John Birmingham has done it all. Between his chronicle of the horrors and hilarities of share-house life in He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, exposing Sydney’s sordid underbelly in Leviathan, and charting the history of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia in his Quarterly Essay, there’s no doubting the man’s versatility. His latest venture is& Without Warning, &a return to speculative fiction in a similar vein to his Axis of Time World War II trilogy. On the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a mysterious wave of energy wipes out most of the continental United States. Naturally, chaos ensues. A defiant Saddam threatens US troops in Kuwait, France descends into civil war, and terrified survivors in Seattle relent to a military dictatorship. A General stationed at Guantanamo Bay, an Australian smuggler and a CIA operative struggle to come to terms with the event, while avoiding death and destruction at every turn as society crumbles around them. Sean Gleeson spoke to John about life with kids, his latest work, and the joys of the internet for Readings.
You’ve kicked around every city on the eastern seaboard, what made you decide to settle in Brisbane?
When the Axis of Time trilogy came out, we put the money in a little investment property in Brissy, without any real intention of living there. We were down in Bondi when the kids started coming out, and later down in Canberra for work. But it’s hard, you know, trying to raise a family without all the uncles and aunts and grandparents, and most of my family’s still spread out around Southeast Queensland, so it made a lot of sense. There aren’t many gigs that are as challenging as parenthood – it broke our will like a dry twig, so we headed back from whence we came.
You make it sound so reluctant.
Nah, nah, it’s not reluctant, I just don’t believe in sugarcoating it. I mean, I’m perfectly happy with my life as it is, sitting here in my Playboy Mansion-style writer’s lair. This morning I got to take my kids to choir practice, they’re off singing beautiful songs, and that’s all great. But the fact is, when you’ve lived your life as a selfish dilettante all the way through your twenties and the first part of your thirties, it comes as a bit of a shock to be responsible for someone else’s entire existence. Travelling the country and smoking dope was great, but there’s a time and a place. I enjoy the simpler pleasures now.
Like the internet, for instance.
Yeah, well I owe a lot of Without Warning to the internet. I was just thinking the other day, there’s no way I could’ve written this book ten years ago, without things like Google and Wikipedia and everything like that. There would’ve been so much more work involved. In fact, there’s a scene in the book set in Paris that was only possible to write by using Google Earth, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without having a look at how the city was laid out.
I’ve never set foot in Paris, and while I think it’s always best, as a writer, to go to the places you’re talking about, it’s not going to stop you from stuffing up the atmosphere of the place, and I don’t think it’s always actually necessary to do it these days. When you’re writing about a place, there’s certain techniques you use to put a person there, and when it’s time to fill the gaps, you think, ‘well where am I gonna find information like that?’ And these days, it’s easy. Some travel blogs will have people who’ve set foot in a place like Paris for a couple of days, and without even thinking about it will include all the incidental detail, and you can work from there in building up your own ideas.
I guess the pitfall is opening up fifteen tabs on Firefox and not remembering why you started eight hours earlier.
That’s it, the downside of researching online is that with the click of a finger, you can be taken off to a completely different topic with only marginal relevance to what you started with. But the fact is, the psychology of writers means that they’re almost always gonna be distracted, cause they always wanna know what happens, what the end of the story is. The only way you can keep focused these days is to keep yourself well disciplined. I wish I’d had that discipline at uni, actually, instead of churning out such a half-arsed effort for my international relations thesis.
Did your academic work in international relations put you in good stead for this book?
Yeah, I’ve always loved international relations, and the politics of countries like France was great fun to research for the book. I was taking some time away from the family in Sydney, so I took myself off to UNSW and went through the same journals I was browsing through fifteen, twenty years earlier, getting a handle on things again. In the end, the writing’s just words, the research is the fun and rewarding bit.
You dedicate the book to the people that helped you with the research on your Cheeseburger Gothic blog.
I set Cheeseburger up a few years ago for international readers, and what I found over the years of doing it, is that I’ve probably got a lot more out of it than them, to be honest. After I did the Axis of Time trilogy, I found that a lot of my new readers were ex-military, ex-police, and so on, and their contributions have been really helpful. I hit a dead-end in Without Warning when I was writing another scene while Caitlin and Monique were fleeing Paris, and Caitlin was packing up her guns. I just thought: ‘what kind of guns would Caitlin be packing into her bags?’ So I posted the question on Cheeseburger, and within a short time I’d had eighty or ninety replies from people whose technical knowledge is far greater than my own.
I’ve found that a lot of my readers have come over to my Brisbane Times blog as well. When Fairfax approached me for the gig, I figured they’d be after a really pedestrian mainstream media blog, you know, take a news item from the previous day, and talk about it, and pontificate, or whatever. And some of the first few blogs were like that, but then I started doing other stuff, like evaluating Queensland colonial architecture in terms of its ability to repel a zombie invasion, and they just let me run with it.
I think what’s great about blogs is being able to engage with your readers in a very direct way. You basically act as a leader of discussion, you get things started with three or four hundred words, and then you throw it open to everyone. The internet’s changed the way people read, and it’s good to work with your audience like that, I think that it’s mutually rewarding, and I owe a lot to my readers.
The Axis of Time* trilogy had heaps of character references to people you know in your personal life, along with run historical figures from World War II. Have you done the same thing, this time round?
There’s a few shout-outs, mainly to some of the bloggers that helped me out with research. I think I learnt my lesson from Weapons of Choice, where I had a lot of character arcs and a lot of historical figures, I sort of overextended myself. I still have a lot of references to real world people in the new book, like Nicholas Sarkozy and Hugo Chavez, which I think is important for alternate history novels. I think one of Stephen King’s legacies is bringing that into speculative fiction work. If you look at his stuff these days, I think it’s unremarkable, but back when he wrote The Stand, he had that rock-star character Larry Underwood, who’d been in the backing band for Neil Diamond who was now battling the Devil in a post-apocalyptic America. To refer to real-life people in novels was revolutionary back then, even in such a small way. I think it makes that sort of novel much more engrossing.
What’s in store next?
I’m updating Leviathan [Birmingham’s history of Sydney] for its tenth anniversary. And I’m gonna get cracking on a sequel to Without Warning. I really liked writing this one, and I wanna keep it up, but I’m not sure what to do with it yet or how far I’ll take it. I’m canvassing some ideas on Cheeseburger; I guess I’ll see where to take it from there.
Sean Gleeson blogs at orwelldropshisaitches.blogspot.com.
A modified version of this interview originally appeared in Lot’s Wife.
Angels of Vengeance
The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco
Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney
He Died with a Felafel in His Hand