John Birmingham, author of After America, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |June 2, 2010

The Booktopia Book Guru Asks

John Birmingham,

author of

After America, Without Warning,
He Died With a Felafel in His Hand
and more,

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in the UK, in Liverpool. I think my parents might have been to see The Beatles at the Cavern. We moved out here in September 1970, some of the last of the 10 pound poms. My dad was a machinist, a fitter and turner, and we ended up in Ipswich which in those days was a booming industrial town. It was a pretty good place to grow up. I can remember being free to roam for miles, a freedom that allowed me to get into some very old-fashioned shenanigans.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

By the time I was 12 I had already decided I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t really understand what that meant, but it wasn’t long before I was sitting up late at night filling unused school exercise books with pages and pages of words I copied straight out of other books that I really liked or admired. I remember reading John O’Grady’s They’re A Weird Mob and being blown away because it was the first time I had ever been made to laugh out loud by text on paper. I desperately wanted to know how O’Grady had done that could set myself the task of cracking his humor code via the laborious process of writing it out line by line, paragraph by paragraph, night after night. Later on I did the same thing with Stephen King.

At the age of 18 I was on campus doing an arts degree and seriously considering postgraduate study in neuropsychology. I even ended up doing a Masters year at ANU in that area. I never completely gave up on the idea of writing for a living, there was the difficulty of actually making a living out of it that held me back for a while. A couple of weeks of studying law after my arts degree put me straight, however. I just knew that wasn’t a path I wanted to walk down. So from about the age of 25 I was a full-time writer, mostly filing for the student press and street papers at first, earning a couple of hundred bucks a year.

30 was a significant year for me, because I promised myself that before my 30th birthday I would get a book written. The book, sent off to my then publisher Michael Duffy the night before my birthday, was Falafel. Although I had been writing full-time for five or six years by that point, after that there was never any doubt that I would be doing it for the rest of my life. Falafel changed everything. Even though it wasn’t journalism, it made my byline a commodity and thus made it much easier To make a living off freelance journalism.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

I had all of the standard, smug, self-satisfied, self-righteous megalomaniac opinions when I was 18. My politics were very left wing at that time, as they should be. I retain some core philosophy from that time, mostly a skepticism about power, but years of hanging around the campus Left rid me of any misconceptions about how fucked they would be if they ever gained any power, instead of just protesting it.

4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

John O’Grady’s comic novels from the 1960s, as I previously mentioned, were a huge influence. They make me want to write comedy. Michael Herr’s book about the Vietnam War, Dispatches, was another seminal influence, partly because it gave me a taste for what you could do writing in a magazine format, and partly because Herr had the most incredible command of the language. He was able to do things with phrases and sentences in the book that I had never seen before, and have really seen since. And of course, like a generation of student writers, I was very much drawn to the fear and loathing work of Hunter Thompson. His journalism was almost as much a lesson in how to live your life as it was in how to write.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

I fell into novel writing by accident. My first couple of books weren’t novels, even though they may have looked like them. Falafel uses the forms and structures of the novel it is all based on recall and interview. So too with Tasmanian Babes.

Leviathan is simply narrative nonfiction. Weapons of Choice, my first true novel, was something which grew out of a time wasting exercise while I was writing Leviathan. I had to take all of the computer games off my laptop so that I can get some work done. To amuse myself, to wind down at the end of the day, I began to play around with my idea for the dumbest book ever written. Long story short, that idea became the first book in the Axis of Time trilogy.

Now that I’ve written a couple of thrillers, I love the conventions of genre fiction, and would probably be happy enough to do nothing but that in future. But, you know, I’m a greedy man and for now journalism still pays well.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

After America is the sequel to Without Warning. It takes place four years after the Wave swept over North America and most of Mexico ‘disappearing’ all human life within its event horizon. WW was an exercise in exploring what might happen to the world if the fervent hope of all those campus lefties I used to hang out with came true, and one day America just disappeared. After America has its own subtext, largely underwritten by the events of the last couple of years where it looked like the global economy was about to implode. It asks a lot of questions about how you drag yourself back from the edge of the abyss and how you rebuild a functioning democracy from the wreckage of the past. It answers those questions with lots of explosions.

After America also let me play with a couple of genres which are favorites of mine, spy stories and old westerns. It was enormous fun mashing them together in a big bowl of post-apocalyptic violence and ennui.

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

If people want to look for the subtext and get themselves all worked up over any deeper meanings in Without Warning, I’m cool with that. But what I would really like is if they finished the last page, closed the book, and said something like, “Man, I didn’t think the end of the world could kick any awesomer, but it just did.”

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Most of the writers I admire and look up to would be unknown to your readers. I’m a huge fan of a couple of American feature writers, people whose work you only ever see in magazines. Pete Hamill, Chip Brown, E. Jean Carroll, I will buy a magazine, even a super expensive air freighted import, if I see those bylines on the cover. They write the sort of stories for magazines that I would like to write, and I know from my own experience doing that sort of work just how much work they put in to what they do. They’re great reporters, but they also bring a level of artistry to their work that you just don’t see very often, and that a lot of people don’t even recognize because they seem to be practising mere journalism.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I have a very large mortgage. Very large. Ambitious enough?

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read. I am constantly astounded by the number of young would-be writers who do not read. They don’t have time, they tell me. Bullshit, I reply. If you can’t be bothered reading, do not bother trying to write. You’ll fail. (BBGuru: Yes, we live in a world where this advice has to be given!?)

John, thank you for playing.

Visit John Birmingham’s Booktopia Author Page… click here.

Follow John Birmingham on Twitter, if you dare… click here.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

Follow John: Twitter Website


  • June 8, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Interesting questions, great read. Thanks for that.

  • November 1, 2010 at 12:06 am

    I’m doing an essay on Birmingham for a writing and publishing subject about his ex-textual persona.

    Great interview. He gives a down to earth and genuine answer to your questions. Thanks for helping me with my research.

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