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Shelf Reflection is our series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of writers. In this latest instalment, Sarah Firth talks to us about taking chances, reading widely and her new illustrated essay collection, Everything Eventually Connects

Left: Bookshelf filled with books. Right: Author Sarah Firth wears a red shirt and sits at her desk.

Images: Supplied.

Everything Eventually Connects has been eight years in the making. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the book?

This book came about rather unexpectedly. It was 2015 and I was happily making short comics and animations. I had no intention or desire to make a full-length book. But then, at the last minute, I found out about the Comic Art Workshop (CAW). It was a two-week residency for ambitious graphic novel projects, organised by a bunch of legendary comic artists and writers. It sounded rad and I wanted in. But the deadline was the next day.

I thought, ‘Why not throw my hat into the ring? I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t have a hat…but what have I got to lose?’ So I did an all-nighter and made a hat (queue montage of me sitting on the floor in my hallway scrawling words and pictures on sheets of paper and sticking them to the wall). I came up with the idea of a stream-of-consciousness graphic novel exploring the questions and uncertainties I’d been living with.

I thought, ‘Why not throw my hat into the ring?’

To my surprise, they liked my hat. I got selected and the residency ended up being one of those magical formative experiences. It connected me with peers and a rich fount of knowledge about making long sequential narratives. It lit a fire in my belly and stoked the simple desire best articulated by Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I can’t overstate how important CAW has been. It’s helped me learn how to write, and the value of workshopping and editing. I’ve done subsequent residencies with them over the eight years of making this book. You could say CAW has been core to this book getting made.

As I’ve worked on the book it has changed, as I assume all books do? It’s become more integrated, complex and rich, like a tasty old cheese (I hope!). It is still a humorous and shame-busting portrait of my own idiosyncratic neurodivergent experience and the joys and contradictions of my daily life. But it now extends these threads further, following how small things braid into the larger complex webs of dynamic social, historical, political and environmental systems and knowledge.

Your book is one of the first to come out from Nakkiah Lui’s Joan Press imprint. What has the journey to publication been like?

I’ve self-published zines and short comic compilations to sell online and at comic conventions and zine fairs before, which is wonderful because of the creative freedom and supportive grassroots zine community. But with a solid graphic book like this, I really wanted to find it a home with a publishing house. And to get an advance to write it, so I was not wearing the entire financial risk, having to fork out upfront and then have my lounge room full of boxes for years. I’ve done it before with shorter works and it can be expensive and exhausting! So, with this aim, I spent years submitting my book pitch and some draft chapters.

Graphic novels are a little bit different to prose books in that you don’t make the whole thing and then pitch it. You pitch the idea, some sample chapters and an overview. Given the hybrid, idiosyncratic nature of my book, I experienced a lot of rejection from both agents and publishers. I got lots of ‘What is it?’, ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Why don’t you just make it a memoir?’ I also was told: ‘We don’t know how we would sell this,’ ‘No one is interested in complexity and philosophy,’ and ‘Your book is full colour? Yikes! That’s too expensive to print.’

My confidence was knocked, but I still really wanted to make the book, so I applied for all the arts and literature grants I could find. Luckily, over four years, I was able to secure various chunks of funding for research, writing and production. Also luckily, my agent Danielle Binks of Jacinta di Mase approached me, and in 2021 started to help me pitch to publishers. Still, we got more rejections, a couple of exciting nibbles that then went cold and more awkward feedback.

Given the hybrid, idiosyncratic nature of my book, I experienced a lot of rejection.

I got to a point in 2022 where I was so frustrated and sad about not being able to find the book a home that I went off to the hills for a few days to chop wood. I started to prepare myself to let the book go. It all just felt too hard. I had long phone chats with pals who had quit their books and readied myself.

Then, quite unexpectedly while splitting a gnarled log, my agent called. She said Nakkiah was incredibly excited by the book and wanted it for Joan. After getting the deal, I went hard, pedal to the metal and embarked on an eight-month sprint to complete the draft, then the writing and drawing of the finished book. People close to me voiced their concern: ‘You’re trying to do two years’ worth of work in eight months!’ But I was so ready, and on a mission to make it happen.

Given it was the imprint’s first experience with publishing a graphic novel, I was able to assemble my dream team of Erica Wagner as project editor and Eleri Mai Harris as creative director. Nakkiah, Erica and Eleri gave me huge amounts of creative freedom and trust. I got so lucky. It’s wild to hold the book in my hands now and think, ‘Wow, this almost didn’t get made.’

The book is a mix of science, philosophy, pop culture, as well as more personal elements. Which books were critical to the creation of your own?

Oh gosh—it’s a really long list! Basically, check out the bibliography at the back of my book and the numerous people I’ve quoted throughout. Let me tell you, getting permission to use all those references cost money and was a huge amount of work!

Some top books that come to mind are:

  • The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam
  • big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills
  • The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
  • Unflattening by Nick Sousanis
  • How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil
  • Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta
  • Blind Spot and Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

What kind of reader are you?

I’m a promiscuous yet slow reader. I think this is due to reading challenges that come with dyslexia and other neurodivergent stuff. I need to get very physical with prose. When I read it, I usually need a finger, a pencil or a bookmark to anchor the line I’m reading. I add post-it notes with comments, underline words and draw in the margins. This makes the page more spatial, which helps me engage with the text and enjoy it more. Graphic novels are different, given they are already spatial and visual, more like storyboards for a movie.

I’m a promiscuous yet slow reader.

I am very much led by curiosity and read widely. I usually have five books on the go, of completely different genres and topics, and cycle through them depending on what mood I’m in. I think that helps me keep momentum with reading if I get stuck. Some books I absolutely inhale. Others are a real challenge. I certainly read books I don’t agree with, and sometimes read trashy books to remind myself that even my worst writing is better than so many things out there. But I feel no obligation to suffer through a book that’s leaving me drained. Life is too short. But I happily reread books I love.

I quite like reading good academic writing, theory and science writing—which can come as a surprise to some people given how dense, laboured and technical these can get. Another surprise perhaps is that I have a deficit of fantasy and sci-fi books. I do love fantasy and sci-fi films, but perhaps because of my aphantasia I have trouble conjuring the new worlds described in prose, so I struggle with them a bit.

Left: Books on the stairs. Right: Sarah Firth sits in front on her bookcase. She's leaning over and nudging her forehead into an embrace with her cat.

Images: Supplied.

What does your book collection look like?

My book collection is a chaotic sprawling library that has escaped the two bookshelves I have and is now taking over the stairs, my desk, my bedside table, the dining room table and the hallway. Actually, the books on the stairs are organised by colour, but a friend did that. I think, maybe, I like for my books to feel alive. To be free-range. I don’t have any organisational system other than to move books around depending on what fits where. Things I’ve read recently tend to be in front and on top of piles. And often books are in clusters that I collected while researching a piece of writing I was working on.

If I’m trying to find a specific book, I try to recall the colour of the spine, the cover features, where it was last seen, then dig around the shelves and piles in a completely inefficient way. I also lend out my books to friends all the time then completely forget who I gave them to. I should really figure out a better system and probably do a book audit.

What are your illustrated graphic faves?

  • Ganges by Kevin Huizenga
  • All of the unhinged graphic novels and zines by Fionn McCabe and Lisa Hanawalt
  • Unflattening by Nick Sousanis
  • All of Joe Sacco’s comics journalism work
  • Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki
  • Stone Fruit by Lee Lai
  • Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed
  • What It Is by Lynda Barry

Images: Ganges (2006), Stone Fruit (2021) and Still Alive (2021).

What books are you constantly recommending other people read?

Recently, I’ve been wanting people to read How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil, so I can talk about it with them. Particularly the chapters on orders of magnitude and just how many of the complex issues we face today are really non-intuitive and essentially ‘unthinkable’ due to scale. I’ve also been recommending Our Numbers Be Unlimited by Sam Wallman, a great graphic non-fiction book about workers and their unions.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just cracked open How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna. It’s an investigation of how four women philosophers persevered in a field that has often suppressed and disregarded the insights of female thinkers. I heard about the book while listening to the Cool Story podcast by Bri Lee and Bridie Jabour.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking forward to all the fun book launches and promotion stuff in Australia in 2023 and then in the USA in 2024. And all the chemical reactions that happen when a book is out in the world. Other than book-related things, I will be looking for the next creative adventure. I’m excited to see what emerges.