Birmingham, Man of Letters

After America John BirminghamYou probably think you know John Birmingham, the UK-born, Brisbane-raised, 45-year-old author of He Died With a Falafel in His Hand. Though slow to take off, Falafel burned slow until it was the under-the-radar publishing phenomenon of the 1990s, spawning both a graphic novel and a movie starring Noah Taylor and Sophie Lee. Today, 16 years on, Falafel is a cult hit, the virtual manifesto of share house living for Generation X with its dubious characters, Dickensian squalor and personality clashes.

If your reading tastes are a little more intellectual you might know Birmingham the non-fiction author, historian and featurist. His articles on everything from videogames to Australia’s complicity in Indonesian atrocities in East Timor have appeared everywhere from highbrow journal The Monthly to Australian Penthouse. Not long after Steve Irwin’s death, feminist author Germaine Greer famously lambasted the larrikin conservationist in her guardian in UK paper The Guardian. Birmingham was quick to retaliate, calling Greer a ‘barking maddie’, ‘feral hag’ and ‘less a harridan than a poorly sketched caricature of a harridan’.

It was this same in-your-face attitude that produced Leviathan, Birmingham’s non-fiction effort to peer beneath the gloss and glitz of Sydney and investigate the violent, chequered past we don’t show overseas visitors on postcards. The back cover blurb calls it ‘history for the Tarantino generation’.

Then there’s the current Birmingham, an airport novelist par excellence who blends Michael Crichton-like ideas of high concept science with fast-paced, Tom Clancyesque military thrillers full of blood, guts and violence. His first effort was the World War 2.0 trilogy, where a scientific experiment transports a seagoing battlegroup from the near future back to the days of the Second World War. The series put him at the top of the action adventure novel ladder with fellow Aussies Matthew Reilly and James Phelan, so it’s strange to hear it started out as a mere stress-reliever.

“I started planning to move away from writing grungy, indie urban legends as quickly as possible,” Birmingham says. “Leviathan was my first attempt to escape the gravitational pull of Falafel. Thrillers came out of writing Leviathan — it took nearly four and a half years to put together and for the last year or so, when I really needed a break from it, I used to spend an hour or so at the end of each day playing around with my idea for a Matthew Reilly book. Long story short, those ideas turned into [the first book of the World War 2.0 series] Weapons of Choice.”

Birmingham followed the series up with another fast-paced, violent techno-thriller, Without Warning. It depicts the world on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition force, when an unexplained blanket of energy appears over the continental US. Like the aftermath of a neutron bomb, everything is left intact but the population of over 300 million have vanished, presumed dead.

In After America, this month’s sequel, the remnants of the US population try to resettle their country after the disappearance of the wave while the world crumbles around them, imploding from the sudden end of the world’s last superpower. As he has in all his thrillers, Birmingham manages to convey a global catastrophe by zeroing in on a handful of characters, treating them terribly and seeing how they handle it. But he never takes his eye off the prize — thrills. As Birmingham himself put it; “You can engage with them a little more deeply, as texts which raise questions about culture, power, politics and human frailty …but with explosions.”

It hard enough for most authors to conquer even a single market, let alone be recognised in it, but Birmingham’s made a name in three of them. One of the first things you wonder after reading After America or the World War 2.0 series is how the guy behind Falafel could be the least interested in guns and warships. “I had to change after Falafel,” Birmingham says. “That book was a memoir of a specific period in my life. I don’t live like that anymore I don’t have those stories to tell. To pretend I did would be kind of lame and pathetic.”

Part of his success might be his adoption of the new tools and techniques many more traditional writers are slow to take up. He’s a prolific twitterer, for example (during the writing of this article, he tweeted about a story by Fairfax columnist Miranda Devine where she praised Steve Jobs and Apple and tore shreds of the current crop of Apple haters in the wake of the iPhone 4 reception scandals).

But it does much more than just keep his name in front of fans long after the short-term book publicity cycle. One of the most impressive things about Without Warning was his seemingly academic knowledge not just of local areas but their customs. The action jumped from the corridors and staterooms of Greg Norman’s yacht The Aussie Rules to a dusty US army base in Qatar in a heartbeat, and the detail Birmingham describes in both is staggering. He must have visited both, surely…

“God bless the Internet,” is his explanation. “If I want to set a gun battle in a particular alleyway in Paris, I can travel there with just a few key clicks. Google Earth and Wikipedia bring the world to your desktop in a way that simply wasn’t possible even years ago. And it’s not just images of streets or descriptions of local scenery — there are tens of millions of people blogging, tweeting, shooting video and uploading still images in infinite detail about the most arcane things. At one point I needed to describe the upper floors of New York’s Plaza Hotel back in 1983. I threw the query out to twitter and had a picture of the very hallway I needed in a couple of minutes.”

Though Falafel and After America couldn’t be more different, Birmingham also thinks there was a natural progression. Attending conferences and festivals on the strength of Falafel, he noticed many of the Falafel-like student share house-dwellers loved sci-fi. But he’s still come a long way from being the patron saint of dirty socks, labeled milk and stashes of drugs. So after all this time, which one is the real John Birmingham — the grotty sub-letter snoring on the faded couch, the public intellectual who doesn’t hold back on personal barbs or Australia’s own Clive Cussler? “I’ve got no problems at all with being thought of as a mere entertainer,” he says. “I’ve been lucky. I’ve chopped and changed so much and so frequently over the years people have got used to me faffing about with half a dozen different types of writing.”