Good Reading : November 2008
up close hard yakka Being a successful novelist takes plenty of hard work and a degree of commercial acumen, according to JOHN BIRMINGHAM, who speaks to SARAH MINNS. W ith hard work. That’s how John Birmingham earns his living. He loves it, but don’t think it’s a breeze. His dense, historical biography of the city of Sydney, Leviathan, took four and a half years. ‘It was the equivalent of four PhDs. And I can say that; I’ve been to university, I know what’s involved,’ he tells me. He is catching some sun on his lunch break, outside the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane, and I am sitting on a heater at the Good Reading office in chilly Sydney, talking to him on speakerphone. He is making a point about his airport thrillers, ‘As much – I can tell you – as much work went into Weapons of Choice as went into Leviathan.’ He’s telling me this so I don’t think that genre fiction is as easy to write as it is to read. He thought it would be. He began writing thrillers with ‘ignorance and – quite frankly – arrogance’, but was soon set straight by his American publisher, who, on receiving the first draft of Weapons of Choice, Book One of the ‘Axis of Time’ trilogy, told him ‘this could be great – but this draft is not great and you’re going to have to do a lot more work’. He did do a lot more work and the result was the phenomenal success he intended it to be. I ask him if he sees a conflict between setting out to write a commercially successful novel and writing a novel he thinks people might enjoy. He answers unhesitatingly. ‘They’re not two separate things. If you please your readers you’re going to make money. But if you sit down to write a novel purely to produce a marketable commodity you’re doomed before you start … the first thing is to sit down to write a novel that you like. You have to like what you’re writing.’ In fact, ‘Axis of Time’ started out as a hobby for John, a way to wind down after gruelling days spent researching Leviathan. ‘I had a bunch of computer games on my laptop that I was playing at the end of the day just to relax,’ he says. ‘But they started taking over my whole day. I eventually realised I had to get them off the hard drive … but I still needed to wind down, so I picked up a copy of Matt Riley’s Ice Station. And for what it was, it was a fantastic piece of work. I thought, “I’d love to do a book like 18 goodreading i NOVEMBER 2008 this.” So I started to play around with ideas … I never intended to show anyone, it was just an exercise in amusing myself. Anyway, a mate of mine asked if he could see it and I showed it to him and he showed it to someone in New York and the next thing I knew I had Americans on the phone demanding the manuscript yesterday.’ John’s latest novel was written as a stand-alone, but he’s already excited about a sequel. Without Warning explores what would happen if America disappeared. It follows the stories of characters in six parts of the world, and tells how they cope when it all falls apart. It’s a grim premise, but John has had a lot of fun with it, reducing Greg Norman to a puddle of slime and appropriating his mega-yacht the Aussie Rules springs to mind. ‘Well we don’t know it’s Greg Norman, it could have just been someone wearing his hat,’ he corrects me, adding that his habit of putting real people in his books is derived from a technique pioneered by Stephen King, who grounds his fantastical plots ‘in the world of real things’. And he’s flattering. ‘Most of the real-world characters who appear in my books appear in heroic form. There is an appearance of Bill Gates at the end of Without Warning. I imagine that if he read it he’d be quite chuffed. Despite the fact that I don’t really like his operating system.’ The man makes hard work sound like fun. Without Warning is published by Pan Macmillan, rrp $32.99.
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