I’m very pleased to welcome a special guest to the blog today, author John Birmingham! John is an award-winning British-born Australian author. When he’s not writing action-packed novels, John is a columnist and blogger for various media outlets including the Sydney Morning Herald and Brisbane Times.
So, John, how did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in or did you fall into it?
I knew I wanted to write stories from the time was about 12 or 13. I’m not sure why but I have an aunt who was the same. Maybe it’s in the genes. I used to sit up late on school nights writing. Sometimes my own stuff, sometimes just copying out page after page of books by writers I liked, trying to figure out how they did it. I learned years later that Hunter S, Thompson did the same thing with William Faulkner’s novels.
What were your favourite books/films growing up? What kick-started your creativity?
I was given a copy of They’re A Weird Mob by Nino Culotta, the pen name of the late humourist John O’Grady. It made me laugh out loud, and the power of that, the fact that O’Grady had been able to reaction out across time and space and evoke that physical reaction, affected me in other ways. I wanted to know how to do it. That’s how I came to be sitting up at one in the morning on school nights, copying out his books.
Your first novel ‘He Died with a Felafel in His Hand’ was a smashing success that became the well-known Aussie film starring Noah Taylor (not to mention also being turned into a play and a graphic novel). Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
I was working at a magazine called The Independent Monthly; a great little mag. But it was dying. It had high production values, it paid well, and even with 35000 readers it couldn’t sustain a profit. The deputy editor, Michael Duffy, decided to set up a little book publishing venture when we realised the whole show was going toes up. He asked me if I could write him a funny book, a stocking stuffer for Christmas. One catch, he needed the manuscript in five weeks. I had a lot of flatmate stories. He gave me a small advance. I spent it on hot chips, red wine and amphetamines. Five weeks later, a best seller was born.
Actually, that’s wrong. When the book came out it died in the arse. Hardly sold a copy for six months. But Michael had bet his house on this company, literally. He had to make it work. We tried all sorts of bullshit promotion and marketing scams to get it moving. I walked around Darlinghust pushing copies through the mail slots of houses that looked like they might have lots of flatmates in them. We gave away hundreds. I’m not sure what worked in the end, but something did. It started to sell and never really stopped.
You’re equally well-known for your non-fiction writing as you are your fiction. You’ve written pieces for various media outlets over the years, as well as non-fiction books, including ‘Leviathan: The Un-authorised Biography of Sydney’ that won Australia’s National Prize for Non-Fiction in 2002. Can you tell us a little bit about the non-fiction side of your career?
I worked as a magazine feature writer for ten years before doing Felafel. It was my first love as a published writer, heading out on some adventure and writing it up for any magazine which would pay. I think it gave me a real head start in the business of writing. I learned to make deadlines, to take edits and to pay my bills with writing long before I published my first book.
Alright! Onto the science fiction! You’ve written a stack of SF novels from The Axis of Time series, A Girl In Time, and Dave Hooper Novels, etc. Can you tell us a little bit about each of these?
I love genre fiction. Always have. While I was writing Leviathan I came across Matt Reilly’s Ice Station in the new books section of the Macquarie Library in Sydney. I sat down to waste a few minutes and got up, slowly and stiffly hours later as the library was closing. He’d trapped me in the story. It was so much more engaging than the research I was doing at that moment (on the sand dunes of Surry Hills in the early 1800s) that my imagination kept wandering back there. I think that’s how I came to write Weapons of Choice. All of the historical research put me in a frame of mind to think about other time periods, and Reilly gave me a taste for some high octane techno thriller goodness. One day I sat down and thought, fuck this, I’m just going to play with a few ideas. A week later I had 47000 words of Weapons drafted up.
I recently read ‘A Girl in Time’ and enjoyed it! I hear there’s a sequel in the works?
I am hopefully about five days from sending it to beta. It’s been great to get back together with Smith and Cady and I’m really hoping people dig this series enough for me to keep doing it for a couple more years. There’s some historical periods I’d love to send them.
I believe you’ve also been working on a Space Opera for a US publisher. Sounds exciting! Can you tell us anything about that?
Yep! A couple of year ago my US publishers asked me if I’d be interested in doing a pure sci fi. I was like, “Am I ever!?!” It’s been written now, and gone off to beta. It’s just sitting somewhere in the Random Penguin DeathStar waiting for somebody to push the big red button. If I had to boil it down to one idea, I’d probably go with Space Marines vs Space Nazis.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion that we don’t know about?
Ha. For a long time I wanted to be the chief of staff at a broadsheet newspaper and train up a generation of new writers to do good work. But newspapers are going away and I think I’ll just concentrate on writing the sort of books I’d like to read for myself.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then?
Write every day. Four hours. Every fucking day. That’ll do it.
What can we expect from you next?
THE GOLDEN MINUTE: a novel of a girl in time.
Thanks for being my guest today, John!
Readers, if you’d like to know more, you can find John here:
And if you’d like to get straight to reading, you can buy his books here: