John Birmingham: Journalist, blogger and author

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image-johnbirmingham200John Birmingham was born in Liverpool, England. He freelanced as a journalist for ten years taking feature commissions from a wide variety of magazines such as Playboy, Rolling Stone and even the Long Bay Prison News.

His first book, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, was a cult comedy success which went on to be filmed by indie amateur Richard Lownstein and was adapted for the stage. The play became the longest running non musical production in Australian history.

John also wrote Leviathan, the unauthorised biography of Sydney, (Random House) which won the National Award for Nonfiction in 2002. He is now writing techno thrillers, starting with Weapons of Choice in 2004, Designated Targets in 2006 and his latest book in the Axis of Time trilogy is Final Impact.

John is working on a new series of thrillers for Del Rey/Pan Macmillan and continues to file regular articles as a full time columnist, blogger and essay writer.

Click play to listen. Running time: 34.34

Final Impact

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
John thanks for joining us today.

John:
Happy to come in mate.

Valerie:
So tell us, when did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

John:
I couldn’t give you an exact date, but I do recall that I very young, like still in school, specifically primary school. I used to sit up quite late at night writing stories. For a long time I just copied out stories that I liked trying to figure out how they worked. Just do them word for word.

Valerie:
Really?

John:
Yeah, I donated some of those book to the library of New South Wales a couple of years ago, I was very fond of the John O’Grady books which were humorous novels that came out of the 1960’s and dealt with a lot of issues like migration. He wrote them at the time under the name Culotta at the time, famous Australian books.

I liked them so much in my early teens, possibly even 12-years old that used to sit up at night just writing out line after line, para after para, trying to figure out how it was that writing made it all work.

Valerie:
So you then decided to go into journalism first, is that right?

John:
I sort of did an Arts degree and when I finished the degree I went off to Canberra to pay off the loans. They’re quite small loans compared to the sort of debt that kids leave now. But to me it was a reasonable sum of money because I was a bit of a lazy slug. I had never had a job before.

So I went off to Canberra and I worked as a research. It was defence for a year and I quite enjoyed the work down there. I was doing some quite interesting stuff but I really did not enjoy being a public servant and having to turn up in an office and shave every day, all that stuff that normal grown up people. I found it just horrible so after about a year of that I left.

I would have been about 22, I think, something like that, 22, 23 and I just decided that I was going to have a crack at writing for a living. I basically stuck with it ever after. I had a very brief period where I sort of panicked and thought, oh, gosh, I’m going to end up being one of those terrible hippies that you used to find hanging around the sort of fringe press. Student magazines, sort of coming in with their sandals and little string bags with badly typed out pages about international government conspiracies.

The only place that they could possibly get them published was in these dreadful little street mags because the conspiracy wouldn’t allow them to write anywhere else. I just thought, oh God no, I don’t want to be like that.

I think it was about six months. I went and studied law but that was sort of my return to conventional living and it was very obvious that I wasn’t cut out for it. So I sucked it up and went back and wrote. Knowing that there would be a very good chance that I’d get into my 40’s and would suffer materially for the decision to write.

Valerie:
Do you remember at all your first commission or when you decided to?

John:
I remember my very first paid story. It was for a student magazine in University of Queensland. I went in there because I had heard that they paid for stories and I imagine it was like $10 or $15, 3000 words.

I was going to write a story about late-night great eating joints in Brisbane and it was like three of them in those days. I intended to do a piece about them. But I became distracted because we had a big party. We sent a couple of friends off overseas and one of my flatmates at that point who I wrote about in Felafel later on. He was a terrible bastard, he spent all of his money on drugs and prostitutes and having drunk half a key of beer at this party, he decided that was exactly what he was going to do. We just ended up this riotous night where we went through a bunch of illegal casinos and brothels. I woke up on the floor of some place called, The House of the Rising Sun, left on the shag pile there.

I had this massive night that I managed to get through spending only a buck thirty because that was what I had in my pocket when I started. I thought oh, I have a much more interesting story than late night great eating joints in Brisbane. So I wrote that out at 2000 words and one of the editors at the student magazine loved it.

One of them actually hated it, hated it with a passion and scrolled in big blue editor’s pen at the time, “this is nasty sexist rubbish” with exclamation marks. That first story, I think, is actually available at Macquarie State Library in Macquarie Street in New South Wales. Yeah, that was my first published piece. We spent about $6000 doing the research but it’s all right since I got paid $15 to write it up.

Valerie:
You spent many years in many houses getting the material for He Died With a Felafel in his Hand which was a huge, huge book. When and how did you think, oh, I’m going to turn these experiences into a book? I guess it was a collection of tales before this.

John:
Yes, it was. I didn’t originally have it intending to write about it. I did it because I was poor. I got to, I was living in a share house in Sydney in Darlinghurst which features quite heavily in the book. At that point, I started to do a lot more work for magazines.

I never intended to write books. All I wanted to do was to write features in mags. That was my first love as a writer and actually I still would be quite happy just doing that. But I was working some times freelance for a magazine called, The Independent Monthly, which was a great, great mag through the late 80’s, early 90’s.

I just came in one day, I just was sick of death, it was everywhere. The mag was obviously going to go down. I spoke to Michael Duffy who is a news limited columnist now, but was deputy editor then. And I said “Is this the kiss of death that I smell, Michael?”

And he nodded grimly several times, putting up the publishing company. My reaction to this, do you reckon that they would give me a quick book as a stocking stuffer for Christmas. At that point I said, “I’ve got a few flatmate stories I’ve put together.”

He said, “Well, write me out a sample chapter.” So I wrote the first chapter in Felafel was the sample that I wrote for Michael.

He said, “Oh that looks all right, have you got enough for a book?”

I said, “Maybe, let’s see.” So he gave me a five week deadline and I went over and knocked it off.

Valerie:
Wow! Five weeks!

John:
Five weeks, not years because we had to get it out for that Christmas. I sat down. I approached it very much like a commission for a magazine, a 50,000 word commission. I just wrote out the names of everybody I could ever remember living with and began to contact them one after the other.

Interviewed them about their experiences living with me, but also experiences they’d had in other share houses. And just transcribed those interviews very, very quickly. Then it was really just a matter of cutting and pasting. I had 60,000-70,000 words worth of transcript.

Reading through it, it became very obvious, very quickly that there were only half a dozen share houses but there were infinite variations on those themes. You know, bad flatmate, dirty flatmate flats, etc.

So the book then began to organize itself, thematically. It was written very quickly. It was about five weeks ahead of what I had hoped. I had a friend, Howard Stringer, who was a staff writer at Inside Sport at that point. He was actually my very first editor. He was the guy who that commissioned that piece that was published. It should have been about greasy eats but turned out to be about a big night on the town.

Howard would go off to Inside Sport every day and write his sports stories and then he would come home and I would give him 5000 or 6000 words worth of copy which he would edit and hand back to me. There was just this constant sort of rolling hell to get this thing together for publication.

Valerie:
I guess that’s the thing when you are used to being a journalist, you’re used to having deadlines.

John:
You are, you are. I had never been that concerned about book deadlines like occasionally. I had to pay back a bunch of money to Random House a couple of years ago because I had signed a bunch of book deals just before we had those kids and I had absolutely no idea what a shattering affect that would have on my work habits and ability to get to the keyboard.

After a couple of years of just not getting to the keyboard enough to write these books, I just rang and said, “Look, forget it. This is embarrassing I’m just never going to write these books, let’s face facts.” I sent them back their advance and just began to re-jig my working day because I had to build it around the fact that quite a lot of my work life or my what would have been my work life was now about wrangling children.

I tended to do a lot less feature writing because the thing about a book is that you do get maybe two or three years to write it and particularly with school age kids it doesn’t really matter if you lose a week here or there. So holidays or illness, you’ve got that long lead time to plan that kind of downtime needed.

With columns, which I write, a lot these days, three or four a week. It doesn’t matter again if you suddenly find yourself with kids on hand or underfoot because you can always distract them for an hour or so and get a column written.

But with features, you can’t do it. A good feature is 3000 to 4000 words and at least a week’s work and that’s intense work. That’s not squeaking it in when you can between school drop offs and pick ups and supervising homework and running them to and from after school sports. That’s getting up at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, possibly travelling.

I was just thinking this morning actually I’ve knocked back some sweet, sweet commissions. I remember once being up at the school to pick Thomas up from prep or whatever it was and my mobile rang and it was Wheels magazine. They said, “Oh, have you got your passport?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Is it current”

I said “Yeah yeah”

“Can you get on a flight to Las Vegas tomorrow morning. There is a new Porsche coming out and we want you to test drive it. We’ve got a five-star hotel room for you there. We will need the copy really quickly.”

That’s why they were calling me because I could get it rather quickly. But they said, “We’ve booked the room for four days, but if we can get the copy back from you in two days. We will pay you straight away and you can keep the hotel room for yourself.”

And there was just a silence and I said, “Look that’s a great deal but I’m doing school pick up the rest of the week.”

Valerie:
Your life has changed considerable since the days of Felafel.

John:
Yes, so that’s right. I just now work very, very differently from those early days.

Valerie:
That obviously was a non-fiction book and then you had Leviathan which obviously was non-fiction and you’ve got your background in non-fiction feature writing. Then you went into writing techno-thrillers. How did that happen?

John:
By accident most, I signed up with a bunch of books for Random that I mentioned earlier and that was one that I intended to do for the following three or four years because I had like five titles to get through. Some of them were going to be very easy to put together and some of them I just had no idea of what I was doing when I signed the contract because I had no idea of what parenthood was about to do to my working life.

One was a book about a bayonet charge in Crete in the Second World War and the entire book was going to be about the 30 seconds of this charge and the lives of the men who are in it and how it affected them. And should they have survived. I would have had to have gone to Crete and lived there for two or three months and it’s just not the sort of thing that you can do when you are a family guy and you’ve kids underfoot.

I sort of was looking for some way of dealing with the fact that my working arrangements had obviously changed. I was talking with Garth Nix then, fantasy author, and we were just having a conversation about how much we loved dumb books, big dumb books and big dumb films.

I had mentioned to Garth that I had once had an idea for what at that point in time I was calling the dumbest book ever written which became Weapons of Choice. I had worked on it for like an hour or so a day for a couple months when I was writing Leviathan. I had done that as a way of winding down at the end of the day. It was actually my idea of relaxation just to play with this idea for a Tom Clancy/Matthew Reilly style techno-thriller.

I never intended to show anybody. I never intended to publish it. But Garth got very excited when I told him about it and he asked to look at it. I gave it to him on the condition that he didn’t show it to anybody but of course he did. The next thing that I knew I had Americans on the phone demanding the finished manuscript so before I knew it I was an airport novelist.

I was so happy. I actually remained very much in Garth’s debt for that because I do love that style of book. I love reading them and I love writing them. They’re a lot more lucrative than a book like Leviathan which although it paid off very well and won awards. It was four and half year’s worth of full-time work to deliver that manuscript. You would have to make a lot of money off a book to make that a viable gig when you are using it to keep a roof over your head and feed kids as I suddenly was.

Valerie:
So these books would obviously require a considerable amount of research as well. Do you do that before you start writing, during or after and just write the stuff out first and fill in the bits later. How do you work that?

John:
It depends on the book. Like sometimes when I know that I have a big set piece, narrative thread or scene that I need to do research I will usually do that research before the book starts simply because it will then help how the book becomes framed in its early draft.

I find that as you go through a book inevitably when you are writing these things of course you are writing about stuff that’s happening on the far side of the world. I’ve never been to half the places that I write about. but the beauty of doing these things now days as opposed to say 10 or 15 years ago is that you can top a line and in a couple of key strokes you are in Google earth.

And now days if you are doing a place that has street view you can actually walk through the virtual environments and you don’t need spend weeks and thousands of dollars travelling there to check it all out. You can get online. You can consult online sources such as Wikipedia if you trust it.

I have a subscription to a full text library in the US which I use. They have digitized a lot of academic work which is very, very credible and you can use it and not expect to come a cropper when the thing comes out.

I tend to do as much work as I can before that I start the book but it is inevitable that you will keep researching as you go through. You will want to write something and now days there is almost no excuse for getting it wrong.

Because I do make myself available online like I have a couple of blogs that I’m quite happy for people to come and meet me in the virtual world. I have found that they are more than happy to do that. But they often come with a long list of things I’ve got wrong. He should fix these up before the next edition of the book comes out.

Valerie:
Tell us about why you decided to write Dopeland.

John:
Well in fact that was Random’s idea. I had come off Leviathan like four and a half years of really intense PhD level research. I was in State Library for ten, eleven hours a day, five days a week and then again for half a day on most weekends. It was a lot harder than anything that I had ever done at university.

I tended to breeze through uni and skipped a lot of my classes, just assed my way through most of the assessment. But with this there was no pretending. I had to actually do it properly because I was trespassing on academic turf and I was going to be torn to pieces if I got it wrong. I had to spend a lot of time getting it right.

Valerie:
Well it’s a piece of history now.

John:
It is, yeah, in fact I’m rewriting it at the moment.

It’s coming up for its 10th anniversary next year. I did rush it to get it out before the games. I wanted to write a chapter about the city’s aesthetic history and I just didn’t have time. It actually unbalanced the final text because Leviathan is a much darker story than I originally intended it to be because I was going to use that chapter on the aesthetic history as bit of balance towards the end. But the games were and it had to get out.

I’m in the process of doing that at the moment. But there was a huge amount of work involved and when I finished it I was exhausted. I met with Jane Paul Friedman and we met at the Cross at a pub one night. And she just said, “Look at you. You’re death on your feet. Why don’t you write a fun book next time?”

And so she suggested that I do Dopeland and it was actually looking back on it, it sounds like a great idea but it was about three months before Anna was born, our first child. And it was so wrong to be on a project like that at that point. Because I had to bugger off and travel round the country and hanging out with dope dealers and smoke their wares. It was really a book that I should have done a year or two earlier.

Valerie:
It’s funny because I guess it’s because you wrote Leviathan I have always associated you with as a very Sydney kind of author and now you’re living in Brisbane.

John:
Yes, I am. I still think of myself as a very Sydney kind of author particularly since I’m in the process of rewriting Leviathan. I’ve written a lot about Sydney, not just in that book but intended to be the guy that magazine editors and people come to when they want some copy on Sydney.

I have at times written quite long essays. I did one for a travel book that was 10,000 words so I do in my heart of hearts still I think of myself as a Sydney-based writer even though I have moved a thousand miles away.

Valerie:
So why are you there?

John:
Again, parenthood. I had a beautiful little apartment was fantastic. It was an old art deco place nicely restored, it was a minute and half near to the beach but it was a two-bedroom Sydney apartment. It was doable when we had one kid, but Thomas rolled in and it was just unworkable.

I had bought a house in Brizzy a couple of years previous as an investment and never really intended to live there. But once it became obvious that Sydney with children was a very different proposition from Sydney without kids and so I said, look I’ve got that house up in Brizzy. And more importantly I’ve got a lot relatives up here, uncles, aunts and that made a huge difference. Because we did five years of parenthood without any of that support around and it broke our spirits like dry twigs. So yeah, eventually we just said no, let’s go back up to Brizzy.

But it’s funny I’m actually just was talking to somebody the other day from an architectural firm. I was talking about my kitchen which has this big sort of window, sliding window in it which creates a sort of inside-outside bench space. The architect guy thought this is fascinating. I said this is stolen from Gusto Deli at Bondi which is where I used to go for breakfast every morning after my first at Bondi every morning.

I missed it so much that when we redid the house I said to the architect that I would like you recreate that here.

Valerie:
Little bit of Sydney in Brisbane.

John:
The Gusto Deli is recreated out on the front deck of my house up here in Brisbane.

Valerie:
So you do fiction, non-fiction, blogging, columnist, is it easy to switch hats between the different styles or do you have to get into a particular groove before you do the thrillers or anything like that?

John:
It’s easy now. It wasn’t easy when I started fiction or at least it wasn’t easy with books. With magazines, I worked in mags for ten years. I freelanced for ten years before I wrote Felafel. Of course every magazine has its house style, and it has the different kinds of things that it’s interested in so a story for Inside Sports is going to be very different to a story for Rolling Stone, both of whom I worked for.

Switching between them was no trouble at all but the move from writing a comic novel like Felafel and Tazzy Babes to writing Leviathan I found very difficult. Because part of writing Leviathan was about escaping the gravity world which had suddenly built up around Felafel as it became really successful. But I just had a lot of trouble in the early drafts settling on a voice and I actually ended up having a long talk with. It wasn’t Jane. It was somebody else quite senior at Random about how I’d handle it, like how I would settle into a voice.

Now it wouldn’t bother me at all and I know exactly what I would do. But back then, yeah it was a bit of a challenge.

Valerie:
So what are you working on right now? What are you writing right now?

John:
Right now I’ve got the rewrite of Leviathan. I’ve got a sequel to Without Warning I’m supposed to deliver in about two months. There will be some late nights let me tell you. Might even see Santa I’ll be up so late on Christmas Eve. They’re my two big book projects.

I’m also looking at some TV work next year.

Valerie:
Writing or appearing?

John:
A bit of both actually. We’ll see whether that comes off though. I tend not to get excited about TV projects because unlike books you rely on the word of other people to make them happen. Whereas with a book I just sit down at the keyboard and we’re done hopefully six to twelve months later.

I have a big non-fiction work for Picador that I need to start putting in the big hits on so it’s busy.

Valerie:
Can you tell us about that or?

John:
Yeah, it’s a history of fear and courage. It’s something that I have been messing around with for years and was originally looking at doing for Random House until I sort of crashed into the brick wall over there with early parenthood. But I just the last year or so have got to place with the kids at school and have got a little bit more of my working day back. I figured that I could take it on. And it is a project that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time.

Valerie:
So do you have a writing routine now? Is there actually some kind of process and order to your writing day?

John:
There is because my writing day is quite short. I don’t get to the desk until about nine o’clock and then I have to wrap it up by quarter to three. And to actually get enough work done that I need to get done in that time involves a lot of stopwatch activity. I actually have a little stopwatch that I keep by the computer that goes on. And I just type for two hours and it goes off, I get a cup of tea and I stretch and I do another two hours. Then the stopwatch goes “beep, beep, beep” then its lunch time.

So I have a bit of lunch, on a hot day like today I might even have a swim after that just to wake myself up. And then I’ve got about an hour after lunch before I have to go and pick up the kids. In that hour I will often write, rather than book work, I’ll often do a column or something like that.

Valerie:
Right, it’s very disciplined.

John:
It has to be because one of the things that I enjoyed about writing when I started doing it was the way that you can do it anytime that you wanted to. I wasn’t that well ordered in my time management and I would waste an awful lot of time. I don’t have that time to waste anymore. Believe me its not my natural working routine. It’s just been imposed on me by reality.

Valerie:
By maturity, by parenthood

John:
Some might call it maturity. It doesn’t feel like it to me.

Valerie:
Can you paint us a picture like in five years like what kind of combination of books do you think that you’ll be writing then and what do you want to be writing more of or trying that’s new?

John:
I think as far as books go it would just be a reasonable linear development from where I am now. I will have at least one serious, humourless hardback headed non-fiction work on the go. And I will have at least one or two thrillers because I have quite a big audience for those, particularly overseas.

So I’m happy to kick on with that in fact I’m touring the US in February for the release of Without Warning over there. I’m very excited about that. I’ve never been to the US. I’ve been published there for years but without ever sitting foot on the deck. I will very much look forward to that.

I suppose if there was one not new thing but old thing I wouldn’t mind going back. I would quite like to write another comic novel. I do a lot of joke writing in my blogs and columns but of course they’re ephemeral, evaporated within 24 hours of them being published. So I like the solidity of books, the way that they’re done you could lay your hands on one 300 years down the track if you are very lucky.

Valerie:
I think that I still have my copy of Felafel on my bookshelf somewhere.

John:
I’m actually sitting in front of my library at home at the moment and I’ve copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall which is about 120 years old. As artefacts they survive in a way that digital publishing simply won’t.

I would like to do a comic novel and I have one in mind so we will see.

Valerie:
Well, we’ll look forward to it. And finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

John:
Lots of reading, lots and lots of reading while you still have the time to do it. Only work in two hour blocks, nothing beats it.

Valerie:
With a stopwatch.

John:
Nothing beats a stopwatch was actually an artist who taught me that. He worked by stopwatch and it’s unromantic but it does get the work done.

Valerie:
Perfect and on that note, thank you very much for your time today John.

John:
No worries.


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