears a gray sleeveless top and holds a magenta pencil and paint brush in her fist, with a light blue paint dripping from the brush. She has large black cross over her right ear. Her eyes are green and her lips red. The background shows drawings of buildings. The left background is green, brown and teal textured paint; the right background is teal, pink and ochre textured paint. On both covers is a review by Amie Kaufman, a New York Times bestselling author, which says, ‘Brilliantly imaginative, totally immersive…’

If you’d like to read it, get your copy here if you’re in Australia, and here if you’re in North America.

Jackie French endorses Future Girl

Images 1. A book cover titled Future Girl by Asphyxia. It shows a girl with long, black, wavy hair. She wears a gray sleeveless top and holds a magenta pencil and paint brush in her fist, with a light blue paint dripping from the brush. She has large black cross over her right ear. Her eyes are green and her lips red. The background is of green, brown and teal textured paint, with drawings of buildings in black. On the top left is a review by Amie Kaufman, a New York Times bestselling author, which says, ‘Brilliantly imaginative, totally immersive…’ 2. The image also shows the back of the book with fantastic reviews from famous authors, with a blurb about Future Girl. There is a small spray-painted stencil image of a girl riding her bike and some hand drawn plant doodles in black. The background shows partial stencil sprays in black and teal.

Look what Jackie French said about Future Girl when she read it:

‘Asphyxia’s work is brilliant: a deep, original insight, and a book that everyone should read.’ JACKIE FRENCH, AM

Do you know, I could have said the same about her books 25 years ago when I became a massive fan. The first of her books I read was Backyard Self-sufficiency and it blew my mind. Until that point I was a certified city-girl and although I had grown some tomatoes before, I had no idea what I was doing and it was a friend of mine who actually planted them for me. Food production was a total mystery. And suddenly with this book it felt like a project I could dive into, no holds barred.

I promptly procured several of her other books which covered how to build a sustainable house, and every detail I needed to know to run my garden. I set about designing my house, garden and life according to her advice, and the result was magical – I have never looked back. She gave me confidence and knowledge, but also great bucketloads of inspiration. It is largely thanks to Jackie French that I have grown into the person I am today.

So you can imagine how chuffed I feel to read what she had to say about Future Girl. Thank you, Jackie French, for being my mentor and hero for so many years, for writing all the books you did and sharing your immense wisdom, and for taking the time to read and comment on Future Girl too.

And a tongue-in-cheek note to potential readers – if Jackie French thinks my book is good, it must be!! So grab yourself a copy and let me know if you agree.

It’s available here.